Need a break from the non-stop frenzy of L.A? Straddling two deserts – the Colorado and the Mojave – Joshua Tree National Park is around a three-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles and offers some of the most otherworldly landscapes in southern California.

We suggest combining a trip to Joshua Tree National Park with a stay in everyone’s favourite desert resort town Palm Springs, which is only a 45-minute drive from the park’s western entrance. However, if you’re pushed for time, it’s more than feasible to see the park’s highlights on a day trip from Los Angeles – as long as you can handle an early start and a fair amount of time in the car.

Whether you’re coming from Palm Springs or direct from L.A, follow Highway 62 – otherwise known as the Twentynine Palms Highway – north of Interstate 10 to dusty Joshua Tree Village. You’ll find the park’s west entrance off the junction of Highway 62 and Park Boulevard, or drive another 16 miles towards the north entrance at the artsy town of Twentynine Palms. Both have excellent visitor centres with exhibits, maps and wildlife explainers, including posters imploring you to slow down for desert tortoises and tarantulas crossing the highway.

One-day itinerary: The must-see highlights

  • Let’s start with the obvious. Take the west entrance into the park and within minutes you’ll see the spiky, awkward limbs of hundreds of Joshua trees either side of the road, silhouetted against the desert sky and surrounded by huge piles of smooth granite boulders. Not actually trees, but tree-sized yucca palms, these bizarre looking plants were supposedly named by early Mormon settlers for the way their outstretched ‘arms’ reminded them of the prophet Joshua directing them to the promised land.

  • Carry on driving along Park Boulevard, and follow the signs for the Hidden Valley Nature Trail. Here’s where you’ll find some of the most appealing scenery in the park, and it’s an excellent location for sunrise or sunset photography. The one-mile loop is an easy level hike along a flat sand trail, which can be made more challenging by going off-route and scrambling over the massive boulders whenever the feeling takes you.

  • Back on Park Boulevard, take the next right onto Keys View Road. It’s a 20-minute drive to the Keys View Lookout, where panoramic views of the Coachella Valley stretch out to the Santa Rosa Mountains beyond. Look to the left and you can just make out the shimmering surface of the Salton Sea. This saline lake – the largest lake in California – lies 230 feet below sea level and sits directly on the San Andreas Fault, which runs right through the heart of the valley below.

  • Next up, Skull Rock is undoubtedly one of the most photographed sites in the park. Catch it at the right angle, and its resemblance to a skull – with its two water-eroded, hollowed-out ‘eye sockets’ – is more than a little eerie. Half a mile back, the Jumbo Rocks Campground is the starting point for the Skull Rock Trail, an easily accessible 1.7 mile loop which offers a quick fix of Mojave Desert bio-diversity for those with limited time.

  • After Skull Rock, take a right onto Pinto Basin Road, where the higher northern section of the Mojave Desert starts to give way to the lower elevation Colorado Desert. Follow the road south towards the Cholla Cactus Garden; a densely packed area of tufted Bigelow cholla. This plant is often likened to a teddy bear for its deceptively soft and cuddly appearance, but don’t be tempted to get too close – those cactus spines have evil barbed ends and will embed themselves in anything that gets in their way.

After the chollas, continue along Pinto Basin Road to the Cottonwood Visitor Centre and the southern entrance/exit of the park. You’ll soon meet Interstate 10 for the return journey back through Coachella and Indio towards Palm Springs or L.A – a journey of around one hour and three hours respectively.

Visit the US National Parks Service website for more Joshua Tree information and maps.

Written by Maxine Sheppard

Image credits:

Joshua Tree National Park © iStock: Ron Thomas

Joshua Tree National Park © iStock: Gary Kavanagh

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