Planning a day trip to Joshua tree from Palm Springs? We went on a Palm Springs Joshua tree road trip as a part of our Southern California road trip and were amazed by the unique desert landscapes and the scraggly trees. Read our comprehensive One Day in Joshua Tree itinerary for ideas to visit Joshua Tree in a day. You may also like our guide on things to do in Joshua Tree with kids.
We first came to know about Joshua Tree National Park when a friend went camping there and posted pictures on the ‘gram. We couldn’t believe our eyes: could such a weirdly wonderful landscape exist? And those trees! Surreal.
Since then we tried adding Joshua Tree to our next California trip but somehow always ended up in a different region of the state. Then early this year, we thought we could squeeze in a Joshua Tree day trip while on our winter romantic getaway in Palm Springs. But then the government shutdown happened and Joshua Tree National Park was closed, so we ended up visiting Denver and Estes Park in Colorado.
And then it was time for our grand Southern California road trip – and with it, our chance to finally visit Joshua Tree National Park! We kept Palm Springs and Joshua Tree towards the tail end of our trip and could spare only one day in Joshua Tree. Like most national parks there is lots to do and see in Joshua Tree including hiking, camping, and backpacking but even day visitors can see the parks major highlights and even hike some easy trails to explore the unique desert environment.
As we discovered, you can cover a lot of Joshua Tree in a day including attractions in both the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. We could hike many short trails, go bouldering, and experience the magical sunset at Joshua Tree. We also found out that there are lots of things to do on a Joshua Tree National Park day trip with kids. The big open outdoors proved to be the perfect Disney detox for our toddler.
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“It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”
– Jeannette Walls, the American author
Travel tips for spending one day in Joshua Tree
Best Time to visit Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park is located in the California desert region and gets pretty hot in summer. It also gets arid, dry, and there are lots of chances of dehydration and sunburn. We do not recommend visiting Joshua Tree this time of the year, especially with kids. Late fall and winter is a good time to visit. In winter the temperature can drop rapidly so pack layers for the cool mornings and evening winds. They are especially essential if you plan to camp in Joshua Tree in the winter.
Spring is the best time to visit Joshua Tree for wildflowers. The best time is usually March end to early April but we recommend calling up the park to know bloom times. If the right conditions combine in winter (mild winter followed by lots of rain and cool spring) then the park can experience a super bloom and looks spectacular. Joshua Tree had a super bloom in 2019. We visited at the same time but just a few weeks after the peak bloom. So while we weren’t able to see the carpets of desert wildflowers we did see the Ocotillos bloom a brilliant red and other assorted flowers in every shade from pink, blue, yellow, and violet.
Where to stay near Joshua Tree
Not that many hotels or lodges are located near Joshua Tree. You can either stay in Desert Hot Springs or Palm Springs if you are planning to visit Joshua Tree for one day. Joshua Tree is just less than an hour away from both and you can easily reach Joshua Tree early in the morning. If you are also spending time in Palm Springs, then the Parker Palm Springs is a great option. The city also has many other great hotels for every budget and we would recommend it as an excellent base if you are planning a Joshua Tree day trip from Palm Springs.
Another option is staying near Yucca Valley or Pioneertown. Pioneertown Motel has amazing desert views, southwestern style decor and is a great place to stay. If you do want to stay near Joshua Tree, an Airbnb is many times a better option. Many luxe houses and apartments are located near the national park as are many glamping options. You can stay in a tipi tent or even an airstream trailer.
You may also like: 30 Awesome Things to do in Palm Springs with kids
How to reach Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is located about an hour away from Palm Springs. The park is about the size of Rhode Island in the area and has 3 entrances. The west entrance is the most popular one and known as Joshua Tree entrance. If traveling from Los Angeles on I-10, continue east beyond Palm Springs exit towards Yucca Valley and follow the directions towards the Joshua Tree Visitor Center.
The North entrance is located in Twentynine Palms. To reach this, continue on CA-62 beyond the west entrance and follow signs leading up to Oasis Visitor Center. If you enter via either the west or north entrance, you will see the Joshua trees immediately upon arrival.
The third entrance is the Cottonwood Springs Visitor Center entrance in the south. This entrance is located right off I-10 and in the Colorado desert region. To reach here, follow the I-10 beyond Palm Spring and Indio exits till you see the entrance signs. If entering via this region, you will first see the Ocotillo and Cholla cactuses and gradually make your way north to the yucca trees. You can also easily reach Joshua Tree by driving along the I-10 from Arizona on an epic Joshua Tree road trip.
Getting around Joshua Tree: The new Joshua Tree shuttle service
When we visited Joshua Tree, we saw the new shuttle service arranged by the park. The shuttle service known as Roadrunner Shuttle was started recently in Fall 2018 and seems quite a convenient option if you don’t wish to drive on your Joshua Tree day trip. The shuttle service starts at the Oasis Visitor Center entrance and you can park your car there all day. For more information about the shuttle service, check the NPS website
The other alternative, which was more convenient for us since we started at the south entrance, is to drive your car along the Joshua Tree scenic drive. This is what we recommend and to follow our one day in Joshua Tree National Park itinerary completely, you will need to drive your car.
What to pack for Joshua Tree
Most important of all: lots and lots of water. There are very few sources of potable water inside Joshua Tree, most of them are inside the visitor centers. We recommend carrying a gallon per person per day and making sure you actually drink that if hiking in visiting during summer. The best way to carry water is by using a good daypack or backpack with a hydration compartment. Alternatively, you can also carry hiking water bottles. You also need to carry food in your daypack. If not camping, then you just need to pack for the day. We suggest carrying Nutri bars and protein bars, crackers, trail mix, chocolates, etc. You will also need lots of ice and a cooler if traveling in summer.
You need to pack long pants or hiking pants if you plan to get out of the car. Most of the trails pass through cacti and other plants with thorns which can scratch you if you are wearing shorts. You also need closed-toed shoes for the same reason. We suggest sturdy hiking shoes or sandals and moisture-wicking socks. You also need waterproof sunscreen, sunhat, and sunglasses to beat the high heat in the desert. You, of course, need a great camera or GoPro or a great camera smartphone to capture amazing images of Joshua Tree. We also carry a pair of binoculars with us to spot the desert wildlife and for birdwatching.
Joshua Tree does not have network coverage in many places so you might not always have access to GPS directions, maps, or your itinerary. For that reason, we recommend either downloading maps plus our itinerary or taking a print along with you.
Understanding the Joshua Tree desert ecology
Whenever we visit national parks, we try to understand the geography and geology behind the landscapes and the vegetation. Joshua Tree is quite unique in both respects. It straddles two deserts. These desert regions are located at different elevations and have vastly different ecosystems.
The Mojave desert is located at a higher elevation, is cooler, and known for its unique Joshua trees, a type of yucca tree, with thick spiny branches. The legend says that early Mormon settlers in the area named the yucca plant Joshua tree because it resembled the biblical figure of Joshua raising his arms in prayers towards the sky. The Colorado desert, on the other hand, is located at a much lower elevation and is home to bare vegetation including the Cholla cactus and Ocotillos. Don’t worry if the names are unfamiliar – by the time you have visited Joshua tree, you will remember what every plant was and how it looked. Joshua Tree is the best hands-on desert ecology lesson for the kids.
Apart from the desert regions, Joshua Tree National Park also includes 5 oases where the California Fan Palm trees grow up towards the sky and water exists year-round. Other geological features include desert grasslands near the Coachella Valley, sand dunes, unique bare rock formations, and the San Andreas fault. Joshua Tree also has the darkest night skies and is great for stargazing if you can camp there.
One Day in Joshua Tree Itinerary: Driving the Joshua Tree Scenic Drive
If you have an entire day in Joshua Tree, you can easily visit both the Mojave Desert – the one with the Joshua Trees – and the Colorado desert region. While most people prefer to enter the park via the west entrance, see the north entrance area and then drive south to exit via the Cottonwood Visitor Center, we choose to do the exact opposite. Our reason was pretty simple: we wanted to see the sunset among the Joshua Trees. And boy, we were glad to do so. Seeing the sunset behind the otherworldly Joshua Trees and photographing them bathed in twilight is one of my most memorable moments.
We started from Palm Springs early in the morning. Grabbed a to-go breakfast and a date shake and drove towards the south entrance. We entered the park through Cottonwood Visitor Center and then drove north. We did the scenic drive through the national park toward the North entrance and finally exited via the West entrance. The total Joshua Tree scenic drive is around 100 miles including the Keys view road and takes about two and a half to three hours without hiking.
If you want, you can easily follow our stops in the reverse order but we would recommend the south to north drive any day. The flat and barren landscape of the Colorado desert in the south makes way for the straggly forms of the Joshua tree in the Mojave desert and anticipating the transition at every turn is a beautiful experience. Here are the must-stops on a scenic drive through Joshua Tree that you can easily see in one day:
Bajada Nature Trail
Bajada means the slope at a mountain’s base. After turning towards the national park, you will come across the Bajada Nature trailhead before reaching the Cottonwood Visitor Center. It’s a very small 0.3-mile nature walk in the non-fee area of the park and provides a wonderful introduction to the desert. The trial has lots of wildflowers in spring and offers opportunities for bird watching. Information placards describe the most important plants of the Colorado desert that can survive on the bajada including the ocotillo, cacti, indigo bush, etc. This trail is great to help kids understand how the different plants have adapted to the desert environment.
Cottonwood Visitor Center
Cottonwood Visitor Center is a great place to start your day trip to Joshua tree. The visitor center is small but the park rangers are very helpful and will help you with ideas to spend 1 day inside Joshua Tree. If you are visiting in spring, they can guide you to areas with best flower blooms. You can pay the entrance fees, get maps, check out exhibits about ecology and history of the area, use the restroom, and buy souvenirs at the visitor center. I especially loved the pictures exhibit about animals that lived in the area hundreds of years ago. We also recommend purchasing water here as you won’t find any water once you venture inside the park. We found quite a few cacti blooming near the visitor center.
Cottonwood Spring Oasis Trail
Located adjacent to the Cottonwood Visitor Center, Cottonwood Spring Oasis Nature Trail is an easy out and back hike to an oasis. While the round trip is 1.5 miles and there is an elevation change of 180 feet, our 3-year-old son could easily do it. We saw a lot of wildflowers along the hike and also a couple of bighorn sheep. Watching the California fan palms and knowing that they are a result of seismic activity – the oasis is located directly on top of a faultline- is an amazing experience. The 8 miles long Lost Palms Oasis Trail also begins here but is not recommended if you have only one day in Joshua Tree.
Pinto Basin Road
From the Cottonwood visitor center, you will drive along the Pinto Basin Road inside the park premises. Pinto Basin Road has very less traffic compared to the popular Park Blvd that connects the west and north entrances. The Pinto Basin area is one of the least visited areas of the national park. It is mostly a wilderness area comprised of vast alluvial plains. Pinto Basin is an extremely dry and arid environment. Three campgrounds are located along the Pinto Basin Road: Cottonwood campground, White Tank campground, and Belle campground.
The Ocotillos were by far my favorite plants in the Colorado desert region of Joshua Tree. The Ocotillo plants can easily grow over 30 feet tall and are also known as desert coral. They look pretty striking in the otherwise flat and barren landscape of southern Joshua Tree. While you see the Ocotillos everywhere in the park they are quite concentrated along the roadside in the area known as the Ocotillo patch. You can get quite spectacular photos with these plants in the patch. These plants bloom after rainfall and look stunning covered with bright red flowers at the end of the stems. When we visited every single Ocotillo we saw was in bloom and they all looked brilliant in the Ocotillo patch.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Garden is one of the highlights of the Pinto Basin Road in the Colorado desert region a must on every Joshua Tree one day trip. Cholla cactus is a fuzzy plant with short, sharp thorns. The marked quarter-mile trail takes you through the natural cactus garden and you can appreciate the expanse of the chollas. When we went towards the end of April, the Cholla cactus were in bloom and the small white-yellow flowers looked beautiful. We were here just an hour or so before sunset and the fuzzy sheathed Cholla cacti looked beautiful in the sun. Word of advice: wear closed shoes and do not step off the trail as the thorny Cholla spines are everywhere.
Arch Rocks is a 30 feet long arch formation in Joshua Tree. You can reach Arch Rock by the easy 0.5 miles long Arch Rock Nature Loop Trail. You will walk through large rock piles and read interactive exhibits about the desert geology before reaching the Arch Rock. On the trail, you will also see many other interesting rock formations. The trailhead starts at White Tank campground – there is parking available near the trailhead. This trail is popular for boulders scrambling, twilight photos, and spring wildflowers – plus lots of potential to take pics for Instagram.
After the Arch Rock and White Tank background, Pinto Basin Rd will pass by the Belle background and gradually meet Park Blvd. At the junction, turn left towards the west entrance. The right turn will take you towards the north entrance, but there are no points of interest in this stretch. After taking the left turn on Park Blvd, the first point of interest is Skull Rock.
Another of the popular spots in the Mojave desert region, skull rock is a skull-shaped granite rock formation – complete with eye sockets! Skull Rock is a work of erosion; rainwater accumulated in the rock depressions and gradually created the eye sockets. Visitors can scramble and climb on skull rock. A 1.7-mile-long nature trail loop also begins at the Jumbo Rocks campground located after Skull Rock. On the trail, you can see many interesting rock formations and desert washes. This is also a great place to take the iconic photo of Joshua trees surrounded by giant rocks.
Hall of Horrors
Hall of Horrors is located right off Park Blvd near Twentynine Palms and is one of the most photogenic spots in Joshua Tree. The trail is 0.6 miles long. This area has lots of interesting rock formations plus you can easily scramble to the top of the rocks. The Hall of Horrors is a narrow gap between two rock faces. The Gap is unmarked and you have to explore a bit on the trail to find the actual hall. Even if you can’t find it or are unsure if you have found it, the interesting rock formations and views make the hike super fun. Right across the Hall of Horrors, you can see Ryan Mountain which has a 1.5 mile long strenuous trail to its peak.
Another must-visit while spending one day in Joshua Tree National Park! Keys View is located just 20 mins away from the Joshua Tree Visitor Center entrance and offers the best views in the park. You can drive all the way to the top of Keys Point and then there’s a short 0.1-mile trail to the viewing area which also has information plaques. From the top, you can see Palm Springs, Coachella Valley, San Jacinto mountain, Salton Sea, San Andreas fault, and even a mountain in Mexico! Though you need an exceptionally clear day to see that far and we weren’t so lucky. Keys View is famous for spectacular sunrise and sunset views.
Hidden Valley Nature Trail
Hidden Valley Nature Trail is the #1 most popular trail in Joshua Tree National Park. This easy mile-long trail can be done by mostly everyone and is a favorite with kids because of the awesome rock formations and bouldering opportunities. The trail is especially beautiful early in the morning and at sunset since the boulders light up in splendid colors. This trail also has shaded picnic tables and toilets, so it makes a fun rest stop while spending one day in Joshua tree. On the trail, you will see amazing formations, geological information about the formations, lots of Joshua trees and other vegetation, and abundant wildflowers in spring.
Barker Dam Nature Trail
Barker Dam loop trail is a 1.5 mile long easy hike to the reservoir of Barker Dam. The best time to do the hike is in winter and spring when the reservoir has water. It can be completely dry in summer so check with a park ranger before going on the hike. To reach the trailhead, drive on Barker Dam Rd from Hidden Valley campground, opposite of Hidden Valley picnic area. The trail starts from the parking lot and takes you through tall boulders to end at a blue lake.
This trail provides a great respite from the desert landscape and you can have a picnic lunch or relax by the lake. On your way back, you can see the Barker dam and Native American petroglyphs. Barker Dam was constructed over a century ago to save water. The petroglyphs were repainted for a Hollywood film many years ago and hence look fresh. During spring, you can see many wildflowers blooming along the trail.
Half-Day in Joshua Tree Itinerary Ideas
If you have just half a day inside Joshua Tree, then you basically have two choices. You can either call explore the Mojave desert with the Joshua trees to the utmost: do some easy hikes, bouldering, and appreciate the landscape or view both the desert regions via the West entrance to South entrance scenic drive – though you won’t have much time to get down and out of the car.
For the first option, enter Joshua Tree National Park via the West entrance and exit at the Oasis Visitor Center in the north. The drive will take you along the Park Blvd Scenic Drive. The total distance is just under 25 miles. You can easily hike Hidden Valley nature trail, see the views from Keys Point, take a photo among the amazing yucca trees, and climb Skull Rock. Depending upon how much time you have left, you can even squeeze in a visit to the Cholla cactus garden before turning back and exiting from the north entrance.
For the second option of visiting Joshua Tree in half day, enter via the West entrance of Joshua Tree Visitor Center but skip the north side of the park. Visit Keys View, see Hidden Valley and Skull Rock. Then turn south on Pinto Basin Road, see the Cholla cacti and the Ocotillos and exit from the Cottonwood Visitor Center. You might even have time to do the easy Cottonwood Spring Oasis trail.
Did you like our recommendations for one day itinerary Joshua Tree National Park? Did we miss any cool spots while planning a trip to Joshua Tree? Let us know in the comments.