Joshua Tree National Park is a gem! My trip there involved staying at an Airbnb nearby and exploring the park and surrounding attractions over the course of a week. With so many things to do in Joshua Tree, my senses were delighted.
Within a 90-minute drive (or much less), there are cute towns, awesome state parks, and the natural beauty of the desert landscape. At first glance, the desert all looks the same. With a slower pace and closer inspection, I came to notice the subtle variations in the different mountain ranges and ecosystems.
The north entrance to the park is where you will find the namesake Joshua trees. They are juxtaposed against the backdrop of granite rock sculptures. I assume you will visit them, just as I assume you will visit the Eiffel Tower when you go to Paris. For that reason, they are not on my Top 5 List of things to do in Joshua Tree. I want to steer you toward other unique experiences.
Desert Hot Springs is a Mecca For Health and Healing
A town that was founded in 1941, after Cabot Yerxa discovered the mineral water that blesses this otherwise arid region. Yerxa built his homestead and encouraged people to travel here to be healed by taking in the waters. His homestead is now a museum and worth a stop if you have the time.
The hot springs have birthed about a dozen boutique hotels and resorts all of which have spas. Some are modest, some are posh. Let’s say a little bit of something for everyone. If you seek some tranquility from the more popular and crowded Palm Springs, do consider making Desert Hot Springs your base.
I had two very different, both awesome experiences in this town.
El Morocco Inn and Spa spoke to me the loudest, since I am planning on visiting Morocco. I always like the chance to blend cultures and places. I booked a one hour massage. It was given in a room replete with brightly colored silks hanging from the ceiling. For no additional charge, I was welcome to stay and enjoy the spa for the rest of the day. The swimming pool was about 92o. The hot tub was large and full of yoga teachers! And if those two mineral pools are not enough to get things stirring, there are two infrared saunas. One of which is located in the garden, which also contains showers, hammocks, a life sized chess board, and yoga mats. I found the dining nook with Moroccan snacks, books and DVD’s to be charming. And you guessed correctly – they play Casa Blanca there every day.
The other hot spring experience I had took place on private property. Paul offers an Airbnb experience that gives you (and possibly a few friends) access to a twelve foot in diameter man-made pool. He owns twenty acres of property, about five miles outside the town itself. It’s easy to find and, once you are there, you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. He directs the mineral water into the pool and controls it with a valve. When you melt into the tub, it’s pure bliss. My time consisted of listening to the gurgling sound of the water and inhaling the distinctive scent of the chaparral. I faced west so I could watch the clouds turn pink and purple as the sun went down.
There are other spa experiences to be had here, so check out the offerings, and see which ones call you.
Becoming a Local in Joshua Tree
The town of Joshua Tree runs along 29 Palms Highway and for the most part it’s a stretch of strip malls. Go to the junction of the highway with Main Street, which leads into the park. It is what I would affectionately refer to as the quaint central business district of Joshua Tree.
Splaying out a block in each direction are independently owned businesses that have some element of charm about them. Joshua Tree Coffee Company, Instant Karma Yoga, Natural Sisters Café, and Joshua Tree Health Foods were the four that I wove myself into.
Crossroads Café, JT’s Country Kitchen, Joshua Tree Saloon and a few vintage stores, and quirky museums adorned downtown as well. And lest I not forget to mention, the bigger than I expected farmers market in the parking lot outside Natural Sisters Café. For a town of its size and the dry as a bone climate, there was an impressive amount of booths with fresh produce and other artisan food products.
You could take this part of Joshua Tree and plop it in Maui and it would be Pa’ia. You could plop it in the Catskills or New Mexico and it would be Woodstock or Taos. A gathering spot for counter culture types who are not in a rush to do anything, other than enjoy today.
What puts this outpost in my Top Five is not just the shops. It is the sense of community that I felt there. By my second yoga class, I saw familiar faces – other tourists from as far as NYC who shared the commonality of keeping up our yoga practice.
While standing on line for a fine cup of coffee, I met some fellow travelers from DC. Thirty minutes later we waved at each other at the Farmer’s Market. People are friendly, open minded and perhaps I was not surprised that some of them knew and loved Portland.
The Roads Less Traveled in Joshua Tree National Park
Since I was visiting for the holidays, it came as no surprise that I was sharing the park with a lot of other people. It certainly was not overrun the way Yellowstone in July has been described to me. But it was busy!
That’s OK, I am elated so many people decided to visit a national park for Christmas, instead of hanging out at the mall. And as always, even in a crowded location, it is completely possible to find some sweet spots with solitude.
The namesake Joshua trees and rock sculptures lie within the northern end of the park. Elevation is higher and it is part of the Mohave Desert. I didn’t realize until I read it, but the southern end of the park, only 30 miles away is in a different desert altogether.
Pinto Basin road is the relatively less traveled road that will connect the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. There are some worthy places to get out and see, but do know that a lot of the appeal is the drive itself. The transition zone is richer in diversity than either of the two deserts themselves. The drive to the south is a slow descent, and you can see ahead of you a broad and expansive basin, that you will eventually arrive at. Mountain ranges are visible in the distance, which punctuate and enliven the flat landscape.
You will know you hit the Chollo Cactus Garden when you see a parking lot on your right with lots of cars. Park there and consider walking across the road where the cactus thrives, but it’s not developed with walking paths and fences.
The chollo cactus looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, perhaps a creature with twisted tentacles. And one that was dipped in peroxide, so its tresses are bleached blond. Check out these pics!
Pinto Basin Road gets more remote as you continue south and there are pull offs here and there. Pick a random one to explore. Informational signs are helpful in connecting the dots between geology, geography, and human history. I personally find it amazing to read about the natives who lived here and how they survived such an unforgiving climate. People dwelled in areas where there was some access to water, although now, only the bare remnants of such settlement activity are visible. For example, I found some rocks with depressions in them that the native people used to grind seeds in.
The wind softly whispered in my ear to follow her away from my pull out. I found that even a five-minute stroll brought me to a place where I felt it was just the desert and me. Wander into the desert as far as you feel comfortable.
Cottonwood Spring was a delightful stop. If you enter from the southern end of the park, you will start there. There stands an oasis with the biggest palm trees I have yet to encounter. And cottonwood trees with yellow leaves, as if to say they were in autumn.
There are a few hikes that depart from the parking lot, ranging from a short loop, to three mile Mastodon Peak, to 7.5 mile Lost Palm Oasis. I went for the middle of the road hike. There were other people sharing the trail, but there were times when I had spots to myself. The way the rocks presented themselves reminded me of my time living in the Rockies, in northern New Mexico.
I even caught some ocotillo in bloom, red flowers erupting from the top of the branches. Bird watchers could and should occupy themselves here for a while as well.
With the short days, the sun was low in the sky and cast a light that gave everything a slightly purple hue. Cottonwood Springs perhaps was the prettiest region of the park. It should not be missed.
Anza Borrego State Park Is in a World of Its Own
I thought my Desert Hot Springs day was going to be the best, until I ventured off to Anza Borrego State Park. It was a two hour drive from Yucca Valley, so if you are in the region in the winter, do get an early start.
The drive there will take you past Salton Sea, which was formed from a happy accident (a dam broke and flooded the region). The ecosystem has morphed into an apocalyptic landscape of yesteryear. Taking a detour to visit The Slab or Salton City Beach will be, umm, interesting.
But let’s get to the park. The rangers were happy to share that this is the largest state park in California and three different fault lines lay in its boundaries. They will give you a well-prepared park guide. I really like how it laid out what to do if you have half a day, a whole day, or more. And also, whether you have a 2WD or a 4WD vehicle.
To get here involves driving for quite a while in the middle of nowhere. And then to my surprise, all of a sudden I was in a town, Borrego Springs. It had schools, nurseries, a bank, a couple restaurants and even a yoga studio. Later on in the day, I noticed some hotels. I bring this up, because I realized that this park and Borrego Springs could be an entirely different travel destination, accessible from both Palm Springs and San Diego.
The Palm Canyon Nature Trail is described in the park guide as the one place to go, if you only have time for one place. And I agree. The hike is a slow ascent over 1.5 miles that parallels an arroyo. There was no water running while I was there, but that is subject to change. The desert is prone to flash flooding and when it rains, it pours and this canyon morphs into a river. About a mile into the hike I could see the California Palms in the distance and was attracted to them like a bee to sunflowers.
The California Palms are the only native palms to the state and they are adapted specifically to the desert. They look like they are wearing a palm skirt like hula dancers in Hawaii. The skirt helps conserve water. As I entered the grove, the bird songs became prolific and the temperature dropped dramatically. Both of which were pleasant surprises. Climb on a big rock and relax for a bit – you will feel right at home.
Although it is not steep, the descent was much faster, which left time to stop in Borrego Springs for a smoothie and head to The Slot. The Slot is only a mile round trip, but its geography is what compelled me to visit. Basically, the earth has split by fault line activity and a crevice is the result. You park up top and look for the path to take you down. It is fun slithering through the crevice and eventually you can climb back up and take some time to find a peak and enjoy the panoramic show.
On the road to get to The Slot, I noticed these metal sculptures not far off the road. There were metal horses and elephants and owls. On the way back I did some investigating. They were not just plopped there by a strange desert dweller. Well, maybe they were, but they are official and named Galleta Meadows.
Galleta Meadows ties into the other metal sculptures I had noticed in the region. There were some outside the Chamber of Commerce and an entire metal sculpture garden in Borrego Springs. The detail was not apparent until I got close up and saw exactly how intricate there actually were. Check them out!
There are a lot of other hiking opportunities in Anza Borrego State Park. Many of them can be done in 1-3 hours and focus around a canyon, an oasis, or a certain plant (cactus, elephant tree). If you are in Joshua Tree for more than three days, don’t let Anza Borrego slip through your fingers.
The Wide Open Desert
The cliché goes something like this – the sky is bigger in the desert. Well, living in Oregon where the celestial bodies are often obscured by clouds, I can attest to feeling the power of the wide open sky when I am in the desert. And so indeed, the sky feels bigger in the desert.
When traveling, it’s easier to stop and smell the roses. In Joshua Tree, stop and enjoy the sunrises, sunsets, and starry skies.
The sunsets are the easiest to do, since you will most likely be outside when the sun goes down. The week of Christmas, the light show began around 4:45 PM. I tried to stop whatever else I was doing, (driving, walking) and just bathe myself in pink and purple light. The sunset soak in Desert Hot Springs was perhaps my favorite sunset, as it combined my love of hot water spa treatments and kickass scenery.
The sunrises require getting up early as it was getting light around 6:40 AM. I admit to having slept through some of them. But I made it a point a couple of times to set my alarm and go outside to the patio to witness the arrival of dawn.
And then there are the stars and moon. Living in Western Oregon I am used to big trees and dense forests. But I hardly miss them when I am in the wide-open spaces of the desert soaking up the night time grandeur. My late-night strolls guided by the light of the big dipper became a ritual.
The moon was waxing and almost full by New Year’s Eve. It rose in the east an hour before the sun set. Seeing the moon climb high in the sky as the sun faded, while being on top of some very big rocks admiring the handsome Joshua trees was one of the most powerful moments of my trip.
There’s no right way to do it. Just make sure wherever you are, that you get up early enough, stay out late enough, and get somewhere scenic enough, to be part of the celestial show on the desert stage.
Bonus for Top 5 Must Do’s
I took a cooking class as part of an Airbnb experience. It was definitely a highlight. So much so that it deserves an article of its own. The setting, the host, the food, the participants and the whole experience were fabulous.
If you have some of your own tip 5 things to do in Joshua Tree, let me know. I am always looking for more gems!