This one-day driving tour through Joshua Tree National Park is great for those who are limited with time. If you are looking for a short day trip idea from Los Angeles or San Diego, or just want a quick detour on your road trip from or to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, then keep reading!
We recently took a road trip to Joshua Tree National Park. Unlike most of our other trips where we usually have an unlimited amount of travel time, this was only a short getaway due to new work commitments. Believe it or not, we lived in Los Angeles for a year and a half and never got around to visiting this park. Now that we had moved two states away I was itching to explore the Joshua Tree area. When I received a low airfare alert from Airfare Watchdog for flights to Long Beach I jumped on the opportunity. We booked car hire in advance online with enterprise and you wouldn't believe the rate we scored... $80 for 4 days! Hell yeah!!!
Flying into Long Beach turned out to be a really good decision. It was a small and easy airport to navigate. And there was no traffic. No traffic on the way out to Joshua Tree on a Sunday morning on the Presidents Holiday weekend! Then on our return during the week we were going against the traffic too. We scored big time there!
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park
Los Angeles - 150 miles
Long Beach - 150 miles
San Diego - 150 miles
Palm Springs - 40 miles
Las Vegas - 200 miles
From LAX or Long Beach airport, you will need to get on the I-10 and then onto CA-62 also known as the Twentynine Palms Highway to get to Joshua Tree. If you are coming from San Diego, you could do this driving tour in reverse and begin your trip from the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park.
Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
There is an entrance fee which goes towards funding for the park. The entrance fee is $25 per vehicle and allows for a stay of seven days. If you plan on visiting more national parks you should consider buying a National Parks Annual Pass which is valid for 12 months from the date of purchase.
Best Times To Visit
Joshua Tree's peak season is from October through May which encompasses the cooler months of winter, fall and spring. Expect campgrounds to be full on weekends and holidays during these times of the year. It will be really cold during the winter nights so come prepared. Also, the months of March and April are known to have high winds. We visited Joshua Tree National Park at the end of February and this is exactly what we experienced.
Honestly, I wish we had waited until summer to visit but we were really looking forward to getting away. Also, we had been checking the weather at Joshua Tree for a few weeks beforehand and temperatures had been in the high 70's and low 80's which was what made us want to head to Joshua ASAP. Of course when we got there they had a cold weather snap. It was below thirty during the night and snowed on our first morning there for fifteen minutes. The takeaway from this is that the weather is not predictable here!
Joshua Tree Guide Books
Driving Tour Through Joshua Tree National Park
This one day driving itinerary allows you to see Joshua Tree’s most popular attractions, provides enough time to stop and have lunch, and take many pictures at the turnouts located throughout the park. If you can add a second day to your trip there is much more to explore here including a number of old mines and many great hiking trails.
This driving tour begins at the north-west entrance station of Joshua Tree National Park from the town of Joshua Tree. On your drive into the park you will notice you are much higher in elevation than the town of Joshua Tree and other surrounding desert towns. From the entrance you will head south on Park Boulevard which is the main road through Joshua Tree National Park into Hidden Valley. The area known as Hidden Valley is filled with countless jumbles of HUGE boulders as far as the eye can see! The landscape here is studded with Joshua and Yucca Tree's.
First stop on your driving tour is Barker Dam. Even though Barker Dam is a short hike from the road it is well worth it. The hike itself is only a mile and a half which is done as a loop. The trail cuts through a canyon past huge boulders to Barker Dam. The Dam was built at the turn of the 20th century by settlers to hold water for their cattle and mining use. We were there in February and the dam was like a small lake with lots of bird life. To get here you need to keep an eye out for Barker Dam Road which will be on your left as you drive south on Park Boulevard from Hidden Valley.
Second up on your driving tour through Joshua Tree National Park is Keys View. From Park Boulevard you want to take a right turn on Salton View Road. In about five miles you will reach Keys View which sits at an elevation of 5,185ft. From here you can see expansive views of the Coachella Valley below including San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain. On a clear day you can also see the Salton Sea.
Skull Rock is located right beside the road. Literally, you don't even have to get out of the car to see it if you don't want to. Heading south it will be on your right-hand side. It's pretty cool and really does look just like the shape of a skull, complete with nose and eyes.
Three miles from Skull Rock is Pinto Basin Road. Turn right here and head south. In a few miles you will see the White Tank Campground on your left. Park here and take the short Arch Rock Nature Trail through some boulders to a granite arch known as Arch Rock.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Heading south on Pinto Basin Road, you will begin to descend into the Pinto Basin. This is where the Mohave Desert transitions into the Colorado Desert and as a result you will see the landscape change dramatically. The Joshua Tree's disappear making way for creosote bush scrub and cacti. The Cholla Cactus Garden is the next stop on the driving tour.
The Cholla Cactus Garden has a dense concentration of these prickly plants which you can view up close. Be careful though, these cacti have a tendency for finding their way into spiking through your shoes. It is not a pleasant feeling! There is a small parking lot located right in front of the garden and a short trail loops through it for your viewing pleasure. The Cholla Cactus are beautiful and so is the backdrop of mountains in the distance.
About a mile after the Cholla Cactus Garden is the Ocotillo Patch. There are only a few of these plants in this patch but still worth a quick stop to see these interesting desert species up close. If you're lucky enough to be here after a rainfall, you will get to witness these tall shrubs explode with bright crimson colored flowers.
Last stop on your driving tour through Joshua Tree National Park is Cottonwood Springs. This is the location of the Cottonwood Springs Visitor Center. If you need anymore information, want to purchase books or top up on your water supply, do it here. The real attraction here though is a short one mile hike from the Visitor Center to a fan palm oasis. Cottonwoods, palms and other plants thrive in this area. It is hard to believe hundreds of years ago, this area use to be lush with plant life after the glaciers receded.
End of driving tour
After the Visitor's Center it is about a seven mile drive to the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. From here, Pinto Basin Road joins up with the I-10 where you can head back north towards Palm Springs. However, if you do have time we recommend driving south on Box Canyon Road to visit the Salton Sea and Bombay Beach
Plan Your Trip
Want to stay in Joshua Tree but don't want to camp?
If you're not interested in camping and would prefer to stay in hotel accommodations you can use the search bar below to find lodging in the area. If you want to make your trip to Joshua Tree memorable you can rent a desert-chic style home on airbnb or for a unique experience go glamping at one of the many properties available in the area. If you haven't used airbnb before you can get $40 off your first night's stay just for signing up!