Most of the time, I daydream about hiking in view of snowcapped mountains and beside towering pines. But sometimes, I make exceptions. The great American West is home to so much landscape I have yet to explore and California has been at the top of my list for a while. So when our friends invited us on a trip to Palm Springs, we of course accepted immediately! Dave and I spent a long weekend sipping rum cocktails poolside, exploring the town, and soaking up some sunshine before the ‘Great Dark’ settled over us in the PNW. While we were in the area, we couldn’t resist squeezing in some short hikes and of course, a day in one of the most beautiful gems of the SoCal desert. Here’s how we spent 12 hours in Joshua Tree National Park!
1 Day Joshua Tree Itinerary for Photographers
1. Sunrise at the Cholla Cactus Garden
With only 1 day in the park, we were ready to make the most of it. The alarm rang at 5am, and after grabbing coffee & a bagel for the road, we made it to the south entrance by about 7am. We arrived before the park rangers were around to take our payment, so we went out to the north entrance later in the day to pay. Our first stop was the Cholla Cactus garden which sits right along Pinto Basin road, making it super accessible for sunrise. I’m not a morning person, but by the time the sun burst over the mountains, I couldn’t stop looking at Dave and mouthing ‘Oh my god, is this REAL?’
2. Split Rock Loop Trail
After a dreamy sunrise, we drove up Pinto Basin road to Park Boulevard for our first hike of the day. We were one of two cars at the trailhead (likely because it was 8am on a weekday) – which is basically bliss for most outdoor enthusiasts. We enjoyed the near-solitude along the 1.2m trail, the desolation and early morning light making for some truly incredible photography.
3. Jumbo Rocks Campground + Skull Rock
We continued down the road towards an area called Jumbo Rocks, which also has an accompanying campground. Many of these sites were taken, and we were starting to notice more cars and people as it passed 10am. We wandered around between Jumbo Rocks and Skull Rock, taking photos, reapplying sunscreen, and noting the eerie quiet. It reminded me of our time backpacking in the Needles District in Utah – completely and utterly silent. Not even birds made a sound, only our feet and the occasional human disrupted the stillness. After a quick walk through the area, we decided to head across the park to Keys View.
4. Keys View + Juniper Flats
Just about every blog I read on ‘top places to see in Joshua Tree’ mentioned Keys View as the prime sunset location. I’m really happy we made it, but personally thought going midday was an amazing move! Dave and I both wanted to watch the sun set behind the Joshua Trees and there aren’t too many within view at the viewpoint. The vantage point is incredible and worth a quick detour, though. The Santa Rosa mountains, part of the Sultan Sea, and most of the La Jolla Valley are on full display!
5. Twenty-Nine Palms + The Cactus Cafe
By noon, we were getting hungry, so rather than eat a meal bar in the blazing sun, we decided to zip out of the park to Twenty-Nine Palms for lunch. We did a quick Google search and landed on the Cactus Cafe. Let me tell you, filling up on southwestern diner food and coffee was the best way to feel re-energized for another 6 hours in the park! The service was great, and my cactus omelette and Dave’s prickly pear lemonade were delicious! Refreshed with our full bellies, we headed back up road to the Joshua Tree National Park entrance.
6. Hidden Valley Trail
The second half of the day stretched out before us like the shadows cast by each boulder. Our last planned stop of the day was Hidden Valley Trail, where we ended up seeing more climbers than hikers. The loop was mostly flat and extremely accessible, and Dave noted that the area was reminiscent of Canyonlands National Park (which he misses desperately). We took our time, putzing around to compose shots and soaking in the sunshine with smiles permanently etched into our faces. I knew the weather that awaited us in the PNW from November through March, so I made a mental note to remember how incredible the sun felt that day.
7. Barker Dam Road + Queen Valley Road
Although we didn’t get out to explore this area, we decided to take a different, dirt road East towards the Jumbo Rocks campground on our way to scope out the perfect sunset spot. The photo opportunities were endless, and the light was improving by the minute. With the exception of one Jeep, we didn’t see another soul for the rest of the evening (which felt pretty special and rare considering how popular Joshua Tree can be!)
8. Desert Queen Mine Road for Sunset
On our drive earlier in the day, we were scoping out what we thought would be incredible places to watch the sunset. On some photography blogs, I read that some people just found places to pull off the road so I was inspired to do the same! All I wanted was a view of the sun setting behind the Joshua Trees, ideally with the mountains in the background, too. It turns out, the exact framing I wanted was pretty difficult to come by, but we turned down a dirt road in the middle of the basin about an hour before sunset and we were happy enough to stay.
As it turns out, the next hour or so was hands down the best part of the entire day. The golden light cast an ethereal glow over the entire landscape for just 20 minutes or so, and we gobbled it up through our cameras. Usually, we shoot golden hour together, but this time, I was feeling inspired to venture a little ways away for a different perspective. After we both agreed the best light had passed, we jumped in the car and started the drive back to Palm Springs.
But to our surprise, about 1/2 hour after sunset, the sky utterly exploded in brilliant magenta and purple. It felt like I was looking at a vaporwave illustration! Light conditions like this can change in just a few minutes, so we pulled over and I sprinted across the road to capture the shot I’d been dreaming of for months. I couldn’t believe my luck 🙂
There are plenty of guides out there that recommend 2 day itineraries, but it turns out, 12 hours in Joshua Tree National Park was our sweet spot. We definitely missed some classic hikes, but overall, we saw the sights we were most hoping to see!
And there was still plenty of time left to relax, Painkiller in hand, by the pool in Palm Springs 😉