One Day in Joshua Tree National Park Trip Itinerary
Joshua Tree is America's 15th largest national park with almost 800,000 acres of desert to explore. To really get a taste of the park requires at least 3 full days. So what's smaller than a taste? A smidgen, a glance, a flash?
If you can spend one FULL day in Joshua Tree you will at least get a brief glance into what this amazing park has to offer, and hopefully it'll be enough of a teaser that you will have to come visit again. With that in mind, here are my suggestions for those of us who can only get away for one day, but want to see what all the buzz is about.
Joshua Tree is located 2.5 hours straight east of Los Angeles on Interstate 10. There are three main entrances to the park -- one is located on the southern edge off of I-10, and the other two are on the northern border at the towns of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree off of Highway 62. This itinerary takes you on a big loop, entering on the south side and exiting through the north.
Get going early!
My favorite times to explore the desert are just after sunrise and just before sunset. These hours provide fantastic colors and limit your sun exposure. If you can, try to arrive at the Cottonwood entrance (south side) just after sunrise. Make sure to fill up your car with gas in Indio, because there is no gas available inside the park. Here are a few other things you should have packed:
- Water Bottles (each person should be able to carry 2-3 liters)
- Water Storage (there is no water in the park, make sure to have at least 1 gallon per person)
- Sun Protection (glasses, hats, sun clothing, sunscreen, lip balm - protect that skin!)
- Essential Bag (it's always good practice to carry a small bag of essential items, even on day hikes)
- Warm Layer and/or Wind Layer (it can get windy in the park, causing temperatures to plummet)
- Hiking Shoes (tennies work fine, but make sure they are closed-toed)
- Food (for the entire day, and bring lots of snacks you can enjoy on the hikes)
Take exit 168 off of I-10 for Cottonwood Springs Road, then head north and enter the park.
Your first stop is at the Cottonwood Visitors Center, which opens at 9am. If you arrive before that you should still stop here to top off your water reserves -- it's the last chance for water until you leave in the evening. Just beyond the campground is a small fan palm oasis called Cottonwood Springs. This is the trailhead for a number of day hikes which are a little too long for a one-day visit, but you can still enjoy the palm oasis. It is one of the most unique ecosystems found in the park.
Jump back in the car and continue driving north for 20 miles along Pinto Basin Road. Right now you are driving through the lower Colorado Desert, on the western flank of Pinto Basin. Joshua Tree is made up of over 585,000 acres of wilderness. A large portion of that untouched area is to your east along this drive.
The next stop is found at the western terminus of the Colorado Desert, at the Cholla Cactus Garden. Cholla are nicknamed "Jumping Cholla" for their ability to detach from the plant onto your clothing/shoes/skin. Make sure you're very attentive as you walk through this dense cactus garden so that you don't accidently bump into any of them. This garden sits on an alluvial fan where water from the nearby mountains runs in high concentration during storms. The water brings sediment that traps moisture and allows these dense stands of cactus to survive.
Once you're done exploring the cactus garden, say goodbye to the Colorado Desert. You'll be driving up in elevation as you wind through Wilson Canyon and spend the rest of the day in the higher Mojave Desert.
A series of roadside exhibits give you a chance to slow down during the drive through the park. While these signs are small, they offer a brief look into the flora, fauna, and geology of this region. Feel free to pull over when you see the signs and spend a few minutes slowing down on this otherwise busy day.
13 miles of driving takes you past the junction of Park Boulevard (hang a left) and arrives at one of the park's only roadside attractions -- Skull Rock. The rock is located just south of the road and can be a quick stop, or you can take a little time to explore the rock jumble that sits behind Skull Rock. Don't linger too long though, there is still a lot to see!
Now it's decision time. There are two great hikes nearby to decide between. To the north is Pine City, a 4 mile out-and-back that wanders through classic Mojave Desert to a small rock canyon. This is a flat hike that is a really nice stroll, especially in the morning. The other option is Ryan Mountain, a 4 mile out-and-back hike that climbs to the summit of a peak situated in the middle of the park. From the top you can see down into Pleasant Valley, north towards the Wonderland of Rocks, and east into Pinto Basin (where you just came from). Choose one of these two hike to enjoy!
At this point you'll probably be getting hungry. Either eat along the trail or head to a nearby picnic area to refuel your body. Hidden Valley day-use area has a nice spot to picnic in the shade.
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Now it's time to explore the famous Wonderland of Rocks. This intrusive rock layer is home to over 8000 climbing routes, making Joshua Tree a world-famous spots for rock climbers. This area also has a lot of fascinating relics from the age of gold mining and ranching. To get a little taste of this rich history, head to Barker Dam just past Hidden Canyon campground.
The 1.3 mile loop to Barker Dam takes just under one hour. Enjoy the interpretive signs as they teach you about water's role in the desert, and make sure to visit the pictographs. There might be water behind the dam site if you visit after a storm, but it's a great hike either way. Pay special attention to the maze-like rocks that surround this area. You are currently on the southeastern edge of an area called the Wonderland.
After Barker Dam, head south on Keys View Road to the trailhead for Lost Horse Mine. This is one of my absolute favorite hikes in Joshua Tree. Regardless of if you do the entire 6.7 mile loop or the 4 mile out-and-back, you'll see a fantastically preserved gold mine, sweeping view into Pleasant Valley, and burnt joshua trees. The loop hike takes you all the way around Lost Horse Mountain and is nice if you have extra time before sunset (with an optional scramble to the summit). Otherwise, do the shorter and more direct route, which is also well worth it. The key is to time this hike so that you still have at least 30 minutes left before sunset when you're done.
To finish things off, continue down Keys View Road south to Keys View. This is my favorite spot to watch the sunset as it dips down over the San Jacinto Mountains. You'll see the entirety of the Coachella Valley, and on clear days you can spot the Salton Sea and even Mexico from here! It can get windy, so now is the time to pull out those warmer layers. Don't rush away as soon as the sun goes down -- watch the street lights flicker on in Palms Springs and be patient; often you'll see the best colors in the sky almost 15 minutes after the sun sets.
Depending on how tired you are at this point you can either call it a successful day or make one more stop. As you're driving out of the park, pull into the parking lot at Keys West. Watch the sky get totally dark and the stars come out. Joshua Tree is one of the best places to get a completely dark night sky within a close proximity to LA.
You'll depart the park via the exit at the town of Joshua Tree, and then head west on Highway 62 to its intersection with I-10. Stop and get a bite to eat at Sam's Pizza (indian food pizza! It's awesome.) in Joshua Tree, or enjoy the music at Pappy & Harrietts in Pioneertown. Make sure someone is riding shotgun and can keeping poking you to stay awake for the drive back.
Well, there it is! Joshua Tree National Park in one day. It's packed full of some of my favorites and hopefully provides enough of a hook to get you to come back and experience the park at its slow desert pace.