One of the first places I took the very first N2 Explore van was Joshua Tree National Park. Only a few hours drive from Phoenix, it holds a special place in the heart of our owner and founder, Mark Nelson. It just so happened to have snowed in the park the day before—the Joshua trees dripped with icicles and a thin coat of white. Snow in the desert is a mysterious thing, but the moisture has been badly needed for several years, and it brought me so much joy to see it.
All activities in the desert are weather dependent. So please check the forecast and adjust trips accordingly. Hiking, biking, and rock-climbing are all wonderful way to explore and enjoy the park but avoid strenuous exercise in mid-day sun during the hotter months. Joshua Tree is also notorious for flash flooding, so being aware of the geography and the risk of flooding in specific areas is critical. The small towns of Joshua Tree and Twenty-Nine Palms, or Palm Springs just a little farther down the road offer lots of rainy-day alternative activities if weather conditions get in the way of plans.
Start your day in Phoenix, AZ picking up your adventure vehicle from the N2 Explore headquarters. Whether you’re renting a fully loaded Ford Transit or a (coming soon) rugged Toyota Forerunner, you’ll be exploring the desert in style and comfort. A little over halfway between Phoenix and Joshua Tree, is the tiny town of Quartzsite, AZ which famously plays host to thousands of vanlifers, RVers, and old school rubber trampers. Break up the drive by stopping in to grab lunch and check out the local events—pretty much any time of year, you’ll find something interesting to see—from live music to their famous gem or craft shows. [https://quartzsitetourism.com/events/]
If you can pull yourself away from the delights of Quartzsite to get back on the road early afternoon, you’ll reach the south side of the park before dinner time. I highly recommend driving the road through the park which meanders through stunning landscape, purposefully passing by impressive boulder formations and Joshua trees to the northern entrance outside Twenty-Nine Palms. There you will find the main Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center, which is open until 5 pm. Stop in to pick up some postcards and souvenirs, ask the rangers for up-to-date info on conditions in the park. Before heading to your campsite for the night, grab dinner at one of the many local restaurants right on Twenty-Nine Palms highway.
Once the sun has set and you are tucked into a campsite for the night, you can enjoy one of the absolute best things about the remote desert southwest—the stars. Even in warmer months the desert cools significantly at night, so grab a cozy blanket and a mug of hot tea and climb up to the rooftop deck. Away from the light pollution of big cities, the visibility of stars will absolutely blow you away.
There are nearly 30 trails within the National Park that offer different levels of difficulty, accessibility, and desert flora and fauna. I recommend checking out the complete list on the National Park website but will share some of our favorites for reference. Whether you’re looking for scenic walks under a mile, a birdwatching adventure, or a trek across the desert, there are options that will fill your day with everything that makes Joshua Tree special.
The Boy Scout Trail can be one of the longer options and leads to the magical Wonderland of Rocks area. There are so many areas in the park where you can crawl over and explore giant piles of boulders and pretend to be on another planet, but I love this area because it is frequented by desert bighorn sheep. Anytime you venture off the main trail, be especially careful that you are paying attention to landmarks and using a map or GPS device to ensure that you will be able to make your way back. Cell service is unreliable at best, and offline maps should be downloaded first.
The California Hiking and Biking Trail traverses more than 30 miles of the park and offers a gentle rolling walk through the desert. You can hop on and off the trail in many different areas and adjust the length of your hike based on your abilities. This is one of the only trails that is suitable for biking through the park, so if that’s your speed, you can cover far more ground on this trail through the Joshua trees and Cholla.
If you’re looking for a challenge, the Ryan Mountain summit trail is right around 3 miles, but don’t let the distance fool you. You’ll climb around 1000 feet over rocks and boulders to the highest summit in the park. Make sure to start early and avoid the high heat of the day.
The Hidden Valley Trail is a great option for less experienced hikers. The trail is relatively short and painless and accesses the Chasm of Doom rock area, which is less terrifying than it may sound! A twisty maze of boulders that you can climb and squeeze through, this area is perfect for adventurers, best avoided by the claustrophobic. This is also one of the best areas in the park for rock climbing, so keep an eye on the rocks to see climbers in their natural habitat. There is a plethora of wildlife in Joshua Tree National Park, and I encourage you to move softly and watch out for any desert birds or small creatures before the scurry away from you on the trail.
Before leaving the park, set your alarm for a sunrise wake up. If that’s not your style, trust me, it’s worth it. Seeing the sunrise over the Cholla Cactus Garden is a once in a lifetime experience that happens every day. In March or April, you might even be lucky enough to catch them blooming. The warm glow of early light coming through the dense growth of spiny cactus, lights up in a way that can only be described as pure magic. Wander through the cholla, but be careful not to get too close, they bite.
If you have time on your final day, I highly recommend taking a short scenic drive on the Geology Tour Road. You can pick up an interpretive brochure at the entrance to the road, which guides you along the 18-mile loop with 16 interpretive stops. The first section of the road is passable in most vehicles—so keep a lookout for the sign indicating a switch to 4×4 passable only. Then use your best judgement on whether to continue based on what vehicle you are in.
There are nearly 500 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park, and most of them are available by reservation. As compared to some other national parks, this gives you a good shot at snagging a spot if you plan ahead. Additionally, there are a few campgrounds within the park that operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you will be arriving at the park on a weekday, not during peak season, you will have a decent chance to secure one of those. Make sure to have a plan B if you’re going to try for an unreserved space.
Some of the campsites within the national park have amenities like flush toilets and running water, some do not! So, make sure to check out the breakdown before reserving.
There are dozens of commercial campgrounds around Joshua Tree National Park with varying amenities, as well as BLM land, which allows for boondocking (completely self-contained camping). The National Park has kindly gathered information on these options and shared them with the public.
Having lived on the road for many years, a nice boondocking spot is usually at the top of my list, but it takes practice to be comfortable camping with no toilets, no services, and potentially no other campers nearby. Thinking about your comfort level in different types of camping situations can be helpful when deciding which options will make your trip the best it can be!
The Salton Sea was accidentally created in the early 1900s by the destruction of a canal on the Colorado River. Since then it’s become an interesting unnatural geologic wonder, a popular hangout for hundreds of species of birds, and withstood several attempts to create a resort destination on its shores. The Visitor Center in Mecca holds a wealth of fascinating historical and geological information, and will guide you to some of the underground volcanic activity, including boiling mud pots along the shore. If you’re itching to get some more trail miles in, the Anza-Borrego State Park is nearby and offers many miles of beautiful trails, as well as perfect star-gazing for your last night out, as it is an International Dark Sky Park.