In a perfect world, you would always have days – or weeks! – to dedicate to every national park you might visit. In some cases, multiple days in a park are pretty much essential in order to see all the highlights.
But, in other cases, you really can see the best of a national park in one well-planned day.
And Joshua Tree National Park in California is one of those parks.
An intro to Joshua Tree National Park
Located in southern California, Joshua Tree is a very popular day trip from nearby cities like Palm Springs, and an easy overnight trip from larger cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, and even Las Vegas.
The park covers roughly 800,000 acres, and is super unique in that it straddles two distinct desert environments: the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert. And it's in the cooler, higher-altitude Mojave Desert that the famous Joshua trees grow.
Despite its harsh desert-ness, Joshua Tree National Park has been inhabited by humans for roughly 5,000 years, first by people from the Pinto Culture, and then by Indigenous groups like the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla peoples. They mostly settled around scarce water sources/oases around present-day Twentynine Palms and the Oasis of Mara.
White settlers began moving in in the mid-1800s to dig mines, herd livestock, and eventually build homesteads. Some of the Indigenous peoples had already moved out of the area by that point, but the rest were likely forced out by settlers (historical accounts don't all agree, but it's just the way US history goes in most cases).
It was thanks to one of those early settlers, though, that Joshua Tree would eventually be protected. Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, a transplant herself from Mississippi, fell in love with the California desert, and dedicated her life to protecting desert landscapes. It was mostly thanks to her efforts that Joshua Tree National Monument was established by President Roosevelt in 1936.
Joshua Tree would be elevated to national park status in 1994, after Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act.
One day in Joshua Tree National Park
Okay, okay, enough history lesson – let's get to everything you can see and do in Joshua Tree in just one day!
Note: I'm recommending some hikes here, but know that most hikes within Joshua Tree National Park offer up little shade, and the park is often very hot and dry. Hiking throughout the day is really only recommended in the late fall, winter, and early spring months (think: late October-early April); if you're visiting during another time of year, plan to start your hikes very early in the morning, and pack more water than you think you need.
1. Sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden
I know sunrise might be too early for many park visitors, but if you're willing to do it for just this one day, I promise it'll be worth it! Not only will you see a really special sight, but you'll also beat the crowds to many of the hiking trails and top points of interest afterwards.
The Cholla Cactus Garden is located about 12 miles from Joshua Tree's north entrance, within the Pinto Basin where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet. The “garden” is filled with close-growing teddy bear cholla cacti.
It's a landscape unlike any other in Joshua Tree National Park, and is especially striking as the sun rises over the nearby mountains to illuminate the semi-translucent yellow spines on the teddy bear cholla.
There's a .25-mile nature trail through the cacti to walk, offering up plenty of vantage points for great sunrise shots.
Just BEWARE that the teddy bear cholla only look soft and fluffy. They're actually covered in tiny barbs that will latch onto your clothing or skin at the merest brush, and they can be very painful to remove. They're so sensitive that they have the nickname of “jumping cholla,” so be sure to keep your distance!
Time spent: 1 hour for watching sunrise/hiking the short trail here.
2. Arch Rock Nature Trail
Your next stop should be at Arch Rock, which is located a little north of the Cholla Garden along Pinto Basin Road. The parking lot for the trailhead is marked as Twin Tanks Parking, and you'll also see signs for the Arch Rock Trailhead.
This 1.4-mile trail takes you through a bit of desert, and then through some really cool rock formations. Arch Rock itself is located about halfway through the hike, along a .2-mile loop that connects to the main trail.
This hike is fairly quick and easy, and is definitely worth doing!
Time spent: Around 1 hour
3. Skull Rock stop
Next, you'll turn left off of Pinto Basin Road back onto Park Boulevard to head into the heart of Joshua Tree National Park.
I recommend making a quick photo stop at Skull Rock on your way west, as it will be quiet at this time of the day.
There are a few parking spaces on the side of the road right in front of Skull Rock, which is also where you'll find a trailhead for multiple trails, including the Discovery Trail (good for kids), the Skull Rock/Jumbo Rocks Trail, and the Split Rock Loop (rated moderate).
I personally didn't do any of these hikes because I had other trails on my wishlist, but you might want to try one!
Time spent: 10 minutes for Skull Rock photos
4. Barker Dam
Next, you'll follow Park Boulevard through the heart of the park – note that you'll start to see those famous Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) now, as you're officially in the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Desert, between 2,000 and 6,000 feet elevation, is the only place in the world where Joshua trees grow naturally.
Make a right onto Barker Dam Road, which dead-ends in the parking lot for another short (1.1 miles) and easy loop hike. The Barker Dam hike has a little bit of everything: massive monzogranite boulders and rock formations, plenty of Joshua trees, and a little area history.
About halfway through the hike, you'll reach Barker Dam itself, which is a water tank built by early cattle ranchers. You might get lucky enough to visit when it has water in it, which is a pretty cool sight to see in such a dry desert landscape.
Look out for bighorn sheep on this hike, as well as views of San Gorgonio Mountain.
Time spent: Allow about an hour; the trail is flat, so you might actually finish faster!
5. Hidden Valley hike
From Barker Dam, head across Park Boulevard to the Hidden Valley trail. This is probably the most popular hike in the park, so you might find it a little busier than the others you've done so far.
This 1-mile loop trail requires a bit of uphill climbing at the very beginning and end – but only about 100 feet or so of elevation gain. Once you get into the valley itself, you'll understand how it got its name!
The legend goes that this “hidden valley” was used by cattle rustlers to hide stolen livestock. Today, the hike here takes you past towering rock formations.
Time spent: Allow about an hour, though if you don't stop too much you could easily do it in less time.
It might not even be 11 a.m. yet depending on what time sunrise was, but it's likely you'll be ready for lunch anyway after putting a few miles under your belt. If that's the case, there's a nice picnic area across the parking area from the Hidden Valley trailhead. I recommend packing a picnic lunch for the day, and enjoying it here!
Note: Especially if you're bringing food/drinks into the park, you should definitely pledge to follow Leave No Trace principles, which include removing any trash/waste you bring in or create, not harming any plant/animal life, and generally leaving the park in the same condition as when you entered it. Be kind to our public lands!
6. Cap Rock Nature Trail
Hit the Park Boulevard again back the way you came earlier in the day, this time detouring to Keys View Road.
Not far past this turn-off, you can stop at the Cap Rock Nature Trail, which is a short (0.4-mile) loop trail with some excellent views and interesting info boards along the trail telling you all about the local desert flora and fauna.
Time spent: 30 minutes if you stop to read the info boards
7. Drive to Keys View
From Cap Rock, follow Keys View Road to the end (about 5.5 miles), where you'll find yourself at Keys View itself.
This lookout point at 5,185 feet offers up incredible views out over the Coachella Valley, which the San Andreas Fault runs through.
Beware that it can be incredibly windy and COLD up here, especially outside of the summer months. So be sure to throw on a jacket before you get out of the car to take in the view.
Time spent: 45 minutes-1 hour (including the drive)
8. Hall of Horrors
One more place worth stopping along Park Boulevard is at the “Hall of Horrors” area. (Yes, I'll admit we stopped simply because I was curious about the name!)
There are some really tall Joshua trees here that are great for photos, and a short trail leads through them and around some clusters of giant boulders.
The more adventurous can also do some rock scrambling here, and even find some small slot canyons! (More on how to find the slot canyons here.)
9. Oasis of Mara
Assuming you entered and will exit the park through the North Entrance (the closest to the town of Twentynine Palms), then I also recommend stopping at the Oasis of Mara on your way out.
This natural oasis is surrounded by tall palm trees, and was one of the main places around which local Indigenous people would have set up their camps and settlements centuries ago.
This also used to be the site of one of Joshua Tree's visitor centers, but the Oasis Visitor Center closed in 2022. The new Joshua Tree Cultural Center is now open in its place in Twentynine Palms at 6533 Freedom Way.
If you have more time…
The above itinerary will take you through mid-afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park, which honestly is probably enough for most people, especially if you start your day before sunrise. (Personally, the landscape started to look a bit same-y to me after a while!)
But if you do have more time, some other things you might want to do in Joshua Tree include:
- Keys Ranch – You can tour this old ranch/homestead within the park to learn about what it was like for the Keys family living here. Tours are usually offered October-May, cost $10 per person, and must be reserved in advance here.
- Cottonwood Spring Oasis – Near the southern entrance of the park (and near another visitor center and campground), a short trail leads you to an oasis where fan palms and cottonwood trees grow.
- Forty Nine Palms Oasis hike – If you're looking for a more difficult and longer hike within Joshua Tree, the 3-mile Forty Nine Palms hike might be for you. It has a 300-foot elevation gain in both directions, and ends at a fan palm oasis in a rocky canyon.
Where to stay near Joshua Tree National Park
Even if you're only spending one day in Joshua Tree, chances are you might be in the area for a night or two. I visited this park as part of a larger California desert road trip, and we spent two nights in Joshua Tree.
Unless you're visiting Joshua Tree as a day trip from somewhere like Palm Springs, the best places to stay in close proximity to the park are:
- Twentynine Palms – This small town sits near the northern entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, and has some restaurants and quite a few hotels/motels to choose from.
- Joshua Tree – The town of Joshua Tree is closer to the western entrance to Joshua Tree, but has more vacation rentals.
- Campgrounds in the park – There are 9 campgrounds within the national park. Some require advanced reservations, while a few are first-come, first-served. Prices range from $20-$50 per night. More info here.
There are hotel/motel options around Joshua Tree, but there are also a TON of really cute, design-forward vacation rentals in the area. My friend and I rented an adorable 2-bedroom Airbnb in Joshua Tree town for a pretty fair rate that came complete with private hot tub! (It was this one, specifically.)
And if you stay in Joshua Tree town, I can highly recommend stopping for coffee at Joshua Tree Coffee Company, and having a meal at the Joshua Tree Saloon.
Check out these other 1-day national park guides:
- Day Tripping to Dry Tortugas National Park: Everything You Need to Know
- Tips for Visiting Yosemite National Park in One Day
- 10 of the Best Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
- How to Spend One Day at Indiana Dunes National Park
- Everything You Need to Know About Visiting White Sands National Park
- The Mighty 5: Utah’s Stunning National Parks
Have you been to Joshua Tree National Park? If not, what things would you most like to do/see there in one day?