The Ultimate 2 to 3 Days in Joshua Tree Itinerary

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by Sarah Dittmore

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With so much land to explore, it can be hard to boil down the best way to spend 2 to 3 days in Joshua Tree. This Joshua Tree itinerary will walk you through some of the top sites and hidden wonders so you can make the most of your time in this jaw-dropping desert landscape.

Named after the Suess-esc trees that dot the landscape, Joshua Tree National Park is a stunning desert that spans nearly 800,000 acres of Southern California. In particular, this park is famous for the fact that it’s home to two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado.

For visitors, this means you can expect to see a wide range of desert plants, animals, and natural landmarks throughout your time in the park.

How Many Days in Joshua Tree?

With an 800,000-acre park to explore, you’re probably wondering how many days to spend in Joshua Tree. It might seem like you need weeks to explore this massive desert and the truth is, if you’re a backpacker looking for an epic adventure, you could easily lose yourself here.

However, for the average traveller, 2 days in Joshua Tree is plenty of time to see all the major sites and experience the stunning beauty this park has to offer.

Those who are able to spend 3 days will get a chance to get off the beaten path and explore some of the more hidden gems of the park. But either way, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with this truly unique destination.

However, if you’re pressed for time, it’s possible to only spend a day in Joshua Tree National Park and see some of the highlights. A day trip to Joshua Tree from Los Angeles or Palm Springs (or elsewhere in the Coachella Valley) is easy to do and an excellent way to spend some time.

Beautiful Joshua Tree National Park
Beautiful Joshua Tree National Park

Getting To & Around Joshua Tree

As one of the least heavily trafficked national parks (Joshua Tree receives about 2 million visitors a year, compared to the Great Smoky Mountains’ 14 million or even Yosemite’s 4 million), Joshua Tree lacks the level of infrastructure that some of the larger parks have.

For example, the park’s first and only shuttle opened in 2018. In addition, there are no lodges within the park and just three entrances: one at the south end, one at the north end, and one at the west side of the park.

For this reason, having a car is a necessity. And make sure you get gas before entering the park, for there are gas stations at either end of the park, but none inside. However, once you fuel up and get inside, it is incredibly easy to get around the park.

There are two main roads (Pinto Basin Road and Park Blvd) that will take you just about everywhere on your trip. A few of the key sites are on small side roads that branch off these two main roads, but they are all well-marked both in the park and on the map.

In general, if you’re interested in visiting a California desert national park, this one is fairly accessible, especially if you’re struggling to choose between visiting Joshua Tree or Death Valley.

It’s worth noting that it can get extremely hot here in the summer months so if you’re looking for the best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park, avoid the peak summer season unless you’re prepared for high temperatures.

You can get to Joshua Tree in about 2 hours from Los Angeles and it’s about half an hour from Palm Springs to the park entrance, making it easy to reach from lots of places in Southern California.

If you need to rent a car for your trip to Joshua Tree, you can browse which aggregates prices across several car rental companies. It is also possible to rent an RV or campervan from Outdoorsy.

If you don’t want to drive in the park you can opt to take some day tours such as this half-day tour or this offroad tour.

Entrance Sign in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree Entrance

2 to 3-Day Joshua Tree Itinerary

Joshua Tree National Park is a haven for hikers. This nearly untouched landscape may lack some of the bike rentals, guided tours, and museums you’ll find in other parks but what you give up in infrastructure you gain in hiking trails.

No trip would be complete without a few hikes (you can take a guided hike if you prefer to go with an experienced guide), visits to some of the more impressive rock formations, and a chance to see the otherworldly flora and fauna. You’ll find all of this, plus some hidden gems, in the guide below.

Day 1 – Barker Dam, Desert Queen Mine, Cholla Cactus Garden & More

Barker Dam Trail & the Hidden Petroglyphs

Assuming you’re entering via the park’s most popular entrances—the West and North Entrances—your first stop will be Barker Dam. If you’re coming in from the south, start with Cholla Cactus Garden and do this day in the opposite direction.

Barker Dam Trail is a 1.1-mile, easy loop that takes about half an hour to walk and is one of the best hikes in Joshua Tree. On it, you’ll see the massive boulders and spiky trees Joshua Tree is famous for, as well as a wide variety of strange and fascinating desert plant life.

About halfway through the trail, you’ll discover Barker Dam, a water-storage reservoir that was constructed in the 1900s by cattlemen who lived on the land before the national park was founded.

Just beyond the dam, a small cave and rock arch seem far from the highlight of the trail, which many people assume is the desert lake that is Barker Dam. However, if you take a small detour (about a minute off-trail), you’ll be rewarded with ancient petroglyphs.

After the dam, the trail begins to descend into flatland. When you reach the trail junction, turn off towards the large boulder and within moments you’ll be at the foot of the petroglyphs.

Unfortunately, some of these petroglyphs were altered in 1961 by a Disney film crew that painted over the originals to make them more visible in their film, Chico the Misunderstood Coyote. However, many of the original petroglyphs are still visible and well worth a visit.

Barker Dam in Joshua Tree
Barker Dam in Joshua Tree

Desert Queen Mine

The next stop on your itinerary is the Desert Queen Mine. This abandoned mine was once used to mine for gold in the 1890s, but now sits in ruins amidst the beauty of the park and is not far from the Hidden Valley Nature Trail.

There are two main ways to see the Desert Queen Mine. The first is to drive to the end of the Desert Queen Mine Road and walk the .7-mile out-and-back trail to the overlook.

For those looking to explore a bit more, you can cross the canyon and get up close and personal with the mine, extending the trail to just 1.6 miles round trip. Regardless of which way you go, this is one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree.

Near the beginning of the trail, you can head off to the side to explore some ruins which include an old stone foundation, bed frame, and some other signs of the mine that once functioned here. The longer trail will take you past old mining machinery and mining shafts that will give you a taste of what the park looked like in the late 1800s.

Sign to Desert Queen Mine
Sign to Desert Queen Mine

Arch Rock & Heart Rock

One of the most famous sites in the park, Arch Rock, is a must for any visitor to the park. After parking at the Twin Tanks/Arch Rock parking lot, a 1.3-mile out-and-back trail will take you through massive granite formations and to the base of this natural arch.

One of the perks of visiting Joshua Tree is that scrambling over rocks is completely permitted, so feel free to climb into the arch for some great photo ops of this 30-foot-wide arch.

For those looking to extend the adventure to a lesser-known site, the aptly named heart-shaped rock, Heart Rock, is a quick detour from Arch Rock (about 15 minutes round-trip). The exact coordinates of Heart Rock are 33°59’17.6″N 116°00’47.8″W.

As it’s off an unmarked trail, it’s easiest to enter these coordinates into your map so you can easily track your progress. Walking from the Twin Tanks/Arch Rock parking lot you’ll take a right turn toward the outcropping of rocks where Arch Rock awaits.

Just before you reach the boulders, there will be a junction guiding you to head straight or right to reach Arch Rock. Head left instead and keep walking straight on this unmarked trail for about a quarter of a mile until you reach Heart Rock!

Arch Rock at Joshua Tree National Park, USA
Arch Rock

Cholla Cactus Garden

My personal favorite stop on any visit to this park is the Cholla Cactus Garden. By now, you may have spotted the odd teddy-bear cholla dotting the landscape of the park, but seeing these marvels concentrated in one central location is a true joy.

Don’t let their fluffy appearance and friendly name fool you—these cacti are covered in tiny spikes that will hurt you if you touch them.

They may not be cuddle-worthy like their name suggests, but the teddy-bear cholla are a fantastic site. They look like something invented by Dr Suess and the 0.25-mile platformed nature trail is a great way to get a better look at them (not to mention, a wonderful opportunity for photos).

Depending on the time of year you visit, various plants in the Cholla Cactus Garden may be in bloom, so check out the National Park Service webpage on the Cholla Cactus Garden to see what’s blooming when.

Sunset at Keys View

Whether you’re spending 2 days or a weekend in Joshua Tree or 3 days, watching the sunset over the desert is a must. The vibrancy of the sunset changes with the weather—soft golds one day followed by fiery oranges the next—but no matter what palettes paint the sky, it’s always breathtaking.

From Keys View, you can watch the sunset over the surprisingly mountainous landscape of this famous desert and gawk at the silhouette of Joshua trees as they stretch across the park. You can also see the bounds of the infamous San Andreas Fault from here.

To get to Keys View, just drive to the end of Keys View Road (off of Park Boulevard) and park at the overlook. You can stay here for some lovely views, or take the 0.2-mile loop trail up the ridge for an even better perspective.

Either way, Keys View is the spot to catch the sunset while in Joshua Tree!

Sunset at Key's View
Sunset at Keys View

Day 2 – Hall of Horrors, Hidden Valley Trail, Ryan Ranch & More

Hall of Horrors

Joshua Tree is beloved for its abundant rock-climbing opportunities. Whether you’re interested in bouldering or top roping, the Hall of Horrors is full of countless rock faces that make a great climbing route.

While there are no official guides located within Joshua Tree NP, there are plenty of rock-climbing guides in the town of Joshua Tree, that can help you explore the area. However, the more experienced climbers are encouraged to explore on their own!

If rock climbing isn’t your style, the Hall of Horrors is also a great hiking trail. The loop is only 0.6 miles, but there are tons of spots to explore on your own as you scramble through and around the nearby boulders.

Within the rocks hides a secret hall similar to a short slot canyon that you can walk through. The best way to find it is to put the following coordinates in your map app and follow it there because it’s hidden among many rocks off-trail.

The coordinates for this slot are 34°00’02.3″N 116°08’49.7″W. It’s located in the second large clump of rocks and will take some scrambling up rocks to find it, but it’s well worth the visit once you do!

Hidden Valley Trail

Another small and beautiful trail in the park is the Hidden Valley Trail Nature Trail, a 1.0-mile trail that takes about half an hour to complete. This trail weaves through some of the most massive boulders of the park and is believed to have once been the hideout for legendary cattle rustlers.

In addition to being a lovely walking trail, there’s a picnic area located near the parking lot that enjoys partial shade thanks to the towering rocks.

Shade is a rare commodity in Joshua Tree, so if you’re interested in adding a picnic to your trip, this is a great place to do so.

Hidden Valley Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park in California, United States
Hidden Valley Trail

Ryan Ranch & Ryan Mountain

96 years before Joshua Tree was a national park, many miners came to the area in search of valuable ore. In 1898, Jepp and Tom Ryan built a house next to Ryan Mountain, the ruins of which can still be seen today.

In addition to decaying adobe brick walls that once held their home, the area is littered with memorabilia of the time. From a collapsed windmill and various machinery to a few graves and a covered well, you can start to imagine what life mining in the desert may have been like.

Ryan Ranch is only about a 10-minute walk from the parking lot, but those looking for a longer trek might enjoy a visit to Ryan Mountain. A 3-mile out-and-back trail goes from the parking lot, through Ryan Ranch, and up to Ryan Mountain.

It’s about a 1,000-foot climb that can be a bit strenuous, but if you make the effort you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the park and a chance to hike through some of the park’s most incredible rock formations.

Ryan Mountain Trail
Ryan Mountain Trail

Skull Rock

After the climb up Ryan Mountain, reward yourself with a hiking-free site: Skull Rock. With a parking lot directly across from the rock, no hiking is required to view this famous destination.

Named for its skull-like appearance, this granite formation is a great place to take a break, get some photos, and see one of Joshua Tree’s most popular sites.

Skull rock in Joshua tree National Park
Skull Rock

Stargazing / Sky’s the Limit

One of the all-time highlights when you visit Joshua Tree is the night sky, so whether you’re spending 2 or 3 days in the park, make sure stargazing is on your list. While not technically inside the park, located just outside the Northern Entrance is the Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center.

The observatory runs guided tours at different times in the year, but the campus is open year-round. Even if you’re not visiting when a tour is running, the view of the stars from the campus is unbeatable.

If you’re only spending 2 days here, this will round out your trip to the park nicely. But for those spending an additional day, keep reading to see what else is on the Joshua Tree itinerary.

Day 3 – Lost Horse Mine, Joshua Tree Saloon & Crochet Museum

Lost Horse Mine

For those who decide to spend 3 days in Joshua Tree, the Lost Horse Mine is a great addition to your itinerary. It’s a much longer hike than any others on the itinerary, but a favorite amongst park regulars.

This 6.5-mile loop takes nearly 3 hours to complete and takes you through some incredible scenery and past the Lost Horse Mine.

The Lost Horse Mine was an active and lucrative mine from 1894 to 1931, producing more than 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver. Today, the area is dotted with ruins of the massive operation that once took place on this land.

Lost Horse Mine Loop
Lost Horse Mine Loop

Joshua Tree Saloon

After your hike to Lost Horse Mine, you’ll want a reprieve. So say goodbye to the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park and head over to the park’s namesake, Joshua Tree, CA (the town).

Head to the Joshua Tree Saloon & Grill for a bite to eat, some delicious food, and, on certain days, live music! Established in 1984, the saloon is older than the park itself and is famous for fish tacos that are a must-try while you’re in the area.

World Famous Crochet Museum

The last stop is a hard left turn from the rest of the items on the list: The World Famous Crochet Museum. Even if fiber arts aren’t your thing, it’s worth a visit.

Located in a funky green cube, the museum is packed from floor to ceiling with crochet animals and art pieces. The museum is owned by Shari Elf, a woman who, ironically, does not know how to crochet.

Where to Stay Near Joshua Tree

Unless you’re interested in camping, there aren’t a lot of accommodation options within the park itself. However, if you’re going to spend a few days here, you’re going to need somewhere to rest your head. The town of Palm Springs makes for a great base as there are plenty of options to choose from.

Inn at Palm Springs – Boasting a swimming pool, bar, breakfast and free parking, this hotel in Palm Springs is a great base for exploring Joshua Tree. There are lots of rooms to choose from suitable for solo travelers to families.

Alcazar Palm Springs – A luxe option with two restaurants, a beautiful pool and bright and modern rooms, this is a great place to ensure you’re very well rested ahead of your trip to Joshua Tree.

Private Rental – Places like this bungalow in the town of Joshua Tree are also excellent options. There are all kinds of vacation rentals that can suit all kinds of travel styles and budgets.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Joshua Tree hotels!

Driving through Joshua Tree
Driving through Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree is full of stunning sites, unique plant life, and hiking trails galore. It’s a more secluded destination compared to some of the more popular national parks, which grants it a quieter, more magical air for those visitors who take their time to explore the less common trails.

But whether you choose to spend your time wandering through boulders, gazing at crochet animals, or a mix of both, we hope this Joshua Tree itinerary will help!

Are you planning a visit to Joshua Tree? Have any questions about this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!

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Sarah is a writer for The World Was Here First. A California native, she loves travelling around her home state as well as visiting places further afield. She has spent over a decade travelling the world and writing stories inspired by the people and places she encounters along the way.

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