A Top Down Tour of Joshua Tree National Park

Have you ever wished that the whimsical destinations dreamed up by Dr. Seuss were real, and you could visit them yourself? At Joshua Tree National Park, you kind of can. 

Joshua Tree Road Trip

Joshua Tree National Park

Last summer, I was bit hard by the national parks bug. I bought the America The Beautiful Parks Pass while visiting Grand Canyon and the Glen Canyon during a mini-road trip around the Southwest, and when I hit California I wanted to get one more hit. Joshua Tree was a natural choice. An easy drive from Palm Springs, do-able for a day trip, and filled with the whimsically eccentric Joshua trees.

There are several different ways to tackle Joshua Tree, and we debated the merits of many. We settled on entering through the West Entrance Station after a stop at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center in the town of Joshua Tree, and exiting through the North Entrance Station in the town of Twentynine Palms (a third entrance to the south at Cottonwood is another option.) While pets are allowed within the park, they aren’t allowed on any of the trails — plus, it was hot as heck and so we decided to leave our own pup poolside. With my parks pass we sailed in for free, though the usual entry fee is $20 per ride. With little cell coverage and even less water available within the park, a little pre-planning is necessary.

What follows is, in my opinion, the perfect itinerary for a one day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs.

Joshua Tree in September

Joshua Tree Road Trip

Joshua Tree Road Trip

Joshua Tree National Park

Our ride for the day? The used convertible my dad had bought on a whim at a garage sale back in June. A pretty sweet set of wheels, I think we all can agree.

Joshua Tree Road Trip

Aside from pulling over a few times to marvel, mouth agape, at the famed Joshua trees, our first official stop was the Hidden Valley nature trail. The one mile loop trail is described as a “rock-enclosed valley once rumored to have been used by cattle ranchers.”

It was a beautiful first introduction to the park. The trail isn’t perfectly defined and we did have about three minutes of starting to panic at the end, right as we turned a corner and realized we’d successfully navigated ourselves back to the start.

Joshua Tree in September

Joshua Tree National Park

We were back in the car for just a few minutes before stopping again at Barker Damn, a 1.1 mile loop trail that features a water tank built by early cattle ranchers, ancient petroglyphs and small rain-fed resevoir. Signs told us to watch out for bighorn sheep, but the best we spotted was a desert chipmunk.

Though the park guide estimated the loop time at one hour, we were back at our car in forty minutes, even stopping to take photos.

Joshua Tree Travel Blog

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree in September

At this point, we felt we were deserving of a little more laid-back attraction, and so meandered with the top down towards Keys View. The guide labeled this as a .25 mile loop, but it’s basically just a path from the parking lot. At the top, 5,185 feet above sea level, we found swoon-worthy views of the San Andreas fault, Mount San Jacinto, The Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea.

Joshua Tree Travel Blog

Joshua Tree Travel Blog

Joshua Tree Travel Blog

We paused to take the only photos I got of all four of us throughout our time in Cali — long live the sparsely and discreetly used GoPro selfie stick!

Joshua Tree Travel Blog

I have to admit, as fun and interesting as each of our fairly active stops were, my favorite parts of the day were just cruising through the surprisingly empty roads of Joshua Tree.

Joshua Tree Road Trip

Joshua Tree Road Trip

It was an intensely hot day and we’d been out and about for hours, so the crew was starting to fade as we swung up towards the northern entrance to the park. But I begged for one final small detour to the Cholla Cactus Garden, which my friend Zoe had raved was the best part of her trip.

It was worth it. The effortless .25 mile loop led us into the heart of of a dense field of thousands of naturally growing cholla cactus. Their ombre coloring had me swooning — and so did the fact that even on a Sunday, we had the place totally to ourselves.

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

A National Park only since 1994, Joshua Tree is a gem of Southern California. While we visited during the one of the least hospitable times of the year, and still were humbled by the stark beauty at this convergence of the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree Road Trip

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree Cholla Garden

Joshua Tree was pretty much my last stop after four months in the Western Hemisphere before returning to my home away from home in Thailand. As we wound through its otherworldly roads, I swelled with patriotic pride. It was a beautiful goodbye to the USA.

In the desert, I had discovered the West of my imagination, my childhood canyon infinitely magnified. I went there for inspiration and insight. — Julene Bair