Day trip to Joshua Tree

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Escaping to nature in California, without pitching a tent

Joshua Tree National Park, in southeastern California, is a dazzling natural playground for hikers, cyclists, rock climbers, and all-around outdoor enthusiasts. The park is located an hour’s drive northeast of Palm Springs. Its nearly 800,000 acres are covered with rock formations, unique shrubbery, palm trees, and, of course, those iconic Joshua trees. It all provides a commanding escape from city life.

Joshua Tree is open (and accessible) year-round. But to avoid the heat, it’s best to visit between October and April. Drive in from out of town or fly into Palm Springs and rent a car. Entrance to the park is US$15 per vehicle; each entry pass covers seven days of access. It is easy to get an immersive experience in the park, whether you camp or find lodging in a nearby town.

For non-campers (like me!), it is best to stay right along Highway 62 in Twentynine Palms (yes, that’s really the name of the town). The small town has a handful of motels and restaurants, most of which are located right off the highway. Conveniently, the town also sits only minutes away from the park entrance at the Oasis Visitor Center.

On a recent trip, I stayed at Harmony Motel, a charming inn on Highway 62 with an amusing history—members of the band, U2, stayed here while working on their 1987 album, “The Joshua Tree.” The motel has spacious and clean rooms equipped with ample air conditioning and free WiFi. There is a pool and a hot tub, both of which look out on the sprawling desert and towering mountains. As soon as I checked in, I wished I was staying for more than one night.

Sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park

I arrived at the motel on a Friday with an ambitious schedule for the next morning: To wake up before dawn to experience the park as the sun began to rise over the desert.

In the dark the next morning, I made the short drive from the motel to the entrance into Joshua Tree National Park off Highway 62 at the Utah Trail. As I drove along the flat, winding road the sun began to spread light over the surrounding desert.

I watched out the window as the terrain morphed around me. It went from a barren desert with no signs of life to a varied landscape inhabited by trees. Large boulders and rock formations appeared. And mountains rose high in the distance. In some areas I saw nothing but palm trees; in other areas, it was all Joshua Trees, all the time. I couldn’t help but get out of the car every few minutes to take pictures.

Viewfinder Tip: Be sure to bring lots of water and snacks when hiking in Joshua Tree National Park. The middle of the desert can be even hotter than you expect it to be.

After quite a few photos, it was time to set out along a trail. There were many options, each with its own level of difficulty. Among the trails I considered were the Fortynine Palms Oasis trail, a 3-mile loop takes you up 300 feet each way in and out of the valley to a tranquil spring and cluster of palm trees; and the Ryan Mountain trail, another 3-mile hike with an incline on the way in and great views at the top.

There also were a number of nature trails that didn’t appear to include much of an incline.

Ultimately, I ended up choosing the Hidden Valley walk, a 1-mile nature trail loop around a beautiful area bordered by rock formations. On the ensuing hike, I saw rock climbers in action, scaling a steep rock face with professional equipment. Without a harness and lines I was able to scramble up some boulders to get new vantage points on the valley. A sunrise drive and nature walk turned out to be an ideal way to experience the park on a summer morning; by 9:30 a.m., it was beastly hot.

Despite never having camped or even spent more than a half-day in the park, I found the experience fully enriching. There’s no question I’ll be back in the fall or winter to spend more time exploring Joshua Tree on longer hikes (and maybe even for a rock climb). For a comprehensive list of trails, walks, and activities inside the park, go to the park’s official website here. I know I’ll be looking at that page again soon.

When visiting a national park, what kind of activities do you seek?

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Travel with Kate

Kate Thomas is the host and producer of the web-series Travel with Kate, a show that follows her around the world connecting with passionate locals. She is a cultural travel journalist finding out what's trending in popular destinations. And whether she’s leading you to the best local foodie finds, showing off exciting, lesser-known attractions, or revealing the scoop on local etiquette – she’s got your insider perspective. Kate has been featured as a travel expert on Afar.com, Huffpost Live, and AOL, and as an on-camera journalist for TripAdvisor.

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