How To Explore Joshua Tree National Park In 2 Days (2023)

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Joshua Tree National Park is a unique and magical place. You could easily spend days there, and not experience it all. We recently spent an amazing weekend there! If you only have 2 days in Joshua Tree National Park this is a great itinerary to help you catch all the highlights of the park. To read more tips about having a successful trip, read my post on How to have the best time at Joshua Tree.

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About Joshua Tree National Park

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Joshua Tree National Park is located in Southern California. It is part of both the Mojave and the Sonoran Deserts. The park is about 793,000 acres and hosts around 2 million visitors annually.

Joshua Tree is located near the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. The closest airport is Palm Springs about an hour away. There are no shuttles or transportation in the park so you will need to rent a vehicle. We rented a little SUV and it was perfect. There are numerous car rental companies at the airport.

There are 3 entrances to Joshua Tree National Park. The West Entrance is located near the town of Joshua Tree, it is the busiest entrance and traffic can back up during busy times. The North Entrance is near the town of Twentynine Palms and is the second most used entrance. There is also a South Entrance near Cottonwood Springs. Grab a map and a newspaper from the rangers and head out!

There are also 3 visitor centers. They are located near the Cottonwood Springs entrance inside the park, and outside the park in Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree.

Entrance Fees are currently 30$ per vehicle for 7 days of access. My favorite way to visit the National Parks is with an annual pass. It currently costs 80$ and is good for all National Parklands for one year. If you plan to visit more than one park it pays for itself pretty quickly. You can purchase the America the Beautiful Pass online or at the gates of any of the parks.

Temperatures get extremely hot in the summer months and cold in the winter. The park has elevations from 536 feet to 5814 feet, so even within the park, there can be an extreme difference in temperature. Always prepare for extreme weather while in Joshua Tree National Park.

FYI: There is no cell service in the park.

No pets are allowed on hiking trails in the park and remember not to leave them in your car while you hike because of the extreme temperatures.

There are about 500 campsites in Joshua Tree, you will need to make reservations well in advance. There are also some really great AirBnB properties located around the perimeter of the park.

You should always get trip insurance for any trip you plan. I use and recommend Travel Insurance Master for my insurance.

2-Day Joshua Tree Itinerary

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This itinerary will help you see the highlights of the park. Everything listed here requires light to moderate activity. There are definitely more strenuous hikes and activities in the park, and definitely, things that we don’t have time for in this plan. If you have more time or enjoy more adventurous activities there are plenty of things to add on, but this will give you a great place to start! Also, I based this itinerary assuming you will stay in Joshua Tree, and enter from there. You can adjust the days and order of stops if you stay somewhere else.

Keep in mind, as you drive through the park there are numerous exhibits and pull-outs. I highly suggest stopping at as many of these as you have time for. They teach you about the area, the wildlife, the plants, and the history of the area. You will do ALOT of driving through the park as the different areas are spread out pretty far.


DAY 1:

KEYS VIEW–Head straight to Keys View. This 20-minute drive from the entrance to Keys View will give you a good first look at the unique landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. You get to pass the enormous boulder formations and get your first glimpses of the Joshua Tree. Head down Park Boulevard to Keys View Road to reach the parking lot for the viewpoint. The viewpoint is wheelchair accessible and is just a short walk from the parking lot.

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On clear days you can see down into Coachella Valley. On the left is the Salton Sea which is over 200 feet below sea level. To the right, you will see the Santa Rosa Mountains. You can also see the San Andreas fault! The rumor is, on a clear day, you can see Signal Mountain in Mexico. When we were there there were so many fires, we couldn’t see much, but it was still pretty. I can imagine on a clear day it is AMAZING up there!

CAP ROCK— After leaving Keys View head back the way you came, and you will pass a parking lot on the right. In front of you will be Cap Rock. Take a look at the huge rock formation, doesn’t it look like it’s wearing a baseball cap? There is a .4 mile loop that circles some of the other rock formations there. It’s flat, and a very easy walk. There are super cool rocks to look at and a few different kinds of bushes, flowers, and trees as well. On our walk, we saw a lizard and a rattlesnake. When you circle back to Cap Rock, there are picnic tables and barbecues if you are ready for lunch.

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CHOLLA CACTUS GARDEN— You’ll have quite a long drive between Cap Rock and the Cholla Cactus Garden, but you’ll get a good look at the awe-inspiring landscape of the park. Follow the signs towards Pinto Basin as you leave Cap Rock. The garden itself has a small parking lot and a nice, easy, flat walkway that loops .25 of a mile around the cholla cactus. This is a super fun place for photos as the light coming through the cactus is interesting and pretty. At the end of the trail, there is a first aid box with tweezers if you need to remove any hitchhiking cacti from yourself.

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Cholla Cactus is often called Teddy Bear Cactus because they look so soft and fuzzy. Spoiler alert: they are NOT soft and fuzzy. They also “jump” and latch onto anything close to them. Keep your distance, they are a big annoying pain to get out (ask me how I know).

COTTONWOOD VISITORS CENTER— On the road again… head towards Cottonwood visitor center. The drive is interesting here because you will see a different kind of scenery. The desert here is a meeting place between the Sonoran (Colorado) desert and the Mojave Desert each with its own flora and fauna and appearance. The visitors center is small, but the rangers here were super kind and helpful. If you follow the road past the visitors center and out of the park, you will find the “Welcome to Joshua Tree” sign for a photo op. This was a great find because there was NOBODY around and we didn’t feel rushed taking our pics.

There is FREE BLM camping available right past the welcome sign. There are no services, but it would be a nice, convenient place to stay

Cottonwood Springs/ Lost Palms Oasis— When you are leaving the visitors center be on the lookout for a sign that says “Cottonwood Springs” and follow that road. You will come to a parking area that leads you on a short (.1 mile) easy walk to a fan palm oasis. It is so neat to see such a lush, green area hidden among the desert. If you walk around a bit just after the oasis, there are some informative markers that teach you how the Native Americans that lived here first used the area. We saw a stone that had a crater in it from being used as a mortar and pestle.

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If you have more time/energy… Keep on this trail and follow it about another 3.5 miles to Lost Oasis Palms. This is a larger oasis, but does require more strenuous hiking. The trail is unshaded the entire way. The total hike to Lost Oasis Palms is 7.5 miles.

Sunset/Sundown— Get ready for THE BEST time of day in Joshua Tree National Park. I can’t say enough how completely obsessed I am with the evenings and nights in this park. Leave the Cottonwood area, and head back toward the north part of the park. For the most scenic sunset viewing and pictures, you will want to somewhere around the jump rocks area. Here, the enormous rocks, and numerous Joshua Trees provide epic silhouettes against the setting sun. There are so many pullout spaces, and parking spots, that you should be able to find a spot that is perfect for you! You are going to LOVE sunset!

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As it gets darker youll want to find your spot to stargaze. There are parts of the park that are darker than others. We found a great spot off park blvd, a little ways down a dusty road. The night sky in Joshua Tree will blow you away. Its been named an International Dark Sky Park. Many people, including me, get their first glimpse of the Milky Way here in the park.

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PRO TIP: Find your spot before its completely dark. Spots fill up, and people enter the park just for this! Get settled before its too dark. You don’t want to have your headlights taking away from the experience of others. It takes about 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the extreme dark and to be able to see and enjoy the stars, so you don’t want to have lights around that reset that process. A red light is a good way to be able to see without spoiling the dark. Also, don’t forget to listen to the sounds of the park after dark…its an experience all on its own!

Day 2

Day 2 brings a bit more hiking and exploring. But don’t worry, even though these hikes are a bit longer, they are still fairly easy! You’ll see some awesome sights today, get your camera ready!

Barker Dam Hike— This is one of the most popular hikes in the park. It’s nice to do it early in the day as it gets busy, the parking lot is VERY small, and there is relatively no shade throughout. You will be walking on sand and rock, which also makes it a bit hotter. The hike is just over 1 mile and is a loop. This hike is scenic and fun, you can see petroglyphs, a historic dam, and great views. If you are lucky this is a spot where Big Horn Sheep are frequently spotted. If there has been recent rain, you may see water in the dam.

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Wall Street Mill— My FAVORITE hike in the park! This one is so much fun! The hike is about 2 miles, with not much noticeable elevation gain. The trickiest part of the hike is finding the trail. It’s all sand, so its easy to lose the trail, especially at the beginning. You can start from the same parking lot as Barker Dam, or a little further down the road is another parking lot. This hike takes you to the very well preserved remains of an old gold milling site. Also on the hike you can see an old homestead, a windmill, abandoned vehicles AND the marker of a gunfight between property owners where one rancher lost his life. This is such a cool hike! If you only do one thing, I would pick this one!

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Skull Rock, Face Rock, Split Rock— From the Barker Dam parking lot, follow road signs towards Twentynine Palms. This will take you to some of the most famous rocks In the park. You can view skull rock from the road. You can also park, and explore on foot. There is hiking, bouldering, and exploring in this area, which you can do for as long as you like.

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Visitors Center at Twentynine Palms and the Oasis of Mara— just outside the park is the visitors center. A short easy walk out the back of the center will take you to the Oasis of Mara.

More to see and do

If you have more time, you can add any of these destinations to your trip!

  • Ryan Mountain
  • Panorama Loop
  • Ryan Ranch
  • Guided Tour of Keys Ranch
  • Lost Horse Mine

I hope you enjoy your trip to Joshua Tree National Park! Be sure and let me know your favorite part in the comments! Discovering America’s National Parks is one of my favorite past times, and I hope you will love it too! Be sure and download your FREE copy of a National Park Checklist to help you keep track of your progress by clicking below!

Other Posts you will enjoy to help plan your National Park Visits include:

  • America’s National Parks, and how to visit them!
  • Visiting National Parks during COVID
  • New River Gorge: Americas Newest National Park!
  • How to best enjoy Joshua Tree National Park

Happy Travels!

Have more time? Check out these fun tours in nearby Palm Springs!

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