If you’ve ever wished you could experience life on another planet, you can come close by spending a weekend in Joshua Tree. Everything from sunrise to sunset to the actual Joshua trees is other worldly.
This national park brings together the unique features of the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert, all just 2-3 hours away from Los Angeles. Joshua Tree is a great addition to a Southern California road trip, but as the closest national park to LA, it’s also an ideal destination for a spontaneous weekend away.
Note: As of January 4th 2021, national parks in California are open for day use only. Joshua Tree is open 24 hours a day, and there are numerous overnight parking options outside of the park. Because of Cabana’s amenities, including a toilet and shower, you’ll be able to safely explore without worrying about public restrooms or campsite closures. With any upcoming travel, be sure to check CDC and state guidelines for up-to-date information.
If you only have a weekend to visit Joshua Tree, use this itinerary to be sure you get the most out of your desert experience.
Before you go
Joshua Tree is, of course, a desert. In the summer months, the national park sees extremely high temperatures. Because of the desert climate and the changes in altitude throughout the park, there can be large temperature swings throughout the day. Be sure to pack layers!
It’s recommended to bring a gallon of water per person per day to Joshua Tree. The park is fairly remote, and many of the campgrounds do not have water filling stations. Always pack more water than you think you’ll need. (The same goes for food and fuel!)
Pick up your Cabana in Los Angeles and head east out of the city.
If you have time, stop in the town of Joshua Tree on your way to the park for the funky boutiques and unique museums characteristic of desert towns. The Beauty Bubble salon and museum where you can see vintage beauty salon memorabilia is one of a kind.
After soaking up the charm of the town, make your way to the park. If your trip is between September and May, you should reserve a campsite in advance. In the summer months, camping is first-come first-served.
After you settle into your campsite, prepare for a night of fantastic stargazing. Depending on your chosen campsite, you may want to drive deeper into the park for a darker night sky.
Black Rock Campground: This campground has drinking water and many other key amenities. Its proximity to the town is great if you are planning to head into town for groceries during your time, but the added light pollution means it isn’t the best spot for stargazing.
Jumbo Rocks Campground: For a more remote stay, this campground deep in the park is the way to go. There is no cellular service and far fewer amenities, but the views make up for it. There are several hiking trails and opportunities for rock scrambling nearby.
Use Hipcamp to find excellent overnight parking options outside of the park.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times in the park, and you definitely don’t want to miss either one. If you’re not a morning person, plan a midday nap to motivate yourself.
You can easily fit a few of these options into your day, and all of them will offer spectacular views:
- Barker Dam Nature Trail: This 1.3 mile loop is relatively easy and offers great views of the iconic Joshua Trees. A small rock scramble will give you a great seat to watch the sunrise. In peak season, you most likely won’t have this view to yourself.
- Cholla Cactus Garden: An easy walking trail through this natural garden of chollas is an enchanting experience. With the mountains behind it, the garden is a stunning sight at sunset. This is a very popular spot for photos, but the popularity doesn’t diminish the beauty here.
- Skull Rock: If you’re just rolling out of bed for sunrise, Skull Rock is the place to go. It’s just across the road from Jumbo Rocks Campground. Besides the eerie and intriguing skull formation, there are plenty of boulders for a great vantage point at sunrise or sunset. If you’re hoping to work on your tan during your time in the desert, the boulders work for that, too.
- Ryan Mountain Hike: This 3 mile out-and-back trail is one of the more difficult hikes in the park, but the view from the top is worth the effort at any hour. There isn’t much shade to be found on this trail, so it’s not ideal on a summer’s day. In the cooler months, it’s a great destination for sunset.
Spend another night out under the stars, satisfied with a day well spent.
Wake up to catch another spectacular sunrise or catch a little more sleep before heading back to Los Angeles.
Want to extend your trip? Continue east with our LA to Arizona Itinerary. (From Joshua Tree, consider reversing the itinerary to break up the LA to Scottsdale drive.)
From the explosion of colors in the sunset to the fascinating desert ecosystems, Joshua Tree is sure to fill you with wonder and a new appreciation for the desert. The beauty is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t seen it, so you might find yourself telling everyone in your life that they just need to go.