Feature photo - a weekend trip to Joshua Tree, California

Weekend Trip to Joshua Tree | California

After my week in Los Angeles, my next stop in California was a weekend trip to Joshua Tree National Park. I had a long weekend for Easter anyway, which was perfect timing. I was able to spend 2 full days exploring the park, with plenty of hiking through the desert. Although you can stay inside the park, it’s cheaper to stay outside it, which is what I did, in the town of Twentynine Palms. It’s a small desert town, with a handful of shops, homes and motels on either side of the highway, and just a few minutes away from the park’s North Entrance. I also purchased the America the Beautiful annual pass (at the park entrance) to all the US National Parks. At $80, it was great value considering how many more parks are on my list for the year!

Desert scenes from a weekend trip to Joshua Tree National Park, California

Getting There – Adventures in Driving

Now the journey from Los Angeles to Twentynine Palms was an adventure in itself. As some may know, I’m not much of a driver. I passed my test in the UK a whopping eleven years ago; but haven’t driven in about ten. I just didn’t have the need to and always found alternative means of transport. Plus, I never liked driving! It always made me nervous and scared, so I avoided it until I reached the point of not really being able to anymore.

Then, I moved to North America. A part of the world notorious for its terrible lack of public transport. I’ve managed fine in Vancouver, using public transport over the winter. But eventually, I took some refresher lessons over the last few months. There are so many places I want to go this year, and many, especially national parks, can only be reached with a car. And Joshua Tree was my first major driving stint since those lessons!

I didn’t fancy driving from LA though, so I first took a 2-hour bus to Palm Springs. There, I rented a car from the airport and drove just over an hour to Twentynine Palms, arriving in the early evening. It was a good reintroduction to driving I think, since I mostly just had to follow the highway and not deal with busy traffic patterns! The car was then a major player for the rest of my Joshua Tree weekend trip, since there are no bus services in the park. Driving still isn’t my favourite thing to have to do, but I feel a little more confident now after this trip!

Day One of a Long Weekend Trip to Joshua Tree

Day One

Cholla Cactus Garden & Ocotillo Patch

After a good night’s sleep, I woke up and headed to the North entrance the following morning. There are only a few roads through the park, and I decided to head to my furthest destination first. A half hour drive south through the park got me to the Ocotillo Patch. The drive itself was pretty incredible (nerves aside), as I wound through the dry, rocky landscapes. There were mountains in the distance and then suddenly, the land opened up into a vast valley below, stretching as far as the eye could see. I’ve spent far more time around forests, mountains and water, so the desert was a very new experience for me. Despite being so dry, and seemingly barren, there’s actually plenty of flora and fauna to be found.

The Ocotillo Patch is a small strip by the side of the road, with only a few parking spaces. The spindly plants were much taller than expected, up to twice my height. And with the mountains and valley in the distance, they were the most dominant thing in the nearby landscape. The Cholla Cactus Garden is just a couple of minutes further back north on the same road, and was a bit busier. They’re a short, stubby variety of cactus, and some of them were just starting to flower as well. I wandered along the circular path through the garden, which only took about 15 minutes to complete.

Heart Rock & Arch Rock Trail

My next stops were further back north on the same road again. The southern and eastern parts of Joshua Tree lack as many of its titular trees, and instead, are full of unique rock formations. Names like Heart Rock and Arch Rock make it easy to know what you’re looking for. Both formations are on the same trail, which branches off perpendicular to the road. It was a straight, simple path to follow through the desert rocks and shorter plants, with a few trees dotted along the way.

I branched to the right first to find Arch Rock, and managed to grab a photo without anyone posing under it! There is a narrow path through a crevice in the rocks, but a lot of people climb up and over them as well. I explored the crevice a little, but it does lead to a dead end. So, I doubled back to the fork in the path and headed left this time to find Heart Rock. Perched at the end of the trail, it’s pretty impressive that this is a naturally occurring rock, and remains balanced there! After successfully finding both rocks, it was then a matter of retracing my route back to the car. I then made a lunch stop at one of the park’s many picnic spots – time to refuel for more walking!

Split Rock Trail

So this trail might have been the hairiest part of the day! It started with a drive off the main road and up a dustier dirt track. I was a bit worried about getting my rental car stuck up there! I made it to the small car park in one piece, though, and set off on the trail, which took about an hour total. That said, I’m not entirely sure I followed it correctly! I definitely didn’t see any kind of split rock anyways. And there were periods of time when I saw no one else, then someone would appear in the distance, on a different section of trail. So maybe there are a few paths and I got slightly lost; but I completed a loop and made it back to the start eventually!

I enjoyed whatever route I did, though. There was some gentle incline over some rock formations and skirting around others, so nothing was super strenuous. Being a quieter route, too, I got to really enjoy and appreciate the desert to myself for a while. The park was pretty busy in general, being Easter weekend, so this was a welcome pocket of peace. I spotted some rock climbers as well; not my cup of tea, but cool to see! Then I got distracted watching several birds of prey circling overhead for a while. I think they might have been vultures, from a quick bit of research later on.

Jumbo Rocks & Skull Rock

My last stop was just a couple of minutes up the road, but I had to park and walk a bit to get there. It was very busy and cars were just pulled over at the roadside since all the actual spots were full. Again, Skull Rock’s name gives it away, though some angles look more skull-like than others. It’s right beside the road, so easy to reach, although hidden behind another rock. Which meant more squeezing through narrow gaps or climbing up to get a better view of it! Climbing rocks is the theme here, as it’s right next to Jumbo Rocks. This collection of giant rocks are clumped together, making a huge playground to clamber over. You can see people in my photos for size reference!

There’s a trail too, which actually circles both sides of the road. Again though, my navigation let me down (there’s no phone signal at all in the park either). I think I started on the path, but then went exploring down a side trail. I ended up walking along on top of a stretch of rocks, which was fun and had some great views. Until I had to figure out how to get down again! That was the giveaway I had lost the path. But I emerged by the nearby campsite, and was able to follow that road to the trail again. The actual trail had lots of signs about the plants and snaked through the rocks, leading me back to the car.

It was late afternoon by then, and after a busy day, I was pretty tired and ready to head back. I backtracked out of the park the same way I came in, stopping to pick up dinner in town. My motel had a swimming pool too, which was very refreshing after a dusty day in the sun before calling it a night!

Day Two

Ryan Mountain

The second day of my weekend trip to Joshua Tree started with packing my stuff into the car and checking out. I would be travelling back to Los Angeles that evening but still had the day to explore. I entered through the North gate again and headed to the northwest side of the park. My first impressions were that there were a lot more Joshua trees along the roadside here! I started with my longest hike of the day, and the highest elevation I reached all weekend; Ryan Mountain.

The trail is an out-and-back route, curving around the mountain as it ascends. Obviously, an uphill hike in the desert heat isn’t the easiest, but I was glad to be there early in the year and not in summer! The path is fairly rocky too, so keep an eye on your feet so you don’t trip up! Though that was hard to do sometimes, when I was so distracted by the views. It was a reasonably busy trail, so often people would stop to rest or admire the view, and let faster walkers pass them. There are still plenty of desert plants up the mountain too, covering it with a purplish brush.

Eventually, I emerged amongst the trees and cacti on its peak, with a cairn and sign marking the summit. From here, you get to enjoy panoramic views of the valley, with snow-capped mountains lining the horizon. It was definitely a surreal landscape to soak in, so unlike anywhere else I’ve been before! I lingered at the top for a while to make the most of the view, before retracing my steps back to the base again.

Day Two of a long weekend trip to Joshua Tree National Park, California

Hidden Valley Trail

My next stop was going to be the Hall of Horrors, which I could see from Ryan Mountain. However, there was not a single parking spot to be found. The roadsides also had kerbs so you couldn’t pull over anywhere like the day before. Instead, I continued on to Hidden Valley, but was worried about encountering the same parking issue. So, I stopped at the Minerva Hoyt Trail instead, which links up to Hidden Valley and adds about 30 minutes on either end. It turned out to not be necessary though, as when I reached Hidden Valley, there were parking spots galore!

However, the Minerva Hoyt trail took me through a massive grove of Joshua trees, more than I’d seen anywhere so far. Plus, I only passed a few other people on it – plus a snake I nearly stood on! I got some long-awaited peace and quiet after many busier locations. It also gave me time and space to get some self-timer photos with the trees!

Hidden Valley was worth the trek though; as the name suggests the valley is tucked away out of sight, inside a massive rock formation. but once you squeeze through the narrow opening, you emerge into a spacious valley, filled with more plants and rocks. The trail twists and winds around the perimeter, and although it only took half an hour, felt quite long since you can’t see the whole loop at any point. This was a much busier area, and I was constantly passing people or trying to crop them out of my photos. It was a cool set-up though, hidden inside the rocks. I was pretty exhausted by the time I got back along the Minerva Hoyt trail to the car though!

Barker Dam Trail

I had one more hike to finish up my day and fortunately, it wasn’t a long one. After two days of the dry desert, I was intrigued by the possibility of a water source, and Barker Dam is where to find it. It didn’t take long to drive there, but there is another trail nearby so I had to make sure I started on the correct one. Again, it was a pretty busy route, so no danger of going that far off course. The trail only takes about half an hour in a loop, firstly travelling through some larger rock formations. The rocks were cool, but did all start to look the same after a couple of days!

It didn’t take long to reach the dam, which was built to create a small reservoir to act as a water source. However, it certainly hasn’t rained in Joshua Tree in a while. There was only a tiny pool of water lingering in the basin! You could see where it fills up to sometimes, which is likely a bit more impressive. It was still interesting to see the dam itself though. The route then continues through another field of cacti and desert plants, helpfully signed with information. There is also a petroglyph here, ancient pictorial writing on one of the rocks, which was super cool to see. You have to keep an eye on the signs here, to avoid joining a much longer route, which I didn’t have the time or energy for! But I soon snaked through more rocks and re-emerged at the car park once more.

The end of a weekend trip to Joshua Tree National Park, California

A Weekend Trip to Joshua Tree

After that, it was time to finish up my time in Joshua Tree. I had planned day two in order to slowly work my way west through the park, so I could depart via the West Entrance this time. This one is closer to the town of Joshua Tree, although the GPS took me around it rather than through I rejoined the highway heading west, following it back to Palm Springs to return the car. Then, it was back on the bus to LA where I would spend one night before journeying north.

My weekend trip to Joshua Tree was a great experience, being so different from other places I’ve seen. As someone who normally gravitates to the coast, or lakes and waterfalls, the dryness of the desert was a little jarring. I definitely don’t think I could live in it, as the locals do! But it was amazing to visit, and to consider how so much flora and fauna survives out there. I got a little frustrated at times when it was super busy, but still found pockets of peace and quiet. The hiking trails were also a good mix of easier and more strenuous ones. Plus, I can finally say I know how to drive again!