Travel blogger Molly O’Brien took a weekend Cabana trip to experience winter in the Southern California desert. Keep reading for her itinerary and travel tips.
When most travelers think of the Greater Palm Springs region and Joshua Tree National Park, they think of a hot desolate desert that’s sparse of life, with oftentimes extreme and uncomfortable temperatures. Or, maybe they think of the legendary U2 album of the same name (if the place is inspiring enough to lead an international band to name a whole album after it, it must be pretty cool, right?).
But what many don’t know is that depending on the season, travelers can actually visit the Greater Palm Springs and Joshua Tree region and experience temperatures in different extremes. They can hit a local snowy mountain top followed by camping under a blazing bright desert sunset next to a roaring fire, followed by a soak in a warm, relaxing natural hot spring – all in the same weekend. I took a Cabana from Los Angeles to Greater Palm Springs and Joshua Tree and enjoyed a weekend “Fire and Ice” style.
Things to know before you go:
- It takes about an hour to get used to driving the Cabana, but after a while, it doesn’t seem any different than driving your normal car. There’s even a back up camera!
- Beware that you’ll need to plan extra time to stop since it’s a large vehicle, and keep all the interior cabinets latched so that nothing spills out while you’re driving if you do have to stop suddenly.
- Also be sure to plan for making wider, more gradual turns, because even though it has a pretty great turning radius, it’s still bigger than the average car.
- Be mindful of the Cabana’s height. It’s 10.5 feet tall, which means when you pass underneath bridges and other low-hanging objects on the road, you’ll need to be careful.
- Be mindful of the local laws, and research any current restrictions that might be in place before your trip. There was a wood fire ban in effect during my trip, but gas fires were still allowed, which is good to know and plan for beforehand.
- This itinerary requires some pre-booking of tickets for the best experience. Plan ahead, or work with the Cabana trip planning team to secure your tickets for this trip before you head out.
Experiences you’ll need to book for this itinerary, in addition to your Cabana:
- A campsite somewhere near Yucca Valley or the Joshua Tree region bookable on Hipcamp. Cabana even has a blog dedicated to helping you find places to spend the night.
- Round trip tickets for the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
- Day passes for a hot spring soak at a hotel spa in Desert Hot Springs (we chose Azure Palm Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, but there are a dozen other spots to explore, too).
Day 1: Pick up the Cabana in Westwood, and head out to your campsite near Joshua Tree
Your first step is to pick up your Cabana in Westwood, which is an easy, contactless process. Download the Cabana app and follow the instructions to unlock the van with your phone before embarking on your journey.
Depending on which freeway you take (it’s no secret that Southern Californians just love talking about their freeway routes) it should take a few hours to drive to your campsite near Joshua Tree, where you can plan to spend a relaxing evening under the stars.
Booking sites like Hipcamps give you the opportunity to reserve an awesome spot somewhere in the Greater Joshua Tree/Greater Palm Springs area. I recommend choosing a spot somewhere like Yucca Valley, which is about 20 minutes from Joshua Tree National Park, and about an hour Northwest of Palm Springs. Look out for a site where you know you’ll feel secluded and have some space, but also feel safe.
On night one, arrive at your campsite and enjoy the nighttime scenery while you make dinner with the fabulous cooking kit that was included in your booking. Since it’s wintertime, the sun goes down earlier than it would in the summer months – but that’s OK, because it just makes for better stargazing out in this remote desert spot where there’s nearly no light pollution.
It’s simple to rest up and get a good night’s sleep because the Cabanas are heated and have the comfiest of beds, so even if it gets extra chilly out in the desert overnight, you won’t have to worry about waking up cold. After settling down and enjoying the tranquility of the open space and the spirituality of the Joshua Trees’ majestic presence, turn in for the night. It’s an early start the next morning to drive to Mount San Jacinto to ride the world’s largest rotating aerial tramway to the top to see the snow!
Day 2: Mount San Jacinto Winter Wonderland and a trip to Joshua Tree National Park
On day two, wake up as the sun is rising and watch the colors burst across the morning sky. Leaving the campsite early to get to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is your best bet because the parking lot fills up quickly. Try to get there as close to its opening at 8 a.m. as you can. It’s about a one-hour drive from the Yucca Valley down South to Palm Springs.
It’s a smart idea to buy tram tickets online in advance for the 8:30 or 9 a.m. time slot, so you can get up the mountain quickly and make sure you have a set spot onboard.
Usually, if you aren't able to secure tickets beforehand online you can still get up as long as you get there early to get standby tickets, but the tramway has been known to reach capacity for the day by 11 a.m. on some weekends, so it’d be taking a risk not to get tickets ahead of time.
The ride to the top of the mountain only takes a few minutes but it feels as if you’re ascending into a different world. The tramway doesn’t take you all the way to the very summit of Mount San Jacinto, but instead lands at a spot called Mountain Station, which has an elevation 8,516 feet. It’s a different microclimate entirely. It will be much chillier than sea level at the peak – think the 30s or even high 20s when you're stepping off the tram, so make sure to plan accordingly and bring your winter gear for the snow!
If it’s a wet winter down below, you can expect to encounter several feet of snow at the top – and even if it’s a dry winter, there’s usually at least a few inches on the ground to make it feel like a winter wonderland. You’ll encounter families traveling far and wide from Southern California with children who bring sleds to play in the snow. It feels like a special experience to be able to see the alpine setting on top of the mountain with its winter weather, and snow after waking up down below, in the desert.
If there’s enough snow, the park will rent snowshoes at the top so you can venture out further. (Be sure to check in on getting a permit. They’re free and available right at the ranger station at the top. It’s just to keep track of you, your whereabouts while you’re on the mountain, and keep tabs on your safety).
Otherwise, you can just walk around to get a sense of the sights. One solid choice for an exploration route would be The Discovery Nature Trail which isn’t too strenuous, and offers an easy path to follow so you won’t wander off trail. It’s a 1.5 mile loop that runs near the edge of this peak and takes you to quite a few beautiful viewpoints of the Greater Palm Springs region, below.
After a while outside if you start to lose feeling in your fingers and toes, don’t worry – there’s hot chocolate and snacks for sale inside Mountain Station to warm back up! Spend a few hours at the top and enjoy the sights, and then plan to head back down the mountain for the drive up to Joshua Tree National Park. Try to time it so you'll get to the park in the late afternoon so that the traffic traveling into the park will be lighter, as people will now primarily be leaving for the day.
Head for the West Entrance of the park which is near the Visitors Center. Explore some of the otherworldly land and admire the climbers who are taking on the enormous boulders shaped by thousands of years of desert winds that look as if they're plucked from another planet.
There are dozens of trails to explore, but the 1.2 mile Arch Rock Nature Trail is a great one for those who want to see the best of Joshua Tree’s sights on a short and flat trek. Beware that there’s little to no shade while you’re hiking in the park, so be sure to bring lots of water and sunblock, and remember it can get windy in the desert.
After spending a few hours in Joshua Tree, drive back to the campsite and enjoy making dinner with Cabana’s awesome cooking setup while you watch a gorgeous fiery sunset ignite the sky and the clouds above your heads. Then, rest after your long day of exploring not just one, but two parks – a State Park and a National Park – full of adventure.
Day 3: Caffeine Calls, at Joshua Tree Coffee Co – and A Relaxing Natural Mineral Spa Day in Desert Hot Springs
On day three of your fire and ice themed adventure you’ll be heading to Desert Hot Springs, which is one of the nine cities of the Greater Palm Springs Region. But first, make a stop at Joshua Tree Coffee Company, which is well-known and loved for its organic, fresh roasted coffee.
Joshua Tree Coffee Company roasts right on-site, which means it’s the freshest in town. This business takes inspiration from the spirit and the rejuvenating power of the desert to offer you rejuvenation by caffeine – and you can feel the friendliness of those who work here. There's a welcoming atmosphere as soon as you step onto the grounds of the shop.
Sit on the large patio area out back to drink your brew and soak up the morning sunshine while enjoying the laid back vibes of this well-loved locally rooted coffee outpost. When you’re thoroughly caffeinated, the drive to Desert Hot Springs should take about an hour in the Cabana. It’s easy to use Resort Pass to book a spot for the day at one of the numerous local hotels and resorts that host natural hot springs on-site.
One fantastic day spa to choose for a relaxing day adventure would be Azure Palm Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa Oasis, which has a spacious parking lot that accommodates the size of the Cabana without any trouble. This property is a clean, brightly lit luxury resort that has not one, not two, but five soaking pools with varying temps from 85 to 104 degrees to offer relaxation. There’s also a sauna and a cafe that serves healthy bites and drinks to enjoy while you relax.
The mineral waters in Azure’s springs are naturally heated inside the Earth. The water actually emerges from the ground at 174 degrees and cools down to a safer temperature underground, without being exposed to light or oxygen. It's said that the hotter the water is, the greater the concentration of minerals there are, and Azure claims it has the hottest natural spring water in the region.
The water at these pools feels perfectly warm, smooth, and is rich with minerals like silica, which is meant to soften and moisturize the skin, and relax the muscles and mind. Other minerals felt within the healing waters include Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorous, Potassium, and Lithium. It’s a nice way to wind down, relax and close out your desert adventure after spending the day before hiking on the mountain and trekking through the national park.
Spend as much time as you’d like at the spa pools, before heading back East toward Los Angeles. The drive should take about two hours without traffic.
Whichever highway route you choose to take, you will drop the Cabana back off in Westwood by 7 p.m. for a similar contactless check out experience. You'll simply lock the Cabana back up using the Cabana app, and make sure to have your belongings with you before departing!
And of course, share your trip and tag @cabanavans on Instagram to showcase your journey with everyone else who’s interested in a similar experience.