Covering more than 1200 square miles of land, a lot of people assume that Joshua Tree National Park can’t be seen in the span of one day. This is true in a sense, but just because you only have one day to spare doesn’t mean you can’t experience the funky trees and impressive boulders of JT to the fullest.
The good news about spending only one day here is that the park is easy to navigate and most of the main attractions are without a close distance to each other. That means it’s possible to pack it all into one day, even though 2+ day is recommended.
There’s a lot to see within this vast protected area of California, so it’s important that you make the most of your time here. To do that, use this 1-day itinerary as the framework for spending a perfect day in the park.
First, Stop at the Visitor Center
If you want to avoid long lines at the park entrance that will put a damper on the start of your day, the Joshua Tree Visitor Center should be your first stop. There are a few visitors centers, but this one is located in the actual town of Joshua Tree.
To beat the crowds, try to arrive by 7:30 am when it opens for the day. That way you can get your pass, which is good for 7 days, and make your way into the park. Try to grab some maps while you’re in here, too.
Early Morning: Barker Dam
Your first stop should definitely be to the Barker Dam. It’s about a 30-minute drive from the visitor center, so this is a good time to drink some water, eat a quick breakfast, or sip on that much-needed coffee.
The main reason Barker Dam is a good choice as your first real stop is that it’s an easy hike and a good way to loosen up your muscles for the day. The trail is a 1.5-mile loop that takes you through some really cool scenery, including the iconic joshua trees. At one point you’ll pass a dam that was built by the early cattle ranchers.
Mid Morning: Hidden Valley
It’s time to hop in the car and make the quick 5-minute drive over to Hidden Valley Nature Trail. This is another easy hiking opportunity that’s great for the whole family to enjoy. You can sign up for hiking in Joshua Tree with a guide at 57hours and similar sites. It’s only about a 1-mile hike from start to finish and has tons of cool rock outcroppings and formations throughout. Once you’re finished with the hike or whatever you end up getting into, make a quick pitstop at the Hidden Valley Picnic Area, which is located on the opposite side of the trailhead. This is a great place to stop for a midmorning snack and a water break.
Late Morning: Cap Rock Nature Trail
Next up is Cap Rock. If you’re into rock climbing, there are some good sites for that just off the trail here. Even if you’re not a climber or boulderer, it’s still worth walking along this trail, especially if you have kids or pets. It’s quick and flat and loops through giant boulders, giving you a chance to see another side of Joshua Tree.
Lunchtime: Keys View
The drive from Cap Rock to Keys View is about 10 minutes, so hop in the car and make your way to the spectacular viewpoint. Although Quail Mountain is technically the highest point in JT, Keys View is definitely up there, plus it’s the most accessible, even for wheelchairs.
At Keys Point, the panoramic view of the park is nothing short of breathtaking. You can see everything from the San Andreas Fault to Coachella Valley, and you might even see all the way to Mexico if the air is clear enough. Eat some lunch up here with the view in the background, or wait until you arrive at Skull Rock, your next stop.
Mid Afternoon: Skull Rock
After lunch, make your way to Skull Rock, which is about a 20-minute drive from Keys View. Because it’s one of the most popular things to see in the park, the Skull Rock Nature Trail gets a lot of traffic, so if you want to skip the trail, you can just visit Skull Rock (the main attraction) without doing the actual hike.
The draw of Skull Rock is that it resembles a human skull. This gigantic natural rock formation juts out of the ground and looks as if it’s peeking out at you, which can be a bit unnerving, but it’s still something that should be on every Joshua Tree itinerary.
Late Afternoon: Arch Rock
About 10 minutes from Skull Rock you’ll come to Arch Rock. This is another rock formation that’s paired with an easy hike fit for all skill levels. This is one of the main spots in the park for a photo op, so be sure to bring your camera or have a charge on your phone.
End the Day with Cholla Cactus Garden
Last but certainly not least is Cholla Cactus Garden. Some people would agree that this is the best thing to see in the park, so why not save the best for last? So far in the day you’ve seen a lot of cool rock formations and massive boulders, but now it’s time to switch over to a different landscape: the cholla cactus of the Colorado desert.
As you make your way along the Cholla trail, don’t be surprised if you develop a newfound admiration for cacti. Just be sure to look and not touch – this plant species is known for it’s needle-like spikes.
There you have it, the perfect day spent in Joshua Tree National park. Keep in mind, none of this itinerary has to be set in stone. It’s completely up to you on how you spend your time in Joshua Tree, but these are definitely some of the main attractions to hit up while here.