Thanks to social media, music festivals and word of mouth, Joshua Tree National Park has become a hot spot for tourists and locals alike. Weekenders from LA and Arizona flock here to take advantage of the cooler climate and amazing scenery. Ideal for campers + hikers, astronomy buffs, photography enthusiasts and nature lovers, Joshua Tree National Park is a beautiful oasis that envelops you with it’s beauty.
It’s safe to say that there is no shortage of insta-worthy photo opportunities everywhere you look.
Set in the transition zone of the Mojave and Colorado desert, visitors get a taste of both landscapes and their contrasting features. With an abundance of vibrant plants, wildlife, and sprawling desert, it truly is a picturesque area that takes your breath away at every turn.
Here’s a diary of our day at Joshua Tree National Park, and some information to help you plan your day or weekend out there.
What to Bring to Joshua Tree National Park
- LOTS of water (The park rangers will ask you if you brought lots of water a thousand times. They mean business. Bring lots of water. Especially if you plan on hiking! Most of the campgrounds don’t have water either, so if you’re camping, I’d bring a few jugs worth.)
- Runners and Sandals (I’m not a huge fan of wearing runners in the car as my feet get really hot.. especially in the middle of a desert…we all brought runners to change into during the hiking and walking portion of the day)
- Change of clothes – One athletic and one nice outfit if you plan to go for dinner or want to change out of sweaty clothes
- Wet Wipes and Deodorant
- Any make-up or moisturizer for before dinner
- Snacks and Lunch (There are no restaurants throughout the park so make sure you pack some lunch and various snacks)
- Sunglasses and a Hat
- Camera (and an extra camera battery if you’re a photo buff)
- Cash/Credit Cards – $25.00 Entrance Fee
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park
If you’re coming from Palm Springs/Palm Desert or Arizona, I suggest starting through the Cottonwood Mountains. Take 1-10 and exit 168 to Joshua Tree National Park. From there you will pass Bajada Nature Trail. You can stop here to wander, but in my opinion it’s way too hot in the spring and summer months and although pretty, you’ll get better trails as you go through.
Alternatively, if you’re coming from LA or want to travel the opposite route, you can start by traveling through Joshua Tree at the West or East Entrance Station. I preferred to exit that way instead as we wanted to eat at a famous restaurant out there, Pappy + Harriets (more information on that below).
These stops are based on taking the Cottonwoods route
First Stop – Cottonwood Visitor Centre
Stop at the Cottonwood Visitor Centre and pick up a map and information guide. Here you can ask any questions you may have. Go to the washroom if you need to as this is one of the only stops with a proper toilet. Don’t forget to take some pictures at the Joshua Tree National Park sign.
Second Stop – Chollo Cactus Garden
Driving through the grounds, the vegetation at first glance seems relatively uniform. If you didn’t think you were in the desert before, this’ll convince ya. However, after continuing down the road further, you will enter a sea of cacti that looks otherworldly. It’s almost as if you’ve transported to an underwater desert, with these little cacti acting as their own moisture-less great barrier reef.
We walked around the small loop of the Chollo Cactus Garden filled with Jumping Chollo’s. These cacti are known for doing just that, jumping.
Rumour has it is if you get too close, these little buggers will pounce and prick you, curling their needles underneath the skin making it fairly painful to remove.
I’ll stick to the pathways, thanks.
We really enjoyed walking through the quick loop through the cacti set under the mountains. I would highly recommend stopping here.
Third Stop – White Tank
We stopped at White Tank to use the restrooms (bad idea – the smell was that of a music festival port-o-potty on day three) and there were bees everywhere!!
Restrooms aside, this is a great place to stop and walk around in awe of the rock formations.
These rocks have been there for over 150-million years, meaning the rocks have witnessed both dinosaurs roaming around and instagram-hungry tourists posing for the perfect shot. I bet they miss the dinosaurs.
The rocks were formed by volcanic magma rising from deep within the earth’s crust, piling globs on top of each other and hardening.
We walked around here to take some photos, and noticed a few people camping here as well. I’d opt to camp a bit further West as it gets nice and cool and you’d be closer to more attractions.
Jumbo Rocks is a popular destination to take pictures in Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a great place to walk around as it’s home to even bigger rock formations than White Tank. It was riddled with tourists so we skipped this stop but could be worth a look if you have the time.
Fourth Stop – Ryan Mountain Hike
3-mile round trip – Approx. 2 hours round trip – 5458 foot summit views – Moderately Strenuous
We were looking for a good sweat as we hadn’t worked out in a few days (and had subsequently eaten all the foods and drank all the drinks). Needless to say, we NEEDED this hike. After being told the views wouldn’t disappoint, we changed into our athletic gear and runners, doused ourselves in sunscreen, brought a backpack with snacks, two water bottles each and a camera, and made the trek up.
It took us 35 minutes to get to the top without stopping and we were going at a pretty decent clip. I would say the average on the way up would be 45 minutes-55 minutes. We hung out up top and took in the views of Queen, Lost Horse Mine and Pleasant Valley. The trek down took another 30 minutes or so. In total round trip, anticipate anywhere between 90 minutes to 3 hours.
We gave ourselves a poor man’s shower with wet wipes and deodorant, refreshed our make up, and changed into our dinner attire. We headed out to Keys View, an approximate 15 minute drive from Ryan Mountain.
Fifth Stop – Keys View
At an elevation of 5,185 feet, the view overlooks valleys, mountains, sprawling desert and the San Andreas fault line. To your right you can see Palm Springs and to your left, lovely Blythe ;-). This area is especially beautiful and busy around sunset and golden hour.
Bonus Stop #1: Hidden Valley
We didn’t make it to Hidden Valley as we wanted to save a few stops for our next visit. Here you’ll find a 1-mile loop trail though boulders and great areas for picnics.
Bonus Stop #2: Barker Dam
Another stop we saved for next time. This dam was built around 1900 for cattle. Now local birds and other wildlife take advantage of the watering hole, a much needed refuge in the heat of the summer.
Final Stop: Joshua Tree, Pioneer Town, Pappy + Harriets
After Keys View we were all starving, so we hightailed it to one of the Valleys most iconic restaurants, Pappy and Harriets.
Legends like Paul McCartney have played live in this BBQ-infused dive bar. The atmosphere is electric, abundant with dark corners, loud music, and the smell of smoked meat wafting through the rafters.
There is a lovely outdoor picnic garden in the back to sip on beer as you wait for your table, complete with those instagrammable fairy lights.
Tip: Make a reservation to Pappy and Harriets weeks in advance for the later seating (7/730). Without a reservation, arrive no later than 730pm. You will most likely wait 40 minutes – 1 hour without a reservation if you get there early enough. The kitchen closes early, so if you arrive at 8pm, chances are you ain’t eating there that night without a reso. Come hungry. and stay late to enjoy live music.
We all fell in love with exploring this magical landscape. It’s easy to see all the reasons it has gained a reputation for a must see adventure in the desert. If you’re visiting Palm Springs/Palm Desert, Joshua Tree National Park is a lovely way to break up your stay. It can easily be done in a day if you’re short on time!
Camping is the way to go.
- Camping: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm
- Favourites: Hidden Valley, Ryan, Jumbo Rocks
- Not a fan of that tent life? Look on Airbnb for some gems and get $50 off your first stay, on me!
Day Trip only?
Here is our timeline so you can get an idea of how long we stayed at each place. We got a late start to maximize the loveliness that is Joshua Tree at golden hour.
OUR ITINERARY TIMELINE
- 2pm – Picked up Sandwiches at Ralphs and left Palm Desert
- 2:45pm – Cottonwood Visitor Centre at entrance to Joshua Tree National Park
- 3:00pm – Cholla Cactus Garden
- 3:30pm – Leave Cactus Garden for White Tank
- 3:45pm – Explore White Tank
- 4:10pm – Leave White Tank and pass Jumbo Rocks on way to Ryan Mountain
- 4:30pm – Hike Ryan Mountain (35 minutes up, explore 20 minutes, 25 minutes down)
- 6pm- Change and freshen up at base of Ryan Mountain
- 6:20pm – Arrive at Keys View and take photos & admire scenery
- 6:50pm – leave for Joshua Tree and take golden hour pictures along the way
- 7:25pm – Arrive at Pappy and Harriots for Dinner and Drinks
We did everything fairly quickly, so if you prefer to go at a more leisurely pace, plan accordingly. I know I will be back to Joshua Tree National Park, but if you feel this will be your only chance to explore, you might want to camp and spend two days exploring, or get a much earlier start and pace yourself throughout the day!
Make it there? Let me know what you thought! Heading there? Feel free to ask any questions!
READ NEXT: Packing Guide to Joshua Tree
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