Sometimes the city life gets to be too much and you just want to get away. Fortunately when you find yourself in a city like LA, the choices are endless, and it’s easy to do – you can pick if you want to have a beach day, hike up the mountains, or if you’re like me, take a road trip to the desert!
Joshua Tree National Park, named after its namesake the yucca palm (or scientifically, the Yucca brevifolia) is where two Deserts – the Colorado and Mojave – meet, resulting in a gorgeous landscape that’s ecologically diverse. The Western half of the park is the Mojave Desert, which is what we experienced in the form of plenty of Joshua Trees, Prickly pear cacti, Mojave yucca, and hedgehog cacti. I never thought I’d call a desert gorgeous (I grew up in a particularly sandy one, btw!) but it seriously is. From unique rock formations (rock climbers love it), abandoned mines, unique fauna and flora, Joshua Tree seems to have it all.
JOSHUA TREE IN ONE DAY – WHAT NOT TO MISS
A day is definitely not enough – my friend Vania and I knew that, driving in to the park, and seriously wished we had packed warmer clothes and camping gear, so we could spend the night. But if a day is all you have, here’s what I suggest you do.
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WHEN TO GO
Deserts get hot, and Joshua Tree is no exception. Temperature in the summer months (May-September) easily gets up to 100F during the day, which in the desert, with no shade, is unbearable.
We planned our seemingly spontaneous trip to the desert back in November, which was the perfect time. Except for the fact that that’s when every one plans to go to the desert, so campsites fill up fast, especially around Thanksgiving weekend. If you head there in the Fall (late September-early December), book in advance. It was about 65F during the day, but did drop down considerably once the sunset – it’s been known to get to freezing some nights, so be prepared.
Joshua Tree is located in the Southern California region and is about 134 miles from Long Beach (where we started from). On a good day, with no traffic, it’ll take you 2.5 hours…but this is LA after all, so expect delays and plan for at least 3 hours of travel time to and from the desert.
We entered the park through the Joshua Tree Visitor Center and left through the Oasis Visitor Center located in the city of Twentynine Palms. The Joshua Tree visitor center (located at 6554 Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree, CA) is open daily from 8:00am-5:00pm. Entrance fees/Vehicle passes to the park are $25 per single, noncommercial vehicle, $12 per motorbike, and $12 per person on foot, bicycle or horseback (I guess that’s a thing?!). They’re good for a week, so if you need to get supplies from town, you can go in and out without any problems.
We brought plenty of snacks for the journey, but were starved once we got to Joshua Tree Village and stopped by Pie for the People, which turned out to be the best decision, ever. They have various daily specials, and the day we visited was get 2 pizzas for the price of one, and they were gigantic and oh, so, delicious.
While we were waiting, there’s a new coffee shop right next door (on the way to the bathroom), where Vania sampled some drip coffee. Not sure of the name, but she said it was good…it sure smelled good!
WHAT TO SEE
I recommend entering the park at Joshua Tree village off Rt 62, through the West Entrance Station, and exiting the park through:
- if you have less than a day, then exit through the North Entrance Station and into the town of Twentynine Palms. This way you are on one straight loop and can see multiple sights without veering too far off course.
- if you have 24 hours in the park, take the scenic route and exit through the South Entrance at the Cottonwood Visitor Center. This way you’ll get to experience the flora & fauna of the Colorado desert and see the Cholla Cactus Garden (which is top on my list when I return).
THE DRIVE ITSELF
I’m not sure how many times Vania and I stopped along the way just to admire the landscape. Cannot believe this place is just two hours from the city, yet it almost feels like we’re on another planet!
I don’t think I can get tired of looking at Joshua Trees…they seem otherworldly to me.
Looking for a lovely viewing point of the Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault line? Our ranger said this was a must stop on our loop through the park, which we unfortunately decided to skip as we were trying to catch the sunset at Hall of Horrors. It’s only 15 minutes from the Park Blvd road, which isn’t far off at all, so don’t skip it! Looking at pictures, I wish we hadn’t. Check them out here.
HALL OF HORRORS
First on our stop, the Hall of Horrors is a unique rock formation, known for its narrow passageway between the rocks, with the largest of them being the North and South Horror Rocks. It can be hard to miss if you’re not looking for it, so we made sure to ask our Park Ranger how to find it before we set off down Park Blvd. It’s right after the Ryan campground – you’ll see a rather large parking area on your left, which is where you should park. We got here at golden hour, and it was incredibly beautiful.
If you’re interested in climbing it, here’s a great article on how to.
As the name suggest, it looks like a skull. And to me, it kinda looks like Homer from The Simpsons.
The Skull Rock Trail is an easy 1.7 mile loop that can be started from the Jumbo Rocks Campground. From there, it takes about 0.5miles to get to the Skull Rock. The trail isn’t difficult – you’ll find a lot of families with kids along the path.
We got to Skull Rock just as the sun went down, and climbed a few rocks before laying down on a flat one and looking up at the night sky.
I think we were there for close to an hour, just admiring the bright stars and just how quiet it was. We tried guessing all the constellations we could see – according to NPS, the most famous constellation in winter is Orion, which we can easily see out in Joshua Tree in the Southern California skies.
Last year the park organized a Night Sky Festival, which I really wish I could have attended. Hopefully they have one this year?
The magic of Joshua Tree really got to us, and we drove away rather half-heartedly. Over 84% of the park is managed as wilderness, i.e. an area where the earth and its community have been untouched by humans, and where humans are visitors who do not remain.
The wildness that is Joshua Tree serves as a meeting place for nature, and for me, was a way to disconnect from the world (literally because Vania and I both didn’t have any cell phone service), a place of solitude and reflection on the impermanence of life. I cannot wait to go back!
Have you been to Joshua Tree before? What were your favorite areas – let me know in the comments below for my next trip back.