Are you planning a trip to California’s most epic national park and wondering what to do in Joshua Tree? If so, you’re in the right place. The vast protected desert is full of incredible sights like giant boulders, fascinating rock art, iconic plants, and unique wildlife. So, to make the most of it all, you need a well-researched Joshua Tree itinerary.
Whether you’re visiting for the day or taking a Joshua Tree weekend getaway, we’ve got a fantastic itinerary with the best things to do in Joshua Tree for one or two days.
One Day in Joshua Tree
On a Joshua Tree one day itinerary, you’ll most likely explore the attractions around the north entrance. There are tons of things to do in this part of the park, so there is no need to go further afield if time is limited.
But first: Don’t miss the other California national park guides and even more Joshua Tree travel tips.
Marvel at the unique Skull Rock
The famous sandstone formation known as Skull Rock is one of the most famous sights in Joshua Tree. As a result, it gets busy here, so I recommend making Skull Rock your first stop of the day.
This intriguing rock draws in the crowds because it resembles the shape and features of a human skull. It even has naturally occurring eye sockets formed from the erosion rain accumulation has caused.
Skull Rock is located at Jumbo Rocks Campground, just 15 minutes from the north entrance, but you will need to take a short 1.6 mile (2.7km) walk. Don’t worry, though, as this trail is very gentle and won’t tire you out before your day has even started.
Hike to Split Rock
Just up the road from Skull Rock you’ll find another popular Joshua Tree trail, the gentle two-mile (3km) Split Rock loop trail, opposite Live Oak Picnic Area. The accessible route features lots of cool rock formations and boulders that you can climb, making it a must-see on any day trip to Joshua Tree.
Because of the climbing opportunities here, Split Rock is famous among climbers and boulderers. However, you don’t need to be an adrenaline seeker to enjoy this place. There are some incredible viewpoints and it’s a tranquil ambiance.
Stroll through Barker Dam and Hidden Valley
After Split Rock, if you continue east along Park Boulevard, you’ll soon come to the turning point for Barker Dam Nature Trail. Barker Dam is a small lake reservoir built by ranchers to store water, and it offers one of Joshua Tree’s most leisurely hikes.
However, this gentle 1.1 mile (1.8km) loop showcases the best of the Mojave Desert’s plant life as well as some impressive rock art. Be sure to take your time strolling around here as the rocks reveal the fascinating history of the desert. The Dam is at its best when it is full of water, giving many wildlife sightings. However, even if there is little to no water, you might still spot some earth animals like rabbits or lizards.
If you’re feeling up to it and have time, you can hiking in Joshua Tree on the connector trail to Hidden Valley. The 4.3 mile (7km) route is not the easiest, and you’ll have to scramble over some rocks, but it offers some gorgeous vistas. If you’re not up for the trek, drive to Hidden Valley instead and walk along the pleasant 1-mile (1.6km) Hidden Valley Nature Trail. The route is super fun as there are some superb bouldering opportunities along the way where you can climb to get a better view of the park.
Catch the sunset at Keys View
Heading south of Hidden Valley and Barker Dam, you’ll come to Keys View Road, leading you to the most famous sunset location in Joshua Tree. Watching the sky change color here is the perfect way to end your one day Joshua Tree National Park itinerary. However, be warned, the car park fills up fast so try to arrive around 45 minutes before sunset. Luckily, it’s only a 15-minute drive from Barker Dam, so you should have plenty of time.
Sunset at Keys View is a majestic experience, seeing the sky over the valley alternating between shades of pink and purple. The warm hues make the landscape glow and give beautiful views out to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.
Two Days in Joshua Tree
If you spent the first day of your Joshua Tree itinerary exploring the attractions north of the park, it’s time to head south. Most people coming for a Joshua Tree day trip stay in the north part, so the further south you go, the more peaceful it is. A large majority of the south and east of the national park is a vast desert, but there are some cool spots worth exploring here.
Watch the sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden
One of the best benefits of staying overnight in Joshua Tree is seeing the sunrise in this unique location. Cholla Cactus Garden is undoubtedly the best sunrise spot in the park and an ideal way to start your Joshua Tree two day itinerary.
Cholla Cactus Garden is less than a 30-minute drive from the north entrance. Then, once you arrive at the parking lot, you just need to follow a short ¼ mile trail until you reach some fantastic photo opportunities. The spot is magical this time of the morning. Not only do you skip the crowds that arrive a few hours later, but you get to see the 10-acre garden completely illuminated as the sun rises over the horizon.
Go climbing at Arch Rock
Arch Rock is located just before Cholla Cactus Garden and is usually a popular spot. However, if you head here straight after sunrise, you’ll skip the crowds and be able to snap some incredible photos with no one walking into your shot!
Arch Rock is a 30-foot arch-shaped granite rock that sits on a field of boulders. It was uniquely formed from lava pushing up through the fault line. It’s one of the best climbing spots in the park and an excellent sight to explore from ground level.
Arch Rock is straightforward to access from the White Tank campground. If you follow the clearly marked trail from here, you’ll reach the distinct rock formation in just a few minutes. Alternatively, you can take the gentle 0.4-mile Arch Rock Nature Trail for a short but scenic stroll to the rock. You can access the nature trail from the car park just north of the campground.
Explore Cottonwood Spring
One of the best Joshua Tree attractions in the south is Cottonwood Spring, a hidden oasis in the vast desert. Cottonwood Spring is a 40-minute drive from Arch Rock, so you will probably arrive mid-morning. I recommend taking a light picnic lunch as the spring is so peaceful that you will undoubtedly want to stay for a few hours. If you experienced crowds at some of the attractions on day one, you’d be pleased to see that you are one of the only few tourists in this part of the park.
Hopefully, your feet are not aching too much from yesterday’s hiking, as Cottonwood Spring has some excellent trails. I recommend the three-mile loop to Mastodon Peak, full of fascinating geology, spectacular views, and unique sights like the Winona Mill and Mastodon Mine.
However, if you want to save your energy, you can opt for the short and easy Cottonwood Wash trail leading to a dry fall. While not as scenic as Mastodon Peak, you’ll see plenty of colorful sights in the sky as Cottonwood Spring is a reserve to over 50 bird species!
If you find the tranquility of Cottonwood Spring too good to leave, you might consider taking the 7.2 mile (11.6km) Lost Palms Oasis Trail after lunch. This is an extended version of the Cottonwood Spring Nature Trail.
Hike Ryan Mountain
If a couple of hours at Cottonwood Spring is enough for you, you can head back north and attempt one of Joshua’s Tree’s most famous hikes, Ryan Mountain. As the highest climbable peak in the National Park, you’ll undoubtedly see more people here than Cottonwood Spring.
Still, the 3 mile (4.8km) is an excellent challenge and well worth it for the stunning views you’ll experience from the top. Give yourself 2 to 3 hours to ascend and descend the peak, ensuring you get down before it gets dark.
When to Visit Joshua Tree
If there’s one thing to know, it’s to avoid summer, if you can! This national park is open year-round but since it is a desert, the summer daytime temperatures are hot and the winter nights are quite chilly. Spring and fall are the best times to visit for a pleasant time.
How to Get to Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree has the perfect position for a weekend getaway from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego, and Palm Springs. With it being 3 hours or less to drive from any of these destinations, you can opt to fly into whichever you choose and rent a car at the airport. The closest, however, is Palm Springs.
- From Palm Springs: 1 hour
- From Los Angeles: 2 hours and 50 minutes
- From Las Vegas: 3 hours
- From San Diego: 3 hours
Pro tip: Rent a car from a car rental location close to but not in the airport and it can lower the cost.
You will need a car to get around Joshua Tree as there is no shuttle in this park. Most roads are paved so you will have no problem renting whatever car you’d like, but if you want to do off-roading, AWD is of course necessary.
Joshua Tree is not free to enter, nor does it have a single-day pass (all the more reason to stay longer!) However, a weekly ($30) and annual pass ($55) are options that can be bought for a single-vehicle so splitting it with friends is possible.
You can buy your park pass online at recreation.gov (be sure to download your pass before getting to the park) or in person at any of the entrances.
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree
When planning your trip to Joshua Tree, you’ll need to decide whether you will camp in the national park or stay in a hotel just outside. The nearest towns to most attractions on your Joshua Tree weekend itinerary are Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree town.
While both towns are among the best places to stay in Joshua Tree, I recommend Twentynine Palms for convenience. Most tourists on a Joshua Tree weekend trip opt to stay here as there is a good selection of hotels for all price ranges. There are also plenty of restaurants and shops, and many of the top sights are a 15 to 30-minute drive away. Here are the top picks for hotels in Twentynine Palms.
Luxury: Fairfield Inn & Suites is a modern 3-star hotel that offers spacious king and queen-sized rooms with lounge areas, stylish bathrooms, and luxurious extras. You’ll also enjoy the outdoor pool with a whirlpool and the delicious buffet breakfast.
Mid-Range: Sunnyvale Garden Suites is a fabulous aparthotel with an on-site hot tub and spacious rooms that come with private patios and BBQ facilities.
Budget: Motel 6-Twentynine Palms is an excellent low-budget option with clean, comfortable air-con rooms and an outdoor pool to refresh after a long day hiking in the park.