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Escape to the Mojave: Joshua Tree's must-sees

Where grid streets and strip malls trickle out into nothing but sand and scattered yucca.

A view off the main highway in Joshua Tree, just a 2.5-hour drive northeast of San Diego.
  • A view off the main highway in Joshua Tree, just a 2.5-hour drive northeast of San Diego.

We set off one recent morning on a trip to forget suburbia: to immerse ourselves in the high desert enclaves of the Mojave and Colorado, where San Bernardino’s sprawl can no longer reach through the mountain passes. Where grid streets and strip malls trickle out into nothing but vast sand and scattered yucca.

“Joshua Tree is a desert of artists,” I overheard one man saying outside a local bar. Perhaps he is right; undoubtedly the landscape has inspired countless men and women. While artists have flocked to the region, it has inspired many others as well – hikers, geologists, rock climbers, astronomers, botanists, passing tourists from near and far.

The trip from San Diego takes a little more than two hours, an easy destination for a weekend trip. And with the summer’s scorching heat and freezing temperatures in the winter, the fall and spring are the best times to explore the 429,690 acres of designated wilderness.

Hiking & attractions

Joshua Tree National Park offers a variety of hiking trails for all timeframes and skill levels. For a sweeping view of much of the park, we hiked Ryan Mountain Trail. While only a three-mile hike round trip, the 1,000-foot elevation gain can be taxing at times, especially in the desert heat. But the effort is well worth it, with the top of the trail offering a stunning 360-degree view of the park.

There are also many smaller loops off the main road which offer a relaxing way to explore the landscape. Hidden Valley, once used by cattle rustlers to hide stolen livestock, is a short one-mile loop that features towering rock formations. Due to the moisture that is held in by the valley, many species of plants grow along the trail offering a glimpse into the diverse ecosystem. For even more eclectic rock formations, Skull Rock Trail is another easy 1.7-mile loop. The hike winds through a landscape that seems of a different planet, and as its namesake implies, offers a view of the famous Skull Rock.

A visit to the Cholla Cactus Garden.

A visit to the Cholla Cactus Garden.

Despite the vastness of the park and numerous hiking trails, much of it can be explored by the main roads that snake their way through the desert. There are many pullouts along the various routes, each offering impressive sights and photo opportunities making a day trip more than worth it. One attraction off the main road worth seeing is the Cholla Cactus Garden. Located in the Pinto Basin, the garden offers an impressive walk among thousands of cholla cactuses that flourish in this location. If you have 4-wheel drive, the Geology Tour Road is another great option to explore the park by vehicle. The trail offers a self-guided exploration into the rocky landscape that makes up the area.

Camping

After the sun sets and the light leaves the high desert, Joshua Tree takes on a new face just as stunning. With very little light pollution, the park offers unobstructed views of the night sky, and one of the best way to experience it is to camp.

There are nine established campgrounds throughout the park, all of which operate on a first-come, first-serve basis during the summer. From August 30th to June 10th, four of the sites operate on reservations as the fall and spring see the highest traffic throughout the park. On previous trips we've been skunked when trying to find an open spot to camp— something to keep in mind if you plan to arrive late during the park’s peak travel seasons without reservations.

To avoid having to worry about finding a spot, this particular trip we made reservations at the Jumbo Rocks Campground. It's one of the more popular campgrounds in the park and for good reason; the plots are nestled among towering rock formations in the heart of the Joshua Tree wilderness.

Outside the park

The art-centric town of Joshua Tree to the north of the park offers much to explore, including thrift shops, restaurants and bars. For breakfast we ate at Crossroads Café, a popular spot located off Highway 62 and the ideal place to fill up with a great meal before adventuring into the park. The nearby thrift stores offer a wide array of vintage clothing and art, and are well worth exploring while waiting for a table. If you arrive on a Saturday, the Joshua Tree farmers market offers an opportunity to meet local farmers and artisans while exploring the fresh produce and art on display.

For drinks, the Joshua Tree Saloon is a popular bar with an Old Western aesthetic. It's the perfect spot for dinner, drinks and live music after a long day exploring the park.

Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, CA.

Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, CA.

Roughly 40 miles northwest of Joshua Tree lies Pioneertown. Located at the end of a desolate winding road, this city is well worth a visit. The town was created by Dick Curtis in 1946 as an 1880's-themed movie set for Hollywood Westerns. The city was intended to not only serve as a backdrop for films but as a functioning city, trading wooden facades for actual buildings residents could occupy. One of the most famous of these establishments is Pappy and Harriet’s, a legendary music venue and BBQ joint located just off the town's Mane Street. An opportunity to see a favorite band here may very well be the perfect end to any Joshua Tree adventure.

Jumbo Rocks Campground, Joshua Tree

More Joshua Tree from the Reader:

Joshua Tree glamping and the Integratron

Must-see hiking & stargazing in Joshua Tree

Best bets for your Joshua Tree weekend

Joshua Tree hiking and Twentynine Palms, California

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