Driving through the desert, windows rolled down, Hotel California coming from the speakers, my mother asked me — “How long have you known about Joshua Tree, anyway?”
I can’t exactly remember when and how I first learned about Joshua Tree, but for as long as I can remember, it was on my California road trip bucket list. So when my mother and I began planning a girl’s trip to Palm Springs, a day trip to the famous Joshua Tree National Park was at the top of my list.
The West Entrance to the park is less than an hour from Palm Springs and a beautiful drive. Myself and many others will recommend starting at the West (Main Entrance) just past Yucca Valley and to finish your day at the South Entrance to head back to Palm Springs through Indio.
For context, we left Palm Springs around 11:00am and following this itinerary, we were back in Palm Springs by 8:00pm. It was the PERFECT day and at no point did we really feel rushed in the park.
Here are my tips and must-see stops when visiting the park.
HAVE LUNCH & SHOP IN YUCCA VALLEY
Yucca Valley is the coolest, quirkiest little desert town just minutes from the West Entrance to the park. To set the stage, we met a super cool bird named Ringo in a vintage shop and then ran into him at the same restaurant for lunch half an hour later. He travels in his own little basket with everything he needs and was ADORABLE.
There aren’t a million lunch options on the way to Joshua Tree after you leave Palm Springs and there is nowhere to buy food or water in the park so I definitely recommend grabbing breakfast or lunch in Yucca Valley before you start your day.
We had delicious sandwiches at the Frontier Cafe — my grilled cheese with heirloom tomatoes was amazing and Mom loved her Cuban sandwich. We also popped into a few shops nearby like a vintage shop called The End (where we first met Ringo) and Hoof & Horn.
STOP THE CAR! STOP THE CAR!
I’m totally that girl that always takes the scenic route and pulls over often on road trips for the perfect photo op. Joshua Tree National Park was no exception. Every quarter mile there is something worth stopping to see. Just keep an eye out for signs that say Exhibit Ahead and refer to your maps for destinations along the way.
It’s a BIG park, so remember to keep an eye on the time as you explore. We tried not to spend more than 20-30 minutes at the bigger stops and 5-10 at those roadside stops that were just a quick photo op since we started our day in the park at 2:00pm and wanted to be at the Cholla Cactus Garden for sunset by 5:30pm. More on that later.
VISIT THE HALL OF HORRORS
The Hall of Horrors is about halfway through the park and is a great spot to pull over and do a quick hike around the rocks — it should only take you 20-30 minutes and it’s very easy going.
It’s a great trail for seeing plenty of wildlife. We saw so many rabbits, lizards and desert vultures circling overhead during our stop.
And you’re bound to see brave climbers in the rocks, so make sure to give them a wave.
STOP AT SKULL ROCK
Skull Rock isn’t hard to spot – it’s right on the main road through the park just past Jumbo Rocks and on the right side of the road if you’re heading South. When we were there, it was pretty busy with plenty of cars pulled over so it was easy to spot and because it’s easily accessible, you will only need a few minutes to stop and get a photo.
Mermaid Tip: The best photos to capture the skull feature are from the right side.
CHOLLA CACTUS GARDEN AT SUNSET
After spending more time than I should probably admit reading up on all things Joshua Tree on Pinterest – one thing was clear. You’ve simply got to time your visit to finish your day at the Cholla Cactus Garden closer to sunset. But not too close, because the sun will set behind the mountains about 45 minutes before the actual sunset time.
The Cholla Cactus Garden, regardless of where the sun is in the sky, is impressive on its own. They are BEAUTIFUL but be warned – they pack a mean punch if their little cactus balls get stuck on you. It happened to my mother – TWICE.
While I threw caution to the wind (literally) by wearing flowy pants and Birkenstocks in the name of the perfect photo – I’d recommend wearing closed-toe shoes and longer pants to keep your ankles safe. All it takes is a little breeze for a cactus ball to attach itself to your foot or socks. If you do get attacked, there is a first aid kit at the trail head!
The cholla cactus garden trail only takes about 10-15 minutes to loop around – depending on how many photos you stop to take along the way – but we spent about an hour there watching the colours change as the sun set.
REMEMBER TO TAKE IT ALL IN
My number one tip for visiting Joshua Tree National Park? Take it all in as slowly or quickly as you wish, but definitely make sure to experience it.
If you’re short on time, make it a road trip and enjoy the sites from your vehicle. I promise you will still be impressed.
Only have half a day? We saw SO much and our hearts were full from only being in the park from 2:00pm to 6:00pm.
Got a whole day or more? Take in some of the hikes and pack a picnic lunch to enjoy along the ride. Or consider camping in the park – the camp sites looked AWESOME. And I’m not even a camping girl.
Must Knows for Visiting the Park
The park entrance fee is $30 for a car and is good for one week. It’s absolutely worth it – the entire park will take your breath away.
Remember to bring plenty of water + snacks. There is nowhere to purchase either in the park.
There is no cell service throughout the park so if someone back home is expecting to hear from you, give them a heads up.
There ARE plenty of roadside park bathrooms – your bladder will be thankful.
Wear sunscreen + a hat. It’s HOT in the desert.
Carry out whatever you carry in. Preserve the park – don’t be a litter bug.
Don’t stop exploring stranger tides and desert sands.