Updated: Dec 31, 2022
Joshua Tree National Park is a vast protected area in southern California. It’s characterized by rugged rock formations and stark desert landscapes. Named for the region’s twisted, bristled Joshua trees, the park straddles the cactus-dotted Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, which is higher and cooler. Two days in Joshua Tree will help you see both sides of the park.
Let me start off by saying I loved Joshua Tree! The landscape there is so unique and different, it was like nowhere I had seen before. There is a lot to see in Joshua Tree in two days, but you can definitely experience what the park has to offer in this time.
I had the idea to visit Joshua Tree after realizing that five days in Los Angeles would be too long for someone like me who had visited before. I started researching trip ideas for a few days and remembered how close Joshua Tree was to Los Angeles. Then I realized how cheap the Airbnbs are! It was a win-win.
My sister and I decided to spend two days there mostly because she had classes 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.
You will need a car in order to see all of Joshua Tree National Park in just a few days. Rent one or if you are local, bring yours, of course! A motorhome rental is also a really fun way to road trip in Calfornia!
Joshua Tree is made up of two different deserts that have their own unique landscapes. Both are 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 as 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 of LA! We went right 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 park. There truly is so much to see in Joshua Tree in two days (tips for Joshua Tree here). If you stay outside the park, you will need to add at least 30 minutes for driving time. Popular locations 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 big visitor’s center where you can buy souvenirs and America the Beautiful Passes. The pass 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 a famous desert oasis without a long hike and check off an item on your Joshua Tree list quickly!
The bathrooms and help from park 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 actual oasis, had all our questions answered, and didn’t have to wait in a long line to get in the park.
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 Ocotillo Patch and Cholla Cactus Garden. Both are short walks to see these unique cactuses and do not take much time.
These cactuses are super unique and interesting to look at! I loved checking them out and the unique landscape they live in. You can’t walk through the Ocotillo 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 the patch.
Lunch at Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks — 11:30 am
After visiting the Ocotillo Patch and Cholla Cactus Garden, drive north on the road again from Pinto Basin Road, and head on Park Boulevard to 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. So much fun! There are tons of spots to sit, picnic, and climb around.
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 as you get closer, watch for the signs.
We brought our lunch in our backpacks and bouldered for a bit before finding a spot in the shade. This was a good spot to be mid-day because of all the shade available. Even in November, it is was pretty hot, so be sure you are fully prepared for the heat!
Hike Arch Rock — 1:30 pm
Arch Rock is a little tricky to find, but I saw it recommended multiple times as a cool rock formation in Joshua Tree, so I wanted to find it! I couldn’t use the internet inside the park because I had no cell service. We actually had to ask a ranger for how to find it.
You have to park at the White Tank campground and hike through it 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 campground. Arch Rock took us like 5 minutes to get to once we knew which direction to hike. You have to park along the road if you do not have a campsite.
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 rock formations, walk in their shade, and explore 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 to be kind of weird to follow. We had trouble finding the right path, but because there were so many people and there isn’t tall brush or even large trees really, you aren’t going to get lost. Hidden Valley is named after crooked ranchers who would literally hide cattle in the valley after stealing them. They would take them from Texas to California to rebrand.
The trail took us about an hour, but I say give yourself 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 hike about half the trail without any cover from rocks. It would 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 with a 30-minute drive to Joshua Tree National Park.
We wanted a unique experience but did not have camping gear. It was definitely cheaper to stay on that side of the park compared to others 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 the pasta we made for Thanksgiving dinner. Such a great host. It was the best place to stay! This also gave us the space to make our own food and save even more money.
Here is the link to find Julie’s airstream.
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 as we could. By entering from a different location, we had the 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.
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 bypassed the ranger kiosk after showing my pass. We entered the park and had a really pretty drive past tons of Joshua trees growing. This is definitely the side to enter if you want to see the Joshua trees!
Hike Ryan Mountain — 9:30 am
Ryan Mountain is the only “difficult” hike that we did while 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 places to stop and rest on 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, took lots of breaks, brought lots of water, and found it was not that difficult. You can expect that it’s an incline 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 depending on your abilities, and you have to wait at times for groups to pass. Ryan Mountain took 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 get in the last unique features of the park that 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 hike can take one or two hours because there are so many places where you can sit and take in the view. It’s really easy to go off-trail because of the giant rocks.
This trail is difficult to follow at times and may take a few moments to find it again 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 special to see along our hike.
The Saloon in the Town of Joshua Tree — 1:00 pm
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 daily live music and local craft beers that we decided to stop for lunch. It had a really cool outside bar and a great indoor area for eating. The food was great, and the music was good—I loved the atmosphere.
My only 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. 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 just a burger and a grilled cheese.
Next door is the famous crochet museum and some funky little shops. These are fun if you have time to explore them, too.
Spa in Desert Hot Springs — 2:30 pm
We wanted time to relax and take in one of the hot springs available nearby, 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 for different prices and others that will allow you access with the purchase of a spa treatment. We went with a spa that was right between the cheapest ($8) and the most expensive ($45) called Miracle Springs for $15.
The view from the pools was gorgeous! The mountains are there right next to the pools and palm trees as you relax. Miracle Springs had eight different pools that ranged from cool to extremely hot. In the middle of all the pools is the hotel pool so if you choose to go here, be prepared for families and groups to be swimming in the pool.
There were also saunas and showers available to use, which enhanced the experience. We had access to robes, flavored water, cucumbers for our eyes, and private lockers. It was the perfect way to end our two days in Joshua Tree without spending a ton of money.
I loved this trip. There’s so much to see and do in Joshua Tree in two days! 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.
If you want to know more, check out this post about 15 awesome things to do in Joshua Tree!