It’s taken me forever to sit down and write this post about Joshua Tree National Park, but I’m excited to because now that it’s been a couple of months I can relive all of the fun memories again. When Michael and I decided to road trip through California for a week, deciding what to do and how long to stay in each place was the hardest part. Since I’m the only one that can drive, we didn’t want to tackle huge distances in a day because I didn’t want to find myself too tired to drive to our next accommodation.
We chose to go to Joshua Tree because I’d always loved the idea of going and it seemed to fit in well with everything else we wanted to do, but we only had one full day before heading to our next destination. I had a hard time finding out the best places to stay that had easy access to the park and how to get as much done in the park as possible because most people tend to spend at least a few days there.
If you want to visit Joshua Tree in one day, you’re in luck because it’s totally doable! As you know, I love short trips, like spending one day in Death Valley, long layover in Doha or a weekend in Marseille. If you plan well, day trips are absolutely possible.
Where To Stay
We were coming from Los Angeles and didn’t get started until the afternoon and it’s a relatively long drive, so we knew we’d need somewhere to stay the night before getting our start early the next morning to explore Joshua Tree. We chose to stay at the Holiday Inn in Twentynine Palms. It’s certainly not the Ritz, but it was comfortable, had free parking for our rental car and the free breakfast is something to sustain you until lunch.
This hotel is by the north entrance to the park and it will only take you about 10 minutes to get there. The following night, we were staying at the Holiday Inn Express in Rancho Mirage, near the south entrance to the park. Rancho Mirage is a beautiful place with towering mountains and tons of places to shop and eat, so it was a great stopover.
However, we did make the mistake of driving through the park to the south entrance, when in reality it would have been much quicker to exit at the west entrance and drive along the highway. If it’s still light out, it’s nice to drive through the park, but it was pitch black and the roads were tiny and windy and the speed limit was really slow so it took forever and I spent most of it very stressed out. Lesson learned.
Joshua Tree in One Day Itinerary
So you’ve got your accommodation and now you’re ready to get into the park and see everything it’s got to offer. The best part about this park is that everything is beautiful, so even places that aren’t “sights” are still lovely areas to pull over, walk around and explore. There aren’t too many roads throughout the park and you’ll be given a map at the entrance anyway, so it’s easy to find your way. The main road most of these sights are on is Park Boulevard.
One of the first sights you’ll come across is Jumbo Rocks, which is exactly what it sounds like. A big ol’ pile of rocks. I loved this area because it was really flat so you had beautiful views and it was easy to just wander around.
Although there’s a lot to see in Joshua Tree, the real beauty of this park is that everything is stunning and impressive. I went in without too much of a plan and just saw what we came across and I have no regrets doing it that way.
This large rock near the road is truly a huge rock that’s been completely split in half. I will admit, I got a bit too close to it to take my photo, but the way it was just sliced so smoothly was really amazing. I think what was most incredible was how it’s completely cut in half but still remains together, despite the elements.
There are some nice, short trails here for you to walk, but we didn’t because hiking isn’t really our thing and we wanted to see more of the park.
I was actually amazed by this rock formation that looks exactly like a skull. When I saw what it was called I thought it would be one of those things where if you look at it just so then it kind of looks like a skull. Was I wrong! It’s the spitting image of a skull and it’s awesome that nature did that all on its own.
The area around Skull Rock is pretty hilly and rocky and you can spend a while just climbing around and looking out at the views. Just be sure you know where everyone in your party is because there’s little cell service and it’s easy to lose sight of people with so many rocks and tall shrubs.
It depends what time you started and how long you’re taking at each site, but this could be a great point to eat lunch. We chose to go out of the west entrance and into the town to find somewhere to get some snacks. We chose a sub shop that was quite tasty, if not a little overpriced, but there’s a fair bit around including a giant Walmart.
The west entrance is the most popular, so we were a bit worried about how long it would take us to get back into the park. When you’re trying to do Joshua Tree in one day, you don’t want to be wasting time unnecessarily. The line can be a bit long, but we only waited about half an hour. If anything, it was a nice break of driving so we just sat with the windows open and the radio on. Of course, if you bring your own lunch good on you! We didn’t really have anywhere to stop off to get lunch to bring with us so this was the best option for us.
This area of the park has a one-mile loop that winds through the boulders and was thought to be a legendary cattle rustlers’ hideout. The trail is said to be one of the most beautiful in Joshua Tree and it’s also a popular place for rock climbers.
If you’re no rock climber but still want a taste of adventure, there are plenty of little rocks you can climb about on. I really enjoyed just making my way up large (to me) rock formations and taking in the view. For me, that’s the most special part about Joshua Tree. It’s not about rushing around to see all the sights, it’s about taking it all in wherever you are.
As someone who’s afraid of heights, this is about as high as I was willing to go! In fairness, it was higher than it appears. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
I think this was my favorite part of Joshua Tree and although it looks a bit far out on the map, it really isn’t. Of all the places in the park, this is the one place I absolutely recommend you go because the sheer vastness of the landscape is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
When you arrive at Keys view you’ll park in the lot at the base and walk up to the top. The way up isn’t far, but going off the heavy breathing and constant moaning of the woman in front of me, it may not be for everyone. Then again, this is the same woman who described Joshua Tree as “just a bunch of dead shit,” so, maybe we shouldn’t base anything off of her. The walk to the top is almost as lovely as the view itself so be sure to stop and take a look rather than just marching straight up.
This incredible lookout gives you views of Coachella Valley, Palm Springs off in the distance, Mount San Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio. If you look really closely, you’ll also just about be able to make out where the San Andreas Fault Line is.
Hint, I’m looking straight at it and it’s pretty much right where that darker line is going off the right hand side of the photo.
I think I probably could have stayed here all day, simply because it was so beautiful and the light breeze was so refreshing. There are a couple of walks around Keys View, but I didn’t do any of them so I don’t know what they’re like. But if they’re more of the same then I’m sure they’d be worthwhile.
I was really keen to go to Barker Dam even though Michael couldn’t understand why. It seems odd to do Barker Dam last when you pass by it to some of the other sights on this list, but the reason it’s last is because of its popularity and parking situation. Although it has the biggest parking lot I saw in the park, it’s also a hugely popular destination so finding parking is incredibly difficult.
Many people illegally park, but I don’t recommend that as I saw tons of people get tickets. Yes, they do actually check. If you go towards the end of the day the crowds won’t be nearly as bad and you may even catch the sunset here and, in my opinion, that’s totally worth it.
It’s about a mile to walk to the dam and the walk is a loop so you won’t be backtracking on yourself. This caused confusion for quite a lot of people, us included, who were heading back to the parking lot after the sunset. It is marked, but just be careful if you’re going to be returning once it starts to get dark.
The dam was built in 1900 by cattleman who needed a more reliable source of water. Today, it sustains lots of awesome wildlife from various species of birds to Desert Bighorn Sheep. Sadly, we didn’t see any sheep, much as I would have liked to.
We stayed and watched the sunset and I’m so glad we did. It might not have been the most impressive sunset in Californian history, but with the landscape it was still very dramatic.
I just had made it to the car before it was totally dark, so overall it was good timing. You shouldn’t have a problem getting back from Barker Dam after watching the sunset there as its really only a 10 minute walk back, but again, it’s always a good idea to be cautious.
Enjoy The Drive
Experiencing Joshua Tree in one day is totally doable, but it’s important to remember to enjoy the drive as well. Don’t rush around to all the sights, but stop when you see scenery you like. Pull over and have a walk around. Some of the coolest things we saw weren’t really apart of anything with a name, it was just something we passed by, liked, pulled over and explored.
I did initially think I might regret doing Joshua Tree in one day, but in reality I didn’t at all. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything and I had a fantastic day. I couldn’t have asked for better weather and going in the off season meant it was nice and cool, which made exploring much easier. Honestly, if I were going back I’d do it in one day again.