With so many incredible nature spots in the USA, it would be impossible to see them all. Even so, one thing you should not miss on your travels is a day trip to Joshua Tree in southern California.
Joshua Tree is famous for its vast desert landscapes and iconic rock formations.
However, what makes Joshua Tree so unique is that it is where two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and Colorado, merge to create a fascinating variety of plants and wildlife.
Therefore, when you’re traveling through California, be sure to spend a day exploring this outdoor paradise.
Here is your ultimate one-day itinerary, revealing the best things to do and see on a day trip to Joshua Tree.
One day In Joshua Tree
With so much to do and see in Joshua Tree, it’s wise to maximize your time spent in the park.
Therefore, hit the road early and aim to arrive in the park between around 9 am.
Admire Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Garden is a popular sunrise spot with those camping in the park. The sun rising over the horizon illuminates the 10-acre garden, creating a majestic landscape.
However, even if you’re coming from afar, this cactus garden is still an ideal place to start your Joshua Tree day trip as it’s near the park’s north entrance.
There is a short ¼ mile trail leading to the garden from the parking lot, where you will find some fantastic photo opportunities.
As one of the most popular spots, it can get crowded, which is another reason to arrive early.
Climb Arch Rock
Arch Rock is a unique granite rock formation formed from lava pushed up through the fault line. It’s located close to White Tank Campground, just off the Pinto Basin Road.
Take the trail from the campground, and you’ll find Arch Rock just a few minutes along the track.
The 30-foot arch-shaped rock sits on top of a field of boulders. Arch Rock is one of the most popular places for those visiting Joshua Tree in a day or more as climbing is permitted here.
However, even if you don’t want to climb it, Arch Rock is a great place to explore and snap some fantastic photos.
Photograph Skull Rock
After returning to the campground, continue along the park boulevard, where you will come to a parking lot for the famous sandstone formation, Skull Rock.
As the name suggests, this intriguing rock resembles a human skull. The ‘eye sockets’ were created from erosion caused by rain accumulation.
As you can imagine, this spot is super popular, with tourists itching to get photos of the unique formation. However, it gets busiest in the afternoon, which is why we recommend visiting in the morning.
Hike To Jumbo Rocks Or Split Rock
Next up, it’s time to take a short hike to work up an appetite for lunch. There are two fantastic trails close to skull rock that are relatively easy and accessible for all fitness levels.
The first option is a 1.7-mile loop from Skull Rock out to Jumbo Rocks Campground. This is a gentle scenic trek with plenty of different rocks and canyons to admire along the way.
Alternatively, you can follow the two-mile Split Rock loop trail. On this route, you’ll come across lots of cool rock formations and boulders that you can have fun climbing over.
Although the track itself isn’t too tricky, the abundance of climbing opportunities makes it a fantastic place for adrenaline seekers.
Enjoy A Picnic Lunch
As there are no restaurants or cafes within the national park, most visitors take a picnic lunch.
Doing this will allow you to spend more time exploring the highlights as you don’t need to leave the park and come back.
What’s more, there are eight picnic areas, so you won’t struggle to find somewhere to enjoy your packed lunch.
Live Oaks picnic area is near jumbo rocks and split rock, making it an ideal place to eat, relax, and recharge.
The rest spot is nestled among rock formations and has barbeque grills, picnic tables, and restrooms.
Want to connect with fellow long-term travelers? Join our exclusive Facebook group and take part in the conversation.
PSSST. Your travel medical insurance can now cover COVID-19! If you grab SafetyWing‘s Nomad Insurance, it’ll be covered just like other illnesses. I’ve been using it since 2019 and I can assure you it’s the perfect solution for nomads like you and me.
Explore Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Spring is a vast desert in the southeast part of the park and is a hidden oasis.
It is pretty out of the way, about a 45-minute drive from the Live Oaks picnic area, which is why many tourists on a day trip to Joshua tree choose to skip it.
However, the fascinating geology you’ll see here makes it a place not to be missed, even if you only have one day in Joshua Tree.
There are many hiking trails at Cottonwood Spring, including a short and easy walk down Cottonwood Wash towards a dry fall.
If you want to take a longer hike, you can follow the three-mile loop to Mastodon Peak.
This trail is full of spectacular views, fascinating geology, and other cool sights like the Mastodon Mine and the Winona Mill.
You will most likely notice many birds around Cottonwood Spring, as the reserve is home to over 50 species!
Watch The Sunset At Keys View
After spending a couple of hours at Cottonwood Spring, take a leisurely drive back up to the north of the park in time to catch the sunset at Keys View.
This is probably the most famous sunset location at Joshua Tree, and the car park can fill up pretty quickly. Therefore, aim to arrive at Keys View no later than 45 minutes before sunset.
Once you arrive here, you will quickly see why Keys View is so popular. As the sun goes down, the sky over the valley turns shades of pink and purple.
This creates a glowing landscape and displays a picture-perfect view of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.
I recommend heading back to the parking lot straight after sunset, before the crowds. Doing so will allow you to witness the Joshua Trees along Keys View Road, glistening at dusk.
Grab Dinner At The Saloon
Stop off for dinner at Joshua Tree Saloon by the park’s northern exit before embarking on the journey home.
Enjoying delicious food and top-notch entertainment at the Saloon is the perfect way to conclude your day trip to Joshua Tree.
The burgers here are irresistible, and they have a full bar with a great selection of beers. If you’re here on the weekend, you can enjoy live music with your meal.
Or better yet, if you’re in Joshua Tree on a Friday, you can partake in the Saloon’s renowned ‘karaoke in the desert’ evening!
Where To Take A Day Trip To Joshua Tree From
Joshua Tree National Park is relatively accessible to get to from several major cities.
- Los Angeles is the nearest major city to Joshua Tree. Driving to the park from LA will take an average of two hours, 15 minutes.
- San Diego is another popular city to take a day trip to Joshua Tree. From here, it takes slightly longer, around two hours and 45 minutes drive.
- Alternatively, if you are in Nevada, Joshua Tree is slightly more than a three-hour drive from Las Vegas.
Because of its convenient location, many people on vacation in Los Angeles or Las Vegas decide to take a Joshua Tree day trip.
Furthermore, many opt to drive to the national park themselves, giving them complete control over their schedule.
Suppose you want to limit your time spent on the road, though. In that case, an alternative option is to fly into Palm Springs International Airport (PSP).
Palm Springs is about 50 miles east of the national park and a 45-minute drive. Many visitors choose to fly into Palm Springs the night before their day trip to Joshua Tree.
This way, they can get an early start and arrive at the national park in time for sunrise.
Another way to enjoy Joshua Tree in a day is to take an organized group tour from LA or Las Vegas.
These bus tours will usually pick you up from your hotel early in the morning, then drop you back there in the evening.
Group tours relieve the hassle of driving and navigating your way to the park.
However, taking an organized group day trip to Joshua Tree also means you have less freedom to choose how you spend your time there.
Joshua Tree’s proximity to LA and San Diego makes it a perfect add-on to any southern California road trip.
Furthermore, being within driving distance from Las Vegas presents the ideal opportunity to extend your Las Vegas itinerary and enjoy a day surrounded by peaceful nature before heading home.