So, you only have one day in the otherworldly Joshua Tree National Park, and you are wondering how to best spend your limited time there? Let me help! I’ve been to this park countless times and have the must-sees memorized. Below I will help you make the most out of a one day itinerary for Joshua Tree National Park, letting you know what to see and what to skip to make the most of your visit.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Joshua Tree National Park is one of my most favorite landscapes on the planet, anywhere. The orange-brown earth, the gigantic rock formations, and the twists and turns of the Joshua Tree branches reaching for the sky can almost make you believe that you are on another planet.
It’s such a unique pocket of the California desert, truly a special place – so it’s easy to see why it was designated a National Park. If this is your first visit to Joshua Tree, and you only have one day to enjoy the park, you will not be disappointed – as long as you plan ahead and use your time wisely.
Below I will share information about the park itself, as well as a detailed one day itinerary to maximize your trip to Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree National Park Basics:
- Joshua Tree National Park was established as recently as 1994!
- The park is located in Southern California.
- It will take between 2-3 hours to drive there from Los Angeles, depending on your starting point (and traffic, of course!)
- The park covers just over 1235 square miles of land.
- Joshua Tree NP sees roughly 2.5 visitors every year.
- Joshua Tree NP is open 24 hours a day, and camping inside the park is allowed.
What makes joshua tree national park so special?
As mentioned previously, the landscapes found in Joshua Tree can truly make you feel like you’re on another planet. The plant life just seems unreal, and differs quite a bit from one end of the park to the other.
This is because Joshua Tree National Park is actually covering grounds where the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert collide. So you are really seeing two completely different deserts inside the boundaries of one park.
In the north, the Mojave reigns, filled with the iconic massive rocks and the namesake of the park – the Joshua Tree (more on that later). Joshua Trees can only live in the higher elevation, so you will not typically see them outside of Mojave Desert area.
The Colorado Desert covers the southern end of the park, and here you will see various cacti as it is hotter, drier, and more barren. Many people unfortunately skip the southern end of the park – read on for why you should definitely NOT do that!
It’s easy to see both deserts, and even possibly hike in both deserts, in just one day in Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree is also a haven for rockclimbers, due to the immense rocks and boulders. Climbing here is very fun and the views from the top are unbelievable. If you have an interest in that click here to read about classes, rules, and programs.
The park also boasts a stunning dark sky without any of the light pollution from the city, which frequently brings in stargazers. If you’ve never seen the night sky from a dark desert, you should definitely make this a priority!
so what exactly is a joshua tree?
“Joshua Trees” are not actually trees at all, but rather part of the Yucca plant family. Yucca Brevifolia, to be exact. Inside the park you will see everything from baby one-barrel yuccas to towering Joshua Trees with tons of twisting spindly arms. It’s been said that Dr. Seuss derived inspiration from the Joshua Tree, but I have no idea if that is true (though it certainly looks believable).
Occasionally you may see a stray Joshua Tree in Arizona or even Death Valley, if the elevation is just right, but primarily these guys thrive in the Mojave Desert.
what animals live in joshua tree national park?
You are most likely to spot various birds, lizards, and jackrabbits inside the park. Once I got lucky and saw bighorn sheep climbing in the rocks above! Also, snakes, rats, and even coyotes can come out at night.
what is joshua tree’s Temperature and the best time to visit?
The temperature in Joshua Tree National Park can vary from one part of the day to the next as well as season to season. I actually enjoy going all year round, but then, I used to live in Arizona so maybe I’m not as affected by the summer heat as some.
In the winter months (roughly Dec – Feb), the highs are usually around 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the lows are in the 30s, just above freezing. In 2019, a rare snow dusted Joshua Tree overnight, but that doesn’t typically happen! Winter is a great season for longer more strenuous hikes.
Springtime weather (roughly March – May) features great weather, with highs in the 70s/80s, and lows in the 40s/50s. This is a beautiful time to visit the park and catch cactus and wildflower blooms as well! Hiking is still comfortable.
Summer months are popular simply because school is out and family vacations are in full swing, but most people would prefer to avoid the heat of June-Sept if they could. Highs start in the 90-degree range and go well into the triple digits during these months, frequently over 100 degrees in the daytime. Early or less strenuous hikes are still totally possible.
Lastly, fall is quite similar to spring, typically with highs in the 70s/80s and lows in the 40s and 50s. Most people I know save their camping until the fall if they can help it, once the temperatures aren’t quite so brutal anymore.
Upon Arrival at Joshua Tree National Park
When you arrive, you will no doubt be driving into the park by car. The park is open 24 hours a day, so arrive early if at all possible. This will help to a) get some time in while the day is still cooler and comfortable – very important if you plan to hike, and b) give you maximum time in the park.
I typically arrive on the West and North Entrances, as I like to stay overnight in the Yucca Valley or Desert Hot springs areas when possible, unless I’m camping (more on that later). There is a guard booth at all entrances where vehicles form a line to pay their entrance fees and collect a pass.
joshua tree national park passes: one week to one year.
Passes for Joshua Tree National Park are paid for by vehicle, and a one-day pass is not an option. Instead, the standard park pass is valid for seven days. Below are details of the current options and prices.
7 Day Entrance Fee – $30.00 – valid for a 7-day vehicle permit, admitting all passengers of a single vehicle.
Joshua Tree Annual Pass – $55.00 – valid for 12 months. The Annual Pass covers the entrance fee to Joshua Tree National Park for the pass signee and all passengers entering in a single vehicle.
America the Beautiful Annual Parks Pass – $80.00 – valid for 12 months. This pass covers the entrance fee to ALL National Parks in the USA for the pass signee and all passengers entering in a single vehicle. (Always check with individual sites for details, as some offer even more benefits with this pass).
I personally have the America the Beautiful Annual Park Pass because, even though I’m abroad a lot, I do find that I visit enough National Parks per year that it saves me money overall. Do some quick math and decide which one is best for your plans.
Passes can be purchased using cash or card. You will also typically receive a map of the park and a newspaper-style guide with your receipt and pass, pictured below.
PLEASE NOTE: Cell signal throughout the park can be weak or nonexistent. In addition to the paper map, you may want to download this digital version of the Joshua Tree National Park map before arriving.
how to get around joshua tree
The park is fairly large and I highly recommend making it a priority to visit both deserts in your one day Joshua Tree itinerary (see above for descriptions on both desert areas).
For a one day trip you will absolutely need a car, nomatter the season. In the hot summer months, having a car is a blessing to cool off in AC between hiking stops. Occasionally I see bicyclists in the park, but for obvious reasons it’s hard to see everything in the 1235 square mile park from a bike!
The map you receive upon entry highlights not just the roads in the park but also the hiking trails and camping spots. There are parking lots near many of the trail-heads and parking on the shoulder is fairly common for photo or walking stops (just be sure not to block the road!)
One Day in Joshua Tree National Park: The Best Itinerary
Whether you are an avid hiker or simply want to see the landscapes from the comfort of your car, I have the perfect itinerary for you. Simply skip the hiking portions from the Joshua Tree itinerary below if you are too hot or if it is too late in the day.
Joshua Tree national park one day Itinerary:
- First and foremost, please read my Desert Wear and Hiking Essentials post for the American Southwest so that you are safe and prepared for your trip.
- Enter the park through either the North or West entrance. This will place you in the Mojave portion of the park, which offers the best and most numerous hiking trail options. This is also the area where towering rocks and Joshua Trees reign supreme.
- Arrive Early. This is necessary if you want to do a couple of the hikes, both for timing and to take advantage of the cooler temperatures if you visit during hotter months.
- START WITH A STRENUOUS HIKE. Since the desert gets quite hot, I recommend starting with one of the tougher hikes early in the day. Willow Hole Trail is a wonderful option. The out & back trail is approximately 7 miles total, and features fairly flat terrain. I believe it earns it’s moderate rating because of the length of the hike and lack of shade, as there is only a 400 ft. elevation gain. Park your car in the area near Boy Scout Trail, as the very beginning of the hike starts here (there is a sign marking “Willow Hole Trail” to direct you on where to go). This trail is absolutely beautiful in the springtime, with orange and yellow wildflowers dotting the landscape, loads of Joshua Trees and massive rock formations. The rocks are so oddly placed that it looks like someone hand-patted large boulders into a mound, like sand. It’s gorgeous. This trail takes between 3-4 hours depending on how often you stop for water or photos.
- EAT A PACKED LUNCH ONCE YOU REACH BACK TO THE CAR. There is nowhere to buy food or water once you’re deep in the park. Pack a cooler with basic sandwiches, fruits, and lots of extra beverages and leave it in the shade of the car. It will be the greatest reward after the first long trek! Restrooms can be found in the “Day Use” areas around the Joshua Tree National Park.
- A POST LUNCH DRIVE. I recommend letting your lunch settle while you drive around the Mojave section of the park. One of the wonders of Joshua Tree is simply taking it all in. Spend a solid hour (or two!) driving to some of the highlights near the main road. Make it a point to visit Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks, as well as unnamed patches of Joshua Trees that you see. There are never-ending opportunities for photos and interesting scenery here.
- HEAD SOUTH TO THE COLORADO DESERT AREA. Once you’re feeling refreshed, head south on the main park road toward the Pinto Basin on the map. As I mentioned before, most people skip the southern end of the park, but this is a huge mistake. The southern landscapes are completely different but equally amazing.
- WINTER RECOMMENDATION: HIKE THE LOST PALMS OASIS TRAIL. One of my favorite hikes in the park is definitely Lost Palms Oasis Trail . Whether or not you embark on this hike will depend on what time of year it is (not recommended for summer months due to high heat) and how much daylight you have left, not to mention your energy level. It’s another 7 mile out & back trail rated as moderate. The scenery featured on this hike is rocky hills and barrel cacti, and – you guessed it – a natural desert oasis surrounded by palms (pictured below). The first time I hiked this trail I had no idea that it actually led to an oasis! I climbed down to enjoy the water and shade but if you do this, tread slowly. It can be steep and slippery.
- SUMMER RECOMMENDATION: AN EASY BUT ICONIC HIKE TO ARCH ROCK. Continue exploring with the 1.2 mile out & back Arch Rock Nature Trail. This is a beautiful and popular hike to an iconic arch shaped rock where visitors love to take photos. It is rated as easy and is good for all skill levels (and energy levels!). I highly recommend this easy trek, even if you aren’t typically a hiker.
- SUNSET IN THE CHOLLA CACTUS GARDEN. The Cholla Cactus Garden is one of my favorite spots in the entire park, and you will quickly see why those who skip the southern end of the park are missing out. Park your car and explore at leisure the winding trail through the funny looking cacti patch. I became familiar with cholla cacti while living in Arizona, and they are often called “jumping cacti” because if you or your clothing get pricked by the spikes, the cactus will often shed an “arm” which you will now carry with you… or, on you… appearing to have jumped off it’s base. The spikes do hurt and if you wander off-trail be sure you are wearing closed toe shows. I have absolutely been the victim of the cholla spikes, more times than I’d like to admit, and they are harsh! Danger aside, this is the best spot for sunset. Hanging out here while the sun goes down is the perfect end to your day.
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Where to sleep: joshua tree national park
A great option that helps optimize the entire day is to camp inside the park itself. You can do this either the night before you start or after you finish your one day trip in Joshua Tree (or both!).
Camping reservations are typically accepted 6 months in advance and they do often sell out during the cooler months, from October through May. If you are determined to camp, you should absolutely reserve ahead. There are a few small first-come first-serve campsites but there is no guarantee that you will get one. During summer months, some campsites are closed as it is often regarded as too hot.
Campsite costs range from $15 – $50 and can be pre-booked here.
If camping is not your style, I’ve stayed in a number of AirBnb’s on the area, from secluded desert homes to a tiny house in Palm Springs. The Joshua Tree and Palm Springs areas have the most unique AirBnb homes you will find! Click here to save up to $55 USD for your first AirBnb rental – there is definitely no shortage of options in the area so I have no doubt you’ll find something that works.
where to go after joshua tree?
If you are continuing on a California Road Trip, I would recommend that you check out an underrated park by the name of Red Rock Canyon State Park in Cantil, CA – which I’ve written an in-depth post about. It is always nearly empty and will provide a nice contrast to the often-crowded Joshua Tree as well as impress you with gorgeous towering red cliffs that are reminiscent of Utah and Arizona.
If you are headed north into Nevada, you cannot miss the Seven Magic Mountains art installation outside of Las Vegas. It is amazing! Neon colored rock towers set against the desert backdrop. Need I say more? Click the link above to learn more.
Enjoy your trip! I hope this helps you plan the perfect one day trip to Joshua Tree. Please ask any additional questions below in the comments.
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