Let me start off by saying I loved Joshua Tree! The landscape there is so unique and different, it was like no where I had seen before! There is a lot to see in Joshua Tree in two days, but you can definitely experience the best of what the park has to offer in this time. I had the idea to visit Joshua Tree after thinking that 5 days in Los Angeles would end up being too long for someone who had visited before so I started researching for great trips for a few days and remembered how close Joshua Tree was to Los Angeles (it’s only about 2 hours away without traffic). Then I realized how cheap AirBnBs are there! It was a win-win!
We decided to spend two days there mostly because my sister had class up until Wednesday and it would be super cheap and easy to spend just a few days there. I researched a ton before this trip and am excited to share with you how to see Joshua Tree in two days. Also note that Joshua Tree is made up of two different deserts that have different landscapes. They are both really cool to drive through and worth seeing. The most popular part of Joshua Tree is located on the west side where the famous Joshua Trees can be found.
Start by leaving early as you can on the first day if you are coming from Los Angeles or San Diego. It can take more than 2 hours from Los Angeles if you can’t leave early, you will most likely get stuck in the infamous traffic LA has! We went on Thanksgiving and left at about 7 am, we got to Joshua Tree National Park around 9 am. There was zero traffic and we did go about 80 mph the whole way, but we definitely got lucky missing traffic!
Note: Joshua Tree is a large national park. If you stay outside the park, you will need to add at least 30 minutes for driving time. Places are also about 30 minute drives apart from each other – plan ahead! I reference a map from the National Park Service in this post. Find a link to it here.
Entering the Park 9:00 am
I recommend a start at the Cottonwood Visitor’s Center at the southern part of the park. Why?
- Fewer people enter Joshua Tree from this side so no lines of cars as you come in.
- There is a full visitor’s center where you can buy souvenirs, America the Beautiful Passes (gets you into all national parks without paying the fee for $80, and again almost no line.
- There is a palm oasis here that is just .2 miles away called Cottonwood Springs. This makes it a quick and easy hike from the visitor’s center where you can see one of the famous desert oasis spots without a long hike and you can check off an item on your Joshua Tree list quickly.
- Bathrooms and help from rangers is great! We got the details on all the trails from the rangers and help deciding where to go.
This stop was pretty quick, but worth it because we got to see an oasis, got all our questions answered, and didn’t have to wait in a long line to get in.
Want to hear about some hikes to do in Joshua Tree in 3 hours or less? Check out my post about my favorite hikes here!
Octillo Patch and Cholla Cactus Garden 10:30 am
After this stop, you have a fairly long drive (30 minutes or so) along Pinto Basin Road to the Octillo Patch and Cholla Cactus Garden. Both are short walks around to see unique cactuses and do not take much time.
These cactuses are super unique and interesting to look at! I loved seeing these cactuses and the unique landscape they are in. You cannot walk through the Octillo Patch along a trail, but you can stop to look at them and walk around in them. Cholla Cactus Garden is right next to it down the road and does have a parking area and walking paths through it.
Lunch at Skull Rock and Jumbo Rock 11:30 am
After visiting the Octillo Patch and Cholla Cactus Garden, head north on the road again from Pinto Basin Road, head on Park Boulevard and make a stop at Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks. There is a trail that is 1.7 miles long that connects the two together. We did not take the trail and instead jumped around on the rocks and generally explored the area. We took about 2 hours to climb around and eat our lunch here. We had so much fun! There are tons of spots to sit and tons of rocks to climb around on.
Skull rock is not listed on the map given by the National Park Service, but can be found just before Jumbo Rocks. There are no picnic tables, bathrooms, and no parking lot at this location. We had a difficult time finding Skull Rock at first, but it was marked along the road as we headed west. Jumbo Rocks is just west of Skull Rock so when you are headed there watch for signs as you get close. We brought our lunch in our backpacks and bouldered for a bit before deciding on a spot in the shade. This was a good spot to be mid-day because of all the shade available. Even in November is was pretty hot so make sure you are fully prepared for the heat!
Hike Arch Rock 1:30 pm
Arch Rock is a little tricky to find, but I had seen it recommended multiple times as a cool rock formation in Joshua Tree so I wanted to find it! I couldn’t use my internet inside the park because no cell service and we actually had to ask a ranger for how to find it.
You have to park in the White Tank camp ground and hike through there to get to Arch Rock. We had a really hard time following the trail and ended up just walking between the cactuses to get to where we saw large rock formations on the left side of the camp ground. Arch rock took us like 5 minutes to hike to once we knew which direction to go. You have to park along the road if you do not have a camp site.
Hike Hidden Valley 2:30 pm
Hidden Valley is a very popular and easy hike located in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park. It was a really fun hike because we got to see lots of cool rock formations, walk in the shade of the large rocks, and walk with ease. There were a ton of people in this area and parking was tricky, even on Thanksgiving. Definitely recommend taking the first parking spot you see and just walking from there.
There are picnic tables and bathrooms at this location making it a popular stop for people, especially families. We found the trail kind of weird to follow and had trouble finding the right path but because there were so many people and there are no large trees really, you aren’t going to get lost. Hidden Valley is named after ranchers who used to hide their cattle in the valley after stealing them and taking them from Texas to California to rebrand. The trail took us about an hour, but I say one to two hours because there are really neat rock formations you can climb around on. We did this hike as our last of the day and I am glad we did! It was not nearly as hot this part of the day and you do have to do about half the trail without any cover from rocks. It could have been really uncomfortable if we had done it in the heat of the day.
Rest and Relax for the Night
By this point, we were pretty much hiked out (is that a phrase?) and decided to call it quits for the night. We wanted some time to relax and chill. Like I said, Joshua Tree is a really large park so by the time we were out of the park and at our AirBnB it was 5:30 pm. We decided to stay at a really cute airstream in Hot Springs a 30 minute drive Joshua Tree National Park.
We wanted a unique experience, did not have camping gear, and it was definitely cheaper to stay on that side of the national park at just $78 for a night. Plus, how cute is this place?! We were there on Thanksgiving too and Julie was nice enough to bring us pie to go along with our pasta we made for Thanksgiving dinner. Such a great host! It was the best place to stay! This also gave us the chance to make our own food and save even more money.
Enter Joshua Tree by 8:30 am
We decided to enter Joshua Tree the next day from the other side at the West Entrance. We wanted the chance to see as much of Joshua Tree in our short amount of time there and entering from a different place was a chance to see even more! This day we ended up getting to the park around 8:30 am because we wanted to do a longer hike that morning. This meant an early start – so glad we did!
The line to get into the park on this side was quite long and everyone was paying their fees at the rangers station kiosk. We were able to save a bit of time because I had purchased an America the Beautiful Pass and was able to bypass the ranger kiosk after showing my pass. We entered the park and drove a really pretty drive past tons of Joshua Trees on this side of the park. This is definitely the side to enter if you want to see Joshua Trees!
Hike Ryan Mountain 9:30 am
Ryan Mountain is the only “difficult” hike that we did while we were in Joshua Tree. It is a fairly short hike compared to other difficult hikes listed on the National Park’s map. It took quite a bit of time to get up the mountain, but the views were incredible! As you hike up the side of the mountain, you go around two different sides so the views are always changing. We were lucky enough to do this hike in the morning so we had shade most of the way up. There are plenty of spots to stop and relax along the way up.
Joshua Tree lists this hike as a really difficult one. We started early in the morning when it was not so hot, we took lots of breaks, we brought lots of water, and we found it was not that difficult. You can expect that it goes up the entire way to the top. However, this means that the whole way down was super easy. We saw all types of people doing this hike successfully and you get a great view at the top! It is a really popular hike and can take a long time to do as you wait for groups to pass or if you are not in shape. It took up only an hour and fifteen minutes to hike, but could have taken much longer if there were more people on the trail.
Barker Dam 11:30 am
We did this hike as our last in Joshua Tree because it was the perfect way to see the last unique thing we had not seen yet – water and petroglyphs! Barker Dam is a pretty easy trail to take that has similar views to Hidden Valley. We had fun climbing around on all the rock formations and seeing the dam itself. This one can take one or two hours because there are so many spots where you can sit and take in a different view. It’s really easy to go off trail because of the cool bouldering rocks.
This trail is a more difficult one to find and may take a few minutes to follow if you don’t have a map. The positive thing is that it’s easy to see which direction to go to get back onto the trail. One thing that makes it so unique is the Native American petroglyphs you can see. I’ve seen Native American drawings but never up so close! It was really fun to see along our hike.
The Saloon in the Town of Joshua Tree 1:00
We were pretty much hiked out at this point and wanted to see a little of the town of Joshua Tree. There is a Saloon that has live music and local beers daily in Joshua Tree that we decided to stop at. It had a really cool outside bar and a great indoor area for eating. The food was great and music was good and I loved the atmosphere.
My complaint is how long it took to get our food. We thought we would be able to get our food within 30 minutes but it ended up taking an hour and we almost didn’t have time to eat and still make it to Hot Springs before having to head back. They were very apologetic, but it was still kind of annoying to wait so long for a burger and grilled cheese.
Next door is the famous crochet museum and funky little shops. These are fun if you have time to explore them too.
Spa in Desert Hot Springs 2:30
We wanted time to relax and take in one of the hot springs available near by so we decided to go to a hotel spa in hot springs for the afternoon. There are a bunch of hotels that offer day passes at different prices and others that will allow you access with the purchase of a spa treatment. We went with a spa that was between the cheapest ($8) and most expensive ($45) called Miracle Springs for $15.
The view from the pools was incredible! The mountains are there right next to the pools and palm trees as you relax. Miracle Springs had 8 different pools that ranged from cool to extremely hot. There were also saunas and showers to use which enhanced the experience. We also had access to robes, flavored water, cucumbers for your eyes, and lockers. It was the perfect way to end our time in Joshua Tree without spending a ton of money. In the middle of all the pools is the hotel pool so if you choose to go here, be prepared for families and people to be swimming in the pool.
I loved Joshua Tree and there’s so much to see and do there! Hopefully my two-day itinerary can help you decide what to do on your visit! Let me know what you think in the comments below.