The Perfect Joshua Tree Itinerary (2 Days)
August 8, 2023
Joshua Tree is a National Park in Southern California where two deserts meet. Not only will you see many joshua trees (the trees are actually a type of Yucca), but you’re sure to be left in awe by the piles of boulders, unique rock formations and vast desert landscapes.
Joshua Tree is a fantastic national park if you’re new to hiking, as there are several fun hikes that are short and rated easy. This also means that the park is very family-friendly. Whether you plan to hike a lot or just take in the views while driving around the park, there is a ton of unique scenery to experience.
This itinerary covers how to spend two days in Joshua Tree National Park and includes several amazing hiking trails. Keep in mind that this itinerary is fast paced and involves a lot of hiking. If you prefer to take things slower, you may want to either remove places from the itinerary or spend more than two days inside the park.
Keep reading to discover all of the best things to do in Joshua Tree, the best hikes in Joshua Tree and more. This is based on my experience visiting Joshua Tree in February 2023.
I recommend visiting Joshua Tree anytime except the summer, for optimal weather. Summer in Joshua Tree is very hot; it’s not uncommon for temperatures to rise above 100 °F.
If you do visit during the summer, make sure to bring A LOT of water and stick to hiking early in the morning or late in the day.
During the winter, temperatures in Joshua Tree are usually in the 60’s °F, so you’ll get to enjoy cool weather. There is also a small chance that you could see a light dusting of snow in the winter months.
Fall and Spring are the best times to visit, but that also means that the park will be crowded. Beginning in March and April, you may be able to see beautiful desert wildflowers near the Cottonwood entrance of the park.
Here are suggestions and information about where to stay when you visit Joshua Tree. I personally stayed at the Jumbo Rocks Campground and highly recommend it for anyone who wants to camp. You’ll be surrounded by huge boulders in just about all of the campsites.
Joshua Tree offers eight different campgrounds inside the park. Five of them require reservations and three of them are first come, first serve. I chose the Jumbo Rocks campsite for its location. It’s centrally located inside the park right next to Skull Rock and a short drive away form most of the places on this itinerary.
Only two of the campsites inside of Joshua Tree, Black Rock and Cottonwood, have any water. For all the other campsites, you’ll need to carry in all of your water and you can expect pit toilets with no showers.
Tip: Make sure you have a copy of your campsite reservation and know which site number you’re at before you enter the park. Cell service is nonexistent inside a lot of the park.
Multiple towns surround Joshua Tree National Park. To be closest to the popular areas inside the park, I recommend staying in either the town of Joshua Tree or Twentynine Palms. Both are located north of the park.
For a unique glamping experience, check out the 28 Palms Ranch Stargazing Yurt Village. The yurts feature comfortable beds and intricate patterns inspired by Mongolian culture.
Another neat accommodation option outside the park is AutoCamp Joshua Tree. You can choose from staying in a well-designed airstream or a cabin. Plus, the property offers a mid-century modern clubhouse with a bar, a fire pit and a seasonal pool.
Palm Springs is another city located south of the park that you may want to stay in, but it will be a long drive to the central part of the park. If you’re willing to make the drive, Palm Springs is a fun city with no shortage of lodging options.
- There is very little cell service inside the park. You will probably get some on top of Ryan Mountain and at Keys Views, but not elsewhere on this itinerary. Make sure to download offline maps for driving and hiking ahead of time.
- Water is only available in Joshua Tree at the entrances, and you won’t be able to find it in the central part of the park. Make sure to pack in plenty of water. You’ll also want to make sure you pack your lunch for spending a day in the park.
- While many of the trails on this itinerary are easy, they still may involve climbing on rocks and hiking over sandy surfaces. Make sure to wear hiking shoes with good grip.
- Joshua Tree costs $30 per vehicle, which is valid for 7 days. If you’ll be visiting multiple national parks over the course of a year, you’ll save money by purchasing the America the Beautiful Pass. It grants you entry into all US national parks for $80.
- The Guide Along Audio Tour of Joshua Tree is a fantastic way to learn about the park during your trip! The tour includes history of the park, recommendations of places to stop, and more. This is especially great if you're not a big hiker. Be sure to purchase and download the tour before entering the park!
- Joshua Tree is one of the most crowded national parks I’ve ever been to (I visited on a weekend in February). Expect crowds and visit the most popular places early in the morning or late in the day.
- Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails, in the backcountry or in park buildings. You may have them as long as they remain on a leash and within 100 feet of roads, picnic areas and campgrounds.
- Please make sure to leave no trace during your visit to Joshua Tree, and to any park! That includes packing out all trash, not trampling vegetation, respecting those around you and not approaching wildlife. Read up on the 7 principles of leaving no trace at lnt.org.
- Cryptobiotic crust, a layer of micro-organisms that protects fragile desert soil, can be found in Joshua Tree. It is very important to stick to established trails so as not to “bust the crust.” One footstep destroys the crust for many years.
- I won’t discuss it in this itinerary, but rock climbing and bouldering are popular activities inside of Joshua Tree. The park has over 8,000 climbing routes and 2,000 boulder problems. Check the national park website to learn about permits, climbing guides, best practices and more.
On day one of this Joshua Tree itinerary, you’ll visit many of the best hikes in Joshua Tree! Visit Skull Rock, hike to the Hall of Horrors, hike up to Ryan Mountain, visit Wall Street Mill and the Barker Dam, hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock and visit Hidden Valley at golden hour.
Start your first day in Joshua Tree National Park with a visit to the iconic Skull Rock! The site is aptly named, as it’s a large rock that resembles a skull.
Skull Rock gets very crowded, so it’s worth arriving around sunrise if you want to avoid waiting a while to get a photo. I arrived at 7:15AM and we had about 5 minutes to ourselves before 10-20 people showed up.
You can park along the road and the Skull is a short walk away. Or, there is a trail here if you’d like to explore more of the area. The Skull Rock Nature Trail is a 1.7-mile loop trail that will lead you past beautiful desert plants and rock formations.
Skull Rock is a place I recommend stopping in Joshua Tree if you want to see all of the iconic sites in the park, but it’s also one of the first places I would skip if you don’t like crowds.
9 minutes from Skull Rock.
The Hall of Horrors is a neat area of the park that gives you the opportunity to squeeze through two narrow slot canyons. When you arrive, it’s about a half mile (round trip) to reach the slot canyons.
There are two large piles of rocks as you hike out from the parking lot. The ‘Hall of Horrors’ is located on the left, front side of the second pile of rocks.
There are two narrow slits in the rocks side by side. The one on the left gets extremely narrow, so you will want to avoid it if you’re claustrophobic. But if you climb all the way through it, you can enjoy a view overlooking some surrounding rocks.
The slot canyon on the right is a lot wider. It just requires a bit of rock scrambling to get down into it, but I thought it was doable.
Whether you enter into the slots or just admire them from the outside, this is a neat and quick hike that will be fun for everyone!
Across the street from the Hall of Horrors.
If you’re up to a bit of elevation gain, Ryan Mountain provides some epic views of the desert valley from above.
This hike involves a steady uphill climb with views the entire way. The round trip hike is just under 3 miles with a little over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The trail is a bit steep, so I would recommend avoiding it on a very hot day.
One neat part of the trail is that you can see a lot of the other shorter hikes on this itinerary! You’ll get a view of the Hall of Horrors, Hidden Valley, Barker Dam and more. But the best part is getting to see the massive San Jacinto Mountains in the distance. When I visited in February, they were covered in snow. It’s fascinating to see the snow-capped peaks in contrast with the desert.
When you reach the top, there is plenty of space to spread out and enjoy a packed lunch. You also may get cell reception at the top (this was the only place I had service in this area of the park)!
If you enjoy strenuous hikes, Ryan Mountain should definitely be on your Joshua Tree itinerary.
8 minutes from Ryan Mountain.
If you enjoy seeing historic sites, make sure to visit Wall Street Mill during your trip to Joshua Tree. The main destination of this trail is a former gold processing mill that is still very well preserved.
Along the way to the mill, you’ll also pass a rusty vehicle, a water pump, a recreation of a headstone, a windmill and ruins of a home. The trail is relatively flat, has very little shade and totals about 2 miles.
The mill was built in the late 19th-century by Bill Keys, a local rancher and miner. He also built the nearby home where ruins remain. Keys operated the mill on and off until 1966.
Keep an eye out for a gravestone along the trail too. Keys shot and killed Bagley, a neighboring rancher, over a property dispute in 1943. Keys then turned himself in for manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He ended up serving for 5 years and then receiving a full pardon. The gravestone in the park today is a loose replica of the original.
I enjoyed this entire trail but the mill felt particularly well kept and was interesting to see up close.
Note that there are two parking lots for this hike. One is closer to the Barker Dam and one is closer to the Wall Street Mill, but they connect via a short trail. I recommend parking at either and doing both hikes from the same place. To reach the parking lot closest to Wall Street Mill, you’ll need to travel on a dirt road.
Right next to Wall Street Mill.
The Barker Dam is an area with piles of giant boulders, desert plant life and the potential to see water in the desert. There is also a rock art site along the trail that is said to be over 2,000 years old.
Bill Keys built the dam in 1949 to aid in ranching. Now the area is home to lush vegetation and it’s a great place to look for many types of birds, reptiles and other desert wildlife.
You will only see water in the dam if it has rained recently, but it’s still an area that feels lush even when it’s dry.
The trail is a 1.3 mile loop that is mostly flat. Along the way, you’ll be climbing over some sandy and rocky areas.
Make sure you don’t miss the petroglyphs, which are located 0.4 miles in if you take the loop clockwise. It is extremely important to not climb on the petroglyphs or disturb them in any way. Unfortunately, it is rumored that a film crew in the 1950’s painted over some of the original rock art in order to make it bolder on film. Despite that awful bit of history, the rock art is still historically and culturally significant.
Overall, the Barker Dam is a great, short trail that offers interesting scenery and is fun for all ages and groups. You may encounter crowds, but it’s still worth exploring.
25 minutes from Barker Dam.
Head over to Arch Rock and Heart Rock and explore some unique and iconic rock formations. This is a slightly different area of the park and is located about 25 minutes from Barker Dam. You’ll park across the street from the trail and need to cross the road.
As you begin the trail, you’ll hike slightly downhill and reach Arch Rock first. It’s a beautiful arch and you can enjoy it from below or take a quick scramble and get underneath the arch.
From Arch Rock, you can continue just a bit further to see Heart Rock. It’s a large rock that resembles a heart!
The entire hike is 1.7 miles and rated easy. There are some opportunities to scramble on various surrounding boulders, but you can also stay on the main trail.
It was probably because of the time of day, but this was easily the most crowded trail I visited and some visitors were doing things like throwing rocks and being quite loud. Please make sure to respect those around you whenever you visit national parks.
23 Minutes from Arch Rock.
Hidden Valley was one of my favorite trails in Joshua Tree! It’s an easy loop trail that is only a mile. You’ll hike into a valley full of giant boulders.
I hiked this at golden hour, which made it really special. The golden lighting was beautiful on the rocks and the crowds had cleared out.
I actually tried to visit this trail earlier in the day but they had closed off the parking lot due to it being full. That’s why I’ve placed it last for the day, instead of before Arch and Heart Rock.
Along with the trail itself, there are some beautiful picnic areas right next to the parking lot. Hidden Valley is a trail not to miss during your trip to Joshua Tree.
Watch the sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden, hike the Mastodon Peak Loop, hike the FortyNine Palms trail, watch the sunset at Keys View and enjoy some stargazing.
Start your second day in Joshua Tree with an iconic place for sunrise (or sunset). The Cholla Cactus Garden is an area full of many cholla cacti. When the light hits the thorny bristles at sunrise or sunset, they appear to glow like neon lights.
The trail itself is a quarter mile and flat, so it’s doable for all abilities. However, there are dangers to be aware of here.
Cholla cacti can actually “jump” and cling onto your skin or clothing as you walk past. The spines are barbed, so it can be difficult to get them off if this does happen. Make sure to take extra caution as you’re walking so not to brush up against any of the cacti.
Watching the cacti glow in the light is really special, and this was probably my favorite location in the entire park.
30 minutes from Cholla Cactus Garden.
Mastodon Peak trail is easily the most underrated hike I enjoyed in Joshua Tree. It offers beautiful views and is much less crowded than other areas of the park.
Located on the Southern part of the park near the Cottonwood campground, this trail gets less traffic due to its location. On your way there, you’ll get to see the transition between two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave and the Colorado.
As soon as you reach the parking lot, you’ll be greeted with a small desert oasis area full of giant palms. As you continue, you’ll enjoy beautiful rock formations and views of the surrounding area.
The hike is a 2.4 mile loop and I recommend going counterclockwise for a nice, gradual climb. Just under a mile in, you’ll reach Mastodon Peak.
To climb up to the peak, hike around the back of the small mountain of rocks. There is a place where you can scramble up to reach the top. If the scramble is too daunting, you can also skip this and enjoy the views from just slightly lower. The top of the peak provides fantastic, 360 views of the area.
As you hike back down and continue the loop, you’ll quickly see the ruins of a former mine. The Mastodon Mine was a gold mill that was established in the 1930s.
The loop back to the parking lot involves some hiking in a sandy wash.
If you have more time, you can also add on a hike to Lost Palms Oasis from this trail.
With fantastic views and few crowds, I was very impressed with this underrated area of Joshua Tree.
1 hr, 6 minutes from Mastodon Peak
Head out of the North entrance of the park to hike this next trail. You’ll need to exit the park at Twentynine Palms and drive a few minutes through town to reach the FortyNine Palms Oasis trail.
This hike is 3.1 miles and leads to a desert oasis full of large palm trees. The hike involves hiking up over a pass, and then down to reach the palm trees. Then you’ll need to hike back out the way you came. It’s a great workout that is sure to get your blood pumping.
There are some beautiful views as you ascend over the hill. You’ll get to see the town and surrounding mountains. When you reach the palms, there are a few clumps of them and some cool areas to take photos.
I thought it was so fascinating to see such tall and healthy palms in the desert. The oasis provides a reliable source of water for both plants and animals living in this harsh desert environment.
The FortyNine Palms trail is closed during the summer to allow bighorn sheeps to reach the water source undisturbed. It reopens in the fall when enough rainfall has occurred and typically remains open in the fall, winter and spring. Be sure to check if it’s open before making the drive.
Tip: Before or after your hike at FortyNine Palms is also a great time to stop into the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center. The park has visitor centers in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms.
50 minutes from FortyNine Palms.
End your trip to Joshua Tree with a beautiful sunset spot! Keys View offers a panoramic view of the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs. If you’re also visiting Palm Springs during this trip, this viewpoint really puts things in perspective.
It’s a 20-minute drive from the main Park Boulevard to reach this viewpoint. If the parking lot fills up, they will close the entire road. This is kind of nice, as it means you won’t have to waste that amount of time driving to a full parking area. If you’re visiting for sunset on a weekend or popular time, make sure to get there plenty early before it fills up.
While the view was fantastic, it was extremely windy and cold in this spot during my visit. The valley was also quite hazy. Hopefully you will have better conditions, but keep your expectations low.
If it’s a clear night, Joshua Tree is an incredible park for stargazing! Joshua Tree is an International Dark Sky Park and has some of the darkest skies in Southern California.
Be sure to wear layers and use red lights if you’re headed out to watch the stars.
There are a lot more fun activities to do surrounding the park if you have extra time! Here are a few ideas:
- Visit the Crochet Museum in the town of Joshua Tree
- Check out the ‘Transmission’ Sculpture by Daniel Popper, located north of the park
- Hike to Tahquitz Falls in Palm Springs
- Take the Aerial Tramway in Palm Springs
- Take a self-driving tour of windmills in Palm Springs
Here are some delicious restaurants near the park!
- The DEZ is a great spot for breakfast sandwiches, coffee, salads and even slices of cake. It’s located in the town of Joshua Tree.
- Kitchen in the Desert is an American Cafe with a Caribbean influence in Twentynine Palms. You’ll find brunch items, cocktails, burgers and more.
- grnd sqrl is a Gastropub in Twentynine Palms that has a great menu of burgers, chicken sandwiches, falafel and more. Visit during trivia night or open mic night for a fun night out.
- Tac/Quila is a colorful restaurant serving flavorful Mexican food and well crafted cocktails in Palm Springs. I really enjoyed the mini tacos and dips appetizer and the margarita flight.
I hope this helps you plan an epic vacation to Joshua Tree National Park! The captivating desert landscapes and unique ecosystems make this park truly special. Whether you’re taking a weekend trip from Los Angeles or taking a national park road trip, Joshua Tree is a national park that should be on your bucket list.
For more National Park Guides, check out these blogs:
- How to Spend 3 Days in Moab, UT
- The Best Things To Do in Bryce Canyon, UT
- How to Spend 3 Days in Yellowstone National Park
- How to Spend 2 Days in Grand Teton National Park
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