Ask anyone—there’s really no other place in the world like Joshua Tree National Park. I’m a huge fan of this national park as well as its quirky neighboring towns. My friends and I can go on for days about all the great landmarks and attractions this area has to offer. If you’re thinking about visiting Joshua Tree National Park and want to learn more about what this place has to offer, then you’ve come to the right place!
Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its unique terrain, covered with whimsical Joshua Trees as well as its massive boulder formations. You may have also heard that Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise, and with good reason. Once you lay your eyes on the jumbo rocks dotted across the park, you’ll easily understand why. Aside from climbing, there are many other features of the park to enjoy, including beautiful desert vistas, epic camping and stargazing, wildflowers in the springtime, educational walks, and family-friendly hiking. So how do you prioritize all that there is to do?
If you only have one day to experience this park, follow my itinerary below for an epic Joshua Tree day trip!
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THE PERFECT 1-DAY JOSHUA TREE ITINERARY
7-8 AM: PREPARING FOR THE DAY
Get gas and buy snacks.
Make sure you have at least a half tank of gas. If you haven’t gotten them already, pick up some snacks for your day trip.
Stop by one of the spots below for coffee and breakfast
- Crossroads Cafe: Crossroads Cafe is a diner-style restaurant that serves up delicious food with a Latin twist for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s normally a wait, but it’s so worth it! Get there early to avoid the lines. Make sure to grab one of their cookies – they’re to die for.
- Joshua Tree Coffee Company: This is a great spot for a delightful cup of locally brewed organic coffee. The cold brew is mellow and nutty and not acidic or bitter at all. They also sell coffee bags so you can enjoy at home or gift to your family/friends.
If you plan on having your lunch meal in the park, stop by Natural Sisters for breakfast, and grab some packable salads, sandwiches, and wraps while you’re at it.
- Natural Sisters Cafe: This cafe is situated near the West Entrance of the park, so it’s a great place to pick up breakfast and picnic items. They offer outstanding breakfast wraps, muffins, and scrambles. They also have great coffee and flavorful lattes. The veggie wrap is top-notch, even for non-vegetarians!
Local Tip: If you’re planning on going to Joshua Tree National Park during the summer months, aim to start your day even earlier so you can enjoy more of the morning before it gets too unbearably hot in the afternoon.
Stop by Joshua Tree Visitor Center
Before you enter the park, stop at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center in the actual town of Joshua Tree. Buy your park entrance pass here so you can avoid waiting in line at the park gate. This is also a great time to ask the park rangers about the day’s events, conditions, and recommendations for what to do.
9 AM: MORNING SIGHTSEEING
Stop 1: Barker Dam Historic Reservoir
This is a short 1.5-mile loop hike that leads to the Barker Dam Historic Reservoir. This dam was constructed by early cattlemen in the 1900s and continues to provide valuable resources for wild birds and bighorn sheep. Along the loop, Native American petroglyphs can be seen on several spur trails. The trail will take you through tall boulders until you emerge at a small pond teeming with wildlife.
Stop 2: Hidden Valley
Hidden Valley is another must-see stop when you visit Joshua Tree National Park. Perhaps one of the most popular hikes in all of Joshua Tree, Hidden Valley is almost entirely surrounded by fascinating rock formations.
Legend has it that the Hidden Valley area was used as a hideout for cattle rustlers (cow stealers) back in the day. You’ll easily see why when you begin exploring the area—tons of corners and hideout spots! There is a 1-mile loop trail here that is short but jam-packed with sights to see, including a wide variety of plant and animal species. The trail is flat and can be completed in 30 minutes, making it accessible to visitors of all ages.
Hidden Valley is also a must-do if you love bouldering, climbing, or rock scrambling. There are tons of rock piles to climb on, perfect for all levels. The best part– you can easily forge your own path without getting stuck anywhere.
12 PM: LUNCHTIME
After your hike, head over to the Hidden Valley Picnic Area to refuel with your picnic lunch.
If you choose to head out of the park for lunch, go back the way you came and choose from one of the many restaurants in the neighboring towns of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, or 29 Palms.
If you love pizza, I highly recommend 2 Guys Pies Brick Oven Pizza located in Yucca Valley.
2 PM: CONTINUE EXPLORING
Stop 3: Keys View
Keys View is the highest point in Joshua Tree National Park. This is an epic place to soak in the panoramic views of the Joshua Tree area. It’s absolutely breathtaking up there. On a clear day, you can see Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, and even Signal Mountain in Mexico! For even more views, take the 1.2-mile Inspiration Peak Trail from the Keys View Lookout Point.
Keys View is also a great place to view the sunset. If you want to save this spot for later in the day to enjoy the sunset, be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before the actual sunset time. Desert sunsets are a must-see, so I recommend winding down your day and relaxing here with great views and a dinner picnic.
Stop 4: Skull Rock
This iconic rock looks like a giant skull when looking at it from an angle. Great photo op! Skull rock is easily accessible just off the side of the road. It is also conveniently situated close to the Jumbo Rocks area, where you can hiking go for a longer hike.
Stop 5: Hike to Arch Rock
Arch Rock is another must-see landmark. Just a short 0.5-mile hike from White Tank Campground, this natural rock formation is reminiscent of what you’ll find at Arches National Park in Utah. Along the hike, you’ll find educational signs about how these rocks formed. Once you’ve reached the rock, you can go right up to it for the perfect photo op. Be sure to wear appropriate footwear with decent traction.
Stop 6: Cholla Cactus Garden
As you leave Arch Rock, you’ll begin to notice the landscape changing. Joshua Trees become more sporadic until they disappear completely from the landscape. What you’ll begin to see: Cholla cacti, Ocotillo fields, and yucca plants. Way to go! You’ve now entered the Colorado Desert.
This spot is a bit further from the rest of the popular landmarks in the park, but it’s totally worth the drive. It took me until my third trip to Joshua Tree NP to visit the garden, and boy was I missing out! The extraordinary Cholla Cactus Garden is a 0.3-mile garden trail that features 10 acres of Cholla cacti. Be careful to stay on the path and avoid brushing up against these cuties though– they’re not nicknamed “jumping cactus” for nothing! The needles may easily break off and attach to your skin or clothes, so watch yourselves and your children!
5 PM: REST UP AND GRAB DINNER
Head back to your hotel for a little nap or stop by a cafe for some refreshments. At this time, you can also pick up another dinner picnic for the upcoming sunset experience, or grab dinner at a nearby restaurant. My favorite restaurant pick:
Pappy and Harriet’s: Pappy & Harriet’s has such a fun, rustic atmosphere and serves up a delicious menu of BBQ eats and refreshing drinks. Stop by here for their unique, one-of-a-kind music experiences. There are usually live performances, occasional dancing, and always super friendly service.
Local Tip: If you end up in town for lunch or dinner, don’t forget to spend some time exploring the quirky art galleries boutiques, gift shops, and thrift stores dotted along 29 Palms Highway in Joshua Tree.
7 PM: PREPARE FOR THE WONDERS OF NIGHTFALL
Catch the sunset at Keys View or Ryan Mountain.
Key’s View is the best drive-up vista in Joshua Tree National Park. If you skipped Keys View earlier in the day, you’ll want to stop here to witness the unforgettable desert sunset. If you have the energy and want to get another hike in, head up Ryan Mountain (3-miles roundtrip) instead for panoramic views and an amazing sunset. Make sure to carry a flashlight with you for the hike down.
Stick around a bit longer for epic stargazing.
Joshua Tree is famous for its dark skies that lend to great stargazing and viewing the Milky Way. Stargazing is a lot easier when you’re camping at one of the park’s campgrounds, but is doable even for day-trippers. Stick around past sunset to see the stars come out, or come back to the park after you grab dinner. Bring some blankets with you in order to stay warm while you sit atop your car for stargazing.
Local Tip: Joshua Tree is the ideal place to watch the annual Perseid meteor showers in August.
Once you’re done enjoying the night sky, head back to your hotel for some much-needed relaxation time.
Have extra time to explore?
WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR DAY TRIP
America the Beautiful National Parks Pass | Joshua Tree National Park costs $35 for a 7-day pass. However, the national parks annual pass is a great way to save on entrance fees. If you intend to visit three or more NPS parks or sites in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will more than pay for itself. This pass can be purchased at the park entrances or online here. [Example: 3 National Parks x $30 parking each = $90. Savings with the annual pass = $10. Any more parks you go to thereafter = FREE!]
Water Bottle | No matter what you decide to do in Joshua Tree, every trip into the park warrants that you bring water. If you plan on being in the park for an entire day, you should plan on bringing a gallon of water per person. For shorter hikes, packing a lightweight 1L water bottle such as the Nalgene water bottle will suffice. On hotter days, consider bringing an insulated Hydro Flask packed with ice and water so that your water stays cold all day. For longer hikes, I recommend a 3-liter hydration reservoir.
Daypack | Bring a daypack to carry your camera, snacks, water bottles, and other gear while exploring Joshua Tree National Park. I like bringing my Camelbak Rogue 2.5L on hot days since the shape of the backpack minimizes sweaty back issues and doubles as a water reservoir. For a more traditional style of a daypack, the Osprey Daylite is sturdy, comfortable, and has never let me down on any day trips.
Snacks | There are no food services in the park. Make sure you pick up snacks/meals the night before or in the morning before you enter the park.
- If you plan on bringing fruits/vegetables and leaving them in the car, pick harder options such as apples, pears, cucumbers, and carrots since these do better in the heat compared to more delicate produce. If you do plan on bringing softer fruits, make sure to take them with you so they don’t decay in your hot car!
- Go for energy bars that don’t contain chocolate to avoid the melted chocolate messes. Stinger Waffles are loved by outdoor enthusiasts and are delicious and easy to eat. Other snacks to consider include dried fruit, nuts, and trail mix.
- Sandwiches: Stop by Natural Sisters in Joshua Tree for awesome sandwich and wrap selections (they also have fresh juices & organic coffee to start your morning off).
- Lunchables: super easy to pack and always a great option regardless of how old you are.
Cooler | If you don’t enjoy warm beverages/snacks, you’ll want to bring a heavy-duty portable cooler with you. Cracking open a cold drink is such a luxury after a walk or hike out in the blazing sun!
Sunscreen | When you’re in Joshua Tree, you’re in a desert. The sun and heat are no joke, and though Joshua Trees are tall, they don’t provide very much shade at all. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen. Make sure you have a face sunscreen or a hat as well.
Hat | A wide-brimmed sun hat can double as sun protection to your face and neck. Remember, there is little to no shade in the park. Here are a few stylish yet effective options for men and women. For added protection, I’d recommend a sun hat with a neck cape.
Sunglasses | Similar to sunscreen, you should bring a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun. Usually, I fare pretty well without sunglasses, but for some reason, the sun is just so bright and blinding in Joshua Tree!
Hiking Boots | Closed-toed shoes are a must in Joshua Tree. Instead of simply wearing sneakers, consider hiking boots. They not only provide better protection against spines on the ground, but you’ll find yourself slipping a lot less on dirt and loose gravel. Trust me, it’s easier to hop around and walk on rocks with the extra traction provided by hiking boots as opposed to running shoes. Lowa Renegades are my go-to pair for life, I highly recommend.
Sandals | Birkenstocks make for the best sandals for the car ride home. It’ll be great to have these in the car after a long day of exploring on foot.
Baby Wipes | You will get dusty; you’re in the desert, after all. Wiping your face/body off will be especially refreshing after a hot and dusty hike. Keep baby wipes and hand sanitizer with you to dust yourself off before eating or touching your face.
First Aid Kit | A compact first aid kit is essential on any Joshua Tree trip. You can pack it with you in your daypack and it won’t take up too much space. In my mind, it’s easier to sustain scrapes and injuries in Joshua Tree than in other parks? Why? Because you might find yourself rock scrambling haphazardly or walking nearby spiky cacti. It’s better to be prepared in case you have any mishaps on your adventures. This one is as compact as it gets and is super easy to carry. Also, bring a pair of tweezers in case you get poked by cacti!
Portable Battery Charger | You’ll be in and out of the car all day, but mostly out of the car. If you’re using your phone to take photos or navigate around the park, be sure to bring a compact portable charger with you. This foldable portable solar charger is another option. It’s such a powerhouse of a tool to have with you.
Flashlight | Pack a flashlight in case you decide to embark on a sunrise or sunset hike. It’s also good to have on hand if you plan to stay in the park after dark to stargaze. You don’t want to accidentally run/step into a cactus plant on the ground. Check out my favorite tried and trusted all-weather flashlight.
WHERE TO STAY NEAR JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
There are no lodging accommodations within the park so if you don’t want to camp, you’ll have to stay in the surrounding communities.
- Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, 29 Palms: offers budget accommodation options, closer to the park.
- Palm Springs, Palm Desert: offers a wider range of accommodations including boutique and luxury options, slightly farther away from the park entrances.
Joshua Tree National Park has eight campgrounds located inside the park– Black Rock Campground, Cottonwood Campground, Indian Cove Campground, Jumbo Rocks Campground, Sheep Pass Campground, Belle Campground, Hidden Valley Campground, and White Tank Campground. Many of the campgrounds are first-come-first-served, but reservations are required for others during September-May.
If you’re planning to visit during the spring or fall, be sure to make reservations early enough through Recreation.gov. Read more about camping here.