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Joshua Tree National Park: Weekend Itinerary

February 18, 2021



Joshua Trees in desert

You’ve probably seen pictures of Joshua Tree National Park on Instagram – it was on my destination photography bucket list for a LONG time! I had an opportunity to attend Raw & Real Workshop, a retreat for professional photographers to participate in creative styled shoots, talk business and explore one of California’s beautiful parks. Marcelo and I got there a few days early and enjoyed a weekend in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree together! We had 2 days to explore the park, which is plenty of time to explore this amazing desert playground.

Are you planning a weekend trip out to Joshua Tree? Here are some of my favorite places we explored within the park! We did this in two days, but it could be easily done in one if you’re crunched for time.

Sunrise at La Cholla Cactus Garden

Sunrise in La Cholla cactus garden in Joshua Tree National Park

You’ve got to be a really early bird to enjoy this one, but it’s TOTALLY WORTH IT. You can start here (the South end of Joshua Tree) and work your way north to hit all the spots on this list. Or, spend the night somewhere in or near the park so you’re close for sunrise.

We were some of the only people here at sunrise to see these beautiful cacti. There’s a nice, short path next to the parking lot that really only takes a few minutes to see, and it makes a great photo stop. Beware of the aggressive bees, though, and if you have allergies you may just want to drive on through. The bees never stung us, but they did follow us and make really loud buzzing sounds that were a little intimidating.
From La Cholla, you can keep driving north and find more amazing gems within this desert playground!

Arch Rock Trail

Arch Rock at Joshua Tree National Park

Another easy, short hike, you can park and follow the marked signs to the trail and walk amongst the Joshua Trees until you see Arch Rock. Marcelo was brave enough to climb up to the top of it. I was okay with staying safely on the ground running away from the bees. We also saw a few desert hares, too!

Person on top of a rock shaped like an arch in Joshua Tree

If you follow the road north, there are a TON of cool pit stops – literally pick any spot to explore. As it gets later in the morning (even as early as 9 or 10 a.m.), it starts to get HOT. Having a rental car with A/C and some bottled waters or Gatorades is essential. Since it’s a dry heat you won’t be sweating much or notice that you’re getting dehydrated. Sunscreen is also a must for any skin tone, and I recommend wearing lightweight clothing that protects you from the sun, or a hat.

Split Rock Loop Trail

Boulder shaped like a skull in Joshua Tree National Park

This was one of my favorite pit stops, because there are massive boulders and Joshua Trees everywhere. You can find a few uniquely shaped ones like Heart Rock and Skeleton Rock. We felt like kids on the boulders, in awe of how unique the landscape was compared to anywhere else we had been. 

This couple’s adventure session at Joshua Tree was within the Split Rock Trail, right off the main road:

When it gets too hot out:

We packed food, snacks, and liquids so that we could spend most of the 2 days we were there in the park. If you split this up into two days, visit the nearby town of Joshua Tree for a bite to eat and support local. Keep in mind that it gets extremely hot in the middle of the day for most of the year. We spent a good amount of time to sit in the A/C, take a quick power nap, and have lunch. Take proper precautions to protect yourself from the heat or avoid going in the middle of the day.

Ryan Mountain Trail

Giant boulders with warm sunset light at Joshua Tree National Park

Two hours before sunset, get to the trailhead of Ryan Mountain to reach the perfect spot to watch the sun go down over Joshua Tree National Park. This hike IS steep (about 1,000 ft. elevation gain and 3 miles). Depending on how much you’ve walked the rest of the day and how hot it’s been, it could be a challenge.

Give yourself plenty of time to stop if you get tired, hydrate, and take a selfie as golden hour sets in. We got there close to sunset, so we didn’t actually go to the top, but we stopped at the PERFECT place for sunset, just the two of us.

Hiker looks over valley at sunset in Joshua Tree National Park

We started hiking down before it got completely dark in the valley, and when we got to our car we waited so we could see the stars from the parking lot. After an intense hike, it finally got cooler at night for us to enjoy the view from here.

Cactus at sunset Joshua Tree National Park

If you have the opportunity to camp or stay within the park, it will save you a long drive out late at night. We stayed in Palm Springs, a little over an hour away, but next time we would love to camp in an Airstream camper like these ones!

More helpful info to plan your trip:

Closest airport: PSP (Palm Springs), aka the cutest little airport you’ll ever see!

Getting to Joshua Tree: You’ll want to rent a car, as the ridesharing apps like Uber or Lyft are very pricey!

Where to stay: Joshua Tree Acres offers several renovated Airstream campers extremely close to the park entrance. There are 5 different options to choose from – we would have stayed here if they weren’t all booked up! You can also check the NPS website for camping info and reservations.

Tall vertical cactus in Joshua Tree National Park

Within Joshua Tree National Park: Download the free AllTrails app before you go and saving some trails you’d like to do. The app will show you difficulty level, distance, show your live location when you’re on the trail, and there are images and reviews from other hikers. You can also save lists to organize your trails by day if you’ll be there for more than one day. Also, download a free map to your phone from the National Park Service.

If you plan a trip to Joshua Tree and want to have epic pictures taken while you’re there, fill out the contact form below to book your adventure session or destination elopement at Joshua Tree National Park!

Thanks for reading, and happy planning –

johanna, frames + letters photography

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