The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Joshua Tree National Park in 1 Day

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Conquering Joshua Tree National Park in one day is definitely possible – with a little bit of sunscreen and a lot of determination. Oh, and a car.

Disclaimer: This blog post is not for hardcore hikers. It is, however, for travelers and photographers who want to hit the highlights and get the most out of their day trip. If this sounds like you, then keep reading!

Although the busy season runs from October through May, we found our visit in February to be perfect – few crowds, little traffic and beautiful (albeit a little chilly) weather. Of course, keep an eye on the forecast, because just a couple weeks after we visited, it snowed in the park, closing some of the roads.

Plan to enter from the south, which offers the best route through the park. You’ll witness the most phenomenal sunset, plus you’ll exit through the town of Joshua Tree, where you can have dinner at a cozy cafe.

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Here are the highlights you’ll hit, among others:

Joshua Tree Points of Interest

  • Porcupine Wash
  • Ocotillo Patch
  • Cholla Cactus Garden
  • Skull Rock
  • Joshua Trees

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Before you hit the road, pack a lunch, some snacks and plenty of water, as there are no concessions inside the park. Fill up on gas and be sure to use the restroom too. The restrooms are few and far between in the park, and you won’t want to lose precious time backtracking.

Speaking of which, it goes without saying to leave early, especially if you’re visiting during the winter months when the sun sets around 5 or 6 p.m. Stop in the Cottonwood Visitor Center, which opens at 8:30 a.m., to buy your park pass ($30 per car*) and grab a park map, then hop back in the car to begin your journey.

*Note: The park pass is actually valid for seven days; oddly enough, they don’t sell single-day park passes.

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Traveling through the park along Pinto Basin Road, you’ll come across a number of “exhibits”, aka attractions. The park is well signed, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the main exhibits like those included in this blog post.

Depending on the popularity (and location) of the exhibit, there are either designated shoulders to pull over and park or larger parking lots. In both cases, it’s easy and convenient to stop so you can sightsee.

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One note of caution, however: Don’t stop at every exhibit and try not to spend too much time at the smaller exhibits. You have to be quite efficient with your time if you want to make it to the Joshua trees before sunset.

Porcupine Wash

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The first exhibit we stopped at was Porcupine Wash, and while there were no porcupines in sight, we did catch our first glimpse of some of the jumbo rock formations that can be found (and climbed) throughout the park.

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If you want to spend a little additional time exploring here, you might just come across some petroglyphs – or drawings on rocks – which some say “may have been placed there by the Pinto Basin People, who inhabited the basin over 5,000 years ago.”

Ocotillo Patch

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These unusual, wispy plants are known as ocotillos, which get their name from the red tubular flowers that grow at the end of their stems from March through June. The word “ocotillo” means “little torch” in Spanish.

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Cholla Cactus Garden

Not far from the Ocotillo Patch is the Cholla Cactus Garden. This is a can’t-miss exhibit!

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These fuzzy-looking cacti are known as teddy bear cholla [chohl-yah]. But don’t let their name fool you; the tiny barbs on their spines are quite painful.

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As you walk through the Cholla Cactus Garden, be sure to watch your step, as there are loose cacti on the ground and, trust us, they will stick to you. In fact, they’re nicknamed “jumping cholla” because the stem joints can easily detach and hitch a ride on you.

 

Skull Rock

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Just north of the Cholla Cactus Garden is the geographical divide between the Colorado Desert to the south and the Mojave Desert to the north. Amazingly, you’ll notice a stark contrast in landscape and vegetation between the two.

Here’s a quick side-by-side for reference (Colorado Desert on the left; Mojave Desert on the right):

 

Skull Rock is located about 10 miles north of the Cholla Cactus Garden off Pinto Basin Road along the main east-west park road. On your way to it, you’ll see a number of exhibits – some of them definitely worth stopping to see.

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But the real attraction, of course, is Skull Rock. This incredible rock formed over years of erosion from rain drops accumulating in tiny depressions on the granite.

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Joshua Trees

And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for! Just past Skull Rock are fields of Joshua trees. You’ll want to pull over right away and snap some pictures of these Dr. Seuss-esque plants, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so.

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Unique to the Mojave Desert, the Joshua tree isn’t actually a tree at all, but a member of the lily family. Still, they can grow up to an impressive 40 feet tall.

 

We arrived at the Joshua trees just before golden hour and watched the sun paint the landscape in its warm glow. There are few things more breathtaking than standing in an expansive desert staring in awe of Mother Nature.

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This beautiful scene is why starting your journey at the south entrance of the park offers the most rewarding end.

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After watching the sun set, exit the park through the west entrance (called Joshua Tree) and head to Crossroads Cafe – about a 10-minute drive.

Being that we visited in February when it was quite cold, we started our meal with some coffee and hot chocolate to warm up, then ordered a chicken quesadilla and the “Pioneer Pesto”, a sandwich with chicken, tomatoes, basil, cheese and pesto.

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If you’re like us and want to stargaze or try your hand at astrophotography, this cafe is a great place to relax and kill time while waiting for the stars to come out. We used the time to review our footage and post on social media, which, I should note, you can’t do while you’re in the park because there’s no cell service.

Stargazing & Light Painting in Joshua Tree National Park

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When we returned to the park, we drove just beyond the Joshua Tree entrance and parked on one of the designated shoulders.

With the sound of coyotes howling in the distance, we stood on the side of the road gazing up at the tail of the Milky Way. Then, we set our tripods up, turned our cameras and headlamps on and danced under the stars.

 

What a freeing feeling it is to be in Joshua Tree National Park in the middle of the night. It’s even better when you’re with your soulmate, braving the bitter cold temperatures and having the time of your life.

If you plan to stay in Joshua Tree after dark to stargaze, be sure to bring headlamps – not just so you can see your camera and equipment when shooting, but so drivers can see you when they pass by. Wear warm layers too – a winter coat, scarf, hat and gloves (yes, it gets cold in the desert at night!).

Keep in mind that even though it may feel like you’re the only people around for miles and miles, sound carries and the town of Joshua Tree isn’t actually that far away. Be respectful to them and the campers nearby.

10 Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Some of these tips seem obvious, but they’re important to keep in mind as you plan your trip:

  1. Do some research ahead of time to plan out what additional spots you’d like to see.
  2. Pack a lunch and plenty of water.
  3. Fill up your gas tank and use the restroom at the visitor center, as there are few restrooms inside the park.
  4. Enter at the south for the best route through the park.
  5. Bring sunscreen and sunglasses.
  6. Wear the right kind of shoes. We recommend hiking shoes, but sneakers will work.
  7. Don’t stop at every single exhibit. It’s easier said than done, but if you want to see the Joshua trees (which we’re sure you do), you don’t want the sun to set before you get to them!
  8. Watch your step when venturing out into the exhibits. There are loose cacti on the ground around the Cholla Cactus Garden and they will stick to you!
  9. The park passes are actually valid for one week, so if you have any time during the rest of your California trip, you can always return.
  10. If you plan to stay past dark, bundle up and bring a headlamp. The headlamp is a lifesaver in two ways: it’ll alert cars to slow down if they’re near you and it’s amazingly helpful in seeing your camera if you’re doing astrophotography.

 

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