If you’ve only got one day in Joshua Tree National park, you’ll want to plan carefully, because there are plenty of awesome things to do there. This insanely thorough guide will help you figure out what to do in Joshua Tree, including itinerary suggestions and planning tips.
As someone who grew up in Utah, I have a deep fondness for the desert. What looks to others like a dry forbidding landscape, appears to me as a resilient garden. I have a deep respect for an ecosystem that can support so much hidden wildlife on so little water. It’s for that reason that I’ve been to Joshua Tree National Park several times, most recently for just a day.
I was in the area to check out out some quirky art projects in Joshua Tree town, and also did a counter-culture excursion to nearby Slab City. Sandwiched in between the two are 792,000 acres of national park worth exploring.
5 Cool Factoids about Joshua Tree National Park
- Joshua Tree is part of two different desert systems. The northwestern half of the park is part of the Mojave (which also includes Las Vegas and Death Valley National Park). The southeastern section of the park is part of the Colorado Desert, (which also includes Mexicali, the Salton Sea and Lake Havasu.)
- At the urging of Minerva Hoyt (who loved the desert even more than I do), Joshua Tree became a National Monument in 1936, but it didn’t become a National Park until 1994.
- There are 57 mammal species living in the park. In fact, I saw three coyotes in just one day in Joshua Tree. If ever there was a species destined for a resilient garden, it’s the coyote.
- In the early 1900’s, the park used to get as much as 10 inches of rainfall per year. Now it gets 2-5 inches. The reduced water is stressing the Joshua Tree’s ability to reproduce.
- Nearly 3 million people visit the park every year, which is why you should plan your visit carefully.
Top Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
National Park Ticket Prices
A seven day vehicle permit is $30. For $80, you can get an annual national park pass, which is worth it if you are also planning to visit Death Valley, Yosemite or other national parks in California.
The Park is Open All the Time
The visitor centers are open from 8am-5pm, but the park gates are always open. This means that you can go in and out at any time.
2 Ways to to Beat the Crowds
1. Go Early and Stay Late
Here’s the ideal scenario– you arrive the night before in time to stop into the Visitor Center to get maps and some advice. Then, because the park is always open, go into the park very early in the morning. If you haven’t yet purchased your pass, don’t worry about it. They’ll charge you when you leave.
If you are doing Joshua tree as a day trip from Palm Springs, LA or Las Vegas, then stop into the Visitor Center when you arrive and plan to stay late inside the park. The crowds die down later in the day, when people go to into town for dinner.
When you go in, do the Barker Dam trail and Hidden Valley loops first, as they are the most popular.
2. Optimize for the Weekday and/or Shoulder Seasons
Joshua Tree is a very popular park. If you can swing it, try going in the middle of the week. Also, there are some shoulder seasons when the park is less busy. Going right after a holiday (such as between Thanksgiving and Christmas) and early January might net you some breathing room.
Cell Service in the Park is Dreadful
It’s not simply bad, it’s non-existent. This can be refreshing when you want to commune with nature. But if you are in a group with multiple cars, or have people strung out along a hiking trail, you can’t count on texting to communicate with the group.
You’ll just have to do things the old fashioned way by making a plan and sticking to it.
There Are (Sort of) Secret trails in the Park
The park has two types of maps; a slick brochure style map and a newspaper style map. They each have good information on the most popular parts of the park. However, neither map shows all of the trails.
For instance, the Arch Rock trail (noted below), is missing from the maps.
If you are interested in getting off the tourist trail and exploring something out of the way, then ask for suggestions at the Visitor Center. Also, the All Trails app and website do a better job of listing all of the trails, and you can use the app without a data connection.
Services in the Park are Extremely Limited
There are parking lots, pull-outs, toilets and picnic tables sprinkled throughout the park. However, there are no cafes or souvenir shopping in the park proper. Bring in enough food, snacks, water and more snacks to last for your entire day in Joshua Tree.
The Best Times to Visit
DO NOT GO in the summer, it’s just too blazing hot.
Between June and September, the average high temperature runs between 91-99′ F (33-37′ C). Some of the park trails and campgrounds aren’t even open in the summer. Any other time of year is better, and Mar/Apr and Oct/Nov are delightful.
Top Things to Do in Joshua Tree in One Day
If you go during the spring or fall times as I’m suggesting, you’ll have about 12 hours of daylight during which to run around the park. When I was trying to figure out what to do in Joshua Tree on my most recent visit, my strategy was to go early, stay late and try to see as much of the park as possible. So, I did four smaller trails, the Keys ranch tour and sunset at Key’s View.
Look, we are all about the alternative itineraries here at Wayfaring Views. So, while I’m calling out some of the more popular things to do in Joshua Tree, I’m also suggesting a few lesser known or off the map options. These ideas will get you out of the car, but not fighting for elbow room with the other park visitors.
Take the Key’s Ranch Tour
The 1.5 hour Keys Ranch tour is the best kept secret in the park. The Keys family were the only ones to make a sustainable life in this unforgiving landscape (or rather…resilient garden). William Keys started out running scams at Scotty’s Castle, in Death Valley. After doing some time for that, he began working a mining operation in Joshua Tree. When the mine owner went bankrupt, Keys took the equipment as back pay and created his own homestead.
The Keys family was remarkably resourceful, running cattle, designing their own dam and growing crops. They ran their own mine for years and later earned income separating ore for others using a machine of Keys own making.
The Keys were able to scratch out a living in Joshua Tree, partly because they scrounged the equipment left behind by other, less successful pioneers. They held onto everything. Their yard is a like a museum of homesteading equipment and an art exhibit for Jerry-rigged contraptions.
A long simmering feud with another homesteader landed Keys in jail again, this time for murder. He was acquitted on a technicality, but everyone knows he did it. After his death, his family sold the property to the park.
That there was ever consistent human habitation in the park is pretty remarkable, and the tour is quite worth it…if you can swing it. You can only get onto the ranch on a ranger-led tour and they only offer 25 tickets per day. So buy the tickets well in advance.
Stroll the Hidden Valley Loop
Hidden Valley is just down the road from Keys Ranch. It was once part of a cattle rustler’s hideout, and is now a popular picnic spot and rock-climbing area. You can walk the 1-mile loop trail and also wander the campground area, watching the rock climbers defy gravity.
Stroll the Barker Dam Loop
During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, cattle ranching was an important part of the the region’s economic activity. The dam was built to provide year-round water for the cattle. Today, you may or may not see water behind the dam, but when it’s there, it attracts the local wildlife.
There is a 1.3 mile interpretive loop that has nature markers and a small spur leading to Native American cave paintings.
Explore Some Mining Infrastructure
Starting with California’s gold rush in 1849 and well into the 1930’s, there was gold mining in Joshua Tree. In fact, the Lost Horse Mine produced more than 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver (worth approximately $5 million today). There are quite a few mining and milling sites in the park and it’s worth making time for at least one of them.
Wall Street Mill: It’s located right next to Barker Dam. There’s a 2.2 mile round trip hike that leads to a gold processing mill.
Lost Horse Mine: The mine is located off the road towards Keys View. It has a 4 mile out-and-back or a more challenging 6.5 mile loop. Both go past the well-preserved mine and mill site.
Golden Bee Mine Trail: This steep 4 mile out-and-back isn’t on the maps, but it’s well marked from the Cholla Cactus Garden. It goes up to the old mine, which you can see from the cactus garden.
Pine City Trail: 4 miles of out-and-back through junipers, pinyon and an old mining site.
Desert Queen Mine Overlook: This is an easy .2 miles to a mining overlook.
Drive the Queen Valley Road and Desert Queen Mine Roads
This dirt road skirts the busy section of paved road between Barker Dam and Skull Rock. I did this drive on a whim, and it’s now one of my favorite things to do in Joshua Tree. It’s well graded and was fine for my passenger car, although I wouldn’t do it if the park has been experiencing one of its infrequent rains.
There are a number of well marked trails and dirt road spurs that lead off the road, so it’s a nice spot to get out and stretch your legs without having to fight for space with the other cars.
Creep Out at Skull Rock
Do you remember Skeletor from the Masters of the Universe cartoon? Well, he’s now made his home in Joshua Tree. This creepy bit of geology is the result of relentless drips of rain, carving your next Halloween mask into the granite. In addition to scaring your children, there’s also a 1.4 mile nature trail.
Take the Arch Rock Trail
The Arch Rock loop is one of those un-mapped but well, sign-posted trails. It does a short circuit around the White Tank campground. To find the trailhead, park at the Twin Tanks parking lot and then follow the signs across the road. Then, take an immediate right (which isn’t well marked) and head toward the rock cluster.
Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden
This garden has thousands and thousands of Cholla Cactus. Their sharp spines lay in wait and are known to “jump” onto unsuspecting passersby. So, mind that you stay on the path.
Take in Sunset at Keys View
Actually, this is one of the most popular things to do in Joshua Tree and the views are great all day. The overlook offers a wide-angle view of the Coachella Valley and on a clear day, it feels like you could reach out and touch LA.
But, trust me, you’ll want clouds instead. At sunset, the setting sun sparks up the clouds in a flaming light show. To see the best of it, get there about 20 minutes before sunset and stay about 30 minutes after the sun has gone down behind the mountains.
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park for a Day Trip
If you are doing a Joshua day trip from a nearby city, be sure to get a very early start so that you have as much time as possible in the park.
From central LA: The route is 146 miles and will take 2.5-3.5 hours depending upon traffic. Google maps will route you to northern Oasis entrance as the quickest way. However, you could easily go through Palm Springs and use the southern Cottonwood Spring entrance, doing a south-to-north route through the park.
From Palm Springs: It’s about an hour to either the Oasis or Cottonwood Spring entrance. Again, I would recommend going into one entrance and out the other.
From Las Vegas: It’s 187 miles from Las Vegas to the Oasis entrance. Frankly, I don’t recommend doing a day trip to Joshua Tree from Las Vegas. You’ll spend 3 hours each way just driving. But if you insist, use the Oasis gate for your in/out. Try to leave a little time to see the sand dunes in Mohave National Reserve, which you’ll drive through on the way.
Better yet, spend the night in nearby Joshua Tree or 29 Palms and have a relaxing evening.
(This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.)
Where to Stay Near Joshua Tree
The park itself has 494 camp spots. Most of them require advance reservations so check out their camping page for more information.
When I RVd through the region a few years ago, I stayed at the 29 Palms RV resort. In addition to RV slots, they also have a few cabins.
If you’ve never used Airbnb, you can save up to $55 on your first stay using this discount code.
If you’ve only got one day in Joshua Tree, I hope this article will help you figure out what to do there. If you have more time, then do it all and enjoy your stay in the park.
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