I knew I wanted to make a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park while planning the Palm Springs segment of my nomadic life for December. I loved Joshua Tree park so much that I visited two times, on December 13th and December 25th. Yes, Christmas day is a great day to visit a national park! This could be the start of a great new holiday tradition, to visit a national park on Christmas Day.
Joshua Tree National Park is a 45 minute drive from Palm Springs. I took the 111 to Twentynine Palms Highway and entered the park via the West Entrance Station, located at the northwest part of the park.
I made a pit stop at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, located 6 miles before the park entrance. You can pick up the National Park Service guide and brochure for Joshua Tree National Park at the visitor center. Park rangers are available to help you plan your visit and recommend hiking trails, campgrounds, points of interest, scenic drives, etc. I watched a video at the visitor center. It was maybe 20 minutes, and it was okay but not highly recommended, maybe 3 stars if I were to give it a rating.
Driving around the park there are several pull-outs where you can park and go for a wander to take in the scenery. It can get cold and extremely windy at the park in winter (and excessively hot during summer) so check the weather forecast from the National Weather Service before you leave for Joshua Tree – there is a link on the National Park Service page here. The NPS website is a great resource for researching and planning a trip to any of the national parks in the US.
The western portion of Joshua Tree National Park, above 3,000 ft elevation is part of the Mojave Desert. The eastern half of the park lies within the Colorado Desert, with elevations below 3,000 ft. You will find the Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert but not in the lower elevations of the Colorado Desert which is part of the Sonoran Desert. The cholla cactus garden and the ocotillo patch are located in the eastern part of the park and definitely worth the drive.
On my first visit to Joshua Tree National Park in mid-December I walked the Hidden Valley and Barker Dam nature trails. Each hike takes about 1 hour round-trip. There are picnic benches and restrooms near the parking area of both hikes. These are popular hikes and I enjoyed both.
By mid-day the winds picked up and I decided to drive to the eastern half of the park. Driving along the boulders from Ryan Mountain to Jumbo Rocks is a scenic route with several places to stop and park. In winter time during afternoon hours Joshua Tree National Park gets busier and parking spots fill up. There is room to park along the road at some of the most popular points of interest such as Skull Rock.
Driving to the Cottonwood Visitor Center I enjoyed the scenery and did not plan on getting out in the wind again. Then I saw the cholla cactus, also known by the common name teddy-bear cholla, and I had to stop. Cacti arms stretched out to greet me with a warm hug. Just kidding. If you hug a teddy-bear cholla you will remember it forever, in agony. The cacti spines have barbs that are difficult, and painful to remove once embedded into the skin.
I took dozens of photos. Walking along the trail I met Joe, an American living in Australia, who was on a two-month road trip around southern California. We talked for a half-hour or more, mostly he talked and I listened or asked questions. Joe told me he was 70, sold his photos professionally, wrote poetry, and he is writing a book. I meet some fascinating people while traveling and Joe was one of them. He suggested I take another Palm Springs day trip to Salton Sea.
I had planned to get to the Cottonwood Visitor Center by 2 pm for a ranger talk but my stop at the cholla cactus garden kept me until after 3 pm. I drove past the ocotillo patch without stopping. In West Texas and in Tucson I saw ocotillo surrounded by magnificent views. The ocotillo patch in Joshua Tree National Park was not so impressive in December but definitely worth a stop if you have not seen the ocotillo plant before. I would love to visit again to see the ocotillo plants while in bloom.
On my Christmas day visit to Joshua Tree National Park the weather was cooler and windy. I wore layered clothing but could have used some extra warmth or at least a windbreaker jacket. Keys View was especially cold and windy but the panoramic view was majestic at 5185 ft (1581 m) and definitely worth the short drive.
I stopped at Cap Rock for a stroll along the marked pathway. There are interesting boulder formations on the short walk.
Next stop was Jumbo Rocks. Standing among the boulders near a campsite, a young man inquired if anyone had seen a tent at the site. Evidently the winds had carried the tent away during the night. The owners opted to stay at alternate accommodations and the tent was left without much to weigh it down. After a few minutes of searching the tent was retrieved, several meters from its original location.
Cholla cactus garden was my next destination at Joshua Tree. Taking in the mountain views surrounded by teddy bear cholla, a most memorable Christmas for me.
How to get to Joshua Tree National Park
You can get to Joshua Tree National Park via I-10 to the South Entrance or take Twentynine Palms Highway (Hwy 62) to the West or North Entrance
Note: there is no public transportation to the park.
Hours and Admission Fee
Joshua Tree National Park is always open, however certain areas are day use only
- $20 for single, non-commercial vehicle (good for 7 days)
- $10 motorcycle (good for 7 days)
- $10 per person on foot, bicycle, or horseback (good for 7 days)
- Annual Pass to Joshua Tree National Park is $30
- Annual National Park pass is $80
- Seniors National Park pass is $10
- Access Pass is free with proper documentation (check NPS website for details)
- Active US military and dependents can get a free pass (check NPS site for details)