I am a city girl to the core and love my concrete jungle, but absolutely romanticize deserts and arid landscapes. There is something magical in their desolation which fascinate me to know end. So it is natural that when I found out about Joshua Tree National Park, which is acres of federally protected wilderness in the Mojave desert of Southern California, I couldn’t wait to get there. Thus a Joshua Tree day trip was a must do for us when we visited Palm Springs. In this guide on how to spend a day in Joshua tree, you will find information on a ton of things to do at Joshua tree National Parks such as the best Joshua tree trails to explore, our attempt at Joshua tree hikes, restaurants near Joshua tree and a few tips and tricks to to make your day trip to Joshua Tree national park memorable.
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Joshua Tree day trip: know before you go
a) Best Time to visit Joshua Tree
The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is undoubtedly late fall/winter (Nov-Jan) and early Spring (Feb-April). The park is part of the Mojave desert in Southern California and gets dreadfully hot in summer and temperatures continue to stay high in Fall as well. We visited the park in early spring (February) and it got pretty hot during the day, with the mercury hovering around mid 70s to early 80s (F).
b) What to wear in Joshua Tree
Being part of a desert, Joshua Tree National Park experiences extremes in temperature and so you need to dress accordingly. Early mornings and nights can be chilly (it does get very cold at night in winter) while day time temperatures will skyrocket, depending on the time of the year that you visit (best to visit in winter and spring).
Wear your usual hiking clothes and sturdy hiking boots, but remember to layer if you arrive for sunrise or stay back for sunset. Carry ample water since you may get easily dehydrated while hiking. Sunscreen, a wide brimmed hat and sunnies are highly recommended since the sun beats down on this arid landscape.
c) Where to stay in Joshua Tree: Hotels near Joshua Tree National Park
If you are wondering about where to stay in Joshua tree, you can find a number of options by clicking on this hotels in Joshua Tree link. Since we made a day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs, we stayed at an Airbnb in Palm Springs, but here is the link for all Joshua Tree Airbnb for all your Joshua tree lodging needs! I must mention here that of all these, Joshua Tree House is right inside the Joshua tree National Park and if you have the budget for it, definitely snag at least a night’s stay there because it is out of the world beautiful!
d) Geography of Joshua Tree National Park
If you’ve never been to Joshua Tree, let me start with some trivia on Joshua trees because this is a national park like no other. The park is dotted with these plants unique only to the ecosystem of the Mojave desert that are not any kind of cacti, but belong to the agave family. Their funny, gaunt look with tufts of leaves protruding from randomly spread out branches of different shapes are a delight to behold and they are distinctly different in appearance from other cacti and desert flora.
The national park is named after these very trees, which were also immortalized in popular culture when the celebrated pop group U2 released an album by the same name, which went on to become their biggest hit. The trees grow abundantly in some parts of the park, and not so much in others and are not restricted only to the park, but grow all over in the Mojave desert. You will see them all over in the Joshua Tree city and county.
Day trip to Joshua Tree: Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park in 1 day
a) Catch a desert sunrise
The one thing that you must absolutely do on your Joshua Tree day trip is to catch a breathtaking sunrise at Joshua Tree National Park. This experience parallels none other and the ever changing colors of the arid landscape as the first rays of the sun strike it, are a vision of pure beauty and bliss. The Park remains open 24/7, but there is a fee to go in during operational hours ($ 20/vehicle and $10 /pedestrian or cyclist). Just go in super early before the sun rises and you will have the park all to yourself.
If you are not an early bird, fret not cause Joshua tree looks splendid at sundown as well, with the ghostly silhouette of the trees against a burnt orange-red sky. In addition, the park is also a great spot for some star gazing owing to the sky above being least polluted by the light from neighboring cities.
b) Tackle some easy day hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
There are so many great view points and Joshua tree trails that its best to experience them or go hiking in Joshua tree in the early hours to avoid the beating sun and crowds. The campgrounds were full during our day trip to Joshua Tree (you need prior permission for camping) and the incoming visitors plus campers can really make you jostle for space during the day. It is therefore best to arrive very early to enjoy the solitude and go on an exploratory Joshua tree hikes. Joshua Tree weather is super hot for summer and fall, so it definitely helps to arrive as early as possible!
If you are spending only one day in Joshua Tree and are not too keen on going on long, strenuous hikes, then here are a few beginner ones that you can easily cover during your day trip to Joshua Tree. First, is the Joshua Tree trail which is best experienced at dawn where rows and rows of fuzzy cacti will greet you with shimmering golden borders.
To get to the trail, use the northern entrance to the park which is east of the Joshua Tree Visitor center. Enter the park through the Utah trail and make your way towards the Arch Rock and further down the Pinto Basin road to the most beautiful Joshua Tree trail, i.e. Cholla Cactus Garden trail. This part of the park is off limits to pets and you are advised to stay on the makeshift trail between the cacti taking care not to venture too close to them or touch them since these are “jumping” cacti and can easily penetrate skin and cause injury.
Since we were there at sunrise, we had the trail completely to us with no other living being in sight. The stillness in the air, the golden rays of the sun bathing the rows and rows of cacti around us, painted a surreal scene like no other. This was one of the best Joshua tree hikes for us and definitely a must do for even a beginner while visiting Joshua Tree National Park for the first time.
We did not have a whole lot of time to explore the park fully during our day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs but managed to hike a little bit because we are not big hikers and it was honestly getting too hot to explore. Our second hike was the 0.5 mile trail around the Arch Rock, one of the shortest Joshua tree hikes where one can see a rocky landscape dotted with Joshua Trees and piles of boulders stacked atop each other. On our way out, we saw a long line of cars waiting to enter the park and thanked our lucky stars that we had managed to get in early.
Those of you who are avid hikers and would like to explore beyond these easy Joshua Tree hikes, there are several options available and you can read this article for 16 awesome hikes at Joshua tree that you cannot miss. For example, you can make your way from Arch Rock to hike at Ryan mountains or go up north towards Barker Dam and Hidden Valley.
c) Lookout points at Joshua Tree
If you are not big into hiking (much like us), there are some popular viewing spots in the park that you should check out during your Joshua Tree day trip. Skull Rock (a huge overhanging rock shaped like a skull) is one such spot at Joshua Tree but we found it too crowded for our taste and quickly moved on to our next destination-the iconic Keys View point. From here where you can see the famous San Andreas fault, the city of Palm Springs, the looming snow capped Mount San Jacinto and the Salton Sea. The road from Arch Rock to Keys View as well as the Black Rock Canyon further up north and west are the two best spots for viewing Joshua Trees. Most trees in this part of the park are full grown, mature ones unlike those in sparse southern entrance.
We had a limited time to see everything during our day trip to Joshua Tree, but boy, were we glad to stop by the Keys View lookout point! The view from Keys View lookout point is jaw-dropping. Stair lead to the viewing area where its best to sit for some time and take in the serenity of the desert valley with the majestic mountains overlooking Palm Springs and Coachella Valley. On a clear day, the shimmering water of Salton sea also visible.
Restaurants around Joshua Tree National Park
Spending a day at Joshua tree is sure to make you hungry and so here are some yummy restaurant recommendations to get your taste buds satisfied! There are some pretty amazing restaurants around Joshua Tree National Park, so you don’t have to carry a ton of energy bars or food during your Joshua Tree day trip.
Country Kitchen, a pint sized family owned diner run by a very friendly Cambodian couple, is a must visit Joshua tree restaurant. You cannot leave this place (btw, it is cash only) without having their melt in the mouth, fluffy chocolate pancakes which are to die for! CrossRoads Cafe and Tavern is another amazing restaurant near Joshua tree with lots of vegetarian/vegan options. You can read more about all the yummy vegetarian food that we ate at Palm Springs and Joshua Tree right here.
Other must read posts on Joshua Tree
if you are visiting for the first time, here is a beautiful postcard from Joshua tree to get you inspired! For more southern California National parks, read this fantastic guide on 5 things to see and do in Death Valley National park. You can also read about how to plan for Yellowstone National Park which is another fantastic west coast gem or spend one day in Death Valley National park in southern California if you have less time! For even more California National parks inspiration, read this guide on 4 California National parks that should be on everybody’s list. Visiting Joshua Tree with kids? Read Melissa’s informative guide on exploring Joshua tree with kids.
One day at Joshua Tree: Parting thoughts
Joshua Tree National park represents a geology, ecosystem, flora & fauna habitat like no other and is unique in its beauty. It is unlike any other North American National park that you’ve visited, with a wilderness that is magical and captivating. I hope I could get you, dear reader, enticed enough by this one day itinerary to Joshua Tree to visit this unique National Park! The beauty of the desert is understated, yet unparalleled and the only way to experience it is to lose yourselves in the land dotted with Joshua trees, piercing the stony, barren soil. The trails and hiking spots of interest to catch more of the breathtaking vistas are listed in this National Parks Services website.
I hope this post on our day trip to Joshua tree as well as the photos have inspired you enough to book those tickets to Palm Springs to make that drive to Joshua Tree! As usual, be responsible while enjoying the national parks and play your role in conservation by leaving no trace behind of your visit, i.e. disposing off all kinds of trash, respecting the flora and fauna and following all posted signs.