Joshua Tree National Park: 3 Day Itinerary - Vagarious Wanderer (2023)

Joshua Tree National Park: 3 Day Itinerary - Vagarious Wanderer (1)

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This is the perfect itinerary for three days in Joshua Tree National Park, no matter what time you’re visiting! If you are visiting during the winter or early spring, you could probably squeeze all of these things into two days in Joshua Tree National Park. But, unless you’re from Southern California, you should definitely take the three days so you can explore all the surrounding desert towns have to offer!

Contents hide

1 Where is Joshua Tree National Park?

2 How to Get to Joshua Tree National Park

3 Where to Stay in Joshua Tree National Park

3.1 Hotels

3.2 AirBnB

3.3 Camping

4 The Itinerary

4.1 Day 1

4.2 Day 2

4.3 Day 3

5 Other Hikes I Wish I Had Done

Where is Joshua Tree National Park?

Joshua Tree National Park is located in southern California and stretches 1,235 square miles across the Mojave and the Colorado deserts.

Why does it matter that it stretches across these two very specific deserts?

Well, one of the main reasons you’re visiting this particular park is to see the funky Joshua Trees, right?

Joshua Trees primarily grow in the Mojave desert, so depending on which side of the park you’re on there’s a chance you won’t see any of these strange trees if you’re in the Colorado desert.

How to Get to Joshua Tree National Park

The fastest way to get to Joshua Tree National Park is to fly directly into Palm Springs International Airport, which is about an hour drive from both the west and south entrances of the park. However, one thing to note is that it is relatively hard to find a direct flight to Palm Springs, at least from Boston. This may be temporary and mainly due to COVID, but if you’re worried about layovers and being around more people than necessary then it may be worth the inconvenience of a longer drive to fly direct to Los Angeles.

Because the main reason for my trip was to visit a friend in San Diego, I flew directly into San Diego airport and woke up at 4AM to make the three hour drive to the park.

If you are visiting the park from Los Angeles, it is about a two and a half hour drive.

Where to Stay in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park: 3 Day Itinerary - Vagarious Wanderer (2)

Hotels

There are a few hotel options near Joshua Tree National Park, but I wouldn’t count on luxury accommodations. If you’re looking to end your days of exploring in luxury, I would recommend staying closer to Palm Springs if you are okay with the hour drive.

The 29 Palms Inn was actually where I wanted to stay, but they were all booked up while I was visiting. They are located just steps away from the park (okay, maybe not steps, but barely a 5 minute drive) and has unique cabins and bungalows that will contribute to an authentic desert atmosphere.

The Joshua Tree Inn is a Spanish colonial style inn that is a little bit more of a traditional motel, but still only a short drive to the park.

There are other hotel and motel options, but these two are closest to the park.

AirBnB

I chose to stay in AirBnbs while I was in Joshua Tree National Park. There are so many incredibly beautiful and remote options in the towns surrounding the park that I’m not sure I would do anything different the next time I visit. Plus, I like having my own kitchen.

Regardless of if you’re looking for a hotel or an AirBnB to stay in, I would recommend looking in one of three towns: Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, or Yucca Valley.

My first night I stayed in the most flawless AirBnb I have ever seen in Twentynine Palms. It was an eco-conscious home that sat on land above a natural hot spring and had a granite soaking tub that used water straight from the hot spring. (I did a full tour of the house on IGTV, which you can find here.) It was about a 15 minute drive to the park, but absolutely perfect.

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𝐁𝐫𝐛, 𝐦𝐨𝐯𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐨 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐩𝐞𝐫𝐟𝐞𝐜𝐭 𝐝𝐞𝐬𝐞𝐫𝐭 𝐨𝐚𝐬𝐢𝐬✨ There are no words to describe the level of perfection that my first AirBnB of this trip was. If nothing else, it was the only one I’ve ever stayed in that was 100% true to the pictures shown! This AirBnB is nicknamed “The Yucca House”, and definitely was a bit of a splurge as I tend to use AirBnB to save money rather than spend more than I probably would have on a hotel, but this was completely worth it! The Yucca House is an “eco-friendly hot springs destination”. The house itself is a one bedroom house that sits on land above a natural hot spring, which provides all the water to the home…including the water in this EPIC granite tub😍😍😍 All the decor and linens were organic, sustainably sourced, vegan, & cruelty free. There was a mini compost container on the counter & the host asks that you compost any leftover plant material from your cooking. I didn’t even have to do anything with it; just toss it in and call it a day! Rather than a traditional coffee maker, there was a pour over station with a REUSABLE FILTER!!! I didn’t even know those existed!!! “Is that all, Jenn?” No! Being in the middle of nowhere and just 15 minutes from Joshua Tree National Park, there is hardly any light pollution at night. What does that mean? It means I got to sit in this incredible tub and watch the stars! I also got to see the Milky Way for the first time which is crazy! I’m still working on my astrophotography skills, but you can swipe to the last picture to see. I’ll be doing a full tour on IGTV later today, but if you would like the link to this slice of heaven feel free to DM me✨

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My second night, which was a last minute decision hence why I didn’t stay in that perfect desert oasis the whole time, I stayed in another fantastic AirBnB, but this time I stayed right in Joshua Tree. This house was only about 5 minutes off the main road, but I still felt like I was totally alone in the middle of the desert and it was incredible! It was also only 5 minutes from the famous Joshua Tree Coffee Company, which was an added bonus. This house was also quite a bit closer to the park, so it was only about a 7 minute drive.

Want to save $35 off your first trip with AirBnB? Click this link!

Camping

There are 8 campgrounds in Joshua National Park, but of those 8 only 2 have water and flushing toilets. Those two are Black Rock Campground and Cottonwood Campground.

Depending on what time of year you are visiting, some of these campgrounds require reservations in order for you to stay there. Reservations are typically required September-May, which is the busy season in Joshua Tree National Park.

If you are going to camp, always make sure you check the status of your desired campground before visiting! There were a couple campgrounds closed while I was there due to high honeybee activity.

The Itinerary

Day 1

Day 1 will most likely be a shortened day in the park since you’ll be driving there, either an hour from Palm Springs or 2+ hours from any other major city in California, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of it!

-Before doing anything, make sure you have everything you need for a day spent in the desert. This includes at least a gallon of water per person and plenty of salty snacks. You can view my full packing list here.

-Once you’ve got everything packed and ready to go, it’s time to head out to the first hike of the trip! Today, we’re doing the Hi-View Trail.

I followed Google Maps to this trailhead and was convinced it was leading me in the wrong direction. Turns out it wasn’t, but some things to note about reaching this trail:

The trailhead is just past Black Rock Campground. If you see any other campground, you’re going in the wrong direction.

You will not see the traditional Joshua Tree National Park sign when you drive to this trailhead. It is one of the few (maybe the only?) trails you can access without paying the park entrance fee. Because I didn’t know this, I delayed my hike by a good half hour because I was convinced I was in the wrong place and kept driving around in circles.

The last mile or so before you get to the designated parking area is a dirt road that gets pretty narrow for the last quarter mile. I had originally reserved the smallest size car the rental company had, but when I told them where I was going they suggested I upgrade one size because the tires were bigger and the car itself got better mileage. If you want to make it out of the dirt roads of Joshua Tree National Park, do yourself a favor and just pay for the upgrade. 100% worth it!

Once you’ve reached the parking area, it’s time to get started! The trail is a 1.3 mile loop trail and I think it’s the perfect introductory hike to the park. It is a well marked, moderately trafficked trail that takes you through an area filled with various types of shrubbery, cacti, and of course some famous Joshua Trees. Keep your eyes open for things like jackrabbits and lizards!

As you walk, you’ll come to a sudden steep incline, but there are stairs built into most of it and there is a bench about halfway up to rest. Once you reach the top, sign the registration book (if it is there, they removed it when I was there due to COVID) and take in the incredible desert mountain scenery before heading back down.

The Hi-View Trail is relatively easy and should take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half.

-Once you’re back at your car, it is time to go see an oasis! Drive about 35 minutes to the Oasis Visitor Center and head to the back of the building for the Oasis of Mara Trail.

This trail is about a half mile long loop trail, and the easiest oasis to access in the park.

What is an oasis?

An oasis is a rare spot in a desert where water is present.

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While much of the Oasis of Mara has been destroyed from a fire a few years ago, it is still quite a sight to behold! As you follow the trail, you will come upon a patch of fan palms and you’ll find yourself wondering how this lush greenery could ever exist in such a hot, dry place. Unfortunately, the oasis is now given water from the park as most of the natural stores have dried up over the years, but it is still pretty cool.

Plan on a good 45 minutes on this trail despite how short it is because there is an art installation along the trail that tells a mostly fictional story of a young Serrano woman that is surprisingly super interesting!

-That’s all for hiking today! Still have some time? Drive through the park and stop at all the pullouts. Or drive about 15 minutes from the Oasis Visitor Center to go see the famous Skull Rock. You can see it from the road, or there is a short nature trail around it that you could do.

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Hungry? Depending on what time it is, I cannot recommend Natural Sisters Cafe enough! When I was researching for my trip, everything I saw mentioned this little vegetarian, organic cafe and I thought for sure it would be overrated. I am here to promise you that it is not. I’m not even vegetarian and I had their “Bomb Breakfast Sandwich” twice! The Bomb Breakfast Sandwich is your choice of bread (I went with the sprouted), housemade spicy garlic aioli, a heaping handful of spinach, tomato, melted cheddar, and your choice of one or two eggs. It was absolute heaven.

Day 2

-You didn’t think you were going to get through this trip without an early morning wake up call for sunrise, did you? Rise and shine! Make yourself some coffee and hit the road! The best place to watch sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park is the Cholla Cactus Garden. Despite it being widely known as the best place to watch the sunrise in the park, I only saw two other people my entire time there. The golden light flooding these teddy bear looking cacti was easily one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen. But make sure you don’t brush against the cacti! I believe these are one of the species that basically jump out at you and dislodge pieces of itself.

Don’t believe it’s one of the most beautiful sunrises ever? Watch the video below and tell me otherwise.

-Once you’ve had your fill and gotten plenty of golden hour pictures, drive a half hour to the Barker Dam Trail. This was my favorite trail, despite how easy of a hike it is!

Barker Dam Trail is a 1.1 mile loop trail that takes you through rocks, past the Barker Dam, past plenty of Joshua Trees, and to old petroglyphs on rocks that you can climb somewhat easily. If you are visiting the park in summer, the dam will probably be empty and dry, but if you’re visiting in the cooler months there is a good chance you’ll see it full. There are also a ton of different animals that live in this part of the park, including jackrabbits, desert bighorn sheep, and coyotes. I got to see a whole family of baby quail and almost cried from their cuteness.

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-After you’ve had your fill, drive 25 minutes to Arches National Park! Woohoo! Surprise! You’re visiting two national parks on this trip!

Just kidding of course, but you are going to drive to the Arch Trail.

The Arch Trail is a 1.2 mile out and back trail that is almost entirely flat and should take you about 45 minutes. I actually got lost at the beginning of the trail, which is ridiculous because it’s the flattest, most open part of the trail, but it’s kind of unclear which way to actually go as it looks like there have been a few paths worn down off the trail that make things confusing. Ultimately, you are walking towards the road where you will see a crosswalk to cross the street and proceed to the rest of the trail.

Once you cross the street, the land is pretty open. Make mental notes of where all the arrow signs are so you don’t get lost!

If your primary goal is to take a picture in front of the arch, do not keep going down the trail. It just goes up a little ways and stops. You would think it would kind of loop around to the front of the arch based on the way the trail looks, but it doesn’t. To get up to the arch you need to walk past the sign pointing to it and climb up the rocks.

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-You’ve had a pretty long day already so far. Reward yourself with a coffee from Joshua Tree Coffee Company. This was another place I thought would be overrated, but I ended up bringing home three pounds of their coffee beans…so do with that what you will.

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-Use the rest of the day to explore the surrounding towns and rest up. It’s your last night in the park and we’re going to make the most of it!

-Head to Vons, one of the only grocery stores near the park, to get some food for a good ol’ fashioned picnic. Pack it up and drive to Keys View to watch the sunset.

While commonly known as the best spot in the park to watch the sunset, this sunset was actually the saddest. Not because it was ugly, but because of the smog. Pollution has made the views perpetually foggy, when in years past you would be able to see all of Coachella Valley and supposedly all the way to Mexico.

Also, make sure you get there early. You drive right up to this destination and like the sunrise/sunset at Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park, it gets packed no matter what time of year it is.

-Now that the sun has set, you have three options: You can either drive back to wherever you’re staying for the night and go to bed, drive back for a quick nap before heading back out, or find a road to pull off on in the park and sit on the top of your car.

Why are we doing one of these last two options?

Because stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park is absolutely insane! I had hoped to see the Milky Way when we were in Glacier National Park, but we were too exhausted and I missed it. I finally got to see it while at JT and I’m so incredibly happy I took the time to pullover, sit on my rental car, and eat Dunkaroos as I watched all the stars come out.

Day 3

-Boooo you’re leaving today! That means you probably only have time for a quick hike. If you didn’t do it two days ago, do the Skull Rock Trail which should take you about an hour and a half. If you did already do that trail, consider trying the Wall Street Mill Trail!

To access this trail, head back to the same parking lot you used yesterday for the Barker Dam Trail. The Wall Street Mill Trail is a 2.4 mile out and back trail that brings you past the ruins of Wonderland Ranch and up to the well preserved mill. This should take you roughly an hour and a half.

Other Hikes I Wish I Had Done

Since I’m the dummy that chose to visit the desert in the middle of summer by myself, my hiking options were a bit limited. There were a number of trails that I would have loved to do, but it is just not a smart idea to do difficult hikes at Joshua Tree National Park in the summer, especially if you are on your own. (If you need tips for hiking the desert in summer, check out the post I did here.)

So, on my To Hike List:

-Boy Scout Trail (7.8 mile point to point trail)

-Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail (3.1 out and back trail. I probably could have done this, but it was on the complete opposite side of the park from where I was.)

-Lost Palms Oasis trail (7.2 mile out and back trail)

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