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With its towering boulders, diverse desert life, and iconic namesake trees, it’s no wonder that over two million people make the journey into the desert to visit Joshua Tree National Park every year. Most people who visit Joshua Tree take a day trip from the Palm Springs or Los Angeles area. If they get an early start, visitors will find they can see and do quite a bit in a short amount of time. Here are our best tips on visiting Joshua Tree NP for the day.
When to visit Joshua Tree National Park
It is generally suggested that you avoid visiting Joshua Tree during the summer months. The heat is oppressive, shade is minimal, and climbing on sun-baked rocks (the park’s main attraction, especially for kids) in the 100-degree heat could result in burns. Highs during the cool season (November through February) are typically in the 60s and 70s, perfect for hiking. March is still pleasant with temps in the 80s. April and October bring temps creeping into the 90s. From May to September, expect highs from 90-110. My favorite time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is during a wildflower bloom after a wet winter when the desert comes alive with color.
7 Things to Know Before You Go to Joshua Tree National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park is home to two distinct desert environments: the high desert, Mojave, and the low desert, Colorado. Each desert features different elevation, climate, plants, and animals. Most of the big attractions in Joshua Tree are in the high desert. This part of the park is typically cooler than the low desert (though still very hot during the summer months) and 40-degree temperature swings are common within a 24-hour period. Bottom line: Bring layers.
- There is no cell reception in most of the park. You may receive cell service at the park entrance, up at Keys View, or high atop another mountain or boulder pile, but don’t count on it. Enjoy the downtime from technology.
- There are no food services within the park. My family brings a cooler full of sandwiches, drinks, and snacks when we visit the park. There are several places with picnic tables inside the park. Our favorite place to picnic is among the boulders at Hidden Valley.
- The only place to get water within the park is at a visitor center so bring MORE than you think you will need. The desert is often hot and usually dry. Water is essential.
- There are no gas stations inside the park. There are several along Highway 62. I suggest filling up before you enter the park.
- There are no accommodations inside Joshua Tree National Park. If you want to stay in the park you must camp. There is motel-style lodging nearby in Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree, and Yucca Valley. Resort-style lodging can be found in Palm Springs which is about an hour away from the park entrance.
- Your Joshua Tree essentials pack should include sunscreen, a hat, plenty of water, and a first aid kit.
Before you enter the main portion of the park, start your morning by taking the scenic hike to 49 Palm Oasis which is on a spur road off Highway 62 in between the Joshua Tree and 29 Palms entrance.
This stunner of a hike (2.8 miles round trip) gains 620 feet in elevation through classic high desert scenery and has plenty of boulders for the kids to scramble on along the way. The reward is the 49 Palm Oasis, a lush reprieve in the desert. A good portion of this trail is exposed so start early if you are visiting the park on a warm day.
Which Joshua Tree National Park Entrance Should You Take?
I suggest entering the park at the north entrance in Twentynine Palms. The main visitor center (Oasis Visitor Center) and park headquarters are located there. This is a great spot to fill up your reusable water bottles, peruse some exhibits, pick up your Junior Ranger booklets, and use the restroom before heading out into the park.
The Oasis of Mara is located next to the Oasis Visitor Center. There is a short, paved, nature trail (0.6 miles) which loops around the oasis and is nice for families with strollers.
Why avoid the West Entrance in Joshua Tree? Because almost all the people coming from Los Angeles and Palm Springs use the West Entrance and the lines for entry can back up for a mile during the busy season.
Explore more of the Golden State. Here are the best things to do in California with kids.
The Best Joshua Tree Hikes and Attractions in the High Desert
Home to diverse plant and wildlife, including the iconic Joshua Trees, the high desert is the most heavily visited part of the park. For most families, the main attractions are the park’s boulders, which call visitors to climb and explore. Here are some of my favorite spots for day trippers visiting the high desert of Joshua Tree National Park.
The massive boulder of Skull Rock really does look like a skull! Park alongside the road and enjoy scrambling and exploring the piles of boulders in this area. There is a 1.7-mile trail from the Jumbo Rocks campground but we prefer to skip the walk and just climb on the rocks and make our own trail through the boulders.
Kids will enjoy this 1.1-mile loop trail because there are plenty of small boulders to climb atop along the way to the historic Barker Dam. Bighorn sheep use the dam as a watering hole and prehistoric rock art can be found alongside the trail. Please respect the art and look but don’t touch.
Long before Joshua Tree became a national park, hearty people called this part of the country home. The Keys Ranch Tour takes visitors to the former homestead of Bill and Frances Keys, which includes a ranch house, schoolhouse, and store.
This guided walking tour is a good way to learn about what life was like for Joshua Tree pioneers. It is 90 minutes in length and is limited to groups of 25 at a time. It often sells out.
You can only buy tickets at the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms, beginning at 8:30am each day. The cost is $10 for adults and children 12 and older, $5 for children 6 to 11, and free for 5 and under. Seniors pay just $5. Visit the park’s calendar page for tour times.
Hidden Valley is a great spot to climb and scramble over massive boulders. People love to scale these piles of rocks when they visit Joshua Tree National Park. There is a nice 1-mile loop trail which circles around the Hidden Valley area. The area also features several picnic tables and bathrooms.
The Ryan Mountain trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park. The trail gains 1,000 feet in just 1.5 miles before reaching the 5,461′ summit. The reward for all that huffing and puffing is a 360-degree view of Joshua Tree NP.
5,000 feet above sea level at the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, Keys View is popular for, well, the views!
There is a short .25 trail which features a sweeping view of the Coachella Valley (home to Palm Springs and several other desert communities), Mt. San Jacinto, Mt. San Gorgonio, the Salton Sea, and the San Andreas Fault. On especially clear days you can even see the mountains of Mexico.
Low Desert Attractions in Joshua Tree National Park
The low desert portion of the park is less visited but certainly deserves your attention. Those staying in the Coachella Valley can take Pinto Basin Road through the low desert until it meets up with Interstate 10, east of Indio.
Interstate 10 West will take you back to the Coachella Valley. If you are staying in one of the high desert communities or heading back to the Los Angeles area, consider at least driving down to the Cholla Cactus Garden and Ocotillo Patch.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Located near where the high desert and low desert converge, the Cholla Cactus Garden is filled with plants that look soft enough to cuddle. Resist your urges!
The Cholla cactus may have the nickname “Teddy Bear Cactus” but it is far from cuddly. The plants’ needles will attach to anything that touches them using curved barbs on their tips. A short, .25-mile trail meanders through a large patch of these pesky cacti. It fun to take pictures pretending to touch or snuggle with the plants, just don’t get to close!
Just beyond the Cholla Cactus Garden is the Ocotillo Patch, a collection of these majestic desert plants. They are especially beautiful in the spring when they are ablaze with red-orange blossoms.
Cottonwood Visitor Center
This small visitor center is a good place to stop for maps, to talk with rangers, or to turn in completed Junior Ranger Booklets. Bathrooms are available. Take the short walk to Cottonwood Spring, a popular birding spot that features a fan palm oasis and cottonwood trees.
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