Ultimate Guide to Driving Through Joshua Tree National Park

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive commissions when you click links and make purchases at no extra cost to you. View details here. By purchasing items through the included links, you help me (Sam) keep this site running. Thank you for your support!

This post is all about what to see when driving through Joshua Tree National Park in a day. I’ve been to this park a few times and always find something new to experience. Driving through Joshua Tree in a day won’t allow enough time to see and do everything this extraordinary National Park offers, but it is a good start!

Joshua Tree National Park is becoming increasingly popular, with over 3,000,000 visitors since 2021. It usually ranks around the 10th most visited National Park in the country. Joshua Tree is located in Southern California with easy access from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Palm Springs and makes a fun road trip destination from Las Vegas (3.5 hours) or Phoenix (5 hours).

Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect outdoor adventure park. Its location along the boundary of two contrasting deserts, the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, gives it a unique Biosphere. Along with its Joshua Trees and Cholla Cactus, it’s a world-class rock climbing destination with plenty of hiking and biking trails and giant boulders to scale. Wildflowers bloom here in the spring, and it is also a dark sky park perfect for stargazing any time of year.

How to get to Joshua Tree National Park

The closest airport to Joshua Tree National Park is Los Angeles (LAX), about 150 miles from the park, or Palm Springs (PSP), about 50 miles away. If you fly, you will need to rent a car as there is no public transportation available within the park.

I love road trips and drove cross country from Florida twice to see this park (and other places along the way). Joshua Tree makes a great road trip stop from neighboring cities, including San Diego and Los Angeles.

  • San Diego is 160 miles away or around 2 and 1/2 hours from Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Los Angeles is 128 miles or around 2 hours away from Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Las Vegas, Nevada, is 198 miles or just over 3 hours from Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Phoenix, Arizona, is 290 miles or 4.5 hours away from Joshua Tree National Park.

There are many other areas and unique attractions to explore in the region, including Palm Springs, Borrego Springs and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach, and Slab City. Only a short 20 min drive from the Joshua Tree Visitor Center is the western movie set of Pioneertown, and just under an hour away are the World’s Biggest Dinosaurs, the Cabazon Dinosaurs, a quirky roadside attraction that has been around since the 1970s.

Joshua Tree National Park Entrances

There are three main entrances to Joshua Tree National Park, the North and West entrances are located along Twentynine Palms Highway, and the South entrance is off Interstate 10. There are also dirt roads into the park that may require high clearance and 4×4 vehicles to access but are mainly used for backcountry visitors and are not the best option to easily access the park’s main attractions. Maps for alternate entrances can be found at the Joshua Tree Visitor Centers.

The three main entrances have a visitor center with a bookstore, exhibits, restrooms, and park information. Each is located in different sections of the park, bringing you into the park along one of two main roads; the North and West entrances along Park Boulevard and the South Entrance along Pinto Basin Road. 

It takes about an hour to drive through the park between the North (Twentynine Palms) and West (Town of Joshua Tree) Entrances and an hour between the North (Twentynine Palms) and South (Cottonwood) Entrances. It takes about 1.5 hours to drive through the park from the South Cottonwood Entrance to the West Entrance in Joshua Tree Town. 

The North Entrance near Twentynine Palms and the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center

The North Entrance is the busiest entrance and closest to the new Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center (6533 Freedom Way) that has now replaced the Oasis Visitor Center. Long lines can form at the ranger station so, if you can, avoid this entrance, especially in the busiest months, October to May.

This entrance is closest to the popular Oasis of Mara Nature Trail, a quick hike with parking at the old Oasis Visitor Center, located along Park Boulevard. It is also near the Fourtynine Palms Oasis Trail that is accessed from Canyon Rd.

The West Entrance in Joshua Tree Village and the Joshua Tree Visitor’s Center

The West Entrance takes you into the park via Park Boulevard on the west side, where the highest concentration of Joshua Trees is. This is also a popular entrance and can get quite backed up, especially from Fall to Spring.

For park information, visit the Joshua Tree Visitor Center in downtown Joshua Tree at 6554 Park Boulevard (different from the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center at the North Entrance) before you enter the actual park.

South Entrance and the Cottonwood Visitor Center

The less frequented entrance in the south is off of I-10 and brings you into the park via Pinto Basin Road, one of two major park roads. This entrance is close to the Cholla Cactus Garden and the historic Cottonwood Spring area. There is BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land perfect for car campers and RVs that want to spend the night right outside of the official South Cottonwood Park entrance.

Main Attractions in Joshua Tree National Park

From stargazing, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, and bouldering, there are many activities to enjoy in Joshua Tree. It is a fantastic family-friendly park and is great for all fitness levels. One of the best things to do is search for some of the park’s most iconic rock formations, including Elephant Rock, Skull Rock, Face Rock, Heart Rock, and Arch Rock.

Below I’ve listed where to find some of the most popular attractions within the park (itinerary to come further down in the post) with tips on visiting each one.

Joshua Trees

You might be surprised to know Joshua Trees are not seen throughout the park- and they actually aren’t trees at all; they are succulents! These iconic prickly top bushes are often described as being plucked right out of a Dr. Seuss book- which is so true. The highest concentration of Joshua Trees is on the West side of the park in the Mojave Desert habitat. The best-looking Joshua Trees are between the Jumbo Rocks area and the West Entrance Station. There are plenty of areas to pull over and snap a few photos. Feel free to walk through the clusters of these curious-looking trees, searching for your favorite one- they all have their own unique look.

Jumbo Rocks and Skull Rock

One of the many highlights of Joshua Tree is the unique rock formations and giant boulders perfectly stacked on top of one another like Lincoln logs. The Jumbo Rocks area is the best area for bouldering and wandering through these massive rock piles and is home to Skull Rock, located right off Park Boulevard. You will need a wide-angle lens to capture its unique features in its entirety since there is not much space in front of Skull Rock- and yes, it really does look like a skull!

There are a few parking spots to pull over along the main road; they open up frequently, so be patient if you can’t find a spot right away.

There is a 1.7-mile loop trail around Skull Rock (Skull Rock Nature Trail) and the Discovery Trail hiking area across the street that meets up with Face Rock and Split Rock Trails. Feel free to explore the area and climb over the boulders as you wish. Keep an eye out for other rock formations hidden between the boulders.

Keys View Outlook in Joshua Tree National Park

Keys View

Keys View vista is the most popular overlook in Joshua Tree for vast panoramic views, especially during sunrise and sunset. There is a generous parking area for about 50 cars, but it fills up fast during high season. The walk up to the viewpoint is paved and short with minimal incline. It is only a 5 min walk from the parking area.

On a clear day, you can see for miles all the way to Mexico. See if you can spot Signal Mountain, the Salton Sea, Mount San Jacinto, and San Gorgonio Mountain, the tallest point in Southern California. You will also get views of the Coachella Valley and the towns of Palm Springs and Indio. 

Cholla Cactus Garden

A major highlight along Pinto Basin Road is the Cholla Cactus Garden, a perfect place for a beautiful sherbert sunrise. These cacti are known as The Teddy Bear Cactus, which is totally misleading because they are anything but cute and cuddly! They are also called the Jumping Cactus, which is more accurate because they easily attach to anything they encounter. They can pierce through thick-soled shoes as well, so be very careful not to step on a fallen cacti arm when exploring the garden.

There is a short 0.2-mile loop trail through the field of cacti. I’ve seen many people make their own trail but it is not recommended because of how prickly the cactus is, it is best not to get too close. There is also a good size parking lot that rarely gets filled since most visitors don’t venture this far out on Pinto Basin Road when driving through Joshua Tree National Park.

Stargazing

As an International Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree is a fantastic area for stargazing and seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye. The best time to spot the Milky Way is in June and July during a new moon. 

The entire park is open 24 hours, and stargazing can be done anywhere. Many visitors who stay after dark love the Jumbo Rocks and Arch Rock areas for photography, but the darkest area in the park is off of Pinto Basin Road between the Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood Entrance. If staying overnight, book a site in Cottonwood Campground for the darkest night skies.

Short Hikes

Many of the hikes in Joshua Tree National Park are easy and great for all ages and fitness levels. These short hikes or really walks, are some of my favorites for the unique scenery and amazing natural rock formations found along the way. 

There is no shade on these trails, so make sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection!

Some of the rock formations can be hard to find, so I recommend downloading an offline map and plugging in their GPS coordinates (which I have included on the tricky-to-find spots). You can copy and paste the coordinate into google maps to help you find the exact location. There is hardly any cell reception in Joshua Tree National Park, so make sure to download offline maps before you arrive.

Arch Rock Nature Trail

Arch Rock is one of the most popular and iconic rock formations in the park. However, I was much more impressed with Heart Rock which is just another 10 mins walk from Arch Rock. 

This area offers a lot of trails that intertwine with each other, so you could easily spend a ½ day enjoying the scenery and doing some backcountry hiking. 

You will park in the Twin Tanks parking area, which easily fills by 10 am during peak times. There are about 30 spots in this parking area, so I recommend coming here early to ensure you get a spot; street parking is not encouraged.

The hike to Arch Rock is easy and takes about 20- 30 mins. The path starts in the parking lot and crosses the street, continuing for 1.4 miles along a packed dirt path. There are a few signs and navigation along the trail, which makes it easy to find. Once you are there, you can enjoy climbing around the rocks and discovering hidden caves, narrow passages, and panoramic views of the rocky desert. 

Heart Rock

GPS Coordinates: 33°59’17.6″N 116°00’47.8″W

Heart rock is considered a spur trail from the Arch Rock Nature Trail. It is 100% worth the extra 0.3 miles. I love how perfectly shaped this random rock is, perched up all by itself in the middle of the desert- nature is sooo cool!

There are now a few signs along the Arch Rock Nature Trail guiding you to Heart Rock. Before you make it to Arch Rock you will take a left at the sign and follow a path between some boulders. Keep looking out for the heart-shaped rock as you walk down the path. The trail is not clearly marked, but it is a short walk; Heart Rock is easy to spot after about 5 mins.

Hall of Horrors 

GPS Coordinates to the hallway entrance: 34°00’02.3″N 116°08’49.7″W

The hidden slot canyon in the Hall of Horrors hike is one of my favorites in the park. It is a little tricky to find, but such a fun experience once you do.

This area gets packed, so arriving early (before 9 a.m) or late (after 3 p.m) is the best way to avoid crowds and snag a parking spot. I usually visit in the late afternoon because it makes the most sense with my preferred one-day route through the park (route details and itinerary options in the next section).

The slot canyon is not well marked, and the trail maps do not include it on the 0.6-mile Hall of Horrors loop trail. Using the GPS coordinates above, along with an offline map, you will have no trouble finding it on the first try. 

Boulders along the Hall of Horrors hike entrance
what the entrance to Hall of Horrors looks like

To find the entrance to the actual Hall of Horrors slot canyon, head left from the parking lot towards the cluster of boulders. Walk behind the first group of boulders to another group of boulders that looks like the photo above. The entrance requires a short scramble up these rocks. The slot canyons get tight, so make sure you feel comfortable in small spaces and climbing up and down the entrance rocks before you attempt to find the Hall of Horrors. There are actually two slot canyons you can explore right next to each other. 

Hidden Valley Nature Trail

This one-mile loop trail has an intriguing history and comes with fantastic scenic views. Hidden Valley is a popular area for rock climbers and a great spot for a picnic lunch. 

It is said that the area was once home to the stolen cattle of the McHaney Gang, who ran a profitable business pushing cattle into the valley once bathed in green grass for grazing and re-branding for almost 30 years in the late 1800s.

Feel free to explore this area on and off the trails and enjoy the informative signs along the loop trail, giving you more insight into the fragile ecosystem. 

Barker Dam Nature Trail

Barker Dam is an easy 1.1-mile trail through the Mojave desert between boulders and Joshua Trees with the chance to see rock climbers and wildlife, including bighorn sheep and rock paintings. The best time to visit Barker Dam is after rainfall in hopes that there will be water in the dam, creating a brilliant reflection of the surrounding boulders. 

There is a generous parking lot with over 70 spots at the trailhead that sees a lot of action from September through May. If parking is problematic, an alternative parking area can be found at the Echo T parking lot off Keys Ranch Road. You can take the Echo T Connector Trail to the Barker Dam Trail, adding .06 miles to the entire length of the hike.

I enjoy Barker Dam trail for sunset and have always been able to find parking at the trailhead an hour or so before the sun goes down. The best area to view the sunset is on top of the boulders surrounding the trail. If you only have one day to drive through Joshua Tree National Park, I definitely recommend staying for sunset.

A girl in a hat walking under a curved Joshua Tree

One Day Itinerary for Joshua Tree

If you are driving through Joshua Tree in one day, you will need to get an early start to see the major attractions and avoid starting the day wrestling for parking. 

The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is during cool weather months. Visitation is at its peak in Fall and decimates during summer. If weather conditions allow, April to May is when the wildflowers bloom.

I visited the park in February and April. Although much colder, my February visit was more manageable, with fewer crowds and better parking.

During my April visit, afternoon temps got very warm, and parking was a big challenge, as in nonexistent from 11 am to 3pm. I actually went to Joshua Tree Village for lunch to get out of the heat and re-entered the park around 3 pm to find parking much better.

I recommend staying the night, but if you only have one day in Joshua Tree, here is my one-day itinerary with all stops plugged into the Google Map below. Chick the star next to the title to add it to your Google Maps library.

  • Enter from the south Cottonwood entrance. 
  • Enjoy Sunrise at the Cholla Cactus Garden 
  • Hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock
  • Stop near the Jumbo Rocks area to view Skull Rock and walk to Elephant Rock
  • Optional: Discovery Nature Trail, Skull Rock Nature Trail, and Split Rock to Face Rock Trails
  • Head to Keys View
  • Hike the Hidden Valley trail and enjoy the picnic area 

By this time, parking will be challenging, and you may be hungry for lunch. The Hidden Valley picnic area (the same parking area as the Hidden Valley hike) is a great spot to enjoy a picnic lunch. Alternatively, you could grab lunch while driving between the West and North entrance along Twentynine Palms Highway through town.

  • Drive Park Boulevard west to view the Joshua Trees, snap some photos, and exit the park to the village of Joshua Tree.
  • Visit the downtown shops and the West Entrance Joshua Tree Visitor Center (6554 Park Blvd.)
  • Optional 3-mile hike: Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail
  • Optional: Visit the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center and Cultural Center (6533 Freedom Way) 
  • Head back into the park via the Twentynine Palms North Entrance 
  • Optional: the 0.5-mile trail to the Oasis of Mara 
  • Hike Hall of Horrors area
  • Hike Barker Damn Trail for sunset 
  • Optional: Stargaze anywhere in the park

***

Whether you are driving cross country like I did or on a day trip from Palm Springs, you will love exploring Joshua Tree National Park. I hope this guide for driving through Joshua Tree in a day will help you make the most of your time and plan a trip that you won’t ever forget!

Let me know if you have any itinerary suggestions in the comments below. I am looking forward to future visits and would love any recommendations for things I have yet to see.

Shop My Favorites

Shop Travel Gear

Shop all my current obsessions and travel essentials I can’t live without. I only recommend products I’ve actually tried and loved!

Sam wearing backpack and hat walking through town.

The Best Travel Apps

Want To Travel Easier?

Get my Free Guide to the Best Travel Apps straight to your inbox

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Similar Posts