For the longest time, all I knew about Joshua Tree was that there was a U2 album named for it. I wasn’t sure if it was a reference to a place or vegetation (fun fact: it’s both), and I hardly had a clue where this enchanted little desert was until approximately 2015.
I’ve read many articles speculating that social media has contributed to a surge in visitors to the US National Parks in recent years, and I’ll buy into that idea. Given its instagrammability and proximity to Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley, Joshua Tree National Park has certainly not been immune to this uptick. In the last 5 years, the amount of visitors to Joshua Tree National Park has doubled.
It looks like Dr. Seuss thought the place up, and it’s almost ALWAYS sunny in the desert. What’s not to like?
Joshua Tree had been the only non-Utah National Park on my shortlist to visit when I was originally planning my Moab trip back in 2016. When it came to the question of “where to?” as I planned myself a short getaway before my summer at work ramped up, Palm Springs & Joshua Tree rose to the top of the list.
I have a history of planning vacations that involve lots of hiking, playing outside, or half marathon running. Read: I tire myself out. Without allowing myself a little time to decompress by a body of water (whether it be a pool or an ocean), I’d always return to work just as exhausted as when I left.
This time, Palm Springs & Joshua Tree were the perfect answer. I got equal parts nature & poolside avocado toast. I divvied the trip into 1.5 days by the pool, spending the other 1.5 at Mount San Jacinto State Park and in Joshua Tree.
How I Did Joshua Tree National Park in a Day
Getting to the Park
JTNP has multiple entrances. I flew into Palm Springs (PSP) and stayed at the ARRIVE. It was about a 45min drive from Downtown Palm Springs up to the Visitor Center on Park Boulevard in the city of Joshua Tree.
I arrived at the Visitors Center right as it opened at 8:30a on a Sunday, and it wasn’t too busy. I was on a mission to obtain a map and a quick 101 on the park’s “must see without hiking 6 miles alone in 105 degree heat”. The young man behind the information desk whipped out a map, circled a handful of spots and had me on my way within 4 minutes. No spiel he hadn’t already given 8000 times.
About 5 miles farther down the road from the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, I made my way into the park through the West Entrance. Admission is $30 per car for a 7-day pass.
Note: a Park Ranger will check your receipt on the way out, so make sure you don’t crumple it up once you pay upon entry.
Before You Go: Prepare for the (Lack of) Amenities Inside the Park
Joshua Tree is an expansive, otherwordly desert. The National Park Service maintains bare bones facilities in the park, meaning… BYO food, water, everything. The only restrooms available are latrines with ventilation silos at some of the larger parking areas. Read: NO PLUMBING. Be prepared to hold your breath. Use the porcelain at the Visitor Center before going into the park.
Food & Drink
There are picnic areas throughout the park to stop and enjoy whatever sustenance you bring in. Absolutely zero is available for purchase within the park. Because it was early on a Sunday and almost nowhere was open in town, I stopped at a grocery store in Palm Springs and picked up a wrap, crackers, gummy bears, protein bars and a ton of water before heading out for the day. Shout out to Ralph’s for stocking the Haribo with the protein bars.
Before leaving my hotel, I filled my hydration pack with as much ice as it could accommodate. In the summer heat, the NPS recommends bringing at least 1 gallon of water per person per day.
There’s no cell service inside the park. Be prepared with a satellite GPS or to use your Girl Scout skills to go analog, consulting a old-fashioned map to get around. Thankfully, there aren’t too many roads, so simple steps like “drive a few miles and turn right when you eventually can” are really all you need to remember.
It was going to break 100° every day I was in California… therefore if it wasn’t made from a breathable fabric, it didn’t make it into my suitcase.
The day’s outfit of choice:
- Lululemon Breeze By Muscle Tank II
- The North Face Bond Girl Short
- Brooks Mazama Trail Running Shoes
- Camelbak Hydrobak Hydration Pack
- Hat & Sunglasses, SPF 30
There was an unexpected breeze in the desert, which made me happy to have a looser-fitting outfit on. I saw lots of people in big sun hats, and UPF clothing is your bff if you burn easily. About the only shade you’ll find is in your car.
As far as footwear goes: the desert floor is a coarse sand/fine gravel. I wouldn’t worry too much about getting sand in your shoes like the beach. Trail runners or hiking shoes will serve you best, you’ll appreciate the extra support & grip on any rocks you may want to climb up and over.
One-Day Itinerary: Joshua Tree National Park
You’ll need a set of wheels to get around Joshua Tree, sights and trails are very spread out. During the busy season parking could get a little tricky in some areas, but on a Sunday morning in June there was ample parking in all the areas I ventured to.
So where do I find the Joshua Trees?
Let’s get the real question out of the way first. They’re All. Over. The. Place. I didn’t know before going to the park if there was a concentrated grove or small area of Joshua trees. My instagram brain was wondering if there were only a few crowded places where I’d essentially have to take a number in line in order to get some good photos.
Good news! Joshua trees are everywhere, and there are small turn-offs fairly frequently so you can stop the car, hop out and do a little desert wander without many other tourists around. (Read: fewer photobombs & awkward characters in the background)
It was a gorgeous sunny day for riding along a two-lane road. (Listen to me all bro country sounding. Stop that, Katy.) Here are the spots I hit along the way, most on recommendation from the Visitor Center staff:
- Quail Springs
- Hidden Valley
- Barker Dam
- Keys View
- Split Rock
- Cholla Cactus Garden
Quail Springs is simply a picnic area, nothing out of the ordinary to see here. I got excited that it was the first place in the park that I saw signs directing traffic to, so I followed them, thinking it would have been something a bit jazzier. Still a nice spot with minimal shade by normal standards, but generous in hindsight.
Hidden Valley Trail
My first hike of the day. Hidden Valley Trail is an easy nature loop that’s relatively flat, and the most mixed bag of scenery I encountered that day.
There are signs along the way that explain the various flora & fauna in the area, and the trails are pretty easy to follow without a ton of cairns & arrows all over the place. In a wide open desert it’s pretty easy to keep your bearings in case you see a rock or cactus you want to wander over and photograph.
Petroglyphs & Barker Dam
Water in the desert? Well shiver me timbers let’s go see this. The hike itself is another reasonable loop I was able to do in about an hour, including umpteen photo stops.
On the way to the dam, there was an offshoot that led to a rock with petroglyphs etched by Native Americans, much like the ones I’ve seen in Southern Utah. You’re able to really climb up in there and get close if you’re feeling nimble.
This should go without saying, but enjoy the view and don’t leave your own mark on the environment before continuing on toward the dam. I feel like we all unfortunately read or see too many accounts of inconsiderate humans defacing public lands.
Barker Dam exists to collect water that falls in the desert, there is no actual river or reservoir in the middle of the park. Not gonna lie, the hike to and from the dam was more interesting than the dam itself.
There was some shallow standing water with a bunch of unappetizing algae on the surface. Took a 12-second gander and thought to myself “oh there’s a lizard there’s another lizard ok I’m done here.”
From there, I drove south to Keys View. You don’t realize how much elevation is in play until you hop out of the car, walk up to the vista and are greeted by an expansive view of the Coachella Valley.
There’s no hiking to be done at Keys View, it’s a ‘park, oooh, ahhh… ok let’s go now’ destination. Still worth the stop on a clear day.
After Keys View, I was both toasty and hungry. Back to my trusty map I went, and looked for a picnic spot. Off the main road and up a dirt road, I ended up at Split Rock Trailhead/Picnic Area.
Worth noting: neither picnic area I stopped at in the park (Quail & Split Rock) had *any* sort of man-made structure to lend an assist with shade. I grabbed my groceries from the car, laid my spread out on a stone bench/table that was probably hot enough to bake cookies on, and made quick work of my lunch. It was a challenge to sit on a hot stone bench IN SHORTS.
A 2 mile hiking loop also starts at Split Rock, but I opted to hop back into the car and air condition myself on the drive to Cholla Cactus Garden, one of my last stops of the day.
Cholla Cactus Garden
It was a bit of a ride to Cholla, and again, there are only two-lane roads with limited passing opportunities in the park. I must pause to rant for a moment.
Halfway to the cactus garden, these impatient young millennial girls cut off multiple cars behind me one by one to move ahead. They then started tailgating me and attempting to pass in no passing zones, being 100% unsafe. It obviously started to annoy me, because I was going the acceptable 5-10 over the posted speed limit, I wasn’t driving like a Grandma. They could have legitimately caused a head-on collision at any point in time, and I don’t want to be part of or bear witness to anything like that.
You can imagine how thrilled I was when I finally reached and they also parked at Cholla.
I headed off toward the garden, and saw signs saying to beware of bees. I stopped to take a photo of the bee sign, and while doing so a bee started bumbling all around me, probably because of my brightly colored shirt. No thanks, man.
Between the bees and the basic b’s in bikini tops and sweatpants, at that point in the day I decided I was OVER IT. I went to the car hoping that I could get out before those two idiots did so I could have an accident-free ride to Twentynine Palms. Guess who was behind me within a quarter mile of driving away from the garden.
The next nature exhibit I saw, I pulled over for 5 minutes and let them go ahead and ruin someone else’s day, causing accidents on their own time, not mine. BYE, Felicia I and Felicia II.
From what I did see at the Cholla Cactus garden, there are tons of cacti naturally concentrated in that area. It isn’t a cultivated garden like you’d see in a city park or someone’s back yard. Also, the cacti are small and brown, not a large grove of green Saguaros as one may expect. Without the bees & B’s, it may have been another fun nature walk.
While this isn’t an end-all be all of what there is to do in Joshua Tree, the Guide at the Visitors Center was spot on in recommending places to see and do that were exactly what I was looking for: I wanted to get a feel for what the park has to offer, without heading out on any risky hikes by myself in the 110-degree heat.
The next time I go, I will skew my stay time in the park either to catch sunrise or sunset, because I’ve seen some unreal photos of this landscape that I’d love to be able to witness in person. I’d also love to participate in a night sky photography program, parts of the park are dark enough to be able to see the Milky Way.
If you’re a traveler who likes to hit *all* the notable spots in the park, I’d recommend taking at least two days to explore. Unless you’re super into it, you may find the scenery (as beautiful it is) a bit repetitive if you spend more than 2 days in Joshua Tree.
If you’ve been to Joshua Tree, please leave your favorite spots that I may have missed in the comments section, I’d love for more insight on where you think is a must-see for other travelers considering Joshua Tree as a future destination! Thanks everyone! 🙂