California has some amazing areas to explore, but one of the more unique places is Joshua Tree. Seeing the unique Joshua Trees as you drive along the road makes it seem like you’re on an alien planet. This is one of the main reasons a Joshua Tree day trip is a popular place to stop on a road trip from Seattle to San Diego.
Joshua Tree is actually part of two deserts, as this is where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge. This is a large reason the terrain here is so different from anywhere else. I’ve traveled all over the world but haven’t seen a landscape like this before.
Sometimes you see a place over and over on social media, and you keep thinking about it until you decide to plan a trip there. That’s exactly what I did with Joshua Tree after researching it online and stalking stranger’s photos on Instagram. After seeing the unique trees and the beautiful landscape in photos for the 100th time, I decided to book my flight there to finally see it in person for myself.
While the most popular attraction is Joshua Tree National Park, there are plenty of other things to do in Joshua Tree as well. This guide gives you tips for planning a day trip to Joshua Tree as well as a list of what to do when you’re there.
This post promotes travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Yuhaviatam/Maarenga’yam (Serrano) and Newe (Western Shoshone) people. I make a formal land acknowledgment showing my respect and appreciation to the people of these lands. You can learn more about this on Native Land.
Tips for Planning a Joshua Tree Day Trip
These tips will help you plan your one day to Joshua Tree National Park. You may want to check out this helpful packing list for a road trip if you’re driving from farther away.
How to Get to Joshua Tree
You can take a Joshua Tree day trip from many different major cities. Here’s a general travel time estimate for each one so you can better plan your drive.
- Los Angeles – When you’re visiting Los Angeles, you can take a day trip from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree in 2.5 hours (this may vary with LA traffic, of course).
- Palm Springs – It’s easy to take a day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs, as it’s only 45 minutes away.
- San Diego – While it’ll be a long day, you can still do a day trip to Joshua Tree from San Diego in 2 hours and 45 minutes.
- Las Vegas – You can drive to Joshua Tree in one day from Las Vegas, but I would recommend booking a hotel for the night, as it’s 3 hours and 20 minutes away.
There are three Joshua Tree National Park entrances, which you can view on the park map (you can pick this up once you pay your entrance fee of $30). There is a north and west entrance, which you’ll go through if you’re staying north of the park. If you’re south in Palm Springs, the south entrance will be the quickest way to get there.
The Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree
Similar to Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree gets very hot during the summer, where temperatures can soar past 100 degrees F . You’ll need to take into consideration there is virtually no shade in this area, so you’ll be fully exposed to the elements.
If you want to go hiking in Joshua Tree, you’ll need to start very early to safely complete it without getting dehydrated or heat exhaustion.
That said, I personally feel that fall through spring is the best time to visit Joshua Tree. Temperatures are around 85 degrees F during the fall and spring, and around 60 degrees F during the winter.
This makes it much more pleasant to explore the outdoors. However, dress appropriately if you stay the night, as temperatures can drop into the 30s.
Tip – due to the heat and dry atmosphere, you’ll want to take advantage of the water refill stations at the entrances of the park. You should also always have more water than you need. I thought hiking Lake Tahoe in the summer was hot, but here I felt like I was chugging water and still thirsty, and I was there in the spring.
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree
You may be heading back home after spending one day in Joshua Tree, but you might also decide to get a hotel if you want to spend a long day exploring the area. Here are two common areas to stay in.
I stayed north of the park in Twentynine Palms, which was great for being close to the park and restaurants. Here are a few places I recommend.
- American’s Best Value Inn – I stayed here during my trip and found it affordable and a great base for exploring for the weekend. (rates start at $84 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- Holiday Inn Express – This hotel caters to those who aren’t in the room often, with a breakfast buffet in the morning and a pool to use later on. (rates start at $109 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- This unique 2 bedroom home is styled in a Western motif. The bedrooms are ensuite – 2 full baths in each. Enjoy the outdoor patio and pool in the warmer months or the hot tub and fireplace on site in the colder ones. (rates start at $225 per night)
Doing a day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs? Here are a few hotels to stay at for the night.
- Infusion Beach Club – This hotel is good if you’re on a budget but still want access to a pool. (rates start at $70 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- The Palm Springs Hotel – Stay here if you want to treat yourself, as this is a boutique hotel with amenities like Apple TV and a full alcohol list to order from. (rates start at $169 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- This cozy 1 bedroom condo in the heart of Coachella Valley sleeps 4 in total. Comes with a full kitchen and a queen sleeper couch that can accommodate two people. (rates start at $199 per night)
For a unique experience, check out some of the best glamping spots in Joshua Tree.
Sample Itinerary for a Day Trip to Joshua Tree
Your Joshua Tree itinerary will vary based on where you’re coming from and how much time you want to spend in the park. I recommend a long day so you can get the most out of this stunning area.
You can pick and choose from the activities below, but here’s what one day in Joshua Tree might look like (and what mine closely resembled):
- Early morning – Sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden
- Mid-morning – Explore several hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
- Noon – Visit Pioneertown and get lunch in town
- Afternoon – Head back to the park to drive along the roads and see rock formations
- Late afternoon – Sunset at Keys View
- Evening – Dinner at Joshua Tree Saloon
Best Things to Do in Joshua Tree
The main attraction in this area is the beautiful national park, but there are many other places to stop on your Joshua Tree day trip. This list is in order of how I recommend spending one day in Joshua Tree, but you can decide how to arrange your day.
Watch the Sunrise From Cholla Cactus Garden
If you’re doing a day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs, come to Cholla Cactus Garden early to watch the sunrise. This is the only area of the park where you can see these stunning cholla cacti. This was probably my favorite part of the trip – watching the sunrise with coffee in one hand and my camera in the other.
Important fact – do not get close to these, as they detach from the plant when touched and you’ll have dozen of pricks in you until a doctor takes them out. That means be careful where you step, as they’ll be all over the ground in certain areas.
Take a Hike
There are many Joshua Tree hikes to choose from, but you should know these tips first:
- I recommend hiking before 10 AM and after 5 PM. You’ll deal with fewer people and it’s much cooler during this time, especially for Joshua Tree hikes.
- Dogs are allowed in the park, but can only go 30 feet from the road or trail on a leash. They’re not allowed hiking on any of the trails, so, to be honest, I wouldn’t recommend bringing your dog. Many dogs overheat and die each year from not having enough water.
- Take into account the elevation when looking at lengths of hikes plus the heat – even one-mile hikes were tough mid-day. I’m used to doing eight-mile hikes in Seattle without being exhausted, but this was completely different.
- As stated previously, there’s minimal shade on the hikes, so wear a hat and plenty of sunscreen.
- Check the National Park Service website to see the current status of the park and trails.
You can find the full list of hikes as well as more details on the park’s website. Here are some of the best hikes in Joshua Tree to choose from along with their mileage:
- Arch Rock (easy – 0.5 miles)
- Hidden Valley (easy – 1 mile)
- Barker Dam Nature Trail (easy – 1.3 miles)
- Ryan Mountain (moderate – 3 miles)
- Willow Hole (moderate – 7 miles)
Go Rock Climbing
I love rock climbing, so I wanted to come here to see people scaling the rocks. There are different levels of rock climbing, but they were all on the more difficult side. While I was in no shape to climb, I would love to come back in the future to do it.
Hall of Horrors is a popular place to go rock climbing in Joshua Tree. If you do this, go early since the sun rises on the face of it and it gets brutally hot. This a unique activity to put on your Joshua Tree itinerary.
Just a note – if you don’t currently feel safe climbing outside, you could instead build your own outdoor rock climbing wall at home.
Buy Produce at the Farmer’s Market
Every Saturday you can stop by the farmer’s market and purchase local produce, honey, and more. There were local musicians playing and it seemed like many people knew each other, so I loved the small-town feel. I recommend stopping here first thing on your Joshua Tree day trip so you’ll have snacks and food for lunch as you explore the area.
Go Back in History at Pioneertown
Pioneertown is about 30 minutes northwest of the park, so it’s a good place to stop midday. You can visit what looks like an old movie set based on the Wild West. There are even gun shows on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month, which you’ll want to make time for. This is such a random activity that you must put it on your Joshua Tree itinerary.
Half of the stores are open where you can find goods such as western clothing, lotion, and even saddles. Check out the giant bookstore at the end of town that’s in an old barn.
When you’re done, make sure to stop by Pappy and Harriet’s. This is the only restaurant and bar in Pioneertown, so stop here when you’re done exploring for lunch.
I got the lemonade and nachos, but they had a full menu. There’s also live music at night, and Sir Paul McCartney even did a surprise show there once! This is one of the most unexpected but best things to do in Joshua Tree.
Grab Old-Fashioned Ice Cream
When you need a break from the heat midday, stop by Fosters Freeze in Twentynine Palms. I was so hot one day after exploring the park, and nothing sounded better than ice cream.
This chain has been a California tradition since the 1940s, and I can see why. I loved the old school diner feel of this place, and their sundaes are amazing.
See Water in the Desert
I thought my eyes were deceiving me when I first saw Barker Dam. For how dry and hot Joshua Tree is, I didn’t expect to see a body of water here. The water was beautiful to look at and you can take a hike around the area as well.
However, this water isn’t for swimming. There were hundreds of bugs here, as I’m sure they were as drawn to the water in the middle of the desert as we were.
Visit the Ruins of Ryan Ranch
If you don’t mind a small hike out from the road during your Joshua Tree day trip, you can see the remains of the house and well a farmer built out here for his family in 1898. I can’t imagine living all the way out here, but they also had a great view of the area.
You can’t see the ruins from the trail, but there is a sign that let you know you’re in the right place. The hike out is completely flat and pretty easy, so it’s suitable for most people.
Check Out Various Rock Formations
One of the most popular things to do in Joshua Tree is to look at the different rock formations in the area. There are pull-off areas for most of them, so you can hop out, take a picture, and get back in the car if you don’t feel like walking around each area.
Some of them are more interesting than others, so you can decide which ones you want to spend time at. Here are some worth taking pictures of:
- Split Rock
- Arch Rock
- Skull Rock
See the San Andreas Fault
The famous San Andreas fault line runs along the south side of the park, so make sure to check it out during your one day in Joshua Tree. You can see it from the top of Lost Horse Mine or Keys View.
Catch the Sunset at Keys View
If you visit Keys View for the fault line, make sure to time it with when the sun goes down. This is an amazing spot for the sunset, as you can see over the whole Coachella valley from this viewpoint.
Due to it being a scenic viewpoint and easy to access, it can get crowded quickly. I recommend getting there early if you have a camera you want to use for photos.
Visit a Saloon for Dinner and Karaoke
Joshua Tree Saloon a fun place to go on the way back from your Joshua Tree day trip. They have live music most nights of the week and karaoke, which gives it a lively feel. Eating dinner while watching very enthusiastic patrons sing karaoke was a first for me!
A full menu is available with selections like hamburgers and sandwiches. They also have a full bar if you want to try a local beer while watching locals sing karaoke.
Go Stargazing at an Observatory
This observatory is on the way to the north entrance of the park. I stopped here around 10 p.m. on my way out from night photography in the park and there were dozens of people looking through the telescopes they had stationed at the observatory. I loved that staff was there to let us know what we were looking at, and we even got to see Jupiter the night I was there.
If you are extending your day trip to Joshua Tree National Park or don’t mind getting back late, I recommend staying until the sun sets. Otherwise, you can still visit the observatory during the day if you’re curious about what it looks like.
Taking a Joshua Tree day trip is worth it whether it’s your first time or you’ve been several times. There’s a ton to see in this park and the general area, so you’ll planning your one day in Joshua Tree.