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How to Have the Perfect Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park

How to Have the Perfect Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park

Taking a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park is perfect for anyone. Whether you are an avid hiker, photographer, outdoor enthusiast, a couple taking engagement photos, or with kids, there is something special for everyone to see at Joshua Tree in one day. It is also one of the US National Parks you cannot miss and I will tell you why!

We have been to several U.S. National Parks and Joshua Tree is the first park we think is truly unique. One of the fascinating elements of Joshua Tree is that it’s not just a vast desert, but two distinct desert ecosystems – Mojave and Colorado.

Furthermore, every national park we have visited so far has been to enjoy incredible hikes to high peaks. However with Joshua Tree, though there are lovely hiking trails, we felt more at peace just driving through and admiring the desert landscape and plant life.

Joshua Tree is also one of very few U.S. National Parks that can be seen entirely in one day. Therefore, a day trip to Joshua Tree is perfect for anyone coming from San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Phoenix!

A couple enjoying their day trip to Joshua Tree National Park by holding hands and walking among the trees in the desert.

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Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park is open all year-long but since it is a desert, the best time to visit is during the spring and fall.

Late February to early May are the recommended months to visit Joshua Tree because the weather is perfect and wildflowers are beginning to bloom. These months are also some of the busiest times of the year, so if you can visit during the week that would be your best option.

From late September through November, there are fewer crowds and the weather is perfect for scenic hikes or rock climbing. In fact, September through October is always our favorite time of the year to hike and enjoy a national park vacation.

The Best Things to See in Joshua Tree in One Day

Although the park is over 800,000 acres large, there are a handful of essential things to see and do in Joshua Tree National Park that can all be done in one day. From hiking trails to taking picturesque photos – here is a list of things to see in Joshua Tree to help plan what you want to do in one day.

And if you are looking to extend your day trip to Joshua Tree National Park, there are amazing hotels, cabins, and campgrounds in Joshua Tree.

Recommended Route

Based on personal experience, here is my recommendation of the perfect route to enjoy Joshua Tree in one day. Of course, if you are coming from the south entrance station then you can enjoy my route in vice-versa.

A marked map to route the best things to see in Joshua Tree National Park.

Starting at the west entrance station, begin your day trip to Joshua Tree by admiring the vast Mojave desert landscape filled with the iconic Joshua trees. Take your time driving through and feel free to stop, walk along paths (Hidden Valley is a nice one), and take plenty of photos.

Then make your way to Skull Rock to see the famous formation, followed by Arch Rock. Lastly, a day trip to Joshua Tree is not complete without a visit to Cholla Cactus Garden. After Cholla Cactus Garden, you can make your drive back up through the park and continue to enjoy the beautiful landscape.

Joshua Trees

A picturesque photo of a large Joshua tree in the front with several more in the background.

Of course, you must see the Joshua trees at Joshua Tree National Park. They are not hard to find but only located within the Mojave desert of the park (the west side). You can find a vast amount of Joshua trees along Park Boulevard road with plenty of places to stop, walk, and take pictures. We really enjoyed stopping near Hidden Valley to take our scenic photos of Joshua trees.

For those wanting to enjoy a short nature walk surrounded by Joshua trees, Cap Rock is a great trail. It is a quick and easy 0.4-mile loop (30 – 45 minutes) with unique boulder piles, Joshua trees, Mojave yucca, juniper, and other desert plants, and flowers.

Skull Rock

A rock naturally formed to resemble a skull, hence the name Skull Rock which is found at Joshua Tree National Park.

Nature is a wonderful and surprising gift. Who would have thought that raindrops accumulating over time could create a granite rock to start eroding and turn into the shape of a skull? It is easy to get to the iconic Skull Rock. In fact, you can see it from the road and park very closeby. From the parking lot, it only takes about 2 minutes to walk to Skull Rock.

If you are up for a 1.7-mile loop hike (1-2 hours), you can start the Skull Rock Nature Trail at Jumbo Rocks Campground and enjoy a scenic trail to your Skull Rock treasure.

Arch Rock

Arch Rock has become beloved by several visitors throughout the years and is a site you cannot miss on your Joshua Tree day trip. It might not be as magnificent as the ones at Arches National Park, but it is still a beautiful work of art by Mother Nature. In fact, if you look closely and use your imagination, it actually resembles an elephant head and trunk!

If you are up for just one short hike during your Joshua Tree day trip, this one is it! To get to Arch Rock, park at White Tank Campground and find the marked trailhead near site #9. Then walk 0.5-miles (30 minutes) along the trail and viola, you will come across an arch rock shaped like an elephant’s head.

Once you make it, Arch Rock is one of many great climbings areas in Joshua Tree, so enjoy your time scrambling up to the top and its surrounding areas.

Cholla Cactus Garden

A close up photo of cholla cactus at Joshua Tree National Park.

Though both Skull Rock and Arch Rock are amazing, the Cholla Cactus Garden surprised us the most with its sheer beauty. It is definitely one of the best things to see in Joshua Tree National Park.

I have never seen such exquisite nature before walking amongst the thousands of densely concentrated cholla cactus. If you fall in love with the Cholla Cactus Garden as we did, you can enjoy a lovely 0.25-mile (15 minutes) walk surrounded by the fuzzy cacti. Remember it is a cactus – though it looks warm, fuzzy and cuddly, do not touch it!

Best Major Cities to Take a Day Trip to Joshua Tree

The best way to see Joshua Tree in one day is by coming from San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Phoenix. When you are coming from any of these cities, you can expect your day trip to Joshua Tree (including the round trip drive) to take anywhere between 10 to 12 hours. So ideally you would want to start your morning drive no later than 8 am and leave the park around 4 to 5 pm.

There are three different entrance stations into Joshua Tree National Park – west, north, and south. Depending on the city you are driving from will dictate which entrance station is the best option.

The entire drive inside Joshua Tree from the west and north entrance stations to the south takes around 1 hour and 30 minutes without any stops. With that said, during the weekends, especially on the holidays, the west entrance station is extremely busy. So if you are not arriving early and it’s during peak season, driving to the north entrance might be a better option.

A dramatic landscape photo of Joshua trees in the desert and mountains in the background.

Joshua Tree Day Trip from San Diego and Los Angeles

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places to visit in Southern California. It is also a great weekend day trip from San Diego, Los Angeles or nearby towns in LA such as Pasadena. Moreover, you can visit Joshua Tree as a detour on a road trip from Los Angeles to San Diego.

When you are driving from San Diego and Los Angeles to Joshua Tree, you will want to enter the west entrance station. The drive from San Diego to Joshua Tree takes approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes whereas, from Los Angeles, it takes 2 hours and 15 minutes.

In my opinion, I think the west (also referred to as main) is the best entrance into Joshua Tree National Park. You immediately begin in the Mojave Desert where you see an abundant amount of Joshua trees spanning for miles on end. It is also a very easy and straight forward drive because you hit all the best things to see in Joshua Tree within 45 minutes.

Joshua Tree Day Trip from Las Vegas

If you are coming from Las Vegas to Joshua Tree, the closest entrance station is north, but I recommend driving 30 extra minutes to the west entrance station for reasons listed above. The drive from Las Vegas to Joshua Tree’s west entrance station is approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes.

I recommend following the route from the west entrance station and after you visit the Cholla Cactus Garden, exit the park through the north entrance station.

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Joshua Tree Day Trip from Phoenix

When you are coming from Phoenix, the best entrance station to Joshua Tree National Park is from the south. This entrance into the park begins in the Colorado Desert, whereas the west and north entrance stations are in the Mojave Desert. It is also a lot less crowded than the other two, so enjoy the serenity until you enter further into the park with the crowds.

I recommend following the route from the south to the west entrance station and enjoying all the sights along the way. Then exit the park and drive home from CA-62 E to CA-177 S, then I-10 E until Phoenix. It is almost an hour faster than driving back through the park, but if you want to enjoy the scenery again, I do not blame you.

Final Notes for a Day Trip to Joshua Tree

In addition to no cell service, there are also no places to eat inside Joshua Tree. So I recommend packing a nice lunch and enjoy a great outdoor picnic. With that said, please do not forget to bring plenty of WATER! It is a desert after all.

Lastly, if you are looking for some great photo opportunities with friends, family, or loved ones, Joshua Tree is the perfect destination. We had a great time not only enjoying the breathtaking landscape but also taking fun photos with the dramatic backdrop.

So, do you feel ready to take your day trip Joshua Tree National Park?

Vicky Meigel

Thursday 5th of January 2023

Planning my vacation for next month and this was so perfect-thank you!


Thursday 5th of January 2023

Aww my pleasure! Thank you for the kind words. I’m so happy to hear my post has been helpful for you

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Friday 17th of May 2019

I have never been to any National Parks in the US, and the landscape and vegetation of the Joshua Tree National Park look unique. Arizona has been high on my bucket list and if I can visit one day, I'm sure this place will be on my trip itinerary! :)


Monday 20th of May 2019

Hi, you will LOVE Arizona for all of its beautiful landscape and parks. When you visit, you should also go to the National Parks in California and Utah. Though we loved Joshua Tree, our favorite National Park is Zion!