What to do, where to stay, and what to eat at Joshua Tree National Park
Southern California Adventures
While living in Southern California, we were nearly overwhelmed with weekend destinations from which to choose. We experienced practically all of them in our five years there. But one place drew us back every year (sometimes twice a year): Joshua Tree National Park. The park is only 2 hours from Orange County where we lived so it was perfect for return visits. From LA it's about 2.5 hours. (Or 7 depending on traffic). I kid!
We've spent several weekends exploring the park and the towns near Joshua Tree, and it never gets old. Each time we go, we find a new and exciting way to enjoy it. Here are some of the highlights of our weekend getaways at Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms.
Joshua Tree Hiking
I love a good hike, to the point where I’m a snob about it. Hiking in Southern California often disappointed me. Where are all the trees? Waterfalls? Rivers?! I once dragged my husband 90 minutes from our house because I read about a waterfall hike. It was NOT worth it. What can I say? I’m a spoiled Oregonian when it comes to hikes. And why do people feel the need to blast music out of their crappy cell phone speakers all the way down the trail? I don’t want to hear that - I’m hiking, I want to hear BIRDS.
Okay Erin, breathe, you’re back in the northwest, it’s fine.
Joshua Tree is an Amazing Weekend Getaway Destination
So what was different about Joshua Tree hiking? There certainly weren’t waterfalls, but there was the next best thing: VIEWS.
We love one of the hardest hikes at Joshua Tree (I tend to do that), Ryan Mountain. It was a thousand feet straight up a rocky hill. In the sun we were melting; in the shade it was freezing. But, once you're at the top, you're gifted with a 360 degree view of the park. Breathtaking and totally worth the climb.
I recommend stopping at the Visitor Centers where they have maps that will guide you to plenty of easier hikes and nature trails. These maps are really helpful, especially if you only have a day and are unsure of where to go.
If you're feeling a bit more adventurous, check out the Boy Scout Trail (located only 1 mile from our favorite Twentynine Palms motel, read on). Its an 8-mile hike, and most professionals recommend doing the vehicle shuttle method, rather than hiking the full length of the trail and back. The trail leads you through Joshua Tree forests and past amazing rock formations. Do NOT attempt this hike in the heat of the summer. Just be smart.
In Summer, try the Oasis Hike, a smaller loop by the Visitor Center. It's a half mile, wheelchair accessible, family friendly desert stroll. There are TONS of options in the guides at the visitor center. Good luck picking one!
Where to Stay When Visiting Joshua Tree
Maybe it’s just me (it’s not), but when I go to the desert I want style and personality oozing from every corner of the place I’m staying. For these reasons, three of our Joshua Tree weekends were spent at the Harmony Motel.
[Fun fact: This is where U2 stayed shortly after recording their album The Joshua Tree. Apparently Bono and I want the same things when it comes to lodging: quirky desert art, a funky setting, and a great staff.]
The Harmony Motel in Twentynine Palms
The Harmony Motel is located in the town of Twentynine Palms, just outside the park. An excellent little desert town for exploring between park visits. It's just a 10 minute drive from the Oasis Visitor Center and North entrance of the park.
We were so taken by the charm of this motel that we stayed here three times, bringing new friends and family with us each time. On one such visit with my mom and niece, we stayed in a room with a kitchen. Not some tiny sink, microwave situation, but a fully loaded kitchen. One stop at the grocery store in town and we had everything we needed for the weekend.
On another visit, we splurged for an airbnb with even MORE funk. There is an endless array of far-out desert rentals to pick from in the area and I definitely recommend checking them out. It just adds to the experience.
And of course, you could always stay in a TENT. Joshua Tree has several campgrounds. Indian Cove Campground is only 10 miles from Twentynine Palms and has 101 camp sites. They don't have running water, so make sure you stock up at the ranger station, especially in the summer! I would LOVE to return someday for a camping weekend. Can you even imagine the star gazing that's available from a campsite in Joshua Tree?
Best Places to Eat When Visiting Joshua Tree
It took me about 4 or 5 visits until I learned about a place called Pappy and Harriets, located in Pioneertown (about 45 minutes from Twentynine Palms). They are known for their amazing food and live music. We had some incredible mojitos outside in the shade, the perfect cure for the desert heat. This place is now on my list of “must eat” spots when heading out to Yucca Valley. And for a bit of extra charm, walk out back and explore Pioneertown, a cute little town that was originally created for filming westerns. Now the town is full of silly photo-ops and vendors selling souvenirs and original hand made art. No cars allowed though! You have to walk through the dirt, just like the cowboys.
Of course there are plenty of other options in Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree for food. Being a hippie town, there are plenty of healthy options. We took my niece to one such place, The Natural Sisters Cafe, for breakfast smoothies and muffins, which were both delicious. But the highlight of the morning was a well-traveled man in dreadlocks - barefoot, of course - scooping up a hair tie off the ground and exclaiming (to no one in particular) “Best ground score ever!” My niece still refers to hair ties as “ground scores.”
On a visit with friends we drove about two minutes from our room at the Harmony Motel to a place called The Rib Co. and had some Ahhhh-mazing barbeque for dinner. The jalapeno poppers were not those deep friend TGIFridays nonsense, they were grilled and fresh and gone in no time!
If you didn't get a room with a kitchen but you still like a big breakfast, check out John's Place.
Playing at Joshua Tree
By far my FAVORITE thing about Joshua Tree is the boulders. We often drive into the park and pick one of the many roadside attractions and pull over to explore. Then we drive to another one and do the same thing. You could literally do this all day, and we have. There is Skull Rock, (yes it looks like a Skull) and it’s right next to the road. You can’t miss it. Once we chose a portion of boulders called, I kid you not, “The Hall of Horrors” for our playground. It was not horrifying at all. In fact, it led to our favorite activity, bouldering. I’m sure professional climbers would scoff at our version of bouldering. We put on a good pair of tennis shoes and climb from rock to rock like children. It actually makes you feel like a kid! The rocks are super grippy and it feels like you couldn’t possibly fall off. But be careful, you totally could. While doing this, you’ll gradually work your way up to a really great viewpoint and just hang out on the rocks. Again, be careful and make sure you can get back down. We never explore too far from the car, being amateurs and all.
Sunrise at Joshua Tree
Now, I’m NOT a morning person. However, more than once, I’ve gotten up at zero-dark-thirty to drive into the park, find a good spot, and watch the sun come up. It is SO worth it. You’ve never seen colors like it. If you only have one day in the park, do it. Joshua Tree is a pretty good “one day” park, but I promise it will just make you want to go back for more.
The Perfect Weekend Destination in California
So there you have it. My favorite weekend trips in California were to Joshua Tree National Park for its variety of adventure and the beauty of its landscapes, foliage, fun places to sleep and wonderful restaurants. I highly recommend packing your best travel backpack and hitting the road toward Joshua Tree National Park. Share your adventures and tips in the comments section below... we'd love to hear from you!
We Want to Hear from You! Share Your Joshua Tree Adventures with Us
We're always looking for ways to inform our readers about places to eat, sleep and play in the world. Leave recommendations or share your Joshua Tree adventures in the comments section.
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