Yes, you can totally day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs, but you’ll need careful planning.
That’s what I’m here for! I’ve done a few Joshua Tree National Park day trips over the years and I’ve nailed down the perfect Joshua Tree itinerary jammed packed with all the best, quick highlights that the desert can offer when you’re short on time. Buckle in.
Day Trip To Joshua Tree National Park: 7 Best Quick Stops & Easy Hikes For One Day In Joshua Tree
What Makes Joshua Tree Extra Special
If you’ve never been to Joshua Tree before, strap in for a wild ride. There is just something about Joshua Tree that feels almost magical — I can see why it’s a hub for spiritual gurus. With a combination of the Joshua Trees, insanely cool rock formations (one even looks like a skull), pastel pink sunsets, brilliant starry skies and a hip town full of vintage shops, visiting Joshua Tree will be unlike any California road trip you’ve done in the past.
Can You REALLY See Joshua Tree In One Day?
I’ll be honest: ideally, you could spend a few nights in the town of Joshua Tree at one of the desert’s cool Airbnb’s (the hotels here are meh, but there’s castles, luxury villas and space ship Airbnbs you can rent here instead!) But if you’re short on time and need to see all of Joshua Tree in one day, or you’re looking for a way to break up pool days in Palm Springs, you can still soak up the magic with these best quick stops that I’ve included in this itinerary!!
Palm Springs To Joshua Tree: 45 Minutes Away
If you aren’t staying in Joshua Tree proper, I’m assuming you’re coming from the Palm Springs area which is about a 45-minute drive from Joshua Tree. I’ve used Palm Springs as a base for day trips to Joshua Tree in the past, and vice versa. (Most recently I stayed in Joshua Tree and used it as a base for exploring Desert X in Palm Springs!)
Plan on leaving Palm Springs about an hour before sunrise. Once you leave Palm Springs, there won’t be much options for coffee or a quick breakfast so make sure to grab your Starbucks and a breakfast sandwich to go before you head out of the city.
This time of day, roads should be clear enough that you can make it into the park for sunrise to start your epic Joshua Tree one-day trip! That being said, do check Waze or traffic reports prior to leaving to check if any accidents happened on the way to Joshua Tree. It’s up a mountain pass and it’s not uncommon for drivers to flip their cars over when speeding around curves. When that happens, it backs the whole area up for hours.
- You can also do a Los Angeles or San Diego to Joshua Tree visit, but that’s only for overachievers who don’t mind getting up at 2am to make it to the park in time to actually do things. It’s doable – I mean, anything is doable, but it sounds hard. I would recommend instead booking something in Palm Springs or Joshua Tree for this whirlwind adventure.
Joshua Tree Day Trip Itinerary: 7 Quick Stops When You’re Short On Time
What to wear: warm layers in winter, light layers in summer. Sunscreen always.
Pack: extra water and snacks
Download your maps offline before you enter the park!
Park rangers may not be at the entrance gates here. I’ve been to Joshua Tree National Park many times now and have only encountered a ranger once. They’ll leave the gate open and since I have a national park pass I just drive on through and never have any issues. If you need to pay with cash, don’t wait for a ranger to show up because that may not happen. You can handle paying later in the day.
1. Sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden
Enter the National Park through the Twenty Nine Palms entrance (near the Oasis Joshua Tree Visitor Center). This entrance is closer to the Cholla Cactus Garden, which should be your first stop at sunrise!!
The cactus garden is one of the most popular stops in the park, so it can get crowded, which is why you’ll want to hit it up first. But it’s also so relaxing early in the morning. It’s not a hike, rather flat paths winding around beautiful Cholla Cactuses. You’ll love sipping coffee and starting the day here.
Do mind your step here!! Cholla cactus balls are NASTY! They can pierce your shoes even if you lightly brush up against them. I know because I’m speaking from experience — I’m a dumbass to stepped on one a few years ago. We had a ~fun~ dash to Walmart to get duct tape and first aid materials since the easiest way to remove the needs is basically waxing them off with duct tape. The needles I couldn’t remove stayed in my foot for about 2 months… so yeah, watch your step and wear sturdy boots.
2. Arch Rock Nature Trail Hike
Most people only think of arch rock formations in Utah, but there’s one here in Joshua Tree National Park! The Arch Rock hike is easy, about 1.5 miles round trip so it’s a great first hike of the day to get you in the swing of things. It should only take about 1-1.5 hours, depending on how fast you hike and how many stops you make for wildflowers and taking photos.
As you can probably imagine, since this is an easier hike, it’s also really popular. It should still be pretty calm in the morning, which is great news if you want to snap a photo of the arch without any people! Keep your eyes out for the heart-shaped rock, too.
3. Skull Rock
Skull Rock is my FAVORITE gem in Joshua Tree National Park. Maybe even one of my favorite things in all of Southern California. Yes, it really looks like a face and yes – it’s freaking cool in person. Skull Rock is on a 1.7 mile hiking loop that you can tackle if you want. But it’s also fun to just scramble around the giant boulders around Skull Rock – that’s what I usually just end of doing when I visit.
Find parking on Park Boulevard near the rock. You can also opt to park at Jumbo Rocks Campground if the road is full and hike to Skull Rock. Part of the trail should be paved and easy to find, but I think it’s easier to just park on the road. It’s hard to miss – it is a giant face after all.
Next: drive out of the West Entrance Station to the town of Joshua Tree for lunch!
4. Lunch at Crossroads Cafe or
By this time you’ll probably be starving so head out of the National Park and into the town of Joshua Tree via the West Entrance! I have a soft spot for Crossroads Cafe. This place is hip but welcoming (think industrial chic with nice waiters and fresh food, including vegan options.)
I try to have brunch or lunch at Crossroads at least once whenever I’m visiting Joshua Tree. My personal favorite is the Hell Burger but they make a mean taco here too. The wait can be a little long, so once you get cell service it’s not a bad idea to call ahead and reserve a table, or add yourself to the waitlist.
Another gem of a restaurant is La Copine, which is between Joshua Tree and Landers. They’re only open Thursday-Sundays for lunch, but is one of the best-kept secrets in Yucca Valley. I haven’t been but by friends visited and raved about the food and cool outdoor patio with murals.
5. Explore Downtown Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is small but it’s packed with vintage stores and quirky shops. While you could easily spend an entire weekend getting lost in the antiques and 70’s jeans, but there are a few standout spots you should visit before heading back into the park.
- The Station: This boutique just screams CALIFORNIA to me. There’s a yellow VW bus out front perfect for photo opps, records, and succulents on the inside and a back patio for lounging. It’s a must-stop.
- Crochet Museum: YES there is a crochet museum!! And it’s exactly what it sounds like. Totally free and will only take you about 20 minutes to look at but it’s so worth it. I’ve never seen so many crochet dolls in one place before, it’s wild.
- Noah Purifoy Museum: Outside the town of Joshua Tree about 15 minutes is this totally free outdoor museum. You can easily get lost in this and lose a few hours, so don’t go unless you’re ahead of schedule.
- Ricochet Joshua Tree: Tiny but simply jammed packed with so many vintage and antique gems. You can find anything from jean fringe jackets to jewelry to kitchenware from the 1950’s here.
6. Afternoon hike at Hidden Valley Trail
Once you’re done exploring Joshua Tree, it’s time to head back into the National Park for one last hike! Hidden Valley Trail is another easy hike perfect for short day trips to Joshua Tree. It’s about a mile long with signs and sometimes even rangers about to tell you the history of the land.
If you’re visiting in the summer, by this time of day it’s going to be insanely hot so you probably own’t want a longer hike. If you are itching for something more robust, try the Ryan Mountain Trail instead. This is about 3 miles and takes you to a lookout point!
Either way, make sure you’re staying hydrated. Even in the winter! Joshua tree is about 3,000 miles elevation and altitude sickness sneaks up on you, especially when it’s cold out and you may not be drinking as much water as normal.
7. Sunset and Dusk at Keys View Road lookout
And now for the show stopper of the day: sunset at Keys View!! A friend of mine took us here for sunset on my most recent trip to the park and I was mad at myself for never checking it out sooner. You can see freaking Palm Springs from up here! Rumors are that on a clear day you can even see Mexico!
This lookout point overlooks all of Coachella Valley, it’s insane. Grab a sweater or maybe a blanet, and take a seat on a rock to watch the sunset. (After a long day of hiking and adventures, it’s gong to feel great just to sit, trust me.) Make sure to stay for dusk so you can watch all the twinkly lights come to life below.
Note: The parking lot is small and it takes a while to drive over here since it’s at the end of the park away from popular trailheads. With that in mind, I would try to book there fast and early to make sure you can get a parking spot and soak in the sunset entirely.
Bonus: Stargaze In The Park
Once you’re ready to head back to Palm Springs hotel or your Joshua Tree house, you still need to drive about 40 minutes out of the park. If you’re up for it and not too tired, somewhere on your way back to the gate, pull off at a random campsite or lot away from traffic. Turn off your headlights and stargaze.
There’s no light pollution out here and I’ve been able to see the Milkey Way in Joshua Tree before!! it’s going to get cold at night, no matter what time of year, so don’t forget a sweater to bundle up in if you plan on trying to see some shooting stars.
California has some breathtaking National Parks but Joshua Tree will always be one of my favorites. It’s romantic, magical, and calm. Your day will be hectic but you’ll fall asleep feeling like you did the park justice.
If you have any tips to add, please leave a comment below so everyone can see! Got questions? Drop a comment or DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll be happy to help!