A Guide to Joshua Tree, CA
I saw the desert for the first time at 22 years old.
A few weeks earlier I had sat alone in my tiny room in an overpriced apartment off the last stop in Queens, exploring the world from my laptop and an internet connection. I felt like each day I went through the motions of my life because it’s just what you do, right? It’s just what you do. But in that moment, I decided I needed to get away somewhere—anywhere—and that is when I felt the desert call me.
Driving from the Las Vegas airport to the Grand Canyon, I could not stop staring out the window. Up until that point, I had only ever seen this type of landscape in textbooks or in movies. And yet here it was, completely real and entirely surreal…
long stretches of flat land dotted with wiry bushes and cacti reaching towards the sky
a welcoming dry heat that massaged every muscle in my body
an earthy grit I could practically inhale
bleeding pastel watercolor sunsets on the horizon
a silence so deep you’re surprised that any small movement, even the twinkling of the stars, doesn’t echo around you
One week there gave me a sense of focus, happiness, and calm that I hadn’t experienced in…actually, I don’t know. Maybe ever? It was like a spa retreat for my mind and soul, except that the afterglow kept me floating for much longer than any facial or body scrub could.
It wouldn’t be until a few years later that I would make my way to another desert—Black Rock Desert, where the wild, weird, and wonderful week that is Burning Man takes place each year. There’s nothing I can say, really, except that it is the closest to home I have ever felt. Once again, I left the desert feeling an energy pulsing through my veins that gave me clearer and kinder eyes with which to view the world. As a fellow campmate told me, “it’s like hitting the Reset button for the year.” And I have since gone back again and again (and again) for my yearly alignment.
And now, for me, there is Joshua Tree. When the endless traffic or the wannabe-celebrities of LA get to be too much to bear, then I just head a couple hours east.
The place is made of magic, I’m quite certain. Stepping into that little desert town feels sort of like stopping time. A weekend passes by, and it will leave me scratching my head and wondering if it was really just a few days, or if it was a few years, or only a few moments. I never fail to feel rejuvenated after a trip here, and this is coming from the person who can only endure a small amount of relaxation before itching for something else.
It seems like the obvious choice, but my absolute favorite thing to do there is explore the park itself. Yes, I adore the little thrift stores with boho finds and the homey brunch spots that feel like grandma’s kitchen, but the park is the star player here. At first glance, it might look like a lot of the same—Joshua tree after Joshua tree, rockpile after rockpile. But each pocket of the park offers something special, and you’ll only get to experience it if you meander. Walk one of the many trails if you’d like, but explore that vast expanse and walk towards where you feel your heart tugged.
And climb. Climb any rock you possibly can. Many of them look imposing, but get closer and you’ll find that Mother Nature has literally left you stepping stones to reach the top. You will go, one foot after the other, winding around and slowly going up until there you are on some beautiful big rock overlooking where you once stood. Maybe it’s just me, but I love the sensation of smallness in this great big world—of hopping onto a massive rock that makes me feel like an ant on a sidewalk.
Even as little as 24 hours there is enough time to get back in touch with myself. Something about those yipping coyotes, those sparkling stars, those hours spent simply wandering the park underneath a vibrant sun as puffy clouds roll by—it is enough. Whenever I leave, I always wish that I could stay a bit longer; sometimes I wonder if I should just stay forever.
But no. Cities are where I thrive; the desert is where I re-energize. And that’s okay—it will keep the desert in that special place in my heart, it will keep those regular pilgrimages to Black Rock City sacred, it will keep the memories of my wedding day in Joshua Tree fresh and flooding back each time I return.
Until next time, Joshua Tree.
Planning Your Trip to Joshua Tree
Getting to Joshua Tree
The closest airport to JT is the Palm Springs International Airport, located about 45 minutes away. More direct, non-stop flights will go into either Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas (LAS). Other airport options include Bob Hope Airport (now called Hollywood Burbank Airport) and Ontario International Airport.
Renting a car for a trip Joshua Tree will be your best way to get around and see the sights.
Where to Stay
Tourists flock to Joshua Tree during the cooler months rather than during the summer, since 110 degrees isn’t exactly the most pleasant for a hike outside. Also, although Joshua Tree is a small, sleepy town, they do have big events and festivals from time to time. Keep this in mind when booking and get something in advance.
AirBnB is definitely your best choice out here, both for comfort and for price. It’s the perfect way to get a taste of laid-back desert life.
You’ll find many adorable desert-inspired, hippie motels and B&Bs in the area, like:
- Sacred Sands Bed & Breakfast—a true desert experience. The two people who run this small spot right about a mile from the park’s entrance are the sweetest.
- The Desert Lily B&B
- Mojave Sands
- Joshua Tree Inn
- Spin & Margie’s Desert Hideaway
- 29 Palms Inn—very cute! Also has a restaurant on the grounds.
If you’re looking for more traditional hotel options, check out the High Desert Motel, Starlight Villas, or the Super 8 Yucca Valley. 29 Palms also has a Fairfield Inn & Suites, Holiday Inn Express & Suites, and a Motel 6.
Camping is a classic way to enjoy JT, so pack that tent or rent an RV if you’re feeling outdoorsy and can stand the high 90s daytime temps. Most campgrounds in the park itself are first come first served, so if this is your preference then plan to arrive early during their busy seasons. Alternatively, Joshua Tree Lake RV + Campground allows reservations for RVs, and it’s only a short drive away.
Palm Springs, located about 40 minutes away, has an extravagant resort vibe and is a little more lively at night. A perfect spot if you’d like something a little swankier. AirBnB offers lots of choices here too, or you can experience some exquisite and unique hotel stays at the Ace or the Saguaro.
What to Do
Don’t be fooled by Joshua Tree’s small town vibe—there is a lot of cool stuff to do in JT and the surrounding high desert! Here are some favorites:
Joshua Tree National Park
Absolutely do not miss Joshua Tree National Park during your stay. Hike around anywhere you’d like, but if you’re looking for recommendations check out Keys View, Barker Dam, or Skull Rock. Try to catch a sunrise or sunset in the park, too, if you can. Entrance for one car is $25 and is good for a week (and totally worth it, even for a day), and you can sometimes avoid crowds by entering at Oasis of Mara (in 29 Palms) rather than at the West Entrance of Joshua Tree.
The desert can be unforgiving, so always enter the park with sunscreen and plenty of water. I have never had a good cell connection there, so download a map on your phone beforehand, too. Always plan to make your way out and back to your car with plenty of time before the sun goes down.
- Integratron (rejuvenation—their signature experience is a sound bath)
- Coyote Ridge Stable (horseback riding)
- Joshua Tree Bicycle Shop (bike rentals)
- Stargazing (you can enjoy it just about anywhere!)
- Salton Sea (nature)
- Joshua Tree Saloon (dive bar)
- Pappy & Harriet’s (bar plus live music—this is an institution nearby in Pioneertown)
- Pie for the People (pizza)
- Joshua Tree Coffee Company (cafe)
- Crossroads Cafe (breakfast)
- Sam’s Indian Restaurant (Indian)
- Royal Siam (Thai)
- The Natural Sisters Cafe (veggie)
- Farmer’s Market (fresh produce Saturdays 8am-1pm)
- La Copine (new American)
- Pioneer Crossing Antiques (antiques)
- Grateful Desert Herb Shoppe & EcoMarket (aromatherapy)
- Cactus Mart Boutique (decor and art)
- Coyote Corner (souvenirs)
- BKB Ceramics (pottery)
- The End (thrift)
- Hoof & the Horn (boho thrift)
Day Trip: Palm Springs
Only a 40 minute drive away from Joshua Tree, Palm Springs is a more stylish desert city getaway. It offers breathtaking views from its aerial tramway, an intriguing air museum, a casino for the risk-takers, and a rather impressive art museum. Honestly, though, Palm Springs is known for resort life—poolside drinks at the The Parker Palm Springs or The V Palm Springs. This is also a great place to go if the food options in Joshua Tree don’t strike your fancy.