If you love hiking, dry weather, being off-the-grid and feeling like a child again, you’ll be at home in Joshua Tree. 130 miles from Los Angeles or 190 miles from Las Vegas, this national park crosses over the Colorado and Mojave Desert, a distinct line which is a sight in itself to witness. The Mojave desert, which lies in the northern half of the park is the Joshua Tree desert most of us know and seek out in our travels. I will say, however, the southern Colorado desert was home to the best wildflower views during the spring superbloom – so don’t discount its beauty!
Fueling up // The town of Joshua Tree can be missed if you doze off for a few minutes while driving the 62, but that’s what is so alluring about visiting. Off-the-grid is not just a figure of speech, inside the park, you won’t have any cell service so be prepared! Make sure to stock up on lots of water and snacks as once you enter the park, you won’t have anywhere to stop. There are a few noteworthy places to stop for lunch/beverages in Joshua Tree before heading into the park. Natural Sisters cafe was a great breakfast spot for a healthy and organic start for our long hikes. Green smoothies, breakfast burritos and a little outdoor patio make it a quick but satisfying spot. If you have more time, Crossroads Cafe, is also a wonderful treat, offering more of an expanded menu and more of a true sit-down dining experience. Be warned though, each time we stopped here it was a minimum of 45 minutes so save this spot for dinner if you can. Another great option for lunch or dinner is the Saloon, a dive-bar, pool-playing, live-music venue which also has a great outdoor space to view the stars while sipping a beer at night. The food is surprisingly good here so don’t be deterred by the appearance. Also, if you find yourself visiting on a Monday or Tuesday, this may be your only dinner option. If you want to spend a day outside the park, Yucca Valley has some cute shops including vintage wear and antiques.
Mapping out your day // Generally you will enter through the northwestern entrance off of Park Boulevard – it’s a straight shot from downtown JT so you can’t miss it. Decide how much time you have, how hot it is outside and how aggressive you want to be before hand. Hikes can vary from a short/flat 1-mile loop to an aggressive multi-thousand step incline. Being it is a desert, it will get extremely hot during the day, especially in the summer months so aim to be in the park just after sunrise if possible to avoid the mid-day heat.
Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Barker Dam will be some of your first stops and these are both kid-friendly due to their loop trails and flat surfaces. Barker Dam is generally very busy given these reasons, and the dark blue water which resides in the middle of this trail – a sight to see for sure. We ventured to the east of Barker Dam from the same parking lot and instantly found ourselves on our own trail (Lost Horse Mine), with old ruins from the mining days. This was one of my favorite hikes to explore given the solitude and fun artifacts which remain in the desert.
If you want to find some more advanced hikes, head towards Ryan Mountain, the highest elevation point in the park which offers breathtaking views of Mount San Jacinto, Mount San Gorgonio and the Little San Bernardino Mountains. The crest of the Ryan Mountain reaches nearly 5,500 feet in elevation which proves to be a great home for big horn sheep. This is a hike you will most definitely want to commence earlier in the day!
Past this hike is Skull Rock, a fun jungle-gym for adults with many crevices and rocks to climb on. The main draw can be seen from the road, and you can’t miss it as there are often many people out taking pictures.
The end of your day should be spent heading back to the main entrance, but hang a left on Keys View Road which will lead you down a windy path lined with the infamous Joshua Trees to a breathtaking view for the sunset at Keys Overlook. This overlook will provide a glimpse into the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault as well as the Little San Bernardino Mountains.
If you have the time/energy to head back into the park for day two, venture south on Pinto Basin road towards the south entrance. You will be brought through the Cholla Cactus Garden and end up in the Colorado desert. The only reason we went south of the Cholla garden was the superbloom was most evident on the south entrance of the park but otherwise, I am not sure it would be worth the drive time as the south half of the park doesn’t look like the Joshua Tree you came to visit, no cacti, no boulders but simply an open range of mountains and vegetation.
Lodging // If you are adventurous enough, camping in the park would be a wonderful way to view the stars at night and the mild temperatures once the sun dips can offer a comfortable sleeping temperature. I, however, prefer a bed to the ground any day, and really enjoyed my stay in a small studio cabin just outside the entrance. I would recommend staying in an Air BnB close to the entrance as you will accumulate plenty of drive time once in the park. A close proximity to the entrance will save you a lot of time. This spot was also only 10 minutes to town so equally as convenient for grabbing breakfast in the morning or dinner and drinks at night.
Tips // Try to plan a trip for fall or spring season when temperatures are more mild. Ideally spring after a heavy rainfall winter is best to increase your chances to see the super bloom.
Pack lots of water, hand sanitizer, snacks, sunscreen, hats, etc. It will be hot and you will be thirsty.
Wear hiking shoes! I wore Nike’s on the Ryan Mountain trail and slipped at the end. I still have a scar to prove it.
Map out your day and get as much details before you enter the park in regard to directions/trail lengths, etc. If you really need cell service in the park, head up to Key’s Overlook as we all were able to get some spotty service up here.
Fill up with gas – again, there is nothing in the park so you will be stranded!
Get up early in the day. You will need to have breakfast before you head out and with mid-day temperatures sometimes unbearable, an early start will allow you plenty of time to take pictures and relax – the whole reason you came!