How to Spend One Day in Joshua Tree

How To Spend One Day in Joshua Tree National Park [A Guide]

Written By: author image Kyle Cash
author image Kyle Cash
Kyle is the writer behind The Travel Runner. He’s a full-time traveler and adventurer who’s visited over 20 countries, including places like Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, and Albania.

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Maximize one day in Joshua Tree with a scenic drive, hikes, and rock scrambling. Discover breathtaking viewpoints, and enjoy stargazing in this desert oasis.


I didn’t expect a lot from my one day in Joshua Tree.

And I know many people’s jaws hit the floor as they read that. But it’s Joshua Tree?! How could you not expect much?

With that said, Joshua Tree BLEW my expectations out of the water. With scenic viewpoints dotting parts of the park and its picturesque sunrises spreading a canvas of yellows, oranges, and pinks across the valley, it’s hard not to fall in love with Joshua Tree. And that’s why I’ve brought you this one-day Joshua Tree itinerary.

My fiancee and I went on a road trip to visit national parks near Las Vegas, starting with Joshua Tree and then heading north to spend one day in Death Valley National Park. And I want others to enjoy the park just as I did (and, hopefully, it’ll blow away your expectations, too).

So, this is a one-day itinerary/guide to help you experience the most of what Joshua Tree has to offer. You get a mix of the best sights and some exploration time, so you can enjoy it without overworking yourself.

Enough talk, though. Let’s get started.

What to know before you go to Joshua Tree

A trip to a national park is always fun.

But there are some things to keep in mind before you head in:

  1. Cell phone reception is spotty: It’s a national park, so you shouldn’t be worried about your cell phone connection. But, regardless, reception is spotty. I would get service randomly, but it was never for very long. You can avoid getting lost by using the National Park Service app to download a map beforehand.
  2. Get the America the Beautiful National Park Pass: If you frequently visit national parks, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have this. It’s $80, so two visits to national parks are practically paid for itself. Three, and you’re in the black.
  3. Weather can change quickly: The desert climate means extreme heat in the summer and chilly temperatures in winter. And these can change quickly. So dress in layers and be prepared.
  4. Respect wildlife: Keep a safe distance from animals, and never feed them. This is for their safety and yours. People often mistake coyotes for dogs in the area.
  5. Leave No Trace: We like being able to see these parks, right? And so will others. So, let’s keep them intact for everyone. Sound good?
  6. The Joshua Tree Visitor Center is outside of the park: We drove around for quite some time before we wound up at the park entrance. The friendly park ranger told us the visitor center was 3 miles down the road. So, something to keep in mind!

What to bring with you for a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park

If you spend one day in Joshua Tree, you want to make the most of it.

So, going to the park unprepared is a big no-no. It’ll keep you safe and ensure you have a great experience the entire time.

Here’s what you should bring:

  1. Water: In case you need a reminder, you’re in the middle of the desert. So pack more water than you think you’ll need. The National Park Service (NPS) recommends a gallon per person daily.
  2. Snacks: Use a cooler and make sandwiches, cut up vegetables and fruit if you can. Trail mix and energy bars are also great options.
  3. Sun protection: The sun is literally trying to kill you. Sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses aren’t just fashion accessories here; they’re necessities.
  4. Comfortable clothing: One moment, it’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit and lovely. Then, a random cloud blocks the sun, and it suddenly feels like you’ve landed in Antarctica. Pack clothes that layer comfortably.
  5. Sturdy footwear: You want grip, comfort, and protection against the rocks here. Flip-flops and fancy shoes can stay at home. I saw far too many Nikes walking up and down mountains than I should have.
  6. Camera: If you’ve got a real camera, bring it. The landscapes here are perfect for photographers, and you’ll regret leaving your camera behind.
  7. Headlamp or flashlight: Your phone’s flashlight will often work, but having a dedicated flashlight or headlamp for the occasion doesn’t hurt.
  8. Trash bag: Just because there’s a lot of sand doesn’t mean you should bury your trash in it.

With these items, you can visit Joshua Tree National Park!

The best time to visit Joshua Tree

The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park largely depends on what you’re after.

If you want to avoid the extreme heat of the desert summer, opt for spring (March to May) or fall (October to November). These seasons offer mild temperatures, perfect for hiking and exploring.

Spring is particularly great, with wildflowers in bloom, painting the desert in vibrant colors. But it’s a bit popular at this time.

The author hikes on a dirt path underneath a Joshua tree

Alternatively, winter (December to February) provides cooler weather, though nights can be pretty cold, making it ideal for those who prefer less crowded trails.

Summer (June to September) is hot, often reaching over 100°F, but it’s less crowded if you’re up for early morning or evening adventures.

Each season offers its unique charm, so pick based on your comfort with temperature and crowd preference.

Where to stay around Joshua Tree

When finding a place to crash after a day of desert adventures in Joshua Tree, you’ve got options ranging from quirky to luxurious, with a healthy dose of “Is this even real?” thrown in for good measure.

Personally, I use Airbnb the most. And I’d strongly recommend checking out this Airbnb for a mix of privacy and location to the park 👇

But there are some fantastic hotels in the area. So here are some top picks to consider for your stay near Joshua Tree:

  1. The Castle House Estate: A quirky retreat offering unique stays like a yurt and a guard tower, complete with modern amenities and a touch of medieval charm.

  2. Sacred Sands: A blend of rustic luxury with private outdoor patios featuring mineral water hot tubs and stunning desert views.

  3. Center Street Villas: A sustainable vacation home with excellent facilities right in the town of Joshua Tree.

  4. Amaru Maru: A tranquil, luxurious villa with a contemporary design in the Joshua Highlands.

Each place offers a unique experience, from adventurous glamping to tranquil luxury, ensuring a memorable stay in Joshua Tree.

Joshua Tree one-day itinerary

Alright, you’ve only got one day.

So it’s time to maximize it with the best things to do in Joshua Tree so you can go home feeling like you did something amazing!

So, here’s what I did in Joshua Tree for a one-day itinerary (with some slight variations) to help you visit the park and have the best time you can.

Let’s get started.

Morning: Sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden

Time: Before sunrise

Waking up early for a sunrise is always a gamble.

But at Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree, the odds are in your favor for a spectacular show. With a wide open valley and the mountains in the east, you enjoy every second as the sun creeps up. My fiancee and I arrived about 30-40 minutes before sunrise. And only about three other cars were in the parking lot when we pulled in. So we had plenty of room to find an open clearing.

A woman stands for a photo between Cholla cacti during sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park

And what a start to your day in Joshua Tree National Park. But the best views will come when you least expect them.

Here are some tips to help out:

  • Location: The Cholla Cactus Garden is nearly 12 miles south of the park’s North Entrance and 20 miles north of the Cottonwood Visitor Center.
  • Parking: There’s a dedicated parking area right next to the garden. It’s spacious enough but can fill up quickly after sunrise, so arriving early is key.
  • Sunrise time: Check the local sunrise time a day before. Aim to arrive at least 30 minutes before sunrise. This gives you ample time to find a spot and watch the sky change colors. I use the app PhotoPills to help gauge the best time (it’s perfect for photographers).
  • Stay on the path: The Cholla Cactus Garden nature trail is a quarter-mile loop, easy and accessible. Keep to the trail to protect the delicate desert ecosystem and yourself from the cacti spines.
  • Stay after the sun comes up: Most people leave the moment the sun comes up. But this is a HUGE mistake because it’s not until 30-40 minutes after the show starts and the sun sets the cacti on fire. So be patient.
Visiting Cholla Cactus Garden is a must for one day in Joshua Tree

Once you’ve taken it all in, it’s time to hit the road and take in the scenery.

Time: Post Sunrise

Post-sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect time to visit some iconic spots as the day begins to warm up.

Start with Arch Rock, a natural granite arch that offers a stunning photo opportunity. It’s an easy 0.3-mile hike from the White Tank Campground, making it accessible for most visitors. There’s also another parking lot specifically for the trail, and it’s well-marked.

You can continue on the path for a bit, which forms a loop. But we just explored the rock formations and then turned around to head back to the parking lot.

After you snap some photos of Arch Rock, head over to Skull Rock. This famous rock formation, resembling a human skull, is right near the road, offering easy access for a quick stop and photos. Both sites are great for quick stop-offs to stretch the legs and get pictures. But neither takes long to enjoy.

Skull Rock in Joshua Tree

Along the way, we passed numerous pull-off areas where we could get out and simply explore some of the natural rock formations that epitomize this area.

After this, it’s time to stop off for a quick lunch. So grab a spot and enjoy

Afternoon: Scenic drives and viewpoints

Time: Around Noon

After lunch, it’s time to cruise around and simply enjoy your time in the park by taking in the scenery.

A Joshua tree in the middle of the desert

We rode on the backroads between Skull Rock and Barker Dam, which had some stunning views and few people. We had plenty of time to stop off, take pictures, or just slow down to a slow cruise and take in as much as you can.

You’ll get a diverse landscape — from Joshua trees standing like sentinels to rocky outcrops and panoramic vistas. It may not be the beauty of Sedona’s red rocks, but it was stunning nonetheless.

Mountains in Joshua Tree National Park

I’d also strongly advise only driving on these roads if you have a four-wheel drive car. They’re sandy, and a smaller car could easily get stuck. So it’s best to avoid the towing fee and embarrassment of being that tourist.

Time: Post-Lunch

I’ll be honest.

We skipped Barker Dam on our first day because we knew we wanted to come back for sunrise the next day. And Barker Dam was where we decided to catch the sunrise before we left (well worth it, by the way!). We passed by, and it was SUPER busy, so we decided to wait.

The author sits watching the sunrise at Barker Dam

But if you don’t have time for that, then I suggest stopping off for the short hike. Hopefully, you can catch it when the dam has water. We weren’t as lucky.

This is also an excellent alternative for sunrise if you decide not to do Cholla Cactus Garden. The reflection in the water is supposed to be gorgeous. We loved simply watching the valley on the other side of the rocks light up as the sun rose.

The sun rises over a landscape at Barker Dam

Either way, it’s a beautiful, short 1-mile hike inside the park. It’s also suitable for all ages and fitness levels, so you can enjoy it with family and friends.

Time: Late afternoon

Ryan Mountain is the tallest mountain in Joshua Tree National Park.

So, you can’t leave without climbing it. And as the late afternoon sets in and the sun goes down, it’s the perfect time to head there.

Ryan Mountain peak sign

The climb to the summit is around 1.5 miles and is around a 1,000+ foot climb. Along the way, you get beautiful views of the park and enough points to allow you to stop off and catch a breather.

Once you’re at the top, there are nearly 360-degree views all around. And, of course, you should take the obligatory picture with the Ryan Mountain sign.

A couple stands with the Ryan Mountain sign for a picture

Just keep in mind to bring enough water and dress appropriately.

When we were in the parking lot, we were in long-sleeve shirts and jeans. By the time we reached the top, we had put on our hoodies and jackets.

The elevation change can make a huge difference.

Evening: Sunset at Keys View

Time: Sunset

Time to catch the sunset at one of the most popular spots in the park and the end to your Joshua Tree itinerary.

We headed here before sunset. We knew we weren’t going to be in the park long enough (maybe we’re too old), so we visited a few hours before. But there’s a reason it’s so popular for sunset.

Scenery from Keys View

Keys View is located on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains and has an INCREDIBLE view out over the Coachella Valley. It was a bit windy when we visited, so we didn’t stay long. But on a calm day, this is the perfect spot to sit and enjoy the desert landscape. You can even see Palm Springs on a clear day.

So sit back and enjoy the show. It’s also great for stargazing in Joshua Tree, which is a dark sky park!

So, what will you do with your one day in Joshua Tree?

Driving up Park Boulevard to the park entrance is an exciting experience.

And with everything Joshua Tree offers, a one day itinerary may not seem like enough. But you can definitely hit most of the highlights in a short trip.

So, I’m curious to hear from you. What will you see on your short trip throughout the park? And are there any hikes in Joshua Tree you would add to the list? Let me know in the comments!

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Kyle Cash Owner
Kyle is the writer behind The Travel Runner. He’s a full-time traveler and adventurer who’s visited over 20 countries, including places like Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, and Albania.