After scoring an insanely cheap round-trip flight from Vancouver to Los Angeles ($65 all in!), I knew I wanted to squeeze a trip to Joshua Tree National Park into my five days in Southern California.
I love Joshua Tree’s trippy landscapes: mounds of rocks rising from the earth, arranged as though carefully stacked by a giant, pale cholla cacti that seem to glow in the sunlight, enormous orange boulders with surfaces like sandpaper, and, of course, the Joshua tree itself, scattered across the moonscape of the desert, whose branches are topped with spiky balls of evergreen needles. These unique trees were named by Mormon settlers after the prophet Joshua, who stretched his hands in prayer to the sky, as the Joshua tree stretches its scaly arms to the sun.
Luckily, it’s possible to pack plenty of highlights into one day in Joshua Tree. With my cousin in tow, we managed to see some amazing things. While this was my third visit to Joshua Tree, it was Caitlin’s first trip to the park, and it was really special seeing it through her first-time-visitor-eyes.
It’s about a 2.5 hour drive from Los Angeles to the Joshua Tree Visitor Center at the north entrance to the park. We left Orange County early to avoid rush hour traffic and stopped in Twentynine Palms for a late breakfast at the Crossroads Cafe. (Next time I’m in the area, I want to try the food at the 29 Palms Inn.) Crossroads has a great menu and plenty of southwestern kitsch, and after breakfast, we strolled over to the conveniently located Joshua Tree Visitor Center to purchase our park entrance pass and grab a map.
As soon as you enter the park, you’ll immediately want to pull over and get a closer look at a Joshua tree, which start popping up in abundance. There’s plenty of places to safely pull over, but be warned you could spend all day getting distracted by the incredible sights on the side of the road!
We limited ourselves to just a few roadside stops, and headed to the Ryan Mountain trail head. It’s a 4.8 km/3 mi trail, with a healthy elevation gain– the visitor center told us it could take 2-3 hours round trip, but we made it to the top in less than an hour. From the top, there’s a 360 degree view of desolate desert valleys, punctuated with the large rocks that make Joshua Tree an excellent destination for climbing and bouldering.
After the hike, we made our way to the Jumbo Rocks campground, an unusual site where you pitch your tent in the shadows of gigantic boulders. Caitlin and I scrambled over the rocks, their gritty surfaces making them easy to climb (though getting back down is a bit of a trip!). We were tempted by the short Skull Rock hike in the area, but we wanted to be at our next stop for sunset.
The sun was minutes away from disappearing behind the mountains as we pulled up to the Cholla Cactus Garden. We both gasped as a vast swath of cholla cacti came into view, their needles glowing in the setting sun. Known as the jumping cactus, the cholla cactus propagates by dropping balls of spines onto the earth. These are astoundingly sharp, as I learned when we rushed into the cacti to take photos before the light vanished, and one stuck itself firmly into the toe of my boot. Surrounded by cacti, we watched the sky melt into the pastel shades of a beautiful sunset, staying until the air grew too cold to bear.
On that note: Joshua Tree is chilly in February! Being from Canada, I didn’t mind the temperature in the sun, but anything in the shade was very cold. It dips below zero degrees Celsius at night too.
We finished our day at Joshua Tree driving towards the south exit of the park, our headlights the only thing illuminating the winding desert road. I put on You Must Remember This, an excellent podcast about Hollywood’s secrets and forgotten histories, choosing an episode from the 12-part series on Charles Manson. The Manson Family believed they would find a utopia in the desert, and their chilling stories only reminded us of the weird and wonderful things lurking in the darkness around the car. Stars blazing overhead in the clear night sky, we drove out of Joshua Tree, leaving the park to the weirdo trees, travelling cacti and lonesome rock piles.