Last weekend Brian and I headed to Palm Springs, a destination we’ve visited often, but while there we decided to add in a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park. As a lover of the outdoors I’ve always wanted to travel here but never put two and two together that Joshua Tree was only 45 minutes away from Palm Springs. I’ve heard incredible stories and seen beautiful desert scenery photos, but actually being here and seeing the landscapes for myself blew all of my expectations. If you appreciate the outdoors, are up for a little added adventure, and find yourself in Palm Springs for Coachella or any other desert getaway, a trip to this incredible National Park is truly worth adding to your travel bucket list.
START THE DAY EARLY
There’s SO much to see in Joshua Tree and you have to go in knowing that you won’t be able to see it all in just a day, but the trick to taking on a Joshua Tree Day trip from Palm Springs is starting bright and early. We set our alarm for 5 am, slipped straight into our clothes that we sat out the night before, and set out for the desert before the sun began to rise. If you’re coming from Palm Springs, we recommend starting your day trip off at the South entrance off of Interstate 10. This is the closest direct route coming from Palm Desert, and it sets you up to drive directly through the entire park and end the day in the town of Joshua Tree. There is a $25 fee per car, that gives you access to the park for 7 days for those of you staying longer, and if you arrive early like we did, you’ll pay this fee once you exit.
MAP OUT YOUR DAY
The park rangers provide park maps upon entering, but if you plan on arriving early in the morning the visitor centers do not open until 8am. I recommend stopping at the Cottonwood Visitor Center about 10 minutes into your drive on your right-hand side (you won’t miss it!). There is a posted map outside on a bulletin that you can take a photo of to map out your stops. I was a little worried going in that we would miss one of the main sites I had on my list, but if you continue down the one main road from entrance to exit, you will hit everything you need to see if you only have a day.
PLAN FOR ZERO CELL SERVICE
One of the best and worst parts of Joshua Tree is that there is no service. I personally needed a little tech break, but be sure to bring a car charger, screenshot photos or write in your notes the places you want to go. You won’t be able to look anything up or use maps once inside, but everything is clearly marked so you shouldn’t have a hard time finding anything if you stay on the main path.
EXPLORE EACH UNIQUE AREAS
Once you enter the park, prepare to begin the journey of having your mind blown! One of the biggest things that stood out to me was how different each area was. While it’s all desert land, there are little “pockets” all throughout the national park with new landscapes, features, and nuances that make each area unique and original.
CHOLLA CACTUS GARDEN
While you’ll definitely get snap happy as the sun begins to illuminate the desert scenery, the first noteworthy stopping point on the journey is the Cholla Cactus Garden. I’m so glad we started here while the day was still young because the early morning light makes these unique cacti almost appear to glow. They start popping up out of nowhere, span for miles, then disappear as the road winds on. If you’re looking to experience Joshua Tree’s Unique desert scenery and appreciate the beauty of cacti, I definitely recommend a picturesque stop here. * There’s a .25 mile loop trail, just off the turn out to get the full effect.
ARCH ROCK// WHITE TANK CAMPGROUND HIKE
My favorite and most memorable part of Joshua Tree was Arch Rock and the stunning surrounding rock areas. I recommend experiencing this incredible area from the outside in the get the full effect. As the road continues to evolve from densely populated plant areas to vast look outs of mountain ranges, you’ll see incredible rock formations appear almost out of nowhere. Having no clue that the famous “Arch Rock” was located just inside, we stopped, snapped a few pics, and took in the incredible landscape from afar. It was only once we continued onward and decide to go into the White Tank area to get a better look, that we realized these one-of-a-kind rock formations were not only a campground but home to one of Joshua Trees most well-known landmarks. I’d definitely add the .5 mile hike, accessible from White Tank Campground, to your must-do list. You’ll quickly find Arch Rock tucked away in the middle, but there’s so much more to see and take in in addition to this beautiful natural feature.
** *If we had more time and were doing a weekend camping trip, we would have chosen White Tank Campground as our #1 choice based off of the many camp areas we came across. It’s more secluded with only 15 designated spaces and feels quintessentially Joshua Tree.
I’ve seen so many photos of Skull Rock on Instagram and Pinterest and definitely feel like it’s worth the stop, especially considering that it’s right off the road. If you have the energy and are feeling up for it, there’s also a 1.5-mile Skull Rock loop hike that’s fairly easy and scenic and lets out at another photo-worthy destination, Jumbo Rocks.
Because our day started so early, our energy levels were dying down a bit. I recommend coming equipped with several water bottles and a few energy bars since there are obviously no places for food inside the park. Once we refueled, we continued to our next destination known to represent Joshua Tree: The Jumbo Rocks. This is another great place to go camping if you’re looking to stay longer and want to turn your experience into a weekend camping trip. The hike here is actually the same trail that passes by Skull Rock, so if you want to hit these two destinations and are up for 1.5 miles of hiking, this one’s for you.
You’ll hit a part on your drive where there’s row after row of Joshua Trees. It’s not a designated stop and photos hardly do it justice, but the scenery in itself is worth taking some time to admire.
HALL OF HORRORS
If you enjoy rock climbing or want to experience some of Joshua Tree’s incredible boulder’s I recommend adding a stop at the Hall of Horrors to your travel list. There are designated routes to the specific climbing areas, and a loop walking trail if you just want to enjoy the scenery and see some of the climbers in action.
Hidden Valley has one of the easiest 1-mile loop scenic hikes in Joshua Tree. Enclosed by rocks and just off the main road, it’s a great place to soak in the beauty of Joshua Tree before leaving.
After a full morning of hiking and exploring as much as we could see in a quick day trip to Joshua Tree, we were absolutely starving. If you have the time and love home style cooking, definitely add a stop at the Country Kitchen to your itinerary before heading back out of town. There was a bit of a wait as we went on a Sunday, but the chocolate chip pancakes and Denver omelet were absolutely worth it! (Open 6:30am-3pm daily; closed Tuesdays)
Even in just those 5 hours of exploring the park we felt completely inspired. Had we had more time, we would have loved to explored each area a bit longer, added the Keys View, Barker Dam, and a few more hikes to our list. Because we left enough time in the day to return to Palm Springs and enjoy some pool time before our trek back to LA, we weren’t able to stay until Sunset. But I definitely can’t wait to come back for a camping trip and experience the nighttime stars and scenery.