Travel date April 2021
Joshua Tree National Park is an easily accessible desert park in Southern California. We spent a week in the area exploring hiking trails, unique rock formations and of course the namesake Joshua Trees. However, you can easily see the highlights of Joshua Tree in one day. We’ve consolidated our experiences and shared everything you need to know before you visit.
What is so special about Joshua Tree National Park?
The Southern California desert park is not like any other place. The Colorado and Mojave desert meet in Joshua Tree National Park. Offering an abundance of unique habitats including the forest of the otherworldly Joshua Tree.
What is Joshua Tree National Park known for?
The Mojave and Colorado deserts meet in Joshua Tree National Park. The southern section of the park is located in the Colorado desert which is a lower elevation and contains no Joshua Trees. The northern section of the park is located in the Mojave desert and has an abundance of Joshua Trees.
Why are they called the Joshua Trees?
Mormon Pioneers are said to have thought the arm-like limbs of the Joshua Tree resembled the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land.
How old are Joshua Trees?
The oldest Joshua Tree is believed to be 1,000 years old. However, the average Joshua Tree lifespan is around 500 years old. They represent the resilience of desert life.
Fun Facts about Joshua Trees
- Joshua Trees are the world’s largest yucca variety.
- Joshua Trees look like they are straight out of a Dr Suess story. They are actually the inspiration for Suess’ truffula trees.
- The furry members of the yucca family even inspired U2’s fifth album.
- They only grow at altitudes between 2,000 and 6,000.
- Most of the world’s Joshua Trees are found within the parks boundaries.
- Joshua Trees are slow growers. They only grow 2-3″ per year.
Joshua Tree National Park Basic Facts
Location: southwestern California desert 140 east of Los Angeles
Park Size: 793,510 acres or 1,238 square miles (slightly larger than Rhode Island)
Elevation: Highest point: 5,814 ft at the summit of Quail Mountain
Lowest point: 536 ft at the southeastern park boundary
Number of visitors annually: 2.9 million
Established: National Monument Designation by FDR in 1936; National Park Designation 1994
Admission: $30 for a 7-day entrance permit for private vehicles or an annual America the Beautiful National Parks pass
Visitor Centers: Joshua Tree Visitor Center, Oasis Visitor Center in the town of Twenty Nine Palms, Cottonwood Visitor Center, Black Rock Nature Center
Which Joshua Tree entrance is best?
The majority of the park’s attractions are between the West and North entrances.
The West entrance is closest to Los Angeles and it is the most crowded entrance. Expect to wait in line to enter the park here.
We found the north entrance in Twenty Nine Palms to be less crowded and an easy way to enter the park.
On our first few days in the park, we used the South entrance and wouldn’t recommend it. The south entrance is at a lower elevation and doesn’t have any Joshua Trees. It took us about an hour to get to the main section of the park from the South entrance.
When is the best time to visit?
Joshua Tree is located in the California desert with varying elevations. The summer weather can be very hot so it wouldn’t be ideal for visiting Joshua Tree. Spring and fall offer mild daytime temperatures and cold nights.
How crowded is Joshua Tree?
We spent time exploring the whole park but most people focus their energy on the northwestern corner of the park. Therefore, overall the park itself is not crowded because it is so large.
However, we found the popular areas to be crowded but not overly so. Parking spaces were always available but sometimes only along the roadside and not in a paved spot. The National Park Service recommends arriving early to beat the crowds at popular spots.
How much time do you need in Joshua Tree?
If you just want to see the top spots and take a short hike or two, Joshua Tree can be seen within one day. However, if you want to go a bit further from the crowds and explore more, two days would be a more comfortable pace for a Joshua Tree trip.
Ultimate Itinerary for Joshua Tree in One Day
If you want to see Joshua Tree in one day, we’ve compiled an ultimate itinerary to see the park highlights.
- Start the day at the north entrance Oasis Palms Visitor Center. Pick up a park map and get your postcards and passport stamps.
- Drive south to the Cholla Cactus Garden. The 0.25-mile path between these furry little cactus is a level easy walk. But be careful as the path is surrounded by cactus hazards. We saw a lady in the parking lot with bloody wounds that told us to be careful because she fell.
- Backtrack north to start your drive along the scenic Park Boulevard from the north entrance towards the west entrance. We love self-guided apps, such as Just Ahead, to help us find the best stops within the park. Stop for as many Joshua Tree photos as you like.
- Check out Skull Rock & Arch Rock. These two formations are a few of the more unique in the park that is easily accessed.
- Drive up to Keys Views for a great overlook view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and the Salton Sea.
- Hike Hidden Valley. It is a short 2-mile trail and it was one of our favorite hikes during our week exploring Joshua Tree.
- Hike to Barker Dam. It is another short walk and less than 2 miles.
- Stay for sunset.
History of Joshua Tree Park
The high desert location of Joshua Tree National Park was once filled with homesteaders. The first homesteaders act in 1862 allowed any adult citizen to claim up to 160 acres of land. To claim ownership of the land, settlers had to improve the land by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years of success, settlers could submit their claim to the land.
Most homesteaders failed to survive during dry periods. William and Frances Keys were an exception and made a life for their five kids in the Mojave Desert. Their ingenuity and hard work can be viewed on a ranger-led tour of Keys Ranch during your visit to Joshua Tree. Sadly, ranger-led tours of Keys Ranch were unavailable during our visit.
Best Things to do at Joshua Tree
If you have more than one day at Joshua Tree, you will have time for more hikes and some camping. Below we offer more detailed recommendations for both. A few of the best things to do at Joshua Tree National Park are:
Best Scenic Drive at Joshua Tree
The best scenic drive in Joshua Tree National Park is along Park Boulevard between the north and west park entrances. This area has many scenic paved pull-offs with views of the famous Joshua Tree.
I recommend downloading an audio guide before visiting the park to make the most of the drive. We have used Gypsy Guide app in the past and loved it. Sadly, Gypsy doesn’t have a Joshua Tree guide. Instead, we purchased an annual pass for the Just Ahead guide.
Entertainment and Education: Gypsy Guide
The Just Ahead app is a GPS-based audio guide that works offline. Offline functionality is critical since cell service is non-existent in the majority of the park. Just Ahead functionality was not as flawless as Gypsy Guide but it provided information about what attractions we were approaching.
The app shared information about wildlife and stories about park history. The insights made the experience more fulfilling and informative. Just Ahead information helped us prioritize our stops.
Hiking at Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree offers several hiking options but desert weather can be hot. NPS recommends hiking in the early morning and finishing before it gets too hot.
Joshua Tree wasn’t our favorite hiking destination but we tried several trails. If you only have one day at Joshua Tree, we recommend a few short hikes in our Ultimate One Day Itinerary. Our favorites were Ryan Mountain for the feeling of accomplishment and Hidden Valley Loop for its uniqueness.
Ryan Mountain Trail
Ryan Mountain Trail is a strenuous out and back 3.1-mile trail up to the summit of Ryan Mountain. It is one of the most popular trails at Joshua Tree. I was having some motivation and foot issues but decided I wanted to do this hike anyway.
Hidden Valley Loop
One of our favorite hikes at Joshua Tree was the Hidden Valley Loop. It is a 2-mile loop trail that leads between boulders into a hidden valley. Before national park designation, a local cattle rancher dynamited an entrance through the rocks to graze his herd in the valley.
Hidden Valley Loops offers a unique landscape that we hadn’t seen in the rest of the park. The trail was busy with families enjoying the short trail through the valley.
Barker Dam Loop
The Barker Dam Loop was 1.59 miles and provided a nice walk to stretch our legs. There was no water on our visit so I don’t know if we can be fair judges.
Split Rock Loop
The Split Rock Loop is a two-mile loop around the popular Split Rock. The Split Rock itself can easily be viewed from the parking area but the trail leads away from the crowds. Hikers are rewarded with a peaceful walk through several other rock formations including a tulip-shaped rock. We saw rock climbers at several points along the trail.
Desert Queen Mine
The Desert Queen Mine trail is a one-mile out and back trail to an old mine. We didn’t make the whole walk to the mine since we could see the mine before reaching the end. I would recommend this trail unless you just want to stretch your legs away from the crowds.
Caprock Loop is an easy 0.4-mile loop with interpretative signage. I don’t consider this one a hike but it’s a nice place to get out of the car.
Cholla Cactus Garden
A can’t miss spot in Joshua Tree is the Cholla Cactus Garden. To learn more about cholla, check out our Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument blog post. The Cholla Cactus Garden is a series of marked dirt paths through a forest of cholla cactus.
The adorable furry teddy bear cactus are extremely sharp and are known to latch onto unwilling passersby. We saw a lady in the parking area with several wounds. She told us to be careful because she had fallen into the cacti. For more cholla pictures, check out our Saguaro National park blog post.
Lost Palms Oasis
The Lost Palms Oasis hike is located near the southern park entrance. If you are near the Cottonwood entrance, this hike is worth checking out. However, I wouldn’t drive an hour from the main park area for the Lost Palms Oasis.
The Lost Palms Oasis is a 7.2-mile hike to one of the park’s largest palm oases. We opted to only walk the short distance from the trailhead to the Cottonwood Palms Oasis. If you are in the south area of the park, this is worth a stop.
Joshua Tree National Park has eight campgrounds and we visited most during our park visits. None were ideal for big rigs like ours but we could have squeezed Pippi into a few spots.
In 2021, half were first come first served and the other half required reservations. We chose to camp nearby for free on public lands with cell coverage.
Free Camping Near Joshua Tree
To find free dispersed camping sites, we use Campendium, iOverlander, and FreeRoam.
We tried two free campsites on public land near Joshua Tree and neither was perfect. However, we’d recommend either for fellow boondockers looking for a free campsite.
South Joshua Tree BLM
Our first stop was South Joshua Tree BLM and the site itself was good. The dirt roads were well kept and easy to drive. The cell signal was good. There were several pull-off areas for camping and we found one close to the entrance.
The location is close to Interstate 10 and less than a mile to the southern park border including the Joshua Tree National Park sign. However, the southern part of the park is a much less popular destination than the north and west sections. The southern section in the Colorado desert is at a lower elevation which means there are no Joshua Trees.
We stayed at South Joshua Tree BLM for several days but found the hour drive to get to the main northwestern section of the park to be too much of a hassle despite the nice camping provided at South Joshua Tree BLM.
Joshua Tree North BLM
Since we were heading north anyway, we decided to try another free campsite closer to the popular areas of Joshua Tree National Park. We camped at Joshua Tree North BLM for a few days. The location is about 15 minutes to the northern park entrance in 29 Palms. Additionally, the area is accessible by any size rig.
However, getting to the campsite via Sunflower Road requires some really rough rutted roads. We are fairly experienced driving our motorhome, Pippi, on BLM roads but this was sketchy. During our stay, we found the Broadway Rd to Cascade Rd entrance to be a much smoother option.
The campsites are primarily in a dry lake bed. It is wide open with little protection from wind and no privacy from neighbors. We found one of the few spots nestled in the grass around the lake bed. Most of the spots in the grass were occupied by less than pristine semi-permanent-looking residents.
Summary Joshua Tree in One Day
The unique rock formations and spiky Dr. Suess-like Joshua Trees make this park unlike anywhere else on earth. The northwestern section of the park was the most memorable but the best free camping was available on the opposite side of the park. We hope this article helps you make the most of one day or many days on your next Joshua Tree visit.