Waking up early to see the sunrise at the Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park was an experience to remember. We set out in the dark, driving through the national park as hints of color entered the navy blue sky. Our headlights illuminated coyotes and other night creatures scurrying down the side of the road. The iconic silhouettes of the Joshua Trees stood out against the sky, a wide open backdrop now changing colors amongst wispy desert clouds. 

Eventually we reached the cactus garden. We ventured out into into the dirt trails, the air still and cool. Absolute silence welcomed us as we found a spot to wait for the warm sun to reveal itself over the mountain ridge.

The colors behind the mountain turned bright red before the crimson sun slowly made its appearance. Little hints of orange began appearing at the base of the cacti, like an orchestra warming up for a performance. Within minutes, a glowing blanket of orange spread across the field as far as I could see. This was what I had waited for. To be witness to this daily celebration of morning light in the middle of the desert. 

Sunrise on the boardwalk at Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree
Boardwalk at Cholla Cactus Garden

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Get there early for sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden

Based on the time of year you’re visiting Joshua Tree National Park, plan ahead by looking up the exact time of sunrise. You’re going to be waking up extremely early, but it is so worth it. I am definitely not a morning person, and I don’t regret being up early for this experience at all. Plan to be driving in the dark, as the Cholla Cactus Garden is located just about in the center of the park.

Sun rising over the Mojave desert

Drive time to Cholla Cactus Garden at sunrise varies based on park entrance

  • If entering from the popular West Entrance, the drive is about 45-55 minutes.
  • Visitors from the North Entrance can expect a drive time of about 20 minutes.
  • If entering from the South Entrance (Cottonwood Visitor Center), the drive is about 30-40 minutes.
Cholla Gardens Hiking Entrance Sign in Joshua Tree National Park
Trail sign across from parking lot at Cholla Cactus Garden

Parking for Cholla Cactus Garden at Sunrise

There is a convenient parking lot right next to the Cholla Cactus Garden. If you’re arriving early at sunrise, there will be plenty of spaces available. I arrived at about 15 minutes before sunrise, and there were only a couple of other cars in the lot. There are some nice information signs around the parking lot, giving info on the Cholla Cacti and the various animals that frequent the area, including the brave cactus wren.

Trail Entrance and Location Information Sign

See the sunrise over the mountains

Find yourself a good spot and wait for sunrise. Depending on the time of year you’re visiting, be sure to dress appropriately because nighttime in the desert can get very cold. The sun rises from behind the mountains, giving it a perfect entrance before shining down on the park. The sunrise I saw lit up the sky and clouds in an orange glow at first, before emerging from behind the mountains in a fiery desert red. The glowing bright red was absolutely brilliant as it slowly rose into the sky.

Waiting for the desert sun
Waiting for the desert sun

Wait for the Cholla Cactus Garden to glow at sunrise

When I visited, I went with the intention of seeing the Cholla Cactus glow at sunrise, like I had read about and had seen in pictures. I imagined the sun would shine right through the cactus the moment it peaked over the mountains, but I was disappointed to see the field of cacti not glowing right away. What I learned is that you have to wait for it.

Wait for it…

About an hour after the sun first made its appearance, the cacti began to glow. It was slow at first, with some hints of orange appearing at the base of the cacti. I had been waiting so long that I thought the changes in color were part of my imagination. About 10 minutes later I was no longer imagining it, as I found myself now surrounded by the glowing little cacti. The entire field of green Cholla Cacti, as far as I could see, was outlined in a luminous orange.

Glowing teddy bear cactus at Cholla Cactus Garden
Glowing teddy bear cacti at Cholla Cactus Garden

Stick to the walking trails

There are plenty of trails in the Cholla Cactus Garden, protecting both you and the garden. The trail entrance is clearly marked from the parking lot, and it splits off into other trails in the middle of the garden. I thought this was fantastic because there were plenty of areas to explore during the sunrise, while waiting for the cacti to glow. Tip: be sure to visit the boardwalk in the middle of the garden. It makes for a perfect photo spot.

Clearly marked hiking trails
Clearly marked hiking trails

Do Not Touch the Cholla Cactus

The cholla cactus is also known as a Teddy Bear Cactus because it is really cute and has a fuzzy apppearance. Spoiler alert: They are not fuzzy. They are extremely spiky and painful to humans and animals. In fact, there are signs at the parking lot entrance that say dogs are not allowed in the garden. The chances of them getting hurt are far too great, so be sure to leave your pets at home for their own safety.

Warning sign for safety at trail entrance

The cholla cactus is also known as the jumping cactus because of its ability to sneak up on you, and, before you know it, it has somehow latched part of itself onto you. I didn’t believe this at first, but after a watching a few online videos, I saw how if you get too close to the cactus, the spines stick you and actually detach a part of the cactus from its stem joints. The spines have tiny barbs, and can be very painful to remove. I definitely made sure to steer clear of the cacti when walking around.

Fore more tips on staying safe during your trip to Joshua Tree National Park, check out the safety page on the NPS website.

Sunrise Photography and Photoshoot at Cholla Cactus Garden

Watch out for bees

There are big signs at the Cholla Cactus Garden that warn you to watch out for bees. If you have an allergy to bee stings, this may not be the place for you. There wasn’t much bee activity during my early morning visit in September, but I’m not sure how it gets later in the day. I did experience a bee buzzing around me a few different times, but they left pretty quickly and didn’t bother me. The garden was absolutely silent, so luckily the buzzing bees can be heard, helping you steer clear.

Warning sign for bees in the Joshua tree national park

Tips for sunrise at the Cholla Cactus Garden

Here are some tips and suggested items to bring with your on your sunrise excursion. For more ideas on what to bring, be sure to check out my comprehensive Joshua Tree Packing List.

  • Bring coffee. I had rushed out of my Airbnb in the morning, downing only a half cup of coffee before taking off. As I stood there waiting for the sunrise, I wished I had brought some. I saw a couple walking by with steaming mugs, and it looked so good!
  • Dress appropriately. Based on the time of year you choose to visit, the desert can get surprisingly cold at night. And if you’re planning on staying past sunrise, bring a hat, sunscreen, and water. There is no shade in the cactus garden.
  • Wear closed-toed shoes or boots. Just in case you do come into contact with a cholla cactus, you certainly want to protect your feet. There are loose cactus spines scattered around in the dirt as well, which you don’t want in your sandals.
  • Bring a first aid kit if you’re accident prone. Best to be prepared.
  • Bring a camera. Sunrise at the Cholla Cactus Garden is a magical experience, so be sure take plenty of photos. I used my Sony A6000 Mirrorless DSLR Camera. To read more about my favorite photo equipment, check out my Travel Blogging Photography Gear.
  • Bring a flashlight if you’re planning to get there in the dark. I got there about 15 minutes before the scheduled sunrise, and it was light enough that I didn’t need a flashlight. But if you’re planning to arrive extra early, prepare that it may be dark.

Sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park

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