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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Joshua Tree National Park in 1 day

So you want to go to Joshua Tree National Park? 
Oh, and you only have one day.  
You came to the right spot. 

In true KW fashion I am also always trying to cram as much adventure into a day as possible.  Welcome to the guide that will get you into and through the park in one day while seeing some of the bigger sites.  In one day you can fit in an auto tour of the park with a short but steady hike, a cactus stroll and a chance to climb around some rocks shaped like skulls.  With a lot of sites right off the main drive and an early start and a plan, you can get a good taste of Joshua Tree in just one day.  

Of course, you can spend a week in the park, hiking every trail and seeing all the sites of this amazing National Park.  But I have a whole lot of National Parks to see and not a ton of time.  This is going to be an Auto Tour that combines both deserts in a day, hiking and photographing your way around the major sites of the park.  I loved the varied terrain in the park and the auto tour that let us get a glimpse of both deserts.  The hike to Ryan Mountain was a crowd favorite as the views of the desert below were phenomenal.  The Cholla Cactus Garden was another favorite as who knew cactus could be so darn cute.  Skeleton Rock was an easy chance to stretch our legs and scramble around some of the large boulders in the park.    But before I give away all my travel plans and share my "one-day itinerary", let's talk a little bit about the park and it's famous Joshua Trees.

Welcome sign at Cottonwood Vistor Center

Visitor Centers
There are a few visitor centers.... three plus a nature center to be exact.  What you need to know is that during the busy season (spring and fall) the northern visitor centers, especially the Joshua Tree Visitor Center will have a long line to enter the park.  If you are visiting the park on a beautiful sunny weekend, I highly advise you consider entering the park at one of the other visitor centers.  It was one of those beautiful spring Sunday mornings so we decided to head straight to the less popular Cottonwood Visitor Center. 
  • Joshua Tree Visitor Center  8 am to 5 pm Located one block south of Hwy 62 (Twentynine Palms Highway) at 6554 Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree, CA
  • Oasis Visitor Center  8:30 am to 5 pm.  Located at park headquarters: 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA  at the junction of Utah Trail and National Park Drive.
  • Cottonwood Visitor Center  8:30 am to 4 pm daily.  Located eight miles north of Interstate 10 at Cottonwood Spring.
  • Black Rock Nature Center Open October through May.  8 am to 4 pm except on Friday; Noon to 8 pm on Friday.  Located at 9800 Black Rock Canyon Road, Yucca Valley, CA in Black Rock Campground.
Entrance fee: $25 per vehicle for seven days; $12 for motorcycles or bicycles, as well as on foot.  I suggest getting the annual National Park Pass.

Summit of Ryan Mountain

Basic Park Info

  • Designated/formed in 1994.  Originally as part of the Desert Protection Bill, Joshua Tree National Monument was elevated to national park status on October 31, 1994
  • In 2015, the park visitation surpassed 2 million people for the first time ( 2,025,756). 
  • Technically, the park is an accessible all-year park.  Best season to visit the park is spring and fall (avoid summer!)
  • Summers are hot, with midday temperatures frequently above 100°F, and ground temperatures reaching 180°F. 
  • The park covers nearly 800,000 acres and elevations range from 900 feet to over 5,000 feet above sea level
  • U2 released The Joshua Tree in March 1987. "It was this album that catapulted the four Irishmen to international stardom and drew the curious eyes of a generation to the otherworldly landscapes of the Southern California desert. The iconic back cover photo by Anton Corbijn, showing the band standing near a lone Joshua tree, cemented the association between the park and the album—even though the picture was taken off Highway 190 near Death Valley, about 200 miles north of here".
  • There are 93 miles of paved roads, 106 miles of unpaved roads, 9 campgrounds with 523 campsites, 2 horsecamps, and 10 picnic areas with 38 picnic sites. 
  • There are 32 trailheads and 191 miles of hiking trails throughout the park

Famous Joshua Trees 

All About the Joshua Trees
  • The Joshua Tree is not a tree or a cactus. It’s a member of the agave family.  Joshua Trees are actually branching Yuccas. 
  • By the mid-19th century, Mormon immigrants had made their way across the Colorado River. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. 
  • You really won't see many (or any?) Joshua Trees in the southern part of the park.  They are found dispersed throughout the north part of the park because of the two different deserts within the park. 

Desert Landscape

One Park, Two Deserts 
  • Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP) covers two desert systems, the Mojave and the Colorado, two arid ecosystems of very different appearance. 
  • What's the secret to the differences in these two neighboring deserts?  Elevation.
  • The Colorado (western reach of the vast Sonoran Desert) is below 3,000 feet on the eastern side of the park.  Here, temperatures are usually higher and it is considered a "low desert".  The Mojave on the western half of the park is considered a "high desert' and is wetter with more vegetation. Colorado have the Cactus, Mojave has the Joshua trees. 
  • The Mojave Desert zone on the park's western half is on average 11 degrees cooler than the Colorado. In winter, snow may blanket the Mojave's higher elevations.

Flowering cactus 

  • Wildflowers may begin blooming in the lower elevations of the Pinto Basin and along the park's south boundary in February and at higher elevations in March and April. Desert regions above 5,000 feet may have plants blooming as late as June.
  • Park staff and volunteers compile their wildflower observations weekly during the spring season to produce a list of the wildflowers that are currently in bloom and where you can see them. Check out our Wildflower Report Blog to learn more

Entrance to Cholla Gardens 


I love bringing my dog everywhere but let's face it, this is just not a good place for pets (desert, cactus, heat, etc).  While pets are allowed in the park, they are not allowed on any trails.  Pets are only permitted on the paved Oasis of Mara trail.  Within the park, pets must be on a leash at all times and cannot be more than 100 feet from a road, picnic area, or campground.  They must never be left unattended—not even in a vehicle.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Before You Go 
  • GAS- fill up at Twentynine Palms (a small town just North of Joshua Tree National Park)
  • LAYERS- layers are very important.  It's a desert so it goes from hot to cold very fast.  Sunscreen is also a must as shade is very scarce and the sun is not forgiving.   
  • WATER- Bring lots of water with you.  Water is available at only a few locations around the edges of the park:  Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms, Black Rock Campground, Cottonwood Campground, West Entrance, and Indian Cove Ranger Station. 

Our route from LA to Joshua Tree NP 


If you only have a half day, or really want to focus on longer hikes, just do the northern route.  However, if you really want to drive THROUGH the park and spend time in both deserts (as I recommend you should), you should drive from south to north, starting at the Cottonwood Visitor Center and ending in the Town of Joshua Tree.  We tried to leave the day on the emptier side, allowing ample time for last minute stops to grab a few pictures on the scenic road.  We also wanted to get back to LA at a decent hour and left the park just before dinner time.  We had time to drive through the park (south to north), have lunch, hike, stop at two other key spots, and be back in LA County for dinner.  

  1. We had a later start, leaving LA around 7:30.  We left the LA area and headed south to Palm Springs to the Cottonwood Visitor Center.  We picked up lunch at a deli along the way.  There is no food in the park so make sure you have lunch packed (as well as snacks and lots of water).  
  2. Start at Cottonwoods Visitor Center (opens at 8;30).  Grab a trail map, talk to the park rangers, pick up a souvenir.  You likely only have time for one "real" hike.  Ask them about the best hike to do.  We talked to them about Ryan Mountain and Lost Horse Mine.  
  3. Leave the visitor's center and drive north on the park road to your first stop, Cholla Cactus Garden.  It's a bit of a ride so sit back and take in the southern park/desert scenery.  
  4. Cholla Cactus Garden is right off the main road with a 1/4 mile loop trail among the chollas.  Do the nature walk around the garden.  Even taking our time and stopping for photos we probably only spent 20-30 minutes here.  Note:  There aren't any restrooms or water here. This is also a good spot to stop for a morning snack. 
  5. Head north to your next stop:  Skull Rock.  Skull Rock is located right off the road and no hiking is needed to access this viewpoint.  We spent about 30 minutes climbing around the rocks and taking pictures.  This is a really fun spot for kids to climb around and explore as well.  The main rock resembling a skull is heavily photographed but the other rocks around this area provide awesome photo opportunities as well.  We probably spent a half hour or so here.  If you want to do the 1.8 mile loop hike around, that is always an option.  Two hikes are doable in one day if you keep them both as shorter options (the arch is another short hike option). 
  6. Have lunch in the park (hopefully, you remembered to pack one).  There are picnic areas along the way or even stop at one of the campgrounds.  We ended up enjoying our sandwiches at the Ryan Mountain Trailhead before (and after) our hike. 
  7. Head to the Ryan Mountain Trailhead for a hike to the second highest point in the park.  The hike is 3 miles RT and will likely take you 2ish hours.  It is short but climbs some elevation so may be tough for some individuals- I would call this a "harder easy trail".  If you need a flatter hike, check out Lost Horse Mine or ask the ranger for other options. 
  8. After the hike, take the road heading back south for a quick detour to Keys Views. This gives you a great spot to see views of the park and is especially popular at sunset.  Don't miss the turn as we did, pay attention for that left turn shortly after leaving Ryan Mountain. 
  9. Continue north, exiting the park and entering the Town of Joshua Tree.
  10. Explore the Town of Joshua Tree- stop at a shop and grab coffee or dinner and a drink. National Park Towns are always insanely adorable.  Spend some time eating drinking and exploring your way through this cute little town.  
  11. Head back to LA :)

Obviously, I made this a "1 Day in Joshua Tree" post but if you are interested in spending the night and camping (which I wish I had time for) you can find out more about camping in the park HERE.   Joshua Tree in one day is enough to see the major sites and really enjoy the park.  While I would love to come back, there are so many other National Parks to see and Joshua Tree was kind of a one and done for me.  While not my favorite National Park, I love spending time in the desert, and the views and landscape in this park do not disappoint.

Joshua Tree, thanks for the lovely Sunday.
Don't forget to comment below on how you enjoyed your day in JTNP 

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