Joshua Tree National Park is easily visited in one day. More than one day can be spent, but it isn’t completely necessary. It just depends on how much you want (or are able) to do. You are able to see the popular attractions on a day trip to Joshua Tree. Of course, that is if the weather permits you. When I went, the weather wasn’t great and we were still able to make it to happy hour.
About Joshua Tree National Park
Spread across over 1,225 square miles covering parts of the Colorado and Mojave deserts.,Joshua Tree National Park is one of the top 10 largest national parks. It is also one of the ten youngest national parks (not including Death Valley which was established the same day).
It is known for the vast quantities of Joshua trees among monzogranite mountains and desert landscapes.
Getting To Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park has two main entrances: the west and the south entrance. The west entrance is the most convenient when coming from the west. Whereas the south entrance is not far at all from I-10, it is a good bit further east.
There is an east entrance, close to Twentynine Palms, but it isn’t really near anything so I’m not sure why anyone would use it – possibly if you’re coming from Las Vegas, but that’s still pretty far.
The nearest airport, with commercial service, is Palm Springs airport. It currently has nonstop flights to the hubs of all of the major airlines. You would still have to drive to the park from the airport, but there are car rental facilities at the easy-to-navigate airport.
Joshua Tree National Park is northwest of Palm Springs; north of Coachella. Both of the main entrances to Joshua Tree National Park are just under 50 miles from Palm Springs. It takes at least an hour, sometimes more depending on traffic.
Los Angeles is a bit further at roughly 150 miles to the west. According to Google Maps, it should take about 2 hours and 15 minutes, but this is highly dependent on traffic.
By Train (the honorable mention)
There is a train station in Palm Springs where Amtrak stops. However, it is a minor stop and is a good distance from Palm Springs proper. Getting anywhere from the train station
may will be cumbersome. I would only recommend it if you’re already doing a train trip.
Sites to See during a Joshua Tree National Park Day Trip
There are several major sites, in Joshua Tree, that cannot be missed during a day trip. They are the ore popular sites so I highly suggest that you try to get there as early as possible. You’ll avoid a long line at the park entrance as well.
Skull Rock is located in the middle of the park and is mere steps from the road. If you want a good picture, getting there early is essential. I didn’t make it the first stop of my visit. Because of that, getting a good picture without people in it was basically impossible.
There is a trailhead that takes you on a very easy 1.5-mile loop. It is optional if you only want to see Skull Rock.
Keys View is a 10-minute drive from Skull Rock and was one of the more humorous parts of my day. Keys View gives you a wonderful view of the Coachella Valley, San Andreas Fault, and nearby mountains. That is if the weather is good. I cannot stress that enough.
As I entered the park, it was a beautiful sunny day. I still asked the park ranger what the weather was like up at Keys Point. They laughed (at me?) and said that we have nothing to worry about. Famous last words, I suppose. As you can see, I was barely able to see 15 feet in front of me! We were completely inside a cloud.
If you want to go, pay attention to the weather. There isn’t really a good place to turn around on the way up. However, it’s easy to see if it’s clear or not. Once you get there, it’s pretty much a lookout/vista point. There’s no hiking involved and there’s very little walking You only have to walk a few feet from your parking spot. It really makes me want to go back so I can get a picture that isn’t completely obscured by clouds.
This is one of my favorite things during my day trip to Joshua Tree National Park. Don’t go thinking it will be as big or spectacular as some arches in Arches National Park, but it’s still an arch. The trailhead is a 5-minute drive from Skull Rock. Getting to Arch Rock involves a 1.5-mile lollipop hike. It’s mostly flat until you get to Arch Rock. At that point, it gets a bit more strenuous. How strenuous depends on your comfort level. If you want to stand in the arch, you’ll have to do some easy bouldering.
Cholla Cactus Garden
The Cholla Cactus Garden is located in the southern part of Joshua Tree National Park. It is a ways away from the other sites I mentioned above. I believe it’s a 15-20 minute drive from Arch Rock. For this reason, it will likely be your first or last stop on your day trip.
The cholla cactus is, in my opinion, almost Dr. Seuss-like. They’re very unique looking. A walk in the actual “cactus garden” is optional. The cacti are plentiful and extend well beyond the area that you’d see if you did the cactus garden “boardwalk”.
It is more than possible to merely pull your car over on the side of the road and get as much outt of it as you would if you did the cactus garden walk. Just be mindful of where you step. The cactus have an affinity for sticking to nearly anything. You’d hate to have to pick these off your shoe, or worse. You don’t need much time at the Cholla Cactus Garden. Be mindful of the time if this is your first stop so you can get to SKull Rock at a reasonable time.
Tips for a Day Trip to Joshua Tree
On one hand, Joshua Tree National Park is an easy visit. On the other hand, not having a plan and sticking to it can make your visit less enjoyable. Be sure to follow the following tips to make it as good as possible.
- Get there early! Joshua Tree is just shy of being one of the top 10 most visited national parks. It took me about 15 minutes to get into the park at 8:45 AM. While that’s not a long time, it can be a much longer line later in the day.
- Bring water and food. The roads in the park are well maintained. However, that’s about the extent of facilities in the park. I don’t think I saw a place to fill up a water bottle, and I definitely didn’t see anywhere you could buy food. Make sure you stay hydrated and nourished. Even if you don’t think you need water, drink up.
- Be mindful of the weather. As I mentioned, I got hoodwinked by clouds. I was visiting during the winter so that’s hardly surprising. It gets very hot during the summer months, and there is little shade throughout the park.
- Download a map of the park using Google Maps on your phone and ask for a park map as you enter. There is very little cell service so don’t rely on it to be able to look things up. Having an offline map of Joshua Tree is a necessity. Do NOT rely on being able to use your phone.
- There are beautiful sights throughout the park. There are numerous areas where you can pull over and look at the scenery. I encourage you to take advantage of these. There is often an information board to learn about the ecology and what you’re looking at.
- Take lots of pictures. Even if you don’t have a fancy camera, you’ll want to take a ton of pictures.
A visit to Joshua Tree National Park as a day trip is doable and definitely worthwhile. There’s a lot to see. How much you’re able to see and do depends on how much hiking you can/want to do. Personally, I’m not a big fan of hiking. The hikes I mentioned above are not hard and short enough so you won’t get too tired. Could I have done more? Yeah, possibly. What I was able to do and see was everything I wanted to do. As with most things, a second visit would be better as I know the park and distances between each sight or hike. Hopefully, this helps you plan your Joshua Tree National Park day trip.
For more info, visit the National Park Service’s website.