The ultimate 1-day Joshua Tree National Park itinerary: 9 best hikes & scrambles (post-COVID)
Largely popularised by the 1987 U2 album of the same name, Joshua Tree straddles the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in southern California, making it an incredibly popular destination for LA locals and travellers alike. If you’ve yet to experience it for yourself, you might be forgiven for thinking J Tree is just an overhyped, insta-famous desert with heaps of strange trees— in reality, though, this is one of the coolest national parks in the entire country, boasting an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, accessible hiking trails, world-class rock climbing, and an indescribably cool vibe (really, this place is magic).
But Joshua Tree isn’t like other parks, whose main attractions are short hikes or scenic viewpoints off the main drag— what makes this place so special is the ability to discover something unique every single time you visit, just by pointing out an intriguing rock pile and finding your own way to the top. If you stay only on the signed trails, you’re doing it wrong.
This 1-day itinerary for Joshua Tree National Park crams in 5 awesome hikes, explores the hidden Chasm of Doom, and showcases some of the best scrambling, finally concluding with sunset at popular Keys Lookout. Read on to discover absolutely everything you need to know for the ultimate day at Joshua Tree National Park, including when to visit, how to get there and where to stay nearby, COVID closures and park health measures, essential packing list, and a super detailed 1-day itinerary with all the best hikes and scrambles.
Check out other posts in my 1-day National Park & Public Land series:
- Alabama Hills National Scenic Area
- Arches National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park COMING SOON
- Canyonlands National Park
- Death Valley National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park COMING SOON
- Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
- Saguaro National Park COMING SOON
- Valley of Fire State Park COMING SOON
- Yosemite National Park
- Zion National Park COMING SOON
About Joshua Tree National Park
Established as a national monument in 1936 and later a national park in 1994, Joshua Tree protects hundreds of desert plants and animals, although its whimsical namesake is certainly what draws the crowds.
Joshua Trees earned their name from early Mormon settlers in the area, who thought the Y-shaped branches resembled the prophet Joshua praising Jesus— most would agree that it’s a fairly tenuous likeness, but the name stuck regardless, and now millions of annual visitors flock to the southern California desert to hike, climb, and just generally ogle these unique yucca trees.
Something that will immediately strike you within the park (and its surrounding areas) is the puzzling distribution of Joshua Trees— the Colorado Desert in the east hosts no Joshua Trees at all, an alarming contrast to the dense concentration you’ll find in the centre and northern reaches of J Tree, as well as scattered throughout the Mojave National Preserve or punctuating the otherwise barren scenery en route to Death Valley.
There’s no question that Joshua Trees are partial to the ecology and climate of the Mojave Desert, but scientists have also recently discovered another important factor limiting the trees’ range. Some 12,000 years ago, Joshua Trees’ main method of dispersal was via the giant Shasta ground sloth, who ate and later defected seeds as far as 10mi away. With the extinction of this sloth, the proliferation of Joshua Trees has been largely halted— desert rodents now play a small role in seed dispersal, but on a much more minute scale (we’re taking metres rather than miles).
What this means is that Joshua Trees aren’t expanding their territory, and may in fact be shrinking, making this national park and neighbouring protected areas all the more vital in preserving one of the desert’s most beloved (and critical) species.
Planning your trip
When to visit Joshua Tree National Park
Located in the southern California desert, Joshua Tree National Park is a year-round destination offering spectacular scenery and unique experiences 12 months of the year:
Summer (June to September) is the least recommended time to visit the park, with soaring temperatures approaching the 40s (105F) in the afternoon, little shade on any of the trails or scrambling routes, and nighttime temps offering limited relief at 25C (75F). The NPS doesn’t recommend doing any strenuous hikes during this time, and especially not in the heat of the day.
Autumn (September to November) & Spring (March to May) each boast comfortable daytime temperatures (25C/77F), although early mornings and nights can still be incredibly cold (0C/32F). Thanks to the more manageable hiking temperatures, though, these months are the busiest time in J Tree, so be prepared to queue up for photos at popular viewpoints and share climbing walls with dozens of others.
Winter (December to February) can be a good time to visit Joshua Tree, with far cooler days (15C/60F) and a relatively low number of visitors, but expect camping to be extremely cold and for short daylight hours to somewhat limit your itinerary. Higher elevation spots in the park might even get snow, but this is unlikely to impact you greatly.
Buying a parks pass for Joshua Tree National Park
As with the entire NPS network, there are fees associated with visiting Joshua Tree National Park. If you are only exploring the park for a single week and not planning to visit any other national parks in the next year, you can purchase a 7-day access pass for $30USD at the Visitor Centre (Joshua Tree or Oasis near 29 Palms) or at the entrance station (ONLY at the North or West entrances), which covers all people within your car. You can also get a digital entrance pass from Recreation.gov, just make sure to save to your phone since there is no reception in the park.
If you plan on visiting more than 3 US national sites in the next 12 months, it’s actually cheaper to get an annual parks pass for $80USD, accepted at all 63 national parks and thousands of other national monuments and forests around the country.
Purchase your America the Beautiful Pass at the same visitor centres and entrance stations selling 7-day passes (Oasis Visitor Centre, Joshua Tree Visitor Centre, or the West and North entrances), at Recreation.gov, or even in-store or online from outdoor retailers like REI.
COVID-safe in Joshua Tree National Park
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of public health advice from the CDC, the National Parks Service has implemented a number of health and safety measures across the entire network of US parks, mostly to minimise proximity between travellers and prevent the contamination of shared surfaces.
As of mid 2021, Joshua Tree National Park is open with a few restrictions:
- All travellers to the park are discouraged from interacting closely with people outside their party. Obviously this is difficult to enforce, but try to maintain a safe distance (2m) from other travellers at viewpoints, campsites, and on the trail.
- You are not required to wear a mask while hiking, but are encouraged to do so when it’s not possible to physically distance from people outside your party. I’d estimate about 80% of people on the trail were wearing masks during my March 2021 visit.
- All 3 of Joshua Tree’s Visitor Centres (Oasis Visitor Centre, Joshua Tree Visitor Centre, and Cottonwood Visitor Centre) are currently OPEN with limited capacity.
- All hikes and viewpoints within the park are open as normal, including Cholla Cactus Garden, Keys View, and Hidden Valley. Popular trails can still be busy, so use common sense and respect your fellow travellers.
- Public restrooms are open throughout the park and hand sanitiser is provided.
- If you are feeling unwell, DO NOT VISIT! Follow local public health guidelines and get tested before visiting the national park.
For the latest updates on trail closures and COVID safety practices within Joshua Tree National Park, visit the NPS website.
Other important things to know about Joshua Tree
- RECEPTION: Mobile reception in Joshua Tree is essentially non-existent, so make sure you’ve downloaded offline maps and done all your research prior to entering the park. I’d also recommend bringing a PLB on your scrambling and hiking adventures in case of emergency; I personally use a Garmin In-Reach Mini.
- WATER: There’s an excellent free water refill station at the Oasis Visitor Centre in 29 Palms (near the North Entrance) where we were able to fill up our entire 45g water tank on multiple occasions. There’s also a spigot at the West Entrance right as you come through the ranger station, but it’s no where near as convenient for filling a van or RV (although you should be able to park and fill jugs). Inside the park, there are only bubblers for drinking or filling water bottles.
- LEAVE NO TRACE: As with every outdoor adventure, and particularly those within protected natural areas, it is critical that you take steps to reduce human impact on the environment. This includes packing out all of your rubbish or disposing of it in the bins provided at most every trailhead, campsite, and viewpoint (many of these spots even have recycling bins!). I’d also encourage you to be mindful of where you go off-trail within the park— it’s absolutely part of the adventure, but not at the expense of delicate plantlife, so be sure to get your off-route kicks on the rocks or other durable surfaces.
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park
The most direct way to reach Joshua Tree National Park is from Los Angeles, but highly variable traffic means the journey can take anywhere from 2-4.5hrs, so definitely try to avoid travelling during the weekday commute or peak times on the weekend. Although most routes will have you entering the park via the main West Entrance (as it’s physically closer), this side always gets massively backed up and you can easily spend the better part of an hour queued up in the heat— instead, I’ve designed this itinerary to run east to west, so you can save time by entering via the North Entrance in 29 Palms (or even the Cottonwood entrance in the south, assuming you don’t need to purchase a pass on-site).
You can also access Joshua Tree in 3.5hrs from Phoenix, AZ, which will bring you to the very quiet Cottonwood entrance in the southern end of the park. You can definitely complete this entire itinerary heading northwest, so this can be an excellent way to avoid the chaos of the more popular West Entrance (near the town of Joshua Tree). Also note that from November to March, Arizona is actually 1hr ahead of California, meaning you will gain an hour heading west!
Getting around Joshua Tree National Park
Unlike many other national parks that operate a free or inexpensive shuttle, the only way to explore Joshua Tree is in your own vehicle— all main roads are paved and well-maintained, so there’s no need for 4WD or special tires.
Even without stops or detours, it’s about 50mi to cross the park, so be sure to fill up with fuel BEFORE entering (I made this mistake during my first visit and had to coast on neutral for most of the day!).
Make sure to pick up a free map when you come through the entrance, as there is NO mobile reception within the park! Most viewpoints and hikes are extremely well signed, but it helps to have a paper map to plan your visit. If you miss grabbing a map (outside of staffed hours; typically 8am-5pm) or prefer to use your phone, there’s a downloadable version of the NPS map available here and I’ve also marked all my recommended stops on a handy Google Map (which you can save to your phone) in the itinerary section below.
Where to stay near Joshua Tree National Park
If you’re hoping to stay overnight either before or after your day in Joshua Tree National Park, there are heaps of accomodation options available both inside and outside the park, ranging from backcountry camping to comfortable hotels.
In terms of hotels, I’d definitely recommend Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree (the town), or 29 Palms, all of which are located along the northern edge of the park and will give you good access for this itinerary (which starts at the North Entrance in 29 Palms and exits via the West Entrance in Joshua Tree). I’ve stayed at both of the hotels below and can recommend:
- High Desert Motel | This is a very basic motel in the town of Joshua tree with pretty outdated facilities, but it’s clean, cheap, and extremely close to the West Entrance, making it an excellent choice if you don’t have camping gear; double rooms from $60USD.
- Best Western Yucca Valley | A nicer option located in Yucca Valley, just west of Joshua Tree, with good facilities (private whirlpool, anyone?!) and comfortable rooms; starting at $110USD.
If you’re up for it, though, camping is SUCH a cool way to experience Joshua Tree, either inside or outside the park. Options range from paid with some minor conveniences (e.g. toilets) to free with absolutely zero facilities.
- There are 8 established campgrounds within Joshua Tree National Park, about half of which require a reservation (Black Rock, Cottonwood, Indian Cove, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan; $20-25/night) and the other half of which you can just rock up at (Belle, Hidden Valley, White Tank; $15/night). Most have very basic facilities (toilets, picnic tables, no showers, no reception). The most convenient campgrounds for this itinerary are Ryan or Hidden Valley, although you could also stay at Indian Cove, which has its own entrance between the normal West and North Entrances (not connected to the rest of the park).
- Backcountry camping is possible within the park with no advance reservation. Simply park at one of the park’s 13 registration boards, fill out a form with some basic details, and then set off into the wilderness— you are required to be at least 1.5km/1mi from the road, 500ft from the trail, and should take care to only camp on durable surfaces, but other than that you are free to camp pretty much anywhere you choose. You’ll need to pack in your own water and pack out all rubbish (including poo, yay), but it’s truly such a unique experience and one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in Joshua Tree, hands down. For this itinerary, I’d suggest camping near either Juniper Flats or Keys West.
- You can also camp for free within Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas surrounding the park. There are absolutely zero facilities, so you’ll either need to have a good backcountry camping setup or a self-contained van/camper, but this is an awesome way to get away from the bustle of crowded campsites and enjoy nature. For this itinerary, the North Joshua Tree BLM campground will work best (see the Google Map below for exact location). Always make sure to pack it in/pack it out to keep these public lands free of rubbish and preserved for future campers!
Packing list for Joshua Tree National Park
Although this is not intended to be a fully comprehensive packing list, here are some absolute essentials to pack for your day exploring Joshua Tree National Park:
- Day pack | I love my REI Flash 18 summit pack for short hikes and scrambles in the national park
- Water bottle | Plan to carry a couple of litres in the car and on longer hikes, as there is no water available in the park and it can get HOT; this is an awesome bottle with a built-in filter
- Snacks | To maximise time exploring, you need to pack food for snacks and lunch, as there is nothing available inside the park; if you plan to picnic, it can also be great to bring compact camping chairs like these awesome REI Flexlite Camp Chairs and a small table
- Camera (+ tripod if you’re trying to capture sunrise and sunset shots)
- Hat | I wore my Akubra Traveller through all of the national park and loved the sun coverage (not to mention all the compliments!); this is an Australian-made hat, but you can find it online at select retailers in the US and it is SO worth the money
- Boots or sturdy walking shoes | You can explore most of Joshua Tree in sturdy walking or hiking shoes, but I personally prefer boots when scrambling and did all of the activities on this itinerary in my square-toe 1306 Blundstones (also from Australia, but available in limited styles online in the US)
- Layers! | In autumn, spring, or winter, it is absolutely essential to have lots of layers, as temperatures can vary widely from early morning to mid afternoon; during both my November and March visits, I would start out the morning in a down jacket, mountain jacket, fleece jumper and be sweating in a sports bra by midday
*1-day Joshua Tree National Park itinerary
The following itinerary packs many highlights of Joshua Tree National Park into a single day, but you still ought to think of it more as a rough blueprint than a hard-and-fast schedule— the real magic of J Tree lies off the beaten path and up in the boulders of this adult playground. Side adventures are strongly encouraged!
Of Joshua Tree’s 3 entrances, the North Entrance near 29 Palms is the best place to begin your adventure (although you can also enter via Cottonwood in the south for an even more direct, albeit longer, route). You’ll first travel south along Park Boulevard and then continue a short distance onto Pinto Basin Road to explore the Cholla Cactus Garden and Arch Rock before retracing your steps north and turning left back onto Park Boulevard to hit up a number of other worthwhile stops, including Skull Rock, Ryan Mountain, and Hall of Horrors.
At Cap Rock, you’ll head north less than 2mi to Hidden Valley to squeeze your way through the Chasm of Doom, and then south again to wrap up the day at the park’s highpoint, Keys View. From here, it’s a straight shot north to the West Entrance to exit via the town of Joshua Tree, which positions you nicely for any of the accommodation options recommended above.
1 | Cholla Cactus Garden
0.4km / 0.25mi loop | negligible elevation gain | 20min
Whether entering from the southern Cottonwood station (and driving north) or via the North Entrance in 29 Palms (and driving south), your first stop of the day is at the magical Cholla Cactus Garden, where thousands of seemingly neon cacti bloom in dense concentration.
Also called Jumping Cholla, these cacti will eagerly attach to you if you get too close, so don’t drift too far off the flat boardwalk that weaves you through the garden. It’s a short, completely flat walk, but one of the best places to begin exploring the park— you’re right on the edge of the Colorado Desert here, and if you entered via the North Entrance in 29 Palms, it’s really your only opportunity to glimpse this section of the larger Sonoran Desert, as the rest of this itinerary falls within the Mojave.
After exploring the marked path through the cholla, I’d recommend running across the street and checking out the cacti on the opposite side. There are often jackrabbits scurrying around, and this side is far less crowded, affording better photos!
2 | Arch Rock
1.9km / 1.2mi loop | negligible elevation gain | 30min
Leaving Cholla Cactus Garden behind and crossing immediately after into the Mojave Desert, continue north a short distance along Pinto Basin Road to the White Tank/Twin Tanks area (the former is a campground and the latter is a backcountry registration board). If there’s space to park directly at White Tank, this actually cuts the hike down to 0.3mi, otherwise park at Twin Tanks for a slightly longer 1.3mi loop.
Although not shown on the official NPS map, Arch Rock is one of the most photographed spots in the park, and for good reason— this trail leads you out to a spectacular natural arch and some of my favourite scrambling in all of J Tree.
After getting photos at Arch Rock, continue onwards (I’d highly recommend getting off-trail) and explore tall formations of rock that just beg to be climbed.
This was the first place I ever scrambled in Joshua Tree and, if following this itinerary, it’s the first opportunity you’ll have to try your own footwork on the grippy monzogranite for which this area is known. You can easily spend 1-2hrs here, completing the loop and exploring off-route.
If you’re totally new to scrambling, the most important piece of advice I can give is to just make sure you’re wearing appropriate shoes— I saw heaps of people trying to run up the rock in Vans and, needless to say, they didn’t have great success, particularly when it came to getting back down.
And while you’ll certainly see people climbing in Tevas and Chacos, I wouldn’t recommend it for the inexperienced. Sturdy athletic shoes, boots, or even approach shoes will help you maximise the adventure without breaking an ankle!
3 | Skull Rock, Split Rock & Face Rock
6.4km / 4mi loop | negligible elevation gain | 1.25hrs
From Arch Rock, head north a short distance on Pinto Basin Road before turning left onto Park Boulevard, the main drag winding west through Joshua Tree. The parking area for Split Rock is not far, but you can also park at Skull Rock if there’s more space— from either of these spots, you can begin a loop that links up several popular features, including Face Rock, Skull Rock, and (the far less exciting) Split Rock.
Officially, the NPS lists Skull Rock loop, Split Rock loop, and the Discovery Trail as 3 separate hikes, but I far prefer to join them all together for a longer 4mi trek.
There’s usually a massive crowd at Skull Rock, making it difficult to do much scrambling around here, but there are heaps of other spots along the trail with fewer people and equally appealing rock!
4 | Ryan Mountain
4.8km / 3mi return | 320m / 1050ft elevation gain | 1.5hrs
Another short drive west along Park Boulevard will bring you to the trailhead for Ryan Mountain, one of the park’s most popular routes and a fast favourite of mine!
Unlike the other hikes on this list, Ryan Mountain is a bit of a climb, getting you off the valley floor for expansive views of Joshua Tree forests and granite rockpiles as far as the eye can see. On clear days, you’ll even get a glimpse of San Jacinto’s peak rising above the blue and brown hills.
It’s not a challenging hike to the summit, but there’s absolutely no shade, so come prepared with a hat, sunscreen, and heaps of water— it’s seriously hot the entire climb, with breeze only offering relief once you reach the top.
Check out this post to discover more excellent trails in Joshua Tree National Park: 8 AWESOME DAY HIKES IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
5 | Hall of Horrors
Another of my favourite scrambling spots in Joshua Tree, Hall of Horrors has a small carpark with access to several large, and very ledgy, rock piles.
There’s no nature loop to complete or scenic lookout to admire— the adventure here is entirely up to you! Run up the nearest rock or shimmy between tight boulders to reach the top of a rockpile, all of which afford incredible views over the J Tree-studded landscape.
For climbers, this is also an awesome area to do some beginner to intermediate top-roping, with a series of bolted anchors on the West Wall offering juggy 5.8-5.10s that are shaded during the first half of the day.
6 | Hidden Valley
1.6km / 1mi loop | negligible elevation gain | 30min
From Hall of Horrors, it’s only a short drive to reach Hidden Valley, a bustling spot always full of hikers, picnickers, climbers, and boulderers.
There’s a flat, leisurely loop around the area, but despite its short length and easy accessibility, this is a surprisingly awesome trail that offers a thorough look at one of Joshua Tree’s hotspots. Allow at least 30min to make your way back around, scrambling on anything that strikes your fancy.
7 | Chasm of Doom
But before you leave Hidden Valley… tucked inconspicuously away just behind a picnic table at the end of the carpark is the entrance to one of Joshua Tree’s best-kept secrets, The Chasm of Doom.
This unmarked and incredibly claustrophobic route winding and squeezing through one of the park’s enormous rock piles isn’t on any map, and even with meticulous notes, it’s pretty easy to get lost— but for those who make it through, it’s a wild adventure and a real J Tree experience.
To find the hidden entrance to The Chasm of Doom, head to the end of the carpark and locate a picnic table situated just below a large rockpile. You’ll need to stay to the left of this table as you walk around the perimeter and scout for a scraggly tree in the rocks, passing under and then scrambling through a rock window above you.
The actual entrance is disguised behind a palm tree, and although it doesn’t look much like the entrance to anything, you’ll definitely know you’re in the right spot as there are no other palms in sight.
There are really excellent detailed instructions in this post, but I’d recommend just following directions to the entrance and then making your own way through from this point onwards without help— that’s the true adventure of The Chasm!
8 | Cap Rock
0.6km / 0.4mi loop | negligible elevation gain | 15min
Backtracking from Hidden Valley less than 2mi down to Cap Rock, enjoy a quick stroll along another excellent desert loop that features heaps of scrambling opportunities and showcases some of the park’s largest Joshua Trees.
Hang out as long as the day allows, but be sure to leave enough time for the drive south to Keys View for sunset.
9 | Keys View
For the final event of the day, continue south all the way to the end of the road at Keys View, the highest point in the park (5185ft / 1581m) with superb views of the Coachella Valley framed by Mt San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, and the Salton Sea.
This is an incredibly popular sunset spot, so try to arrive a little early to score a parking spot, walk the short distance up to the viewpoint, and setup on some camp chairs. Under the right conditions, the result is simply spectacular.
After you’ve enjoyed the final moments of your day in Joshua Tree, it’s an easy drive north back up to Hidden Valley and onwards to the West Entrance station near the town of Joshua Tree. And now all that’s left to do is plan your return to one of America’s best national parks!
Other great options
- If you’ve left yourself a bit time-crunched at the end of this itinerary, you can pull off the road at any appealing spot, carry your camp chairs out into the Joshua Trees, and enjoy a sunset perhaps even more magical than Keys View (albeit without the mountain views). The picture above was taken near Oyster Bar and we were the only people around!
- With more days in the park, you should definitely check out some additional hikes among the Joshua Trees and up into the smaller surrounding peaks: 8 AWESOME DAY HIKES IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
- For beginner rock climbers with their own gear, here are some of my favourite top-rope sites in Joshua Tree:
- Trashcan Rock, Quail Springs: excellent beginner spot, easy walk-up the back to set up anchors for top-roping
- Spider Wall, Indian Cove: awesome wall just behind campsite 63 with juggy 5.4-5.10s, several bolts for anchoring
- West Wall, Hall of Horrors: another fantastic climb, 3 sets of 2x bolted anchors and an easy scramble to the top
- Thin Wall, Hidden Valley: very popular wall with a fun scramble to the top, some bolted anchors despite being more popular for trad
- Short Wall, Indian Cove: great top-roping wall with bolted anchors accessible via walk-up
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