One Day in Joshua Tree National Park: A Beginner’s Guide
I honestly didn’t expect to love Joshua Tree National Park as much as I did.
Sure, it looked cool. But, a hot desert with kids? Doesn’t exactly scream family fun.
But there was something about Joshua Tree that kept drawing me in. The photos I’d seen made it feel like another planet.
So, with a week in Palm Springs, I’d decided I would drag my husband, 3 year old, and baby out to the desert to experience this other world for ourselves.
This was the first US National Park we’d ever visited, and boy did it set the bar high.
Read on for more tips for getting the most out of your one day trip to Joshua Tree National Park.
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Joshua Tree National Park: Getting There
Joshua Tree National Park is located about an hour east of the Palm Springs area. There are 3 entrances to the park: Joshua Tree (West), Twentynine Palms (North), and Cottonwood (South).
Most people enter through the West Entrance in Joshua Tree, drive south through the park, and exit out the South (Cottonwood) entrance. This was the route we chose to follow for ourselves.
But you could easily do this day trip in reverse, starting from the South and ending in the North or West, depending on where you want to focus your day.
Joshua Tree: North vs. South
It’s worth noting that the northern part of Joshua Tree National Park varies quite a bit from the south. This is because two different deserts meet in Joshua Tree: the Mojave and the Colorado.
In the northern Mojave Desert, you’ll experience the park’s most popular hikes, massive rock formations, and of course, the famous Joshua Trees that dot the entire landscape.
Fun fact: Joshua Trees aren’t actually trees at all, they’re a yucca plant. Who knew!?
In the south, as you enter the Colorado Desert, the landscape is much flatter. Joshua Trees give way to Ocotillo fields, Cholla Cacti, and a much more barren landscape.
You’ll want to consider this as you plan your route: north to south vs. south to north. We opted to start in the north so most of our energy could be put forth into some easy hikes, plus enjoying the epic landscapes before the kids got too tired.
What to Pack for your First Trip to Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park is a great place to explore for beginner hikers.
Before you head out on your first trip to Joshua Tree National Park, make sure you’ve got these essential items packed:
- Lots of Water | Bring as much as you think you might need, then double it. In the dry desert heat, lots of water is a necessity.
- Healthy Snacks and a Picnic Lunch | You won’t find any services in Joshua Tree, so you’ll want to be sure to pack plenty of healthy snacks, plus a picnic lunch. There are lots of places you can stop for a picnic throughout the park.
- Dress in Layers | Despite being in the desert, you’ll find the tempertures in Joshua Tree to be a bit cooler than that of nearby Palm Springs. In Joshua Tree it can be a bit chilly in the mornings and evenings, even during the summer season. Be prepared by dressing in layers: cozy, long sleeves in the morning down to light, breathable clothing by noon.
- Hats for Everyone | You won’t find much shade on Joshua Trees’ trails, so be sure to have head cover for Mom, Dad, kids and baby too!
- Extra Sunscreen | It seems pretty self-explanatory, but again, with limited shade, you’ll be spending lots of time in the harsh sun.
- First Aid Kit | Even the easy Joshua Trees hikes will take you over some rugged terrain. Be sure to bring a small first aid kit with bandages, antibiotic ointment, medicines, etc., just in case a fall occurs.
- Sturdy Shoes | With a rocky and diverse landscape, having a good pair of shoes to help you navigate is a must. This will also make your hikes along dusty trails much more enjoyable.
- Carrier and/or Hiking Backpack | If you have young kids, you’ll greatly benefit from having them contained in carriers. We went with a super lightweight carrier for Sophie (10 months), and a sturdy hiking backpack for Evelyn (3).
Joshua Tree: One Last Tip Before You Go
Inside the park you’ll find limited cell service, so before you go, download a local map of the park using Google’s offline Maps feature.
This will help you find your way should you stray off one of the many hardly marked paths.
The Best of Joshua Tree in One Day
The best part about Joshua Tree National Park is that although the park is vast, it’s easy to navigate and see a majority of the most popular sites and hikes in just one day.
For the ideal experience, I recommend starting at the west (Joshua Tree) entrance and driving south.
Follow this itinerary to see the very best of Joshua Tree in one day:
Joshua Tree Visitors Center
Before you enter the park, stop at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center in the actual town of Joshua Tree. Arrive early, ideally at 8 AM, just as the visitor center is opening, so you can spend as much time in the park as possible before the crowds and hotter temperatures arrive.
Buy your park passes at the Visitor Center so you can avoid waiting in line at the park gate. This is also a good time to pick up maps and junior ranger booklets for the kids.
Your park pass is good for 7 days, so if you’ll be in the area for a while, consider coming back for a second visit to see it all!
Once inside the park, make your first stop at Barker Dam. It’s an easy, quick 1.5 mile loop that leads you over some rugged rocks and to an actual dam built by early cattle ranchers, before looping you back through a maze of joshua trees. We’d recommend keeping the kids in a carrier for this one, since there are lots of big rocks where they could easy lose their balance and fall.
Next, head over to nearby Hidden Valley. Perhaps one of the most popular hikes in all of Joshua Tree, Hidden Valley is almost entirely surrounded by rock formations, except for the tiny opening that leads you to it. It’s an easy hike with epic vistas and teeming with all kinds of plant and animal life.
After your hike, head over to the Hidden Valley Picnic Area on the opposite side of the trailhead to fuel up with some lunch.
Cap Rock Nature Trail
Next up, continue south on Park Boulevard until you reach Keys View Road. Take a right and you’ll find Cap Rock and the nature trail that leads past it.
This stroller-friendly trail (though not paved), is a quick, flat loop through giant boulders and a safe place to let kids explore on their own.
After a quick stroll at Cap Rock, get back in the car and head out to Keys View. It’s about 20 minutes round trip from here, and by this time of day may be perfect for naptime.
At Keys View, the paved (albeit, steep) overlook offers epic views of the desert valley and a look at the San Andreas fault (though we didn’t know exactly what we were looking for). On a clear day, you can even see all the way to the Salton Sea!
After your break at Keys View, head back and carry on down Park Boulevard.
Soon you’ll reach Skull Rock, a crazy rock formation that indeed looks like a skull! Nearby, a trailhead leads you on an easy hike, just under 2 miles, past more boulder piles.
Keep driving east and soon you’ll reach Pinto Basin Road. As you carry on south through the park, consider a quick stop at Arch Rock. This quick, half mile trail (which is largely unmarked) is worth the effort in order to find spot this famous rock.
PS. While the hike at Arch Rock is easy, parking is not. If you can find a spot at the trailhead, give it a go. Otherwise, be ok with skipping this one.
Cholla Cactus Garden
As you leave Arch Rock, you’ll notice the landscape changing. Boulders and rock formations give way to rugged mountains, and the miles of Joshua Trees turn to Cholla Cacti and Ocotillo fields. It’s here that you’ve now entered the Colorado Desert.
You might considered skipping this part of Joshua Tree. After all, there’s no more Joshua Trees or piles of boulders.
But if you do, you’d be missing one of the coolest sites of all: the Cholla Cactus Garden.
This garden of fuzzy cacti was one of the wildest things we’d ever seen. Take a quick loop (or 2!) on the stroller-friendly path.
As you continue south, signs of civilization return at Cottonwood Spring, where you’ll find the Cottonwood Spring Visitor Center. Here you can turn in that junior ranger booklet and fill up your water bottles.
If you still have some energy, consider setting out on part or all of the Lost Palms Oasis or Mastodon Peak Trails. Both offer some pretty gorgeous sunset views (so I’ve heard anyway; with a baby and 3 year old in tow, we had to cut or losses and call it a day.)
Joshua Tree with Kids: Where to Stay
While you can totally make Joshua Tree a day trip from Palm Springs (as we did), some might want an extra day or two to explore. If that sounds like you, your best bet would be a hotel in either Yucca Valley or Twentynine Palms, close to the western and northern park entrances.
A couple of good, family-friendly choices include:
Best Western Joshua Tree ($$, Yucca Valley) | Though a little outside the park’s west entrance, the Best Western in Yucca Valley offers everything you need in a clean and comfortable hotel, plus lots of restaurants and stores nearby for essentials.
Compare Prices at: Booking.com | Hotels.com
Holiday Inn Express & Suites ($$, Twentynine Palms) | Situated near Joshua Tree’s north entrance in Twentynine Palms, the Holiday Inn has a few larger suites to better accommodate families.
Compare Prices at: Booking.com | Hotels.com
There are also plenty of great budget-friendly Airbnbs to be found, either in Joshua Tree or nearby Palm Springs. Use this referral link to receive $40 in free credit when you book your first Airbnb stay!
Have you been to Joshua Tree? What are your favorite spots?