While Joshua Tree may have become a pop culture phenomenon thanks to U2’s 1987 album of the same name, it wasn’t until it became an Instagram darling that I finally wanted to visit this national park in California. And lucky for me, I’ve visited Palm Springs twice in the past two years, which was the perfect opportunity to spend one day in Joshua Tree.
How to get to Joshua Tree
If you’re staying in Palm Springs or one of the eight other neighboring communities, it’s a very easy drive to Joshua Tree: roughly 45 minutes by car depending on what part of the desert you’re staying in. You will, of course, need a rental car, which you can pick up at Palm Springs Airport. I’d recommend booking this as far out as you can as car inventory is limited.
What part of Joshua Tree should I visit?
The north entrance is the most popular part of Joshua Tree, and also more desolate. It’s high desert in nature, quite rocky, and there isn’t quite the density of Joshua trees as there is the south part of the park.
We chose to visit the north part of Joshua Tree as we wanted to see the view from Key’s View, and it was epic and worth it. We also left Palm Springs just before sunrise, so were some of the first people at Key’s View and didn’t have to fight crowds because we got there so early. By 11am, the park was really starting to fill up.
From Key’s View, you can see the Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault and all the natural wonder created by the colliding of tectonic plates millions of years ago. On a clear day, you’ll also see Mount San Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio. Make Key’s View your first stop in Joshua Tree.
The Joshua tree is part of the Yucca family, a tree-like in habit that looks like it came straight out of the Lorax.
No matter what part of the park you’re in, you will see Joshua trees and, like us, you’ll probably find yourself pulling over regularly to photograph them. They’re just so dang cool!
There are several hikes near the north entrance of the park, and when you stop to pay your park entrance at the visitor’s center, you can pick up a map and have a park ranger mark out some of the better ones for you depending on your preferences.
We hiked the Barker Dam Trail loop and Wall Street Mill. We also stopped at plenty of the major sites such as Skull Rock as we were driving around the park.
If you want the park to yourself, the south entrance is where you go. The hikes are empty especially in the morning, and sunset at the Cholla Cactus Garden is pure magic. The one-mile Hidden Valley Nature Trail Trailhead is an easy walk if you have limited time or don’t want to hike too far.
The south is particularly busy around sunset and the hours that follow as Joshua Tree is one of the few parks that stays open after dark due to it being a big stargazing destination.
Where to stay near Joshua Tree
On this visit to Southern California, we stayed in a fabulous vacation rental in the Movie Colony neighborhood of Palm Springs. Here are a few other cool places I’ve bookmarked for next time we’re out that way:
You could also look for a rental house in Joshua Tree if you plan to spend more time in the park. It’s pretty sleepy out there, so I only recommend this route if you plan to spend your evenings stargazing and your days truly exploring the park (and maybe if you rent a house like this one with a pool).
Otherwise, I recommend staying in Palm Springs, 40 miles from the northern entrance of the park, or renting a house down in Palm Desert, 38 miles from the southern entrance of the park. There are also plenty of cool hotels in the area if that’s more your jam. We visited the restaurants and pool areas of many of them, including:
- Ace Hotel and Swim Club Palm Springs
- The Saguaro Palm Springs
- Movie Colony Hotel
- Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs Hotel
- AutoCamp Joshua Tree Airstreams
Tips for visiting Joshua Tree
My number one tip for visiting Joshua Tree National Park is to pack plenty of water and snacks, preferably a meal if you’re planning to stay through lunch time. There are not—I repeat, there are not—resources within the park. You need to come prepared.
That said, at the entrance to the park, you can buy bottled water and light snacks if you forgot to pack anything.
Likewise, be sure you’ve gassed up before you enter the park, because again, you won’t find a gas station anywhere nearby.
Get there early. This is a very busy park no matter the time of year, but we found leaving Palm Springs at sunrise and getting there around when the park opened gave us several hours without crowds. We left around lunchtime when it started getting busy.
The best time to go to Joshua Tree is fall or winter. High summer is so hot in the desert, you likely won’t want to get out and do any hiking. But the spring months, in particular, are pleasant at 70’s during the day and 50’s at night. The closer you inch toward summer, obviously, the hotter it will get. In March, I needed a light jacket or sweatshirt when I was inside the park.
One thing to know about this area of California in general is just how windy it is. Every time I’m in Palm Springs, it shocks me all over again; those Santa Ana winds are real.
I can’t wait to go back and see more of the park, as our one day in Joshua Tree was such a tease. There’s much more to do, see and hike if you have a weekend in the park.
How to plan a longer trip road trip to California
In March of the past two years, I’ve visited Palm Springs twice: one for five nights and one for four nights to attend the famed Indian Wells tennis tournament. In theory, you could do a longer California road trip that follows this itinerary:
- Fly into Palm Springs (PSP); spend a few nights in the desert.
- Drive west toward the coast; spend a couple nights in Los Angeles.
- Alternately, you could tack on another park and see Death Valley National Park instead.
- Drive north up the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1), stopping in Santa Barbara and Big Sur.
- Spend a few days in Santa Cruz or Monterey before heading to the Bay Area.
- End your trip in San Francisco with a few days in the city before flying out of SFO or Oakland (OAK).