In Joshua Tree National Monument

How to Visit Joshua Tree National Park in One Day

One of the many National Parks in the US, Joshua Tree National Park protects a large area of the Mojave and parts of the Colorado deserts in California. In the summer, you don’t want to even stop there. I would know; we did stop once; even tried to hike in the middle of it – luckily we were smart enough to stop.

The first time we drove through this environment was June, but as hot as it was, we had to stop, get out of the car, and look at these off plants the desert here is filled with. Yes, it was over 100F, but we were new to this environment and loved it (we were also very young, heat didn’t bother us as much. Now, we avoid it at all cost during the summer.

Winters are a whole other story though. Temperatures are perfect here for outdoor activities, and the desert is green. The plants are alive, and you might even see wildlife if you stay long enough (and you are away from other visitors). Unfortunately, too many people have been visiting Joshua Tree National Park in the past several years – almost always in the winter.

Driving through Joshua Tree National Park
Driving through Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is huge, occupies about 800,000 acres, and encompasses two different desert environments. Part of it is in the Sonoran Desert, through here they call it the Colorado Desert; the same environment I live in, home to cacti and creosote bush.

Driving farther into the park, on higher elevations you reach the Mojave Desert, the real home to the distinctive Joshua Tree.

What Is a Joshua Tree?

Specific to the Mojave Desert, the Joshua Tree is not a tree at all, but one of the yucca species.

A Joshua Tree
The Joshua Tree is not a tree, but a yucca plant.

Like most desert plants, it has narrow, waxy leaves that conserve moisture since they have small exposed area to let it evaporate. Though they grow slow, about an inch a year, a Joshua Tree can get as tall as 40 feet. Though I haven’t seen them in bloom, they have flowers, and if you go around February-March, you’ll see its clusters of light cream-colored flowers.

So why do they call this plant Joshua Tree when it’s not even a tree? According to legend, the Mormon settlers thought the arms of this desert tree resemble the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land. I am not sure they ever found the promised land in the desert, but the name stuck.

A Stop at Joshua Tree National Park

Being a similar desert environment we live in, we only visit Joshua Tree National Park if one of our road rips take us through it. So, when we drove to Los Angeles to meet up with friends one winter, we chose the route that took us through Joshua Tree National Park. It was the first time we drove through it in the winter, and I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and experience this environment, so similar yet so different from our own.

Naturally, the highlight of a visit is the distinctive Joshua Tree, sometimes seeming to grow out of sheer rock.

A Joshua Tree and boulders
A Joshua Tree and boulders in the park

Besides the vegetation, the park also has amazing rock formations we also explored during our short visit.

Rock Formations in Joshua Tree National Monument
Rock Formations in Joshua Tree National Monument

How Did this Part of the Desert Become a National Park

A Concerned Desert Lover

Although people lived in the area for thousands of years, they left the desert as it was until the 1920s. But the new roads through the desert and the area‘s proximity to Los Angeles started to make it easy for people to visit. And not only visit, but remove fragile desert plants. Without thinking of consequences, they started removing desert plants, especially Joshua Trees.

A Pasadena resident, Minerva Hoyt, became concerned when he noticed how much this patch of the desert was getting destroyed. She lobbied for protecting this stretch of desert. Her efforts paid off when, in 1936, an area of 825,000 acres became Joshua Tree National Monument.

But Mining Corporations Get in the Way

But greed took center stage again. This time, mining corporations wanted to exploit the land. So, thanks to them, the protected area started shrinking, and by 1950 they reduced it to allow for some mining corporations to operate. At this point the National Monument protected about 265,000 acres.

Still it was more than nothing.

Decades Later, A National Park Was Born

Later on, in 1994, the area changed status, and changed from National Monument into a National Park, with an added 234,000 acres.

Today, the Park protects complete ecological units, ranging from low elevation desert environment to whole mountain ranges, providing habitat for many endangered or threatened plant and animal species.

But it’s not only about desert flora and fauna. Joshua Tree National Park also protects archaeological sites, historic structures and cultural landscapes.

93 miles of paved roads and another 106 unpaved crisscross the park. With over 191 miles of hiking trails and 32 trailheads, it is a paradise for desert-loving hikers.

Considering it is such a huge area, the park has three entrances, with three visitor centers. It also offers campgrounds for those who want to explore it, and not just drive through it like we did.

Stop at the Cottonwood Visitor Center

Since we drove from Phoenix, we entered the park from the South side and stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center.

We walked the short loop trail behind the building and glimpsed the first Joshua trees in the park.

Desert View in Joshua Tree National Monument
Desert View in Joshua Tree National Monument

A picnic area by the Visitor Center offers a place to sit and enjoy the first glimpse of this environment. In the winter, it was crowded. After my first visit (which was during the summer) I didn’t expect to see so many people in this desolate area. But it is no secret that Joshua Tree National Park (in California) is a great destination in the winter months.

After getting a brochure and spending a short time around the Visitor Center (it was one of our first stops in a long time driving through the deserts of Arizona and Southern California), we set off to explore the main areas of the park.

If you are like us, and only plan to spend a day in Joshua Tree National Park, the following are some ideas to enjoy it.

Drive the Pinto Basin Road through the Park

Since we didn’t have a lot of time and had no plans to camp, we stayed on the main paved road through the park, the Pinto Basin Road, taking us on an east-west direction. Even without taking any of the dirt side roads, we had plenty to see.

Stop to Hike a Few Short and Easy Trails in the Park

Most of the trails in the park are flat and easy, and even the short ones showcase some otherworldly desert scenery.

  • The Bajada Loop Trail took us on a short walk by the Cottonwood Visitor Center. Less than half mile long, this trail showcases plants of the Colorado Desert.
  • Cap Rock Trail took us on an easy stroll through rock boulder piles, healthy Joshua trees and other vegetation.
  • Cholla Cactus Garden is also a short trail through an area filled with cholla cacti. Though interesting for non-desert-dwellers, we have lots of chollas around where we live, so didn’t seem interesting to us. However, I have to say cholla cactus is beautiful, and here, you’ll find healthy and pretty ones in the winter, though none are in bloom. If you want to see them in bloom, visit in the spring, late March/early April.
  • Discovery Trail at the Skull Rock parking area is an easy hike through large boulders and desert washes. A short trail, it connects the Skull Rock and the Split Rock Loop Trails, both longer trails, fit for another day, when we might spend more time in the area.
  • Hi-View Trail goes through a Joshua Tree forest. Though we had no time to hike it all, we walked a short distance into the Joshua Tree forest on this trail. The experience is otherworldly, surrounded by these weird-looking plants.
On a Trail in Joshua Tree National Park
On a trail in Joshua Tree National Park

Leaving the Park

Since we still had a while to drive before we reached our destination for the night, we couldn’t linger any longer. But we had a taste of this special desert, North of our own.

We love the desert. At least in the winter. Even though we live in the middle of one and have been for the past twenty years. Still, Joshua Tree National Park differs from our desert, and it was well worth revisiting.

joshua tree nm

Joshua Tree National Park

Scroll to Top