If you've been dreaming of visiting Joshua Tree National Park but don't have much time to explore the area, this guide to the top things to do in Joshua Tree in 24 hours is all you need to plan an epic trip!
I just returned from a whirlwind road trip to Phoenix, AZ, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Los Angeles, CA area, and it was such an unreal experience. While I loved exploring Phoenix and L.A., Joshua Tree was definitely a highlight. I've wanted to visit the national park for years and was SO excited to make it a reality! Joshua Tree did not disappoint, and even though I only got to spend about 24 hours in the park, it was an incredible time.
I plan to return and explore more of Joshua Tree National Park, but I fit a lot of activities and sights in during my short trip. Let's jump into my ultimate guide to things to do in Joshua Tree National Park if you only have 24 hours!
Top Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park in 24 Hours
Know Before You Go: Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
First, I want to share some important tips to remember as you plan your trip to Joshua Tree National Park.
There is NO cell reception in the park - you might get lucky and find one bar of service in some random spots, but for the most part, expect to have zero cell reception. Plan ahead by downloading maps, keeping friends and family in the loop with where you plan to be, and bringing plenty of food, water, and essential first aid items.
Pack appropriate clothes - I made the mistake of wearing a flowy skirt to the Cholla Cactus Garden and got stabbed multiple times with cactus needles (#WorthIt). Save yourself the trouble by packing pants and closed-toe shoes! If you want to pack a cute skirt or dress for photos, be extra careful where you walk.
Expect hot, dry weather - since Joshua Tree National Park is situated in the Mojave Desert, you can expect the weather to be hot and dry most of the year. Applying sunscreen, drinking lots of water, and avoiding pushing yourself too hard on hikes is essential. There's also a good chance the park will be enforcing a fire ban during your visit, especially in the summer months, so don't count on having a campfire unless you confirm in advance.
Now, let's get to the fun part—how to spend 24 hours in Joshua Tree National Park!
Set Up Camp - Jumbo Rocks Campground
The first thing we did once we arrived in Joshua Tree National Park was set up camp at Jumbo Rocks Campground. I chose this campground because of its convenient location near famous sights like Skull Rock, the Cholla Cactus Garden, and Arch Rock (more on those in a bit!). While some campgrounds within Joshua Tree require reservations, others are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
I recommend finding your campsite and setting up your tent earlier in the day so you don't have to worry about it later once you're tired from all the exploring you'll be doing. Equipment like tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, camp chairs, and a cooler are essentials for a comfortable experience. My college bestie Calla Maria is a camping pro and hooked us up with all kinds of handy equipment, so it felt more like glamping than camping!
We spent some time exploring the area before adventuring out further into the park. Our campsite (#30) was centrally located as well as a little further from the road, which we loved both for exploring and stargazing.
Hike to Skull Rock
After settling into our campsite, my road trip companion (and part-time assistant) Lizzie and I set off for Skull Rock. Skull Rock is a unique formation that looks like (you guessed it) a skull! While you can drive to the rock formation to snap some photos, we opted to take the short nature trail that started at Jumbo Rocks Campground.
The trail from Jumbo Rocks to Skull Rock was pretty easy, with minimal elevation change over roughly a mile of hiking round trip (you can add some extra distance to make it a loop rather than an out-and-back hike). Along the way, we spotted many small rodents, birds, and lizards and took our time meandering through the rocky, sandy landscape and stopping to take pictures. Only a handful of other people were on the trail, though Skull Rock itself was a different story.
Since Skull Rock is such a well-known sight in Joshua Tree, many people were waiting to get their picture taken in front of the formation. Remember to be patient and respectful of other visitors so everyone can get a turn to snap photos of Skull Rock! We didn't spend long at the rock since it was so busy, but the hike was worth it.
Sunset at Cholla Cactus Garden
I highly recommend enjoying a Joshua Tree sunset at Cholla Cactus Garden, just a 20-minute drive from Jumbo Rocks Campground. This gorgeous area is covered with teddy bear cholla, a unique cactus that looks deceivingly soft and fuzzy! A designated trail loops you through the garden, providing incredible views of the cacti, which range from small to human-sized.
At sunset, the golden light makes it look like the entire garden is glowing—it is magical! You can also score some beautiful views of the mountains as the sun sets behind them. Be careful walking through this area because it's SUPER easy to get stuck with a cactus (which happened to us multiple times). There are some pretty incredible photo spots just steps from the Cholla Cactus Garden parking lot, so you don't have to walk far to score fantastic photos.
Okay, this was undoubtedly one of my FAVORITE experiences in Joshua Tree National Park. The park is famous for being an incredible location to stargaze and capture photos of the Milky Way galaxy, so we decided to stay up late and see for ourselves!
It. Was. Incredible. I have never seen so many stars, and I swear we even saw a hint of the Milky Way with our naked eyes. I had never attempted to take nighttime star photos, so it was a learning experience playing around with my tripod and camera settings. Still, I'm so happy with the shots I captured. We even saw some shooting stars (zoom into the pic above to peep a few I accidentally captured)! Staying up late, chatting and stargazing with two of my favorite ladies, was an unforgettable way to wrap up my first day in Joshua Tree.
Sunrise at Arch Rock
Since Jumbo Rocks Campground was only about 10 minutes from the iconic Arch Rock, we decided to hike there for sunrise. Arch Rock is a gorgeous formation where you can watch the sun peek through the rocks and bathe the entire area in a beautiful glow. We got up bright and early to arrive at Twin Tanks Parking Lot around 6:00 a.m. and hit the Arch Rock Trail, which is only a little over a mile round trip.
The hike is flat for the most part and leads you past some interesting boulders and the famous Joshua trees that the park is named for. We reached Arch Rock after about 15-20 minutes of hiking, where a few other sunrise-seekers joined us. The sun slowly began to rise and eventually peeked through the natural arch formation around 7:00 a.m. (Check sunrise times for the season you're there—we found that the sun starts peeking through about 30 minutes after sunrise, so plan accordingly.)
(Click through to see more from the trail and where we hung out for the sunrise views!)
While enjoying the sunrise, I chatted with a sweet couple named David and Diane. They were gracious enough to let me shoot a quick mini couple session with them, which was such a fun time. They are an adorable pair and were such good sports as I guided them through some of my favorite couple poses. Head over to my Instagram (@jessi_casara) for some behind-the-scenes of our impromptu photoshoot and some of my favorite shots of the couple!
Bonus: Epic Breakfast Burritos
We packed camp and left Joshua Tree National Park around 9:00 a.m. On our way out, we stopped in the town of Joshua Tree to grab breakfast at Castaneda's Mexican Food. I ended up having the biggest and BEST breakfast burrito of my life! This thing must have weighed over a pound and was packed with eggs, cheese, and meat—the perfect road trip breakfast after a night camping in the desert. I also topped it with the restaurant's signature Chilanga green salsa, which was to die for. Castaneda's is the way to go if you're passing through Joshua Tree and need a hearty breakfast to fill you up for a day of adventuring!
Don't forget to save this guide for things to do in Joshua Tree National Park in 24 hours! Follow me on Instagram and Facebook to stay up-to-date on all my updates from the trip—trust me, there's lots more coming soon.
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Jessi is a lifestyle documentary photographer based in southern Alabama, serving the Gulf Coast from Mobile, AL to Pensacola, FL, along with the Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta areas. She specializes in couple, wedding, maternity, newborn and family photography, and also enjoys commercial and creative portraiture. Available for travel worldwide. Find out more at www.casaraphoto.com.