Joshua Tree National Park is located in Southern California where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet, creating a unique ecosystem. Joshua Trees, which have recently been linked to the agave family, were likely named after the prophet Joshua by Mormon settlers in the mid-19th century.
However, when I first started researching for our trip to Joshua Tree, I was surprised to find out it wasn’t just about the trees after all. Peculiar rock formations are also stars in the park. Skull Rock, Heart Rock, and so many others were just as exciting to discover as the vast expanses of Joshua Trees.
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With so much to explore, you may find it a bit overwhelming to select all the best sights and hikes for your day trip to Joshua Tree. No worries, I have compiled a list of the best locations in the park in this perfect one-day itinerary.
Where is Joshua Tree and how to get there?
Joshua Tree National Park is located in southern California just north of I-10. It’s easy to reach by car but is also located near large airports such as LAX, PHX, or LAS.
- Distance from Joshua Tree to Los Angeles, CA – 2 hours
- Distance from Joshua Tree to Phoenix, AZ – 3.5 hours
- Distance from Joshua Tree to Las Vegas, NV – 3 hours
When to visit?
Joshua Tree National Park is best to visit during the fall, winter, or spring. Temperatures during the summer months can get unbearably hot, which is worsened by the fact that there is little to no shade in the park. We visited in late November and thought the weather was perfect. Because the days are much shorter in the winter, I recommend getting an early start to cover all the highlights in the park.
How long to stay?
One day is enough to cover all the highlights, but two days allows for a more relaxed and more thorough visit of Joshua Tree National Park.
How much does it cost?
Death Valley National Park has a an entrance fee of $30 per vehicle, $15 per person, and $25 per motorcycle. However, if you plan on visiting more than two national parks in the next 12 months, I highly encourage you to get an America the Beautiful Pass or National Park Pass. This pass costs only $80 per year and is valid until the end of the 12th month. For example, if you purchase a pass on April 1st of 2023, it will be valid until April 30th 2024.
This pass also allows you to visit all sites managed by the National Park Service such as national historic sites, monuments, preserves… Certain state parks such as Sedona’s Red Rock State Park even allow you to use your national park pass in place of their state park pass. It is seriously one of the best travel deals out there. We purchase a national park pass every single year and have visited almost a dozen state and national parks with it this past year.
Other passes exist for seniors, military members, those with a disability, and more. For more information on Interagency passes and where to purchase them, click here.
Where to stay?
There are 9 campgrounds and over 500 campsites located within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park. Certain campgrounds require reservations while others are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Click here for more information on camping in Joshua Tree National Park.
Though there is no lodging within the park, there are lots of options north of the park in Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree, and Yucca Valley. You’ll also find a plethora of options southwest of the park along I-10.
Where to eat?
There are no restaurants or grocery stores inside Joshua Tree National Park. I highly recommend packing a picnic lunch and enjoy with an epic view at one of the 8 picnic areas in the park.
What to do?
- Joshua Tree Visitor Center
- Hidden Valley Loop
- Keys View
- Hall of Horrors
- Skull Rock
- Split Rock Picnic Area
- Oasis of Mara
- Arch Rock and Heart Rock Trail
- Cholla Cactus Garden
- Go stargazing
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Joshua Tree Visitor Center
Before starting your visit of Joshua Tree, stop by the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, walk around the bookstore, fill up your water bottles and get your passport stamped.
Hidden Valley Loop
Your first stop in Joshua Tree National Park will be the Hidden Valley Loop. Rumor has it this rock-enclosed valley was once a secret hideout for cattle rustlers. We got there around 8:30am and saw few people on the trail, which was nice. I recommend getting there early as it is quite a popular trail and can get crowded quickly. This short loop is only 1 mi/ 1.6 km long and fairly flat the whole way. We had to climb up a few rocks to enter the hidden valley, but the rest of the trail was on flat ground.
As in all national parks and on all your hikes, you should practice the leave no trace principle. However, be aware that it is very easy to get off trail in Hidden Valley. During our visit, we got lost several times and struggled to get back on trail. Pay especially close attention to where you are going and to the many posted signs along the way to avoid getting lost like we did.
ATTENTION!AS YOU’LL BE REMINDED at the visitor center and throughout your hikes, THE DESERT SOIL IS ALIVE. therefore it is particularly important to STAY ON TRAIL AND LOOK FOR TRAIL MARKERS TO AVOID GETTING LOST AND DAMAGING OR KILLING ANY ORGANISM PRESENT ON THE CRUST.
As soon as I glanced at the map, I figured Keys View would be Joshua Tree’s version of Dante’s View, and I wasn’t wrong. Perched 5185 ft/ 1581 m above sea level, this overlook features breathtaking views of the San Andreas Fault and nearby Little San Bernardino Mountains. The drive up to Keys View is 5.5 mi/ 8.9 km long and located right off the main park road. I highly recommend making a stop there for a few photos before driving back down to continue exploring Joshua Tree.
Hall of Horrors
Your next stop is the Hall of Horrors. Wander around this unique pull out and admire the various rock formations. This is a very popular area for rock scrambling and a favorite of children. Enjoy playing acrobats, but always be careful to stay on trail to protect the desert soil.
This next stop is great for families with children as well. This easy 1.7 mi/ 2.7 km loop will take you past impressive boulder piles, desert washes, and the famous Skull Rock. If you’re short on time, you can admire the Skull Rock a short hike from the parking are along the main road. Be advised that this area is very popular, and finding a parking spot can get quite tricky mid-day. We were fortunate enough to be driving a sedan and found a small parking spot right away.
Split Rock Picnic Area
After wandering around boulders and desert flora all morning, you earned a well-deserved break. Drive to Split Rock Picnic Area and enjoy your lunch with a view.
Oasis of Mara
After lunch drive up to Twentynine Palms and visit the Oasis of Mara. There are three oases that can be found in Joshua Tree National Park, and this one is the most easily accessible via a short 0.5 mi/ 0.8 km walk. Throughout your visit, read the posted signs to learn about the importance of desert oases for wildlife and their significance for Indigenous people.
Arch Rock and Heart Rock Trail
The very Instagrammable Heart Rock is located on an unofficial trail along Arch Rock Trail. However due to the popularity of Heart Rock and in an effort to preserve the desert soil, the National Park Service has staked detailed directions to the romantic rock formation at frequent intervals throughout the hike. This was the most well-indicated hike in the park, and there is no way to miss it.
We hiked to Heart Rock first and then to Arch Rock. You will need to do some rock scrambling to reach Arch Rock and photograph the arch in its entirety. Make sure not to miss the unique rock formations located right of the arch as well. After leaving Arch Rock, we retraced our steps back to the parking lot. The hike to both rocks and back is very easy and only 1.7 mile/ 2.7 km. Except for some rock scrambling before Arch Rock, it is flat the whole way. This hike is family friendly, and children will love wandering up on the various sized and shaped rocks.
Cholla Cactus Garden
The Cholla Cactus is one of 15 different species found in the park. Cholla Cactus Garden was one of my favorite areas in Joshua Tree National Park. The high concentration of Cholla cacti is truly impressive. Everywhere you look, there are hundreds of unique cacti in the forefront of the Hexie Mountains. Cholla Cactus Garden is also a great place to watch the sunset or go stargazing. Keep reading to find out more.
Just like Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park is an International Dark-Sky certified park, making it ideal to capture some great astrophotography shots. Check out Joshua Tree National Park’s stargazing guide for more information.
Have more time?
Check out our Joshua Tree National Park – Two Day Itinerary