Must-see Joshua Tree

Camp, hike, climb or stargaze – the closest national park is 3 hours away.

Room (or tent) with a view: sunrise over Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Room (or tent) with a view: sunrise over Joshua Tree National Park.

During the winter months, there's nothing more accelerating for the spirit than peacefully camping out in a temperate desert like Joshua Tree National Park.

Less than three hours away from downtown San Diego, the park is a great place to “get away from it all." Cell service isn’t available, except near the entrances or the occasional spotty connection on top of Ryan Mountain.

Visiting the park: what to expect

Winter's the best time to go. Temperatures will drop well below San-Diego-comfortable 65 degrees, and the afternoons can still be hot, but it’s a lot better than the summer or early fall where the heat is unbearable mid-afternoon.

You don’t need to be an expert rock-climber or backpacker to enjoy several hikes and the various outdoor possibilities that Joshua Tree offers. For instance, USGS Bird Checklist says there’s 239 species to find here, if that’s your thing.

Nighttime in the park gives anyone the chance to become an amateur astronomer. With no city lights washing out the sky, the views are incredible. I grabbed a stack of crackers and a jar of Nutella and had more fun watching the stars twinkle than I've had in front of any TV screen. And let’s not forget how entertaining it can be to eavesdrop on conversations flowing from nearby campsites (the best part of car camping on crowded weekends).

The park's namesake.

The park's namesake.

Don’t sleep in too late: the morning sunrises are something that cannot be missed. If you love watching sunsets on the beach, you won't be disappointed rising early to witness the sun bloom over the desert. Besides San Diego sunsets, I’ve never witnessed a more perfect example of “the golden hour” than in Joshua Tree during sunrise.

Plus, your Instagram will never be so popular than when you post a nature selfie. Make sure to include a few Joshua trees in the background – you know, they’re the ones that look straight out of a Dr. Seuss book and what the park is named for.

Hiking and climbing

View from Ryan Mountain.

View from Ryan Mountain.

The main paved road through Joshua Tree National Park makes journeying from one must-see site to the next easily accessible for almost anyone. It has signs at numerous viewing spots with information about wildlife, vegetation or history of the area. There are several places where you can park the car and enjoy in minutes, like Skull Rock or Barker’s Dam. Or if you prefer a longer hike, check out Ryan Mountain (left) or Lost Horse Mine.

Skull Rock.

Skull Rock.

With over 790,000 acres and plenty of campgrounds, a simple day trip will not suffice. Depending on how leisurely you are on the trails, you can visit several magnificent trails and stops in one day.

I’ve never rocked climbed outside of an indoor facility, but that didn’t stop me from wondering down the trails marked as famous climbing spots like Hall of Horrors or Hemmingway Butte. I wanted to see what it’s all about, and if they lived up to their intriguing names.

I watched a class of Boy Scouts learning to climb for the first time, and later a few experts from the East Coast. I’m sure actual climbing is loads of fun, but I had a blast living vicariously from the safety of the ground below.

Whether you’ve camped all your life or thinking about giving it a go for the first time, Joshua Tree National Park makes for a breathtaking weekend retreat.

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