How to Plan an Amazing Last-Minute Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park

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With its enigmatic landscape, mystical trees plucked out from Dr. Seuss’ books, golden boulder fields, barbed flora, and wild fauna, Joshua Tree National Park transports visitors into what seems like another world. 

The park’s otherworldly charm is created by the impossible merging of two contrasting deserts—the barren Colorado desert and vegetated Mojave desert. 

It’s fun, curious, and exciting. And people from all over the world come here to experience this natural wonder.

Joshua Tree National Park invites hikers to explore remote chasms and gorges, scramble over dramatic rock formations, discover hidden oases, bask in the views of mountainous California deserts, and reconnect with nature from daybreak to starry nightfall. 

And best of all, you can do all of this in one day! 

Whether you’re planning to spend one full day at the park or just a quick stop on your California road trip, here’s a comprehensive guide to help you plan a last-minute day trip to Joshua Tree.

How Long Does It Take to Get to Joshua Tree?

How to get to Joshua Tree National Park

One key factor that makes Joshua Tree the perfect place to spend an amazing day trip is its proximity to major metropolitan areas in California.

Here’s a quick guide on how to get to Joshua Tree by car:

From Los Angeles

  • Distance: Approximately 150 miles
  • Travel time: About 2 hours and 30 minutes
  • Directions: Take Interstate 10 East to California Highway 62 to Joshua Tree

From San Diego

  • Distance: Approximately 150 miles
  • Travel time: About 2 hours and 30 minutes
  • Directions: Take Interstate 15 North to Interstate 215 North to California Highway 60 to Interstate 10 East to California Highway 62 to Joshua Tree (now say that three times fast)

From Palm Springs

  • Distance: Approximately 40 miles
  • Travel time: About 50 minutes
  • Directions: Take Interstate 10 East to California Highway 62 to Joshua Tree

How Much Does It Cost to Go to Joshua Tree National Park?

How Much Does It Cost to Go to Joshua Tree National Park
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Every entry at any park under the National Park Service is good for seven days and Joshua Tree is no exemption. 

So whether you decide to extend your trip or only visit for a day, the cost is $30 per non-commercial vehicle. This fee includes the driver and all passengers.

Motorcycles are $25 and walking or riding a bike into the park would be $15. 

If you plan on visiting other national parks within the year, getting the $80 interagency annual pass is a real value for money. Or you can stick to an annual pass exclusive to Joshua Tree National Park for $55. 

Annual passes cover entrance fees for the holder and three additional adults entering using a non-commercial vehicle.

Seniors can purchase an interagency annual pass for $20 or an exclusive lifetime pass for $80. Admission is free for children age 15 or below. Persons with disabilities will be granted an access pass free of charge. 

Camping fees vary per campground and some sites offer a 50% discount for senior and access pass holders.

Park passes can be availed at any of the following: West Entrance Station (near the town of Joshua Tree), North Entrance Station (near the city of Twentynine Palms), Joshua Tree Visitor Center, Oasis Visitor Center, and Cottonwood Visitor Center.

What to Pack

What to pack for Joshua Tree National Park. Desert hiking essentials include heat safety and pack gear.
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is very unpredictable and it’s no place to be unprepared. Make your trip rewarding and safe by bringing these essential items. 

Navigation tools

While most of our recommended trails have well-marked and established trails, bringing a GPS device is still recommended along with a map and compass as there is no cell service in the park.

If you don’t have these, make sure to download maps onto your phone or have plenty of screenshots of the trails you’ll be taking.

A personal locator beacon is a nice-to-have item that would also be very helpful in case of an emergency.

Sun protection

Expect very limited shade in the entire park. You’ll be exposed to the harsh sun most of the time.

A pair of polarized sunglasses, sunscreen of at least SPF 30 or higher, a wide-brimmed hat and sun-protective clothing should be in your packing list.

First-aid kit

Things can go wrong at the worst possible time. That’s why we recommend packing a first-aid kit.

Consider bringing the following items:

  • Tweezers or multitool for removing cactus spines
  • Gauze pads
  • Moleskin for blisters
  • Bandages
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Antihistamine
  • Over-the-counter pain relief medication

Food and snacks 

There aren’t any food services inside the park so make sure to bring snacks like energy bars, nuts and seeds, dried fruits, and jerky.

If you’re spending a full day at the park, pack a lunch to help restore lost electrolytes and keep you in great hiking condition all throughout the day. 


Bring all the water you’ll need for your park visit. While there is water available at some of the campgrounds and stations, you won’t find any on the trails.

You should bring at least one gallon of water per person. If you’re hiking or otherwise being active, up that to two gallons of water per person.

Sodium replacement powder or electrolyte water

Sweating a lot means losing necessary minerals like sodium. Combine this with the desert environment and you have a recipe for dehydration.

It would be best to have these supplements ready to help your body regain electrolytes and prevent hyponatremia.

Cooling towel

If you’re visiting on a particularly hot day or are prone to overheating, consider packing a cooling towel.

To activate it, wet the towel and wring out the excess water. Then put it around your neck. As the water on the towel evaporates, you’ll feel a cooling sensation on your skin.

What to Wear

An example of what to wear at Joshua Tree National Park: Bird watchers wearing proper hiking attire
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Temperatures in Joshua Tree fluctuate drastically and flash floods are common. Given the lack of shade, it’s also easy to get sunburnt. 

Here’s a quick rundown of what to wear for a protected and comfortable hike:

Long-sleeve shirt

When desert hiking, one of the goals is to keep you hydrated, so sweating too much can be a problem. Wearing a breathable, lightweight, and sweat-wicking long-sleeve shirt will help you cool down.

These shirts dry faster than regular shirts, making it easier for your body to regulate its temperature. You can also opt for options with built-in air vents and additional features designed for sun protection. 

Convertible pants

They might not look cool but convertible pants are highly recommended for their versatility. You’ll be able to hike comfortably even with the temperature changes.

You have the option to wear them as shorts when it’s hot and turn them into pants when the temperature drops.

Pants will also protect you more than shorts from the bugs and thorny plants usually found on most Joshua Tree trails.

Sturdy hiking shoes

Make sure to wear reliable footwear that provides support, protection from rocks and thorns, and great grip on both dry and wet surfaces.

Whatever pair you choose to wear, make sure that you’ve already broken them in.

Lightweight jacket

Temperatures in Joshua Tree can vary widely. It’s usually chilly in the mornings and evenings, and hot during the rest of the day.

Bring a lightweight jacket that will be easy to carry around when you don’t need it.

One Day in Joshua Tree National Park

How to spend one day in Joshua Tree National Park
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Now that we’ve covered the basics and the essentials, you are ready to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime desert experience in Joshua Tree. 

We’ve curated a list of easy trails and quick stops that you can do in a day as they are pretty much interconnected. 

We recommend entering the park through the West entrance station where a large grove of mind-blowing Joshua trees can be seen right away. 

Most of the trails listed are also easily accessed through this entrance. 

Just a reminder though, since this is one of the main gateways into the park, you might run into some traffic at the West entrance.

Barker Dam Nature Trail

Mirror reflections of boulders on a lake at Barker Dam
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Coming here during the rainy season is your best chance to find an enchanting oasis in the middle of a desert. 

This family-friendly loop features expansive flats, boulders with amazing textures and shapes, desert plants (including a good number of Joshua trees), and an easy-to-follow nature trail that leads to an old reservoir. 

After heavy rains, this reservoir transforms into a rare picturesque lake.

Barker Dam is also a perfect place for rock climbing, bird watching, and spotting wildlife, including bighorn sheep.

Colorful petroglyphs, although vandalized, are still an interesting sight right before the trail ends.

  • Distance: 1.5 miles
  • Level: Easy

Hidden Valley Nature Trail

Beautiful flora mixed with rock formations and boulders at Hidden Valley Nature Trail
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

If deserts had gardens, they would look exactly like the Hidden Valley nature trail—oddly satisfying rock piles, captivating hoards of desert wildflowers and cacti, Joshua trees, and a unique variety of wildlife. 

A quick and easy loop, this mile-long trail defines the best of the park’s stunning flora, fauna, and rocky landscape and provides a tranquil setting. 

It’s a relatively short trail but make sure to spend time exploring its sign-guided scenery and spectacular overviews if you’re game to climb up the rocks. 

A really nice Flintstone-esque picnic area awaits near the parking lot, the perfect place to have your packed lunch.

  • Distance: 1 mile
  • Level: Easy

Keys View Nature Trail

Stunning views of mountains, valley and Mount Gorgonio from Keys View
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree’s highest lookout is full of breathtaking views of Coachella Valley, the infamous San Andreas Fault, Palm Springs, the Salton Sea, and Southern California’s highest summits: Mount Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio. 

This wheelchair-accessible trail is known for bird watching and for being an awesome vantage point for sunsets. 

On rare days when the air is really clear, Mexico’s Signal Mountain can also be seen from here.

Keys View is one breezy trail and can get chilly at times, so make sure to dress appropriately. Vault toilets are also available at the parking lot.

  • Distance: 0.2 mile
  • Level: Easy 

Jumbo Rocks Nature Trail

Gigantic rock formation and joshua trees in Jumbo Rocks campground
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

While Jumbo Rocks is essentially a campground, it also features a short nature trail that is open for day-use visitors. 

Expect beautiful towering boulders in unique shapes that are great for scrambling and bouldering. 

The campground also has plenty of rock formations and deep gorges begging to be explored within the facility. 

  • Distance: 0.8 mile
  • Level: Easy 

Skull Rock Nature Trail

Famous rock formation resembling a skull at Skull Rock Nature trail. One of the most popular things to do at Joshua Tree National Park.
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Looking exactly like a defeated Captain Hook’s lair, this eerie rock resembling a skull is undoubtedly the main draw for tons of visitors traversing this loop. 

But there’s more to this trail than this awesome rock. It boasts rich biodiversity and maze-like rock formations that you will encounter along the way. 

Skull Rock trail makes its way through an immense boulder field and lush vegetation including plenty of wildflowers, desert pine trees, Mojave yucca, and Joshua trees. 

A number of reclusive wildlife are also known to inhabit the area. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the great horned owls. 

This trail is also great for rock climbing and scrambling but always be wary of snakes when doing so. 

  • Distance: 1.8 miles
  • Level: Easy

Arch Rock Nature Trail

Snow-covered arch rock formation at Arch Rock Nature Trail
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

This enjoyable and kid-friendly trail starts from White Tank campground along Pinto Basin Road and then stretches toward a mesmerizing landscape. 

Arch Rock trail passes through huge monzogranite rock formations, exotic plant life, and a flat trail that leads to the eponymous arch rock. 

While the arch attracts the most attention, it’s also nice to explore off-trail wonders like the colorful wildflowers. There are also boulders ideal for scrambling over, even for kids. 

Note that Arch Rock trail gets crowded, but the overall experience is worth the trip.

  • Distance: 0.3 mile
  • Level: Easy

Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail

Setting sun turning cholla cacti to glowing gold at the cholla cactus garden nature trail
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

One of the most incredible attributes of the park is this short, flat trail made famous by a landscape full of cute teddy bear cholla cacti. 

The cholla cactus garden provides a whimsical experience as you walk around the area. It’s especially nice during sunset when these fuzzy-looking cacti seem to glow along with the last light of the day. 

So make sure to take in this one-of-a-kind scene before leaving the trail. 

Note: Also called jumping cholla, these cacti may appear huggable but they’re actually not meant to be touched.

Not only would it harm them, but their spines can also jump on your clothes or your skin. 

If you have kids with you, be extra careful when walking this trail as these cholla spines are very painful to remove once latched on your skin.

  • Distance: 0.33 mile
  • Level: Easy

Pie for the People

Cap off your day trip with equally amazing and mouth-watering pizza pies especially made with hungry hikers in mind. 

Pie for the People is a Joshua Tree hotspot so expect a wait. However, there’s plenty of seating inside and outside of this aesthetically-pleasing joint. 

If You’ve Got More Time 

Joshua Tree has a bewitching charm that begs you to stay and explore more of its surprises. If you’ve got more time or you decide to extend your stay at Joshua Tree, here are some additional exciting trails and activities that you can try.

Black Rock Canyon Trail (Panorama Loop)

Large and majestic Joshua tree along a trail going to Panorama Loop
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Pretty much like Jumbo Rocks, Black Rock canyon trail is technically a campground and a nature center. However, it’s also a trailhead for several interesting hikes up the mountains. 

One of which is the popular Panorama Loop where you can expect one of the most scenic views in the park, a high concentration of Joshua trees, and a remarkable view of pinyon and juniper woodlands. 

Doing a clockwise route is highly recommended. It’s a bit of a rocky and steep climb but has a more dramatic vista upon reaching the peak. 

  • Distance: 6.6 miles
  • Level: Moderate

Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail

Towering California Fan Palm Trees providing a refreshing shade to hikers at Joshua Tree in Fortynine Palms
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

One of the six known oases in the park, Fortynine Palms is a scenic retreat in the middle of a barren desert. 

The barrel cacti lined path winds through boulders and rocky slopes highlighted with creosote bushes and Jojoba. It then climbs to a ridge and starts to descend toward a pristine fan palm oasis. 

Perfect for a picnic lunch, you can pick one of the many shaded areas and enjoy a meal while your eyes feast on a refreshing view and your ears connect to the calming sounds of birds chirping. 

It exudes a healthy ecosystem that attracts plenty of wildlife including hawks and the occasional bighorn sheep and chuckwallas. 

While the trail promises luscious shades and exciting scenery, it’s not recommended during really hot weather.

  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Level: Moderate

Ryan Mountain Trail

Impressive Joshua Tree forest and view viewed of Ryan Mountain
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

A well-maintained and easy-to-follow uphill hike toward the summit of Ryan Mountain, this trail affords breathtaking 360-degree views of the park.

You’ll see the impressive Joshua tree forests, tall rock formations, boulder piles, valleys, and mountains surrounding the area. 

The trail is centrally located and leads to one of the highest peaks in the area, yet boasts the quickest and easiest route to get to this summit. 

The trail has rugged and rocky sections but it’s still a popular hike due to its impressive vistas and flora, highlighted by scattered blackbrush, opuntia, Mojave yucca, and cholla. 

Expect a windy and sun-drenched hike with not much shade along the way. We suggest wearing plenty of sun protection and bringing lots of water. Windproof clothing is also a good idea.

  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Level: Moderate

Mastodon Peak Loop Trail

Hikers walking along a trail leading to Mastodon Peak lined with beautiful flora
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

With its peak resembling a mastodon’s head, this easy-to-moderate trail weaves through a series of sandy paths and tall palm trees mixed with stunning cottonwoods and smoke bushes. 

It’s known for its rocky summit which requires a bit of scrambling. 

But a bit of sweat climbing up is nothing compared to a reward of Mars-like views of Pinto Basin, Eagle Mountains, Cottonwood Mountains, and the Salton sea. 

Hikers are also treated to views of the remnants of the old mastodon mine on their way back to the trailhead. 

  • Distance: 2.6 miles
  • Level: Moderate

Lost Palms Oasis Trail

An oasis of huge palm trees viewed from a distance - Lost Palms Oasis
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Home to one of the most invigorating oases in the park, this trail takes you through ridges, washes, boulder piles, and rolling hills. 

It’s a decently long hike but it’s also one of the most well-marked trails in the park, which makes it straightforward and easier to traverse. 

Lost Palms Oasis is located in the Colorado desert, so don’t expect to see the park’s signature Joshua trees. But you’ll definitely enjoy its lush collection of soaring fan palm trees once you reach the oasis. 

Find your perfect spot under the trees, enjoy the shade, and listen to the sounds of nature while you’re there to experience the best of this trail. 

Expect views of other oases and nearby peaks as well as beautiful encounters with low-elevation flora and the majestic bighorn sheep. 

You can also combine this hike to a trip to Mastodon peak as they share almost the same trail.

  • Distance: 7 miles
  • Level: Moderate

Cottonwood Spring Nature Trail

Beautiful combination of cottowood trees and California fan palm trees at Cottonwood Spring Oasis
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

A fairly easy hike, the name fittingly nods to the star desert tree in this area⁠—the cottonwood. 

October would be the perfect time to see these trees transform into their most stunning state. Hikers are bewitched by the stark contrast of golden cottonwood leaves against the textured foliage of palm trees and the brilliant blue sky. 

First stop for both Mastodon and Lost Palm trails, Cottonwood Spring is just the perfect place to recharge and relax before embarking on longer and more strenuous hikes. 

And while you’re at it, bring your binoculars. It’s also a great birdwatching spot.  

  • Distance: 0.2 mile
  • Level: Easy


Stargazing at Joshua Tree National Park
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Apart from hiking and bouldering, what attracts people to Joshua Tree National Park is its repute of having elegant dark skies perfect for stargazing. 

And since you’re already in the area, consider yourself lucky because Cottonwood campground has the darkest night sky in the area with naked-eye views of the Milkyway. 

Be sure to schedule your trip on a moonless summer night and camp here for a wicked stargazing experience. 


Deserted and stunning old west town called Pioneertown in the afternoon

If you don’t have plans of camping the night away, Pioneertown is the ultimate retreat after roughing it in the desert. 

Seemingly a time capsule-preserved town from the Old West, this surreal and creative oasis is home to trendy boutiques, rustic eateries, artist studios, quirky places to stay, and an epic live music venue. 

Once you’re here, bask in its old-town grandness and go grab the perfect dinner at Pappy & Harriet’s with good music in the background.


Wheelchair-accessible trail at Cholla Cactus Garden
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Although still a work in progress, this impressive park has several accessible trails, attractions, and facilities. 

Here is some helpful information for wheelchair users who are looking to visit Joshua Tree National Park:

Park fees

Valid at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Reclamation sites, persons with disabilities can apply for a lifetime interagency access pass by providing documentation of permanent disability including residency or citizenship.

Accessible trails

Oasis of Mara trail situated near the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms, lower Keys View overlook, and the Cholla Cactus Garden all have well-maintained and paved trails suitable for any type of wheelchair. 

Accessible campgrounds 

Jumbo Rock and Black Rock campgrounds have designated accessible sites that are level and vehicle-accessible. 

Accessible visitor centers 

Black Rock Nature Center and Cottonwood, Oasis, and Joshua Tree visitors centers all have accessible ranger information desks. Wheelchair access to educational exhibits at Oasis and Joshua Tree visitors centers is also available.


The nearest hospital to the park is Hi-Desert Medical Center located at 6601 White Feather Road, Joshua Tree.

Visiting Joshua Tree with Kids 

Group of kids listening intently to a park ranger on how to become junior ranger themselves
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

While its expansive landscape exudes an unforgiving desert vibe, visiting Joshua Tree National Park along with your kids can actually transform the whole experience into something magical and enjoyable for the entire family. Here are some great ideas and tips on how to do exactly that.

Bring a baby carrier

An entire day under the sun can be too much for little ones. It is advisable to bring an ergonomic backpack carrier, which would be very convenient once your child starts to feel tired.

Best Joshua Tree hikes for kids

Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, Skull Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden, Keys View, and Jumbo Rocks nature trails are all easy hikes where your kids can happily tag along.

These trails feature impressive views, colorful flora, and exciting wildlife for the kids to enjoy.

There are also lots of beautiful rock formations that are suitable for toddler scrambling and bouldering. 

Museums and galleries

More than just its spectacular desert landscape, the Joshua Tree community is a creative mecca that is home to interesting and quirky art galleries and museums. Located right outside the park, you can bring your kids to any of these fun spots: 

  • The Art Queen Gallery
  • Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum
  • World Famous Crochet Museum

Pick up a Junior Park Ranger booklet at a visitor center

The park has educational visitor centers where kids can engage in activities and learning challenges designed to keep them motivated throughout your visit.

They can pick up a Junior Park Ranger booklet at any of the visitor centers and once they complete the challenges they get to earn a Junior Ranger Badge, which they can proudly wear as they roam around the park.

Tips for Senior Visitors

Active senior hikers checking the map of their trail
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Most of our recommended trails and activities are relatively easy and definitely something active seniors can enjoy. 

And for those with limited mobility, driving around the park is already a pleasant adventure in itself as the scenery along the road is just the perfect sample of the park’s hidden beauty. 

But just the same, we’ve listed down some helpful tips for senior visitors who plan to visit Joshua Tree Tree Park.

Consult your doctor before you visit

Regardless of whether or not you feel great and in healthy condition, discuss your hiking plans with your doctor to ensure safety and prevent injuries during your trip.

Check trail difficulty

Research, plan, and inform yourself about the trails and activities that you want to try prior to setting off on it. Not only will it make you physically prepared but having advanced knowledge will make your hike more enjoyable.

Wear proper attire

Always check the weather forecast before your trip so you can make sure to bring and wear the right clothing.

Do not ignore discomfort

Listen to your body and do not overstrain yourself. If you feel any signs of discomfort, stop, and find a spot to rest.

In fact, it’s important to stop once in a while during your hike for a quick rest even if you don’t feel like you needed to. This will help you maintain a good pace to finish the hike without feeling overly tired.

Use hiking poles

Save your knees from hurting and bring an easy-to-carry walking stick or hiking poles to help you keep your balance on varying trail conditions.

Safety Tips

Wildlife and safety at Joshua Tree National Park
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park, while beautiful and enchanting, can be a bit dangerous if you’re careless. The golden rule is to embrace all the safety measures imposed by the park and respect the sanctity of the environment you wish to explore. 

For a safe and enjoyable desert adventure, here are some helpful tips to remember.

Respect wildlife 

Joshua Tree National Park has a variety of desert wildlife and it’s a rare and exciting experience to spot these amazing creatures in their natural habitat. But always remember to admire them from a safe distance.

Do not approach nor feed them. Most wildlife-related disasters occur when these animals are disturbed and they become aggressive towards humans.

Some of them are also carriers of harmful diseases such as hantavirus and rabies, so avoid contact at all costs.

Beware of poisonous critters and bees

The park is also home to venomous creatures like scorpions, black widow spiders, and rattlesnakes. Believe it or not, they typically want to stay away from humans. Unless they are accidentally provoked or grabbed, they normally don’t attack.

Wild bees, which can be quite aggressive, are also found in most trails, so be wary of their buzzing sound. That’s your cue to stay away.

Avoid sticking your hands into crevices or stepping on tiny spaces you cannot see into.

Most of these creatures hide under those rocks and boulders and your accidental touches would be wrongly received as a threat.

Be mindful of dangerous plants

Joshua trees and various types of cacti have dangerous spines that are really painful to remove if they are hooked into your skin.

Be extra careful when exploring the park’s vegetation and make sure you are wearing proper attire that can protect you from these thorns.

Always check the weather

The park is known to have very unpredictable weather. Extreme heatwaves and flash flooding are common occurrences in the desert, so take extra precautions. 

Hike with a partner or a group

Should you need to go on a solo trip, make sure someone you trust knows your whereabouts and the details of your hike. Someone who can alert authorities during emergency situations.


There you have it!

Experiencing the best of Joshua Tree is very doable in one day and won’t fall short of your expectations.

Just make sure to be prepared and remember all the safety measures to ensure a rewarding and safe visit.

Do you have a favorite trail or activity at Joshua Tree? Let us know in the comments.

  • This is a great and exstensive guide! I have lived in California all my life and still have not been to this park. I plan to go soon though, maybe in the fall!

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