Did you know that Joshua Tree National Park is a quick 3.5-hour drive from Phoenix? As fans of America’s national park system, we took advantage of a three-day weekend this spring and made the trek out west on I-10 toward Los Angeles.
The south entrance to the park lies at Exit 168 for Cottonwood Springs Road just west of Chiriaco Summit, an interesting stop for WW 2 fans to see the General George S. Patton Memorial Museum. Joshua Tree National Park was designated a national monument in 1936 and elevated to national park status in 1994. The land that encompasses the park has a rich history and cultural significance, spanning an area of approximately 790,636 acres (1,235 square miles). It is known for its unique desert landscape, characterized by rugged rock formations, vast stretches of sandy terrain, and, of course, the park’s namesake Joshua trees, which are actually a type of yucca plant. The park also contains remnants of historical structures, old mining sites, and homesteads that provide glimpses into the past.
The park offers numerous activities and attractions for visitors to enjoy. Hiking is a popular activity, with trails ranging from easy walks to more challenging treks, allowing visitors to explore the park’s unique rock formations and scenic vistas. Rock climbing is also popular, attracting climbers from around the world. Additionally, camping, stargazing, birdwatching, and photography are other popular activities.
There are many things I wish I had known before our trip to Joshua Tree National Park, and the best advice I can give you–and I say this strictly based on our experience–is to 1.) rent a home via Airbnb, VRBO, or your favorite site, 2.) expect long lines to access the park so best to buy a park pass ahead of time here, and 3.) stock up on provisions–snacks, drinks including beer/wine/alcohol, maybe a meal or two because eating out is not enjoyable for many reasons, the biggest of which is the crowds.
I imagine that since COVID the park has received a considerable increase in tourism, especially given its proximity to LA. Our experience was that most places could not accommodate the number of tourists, and waits were either hours long, or we were just turned away. Even though I have included a few restaurants in this post, if I could do it again, I would plan on eating in at our rental home. There is one wonderful place to pick up meals–The Dez–which I have listed below, and I would recommend taking out food coupled with a big shopping trip to the grocery store. All this being said, the park is stunning, and definitely worth a visit…my advice is just that, advice. I am just trying to make your stay as pleasant as possible. So, pack your bags and here we go! xoM
Where to Sip & Savor:
Natural Sisters Cafe. I went to Natural Sisters Cafe every morning for bagels and coffee, arriving when the store opened. I found that there were few employees, and if I do not arrive early, I had t expect long waits. That is kind of the overall theme of our trip: long waits. However, I loved the coffee here and would highly recommend. They also serve a nice selection of breakfast items, like avocado toast, breakfast bagels and sandwiches, and vegan (tofu) wraps, plus lunch like burgers, sandwiches, salads and wraps. 61695 Twentynine Palms Highway.
Joshua Tree Saloon. In general, many restaurants play to an Old West kind of vibe, and the Joshua Tree Saloon is no exception. We went here for dinner on our first night and were able to be seated after a 45-minute wait. They have a nice selection of beer on tap, burgers (try the Hatch Chili), tacos (famous for their Fried Cod), and many more fried items like Fried Pickle Spears and Jalapeño Poppers. 61835 Twentynine Palms Highway.
Crossroads Cafe. Crossroads Cafe is open daily from 7 am to 9 pm and touts the best breakfast in the area. While we did not make it here, if I did, I would order either their Homemade Corned Beef Hash or the Soyrizo Hash…yum! 61715 Twentynine Palms Highway.
Sam’s Indian Food and Pizza. I love Indian food, so Sam’s Indian Food is one place I regret not having visited. I would have ordered one of their curry pizzas, a Chicken Tikka Saag, some pakora, tandoori, and naan bread. 61380 Twentynine Palms Highway.
Pappy + Harriet’s in Pioneertown. Instead of going to the aforementioned Sam’s, we went to Pappy + Harriet’s in Pioneertown, because how could we not? The LA Times had recently written it was a must-visit. Well, it may be, but not on a busy 3-day weekend. The wait was over 2 hours, but we were lucky to score two seats at the bar. However, the issue was that there were 3 of us, one of which was our 16-year old daughter. Because she was 16, she was not allowed to sit at the bar according to their house rules. As she was hangry and on the verge of tears, one bartender took pity on us and we crammed in there anyways, eating a quick meal of tri-tip and bolting back to our AirBnb as fast as we could. Would I go again? Yes, I am always willing to give a place a second look, but I would have reservations and it would not be over a weekend. 53688 Pioneertown Rd.
Joshua Tree Country Kitchen. Joshua Tree Country Kitchen serves breakfast and lunch from 7 am to 2 pm daily, with specialties including Country Fried Steak and Eggs and the vegan specialty, Allie’s Ride, which is a choice of breakfast potatoes stir-fried with spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers. 61768 Twentynine Palms Highway.
The Dez. We picked up lunch daily at The Dez to eat in the park at one of their many picnic areas. The Dez is a tiny eatery that is counter-service and takeaway only that is open all day. Highlights for us included Stumptown Coffee, sandwiches to-go, and a lovely deli selection of salads. 61705 Twentynine Palms Highway.
Where to Sleep:
Unless you are a big fan of Gram Parsons and are making the pilgrimage to The Joshua Tree Inn to pay your respects to him, I would recommend renting a home, and I have included a list of a few that look great online, including Desert Dusk, where we stayed one night.
Wait…you have never heard of Gram Parsons? Gram Parsons was an influential American musician and songwriter, considered a pioneer in blending country and rock genres. He played a significant role in popularizing ‘country rock’ and was a founding member of The Byrds and the country-rock group The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Gram Parsons had a deep connection to Joshua Tree National Park, and his death is closely associated with the park. On September 19, 1973, at the age of 26, Parsons passed away in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, having taken a lethal combination of alcohol and morphine. If you stay at Joshua Tree Inn–which we did one night–you are surrounded by his legacy. His music is played non-stop in the lobby and they have set up a shrine to Parsons in the courtyard, centered around the original door from Room 8.
After his death, Parsons’ body was supposed to be transported to Louisiana for burial. However, his road manager, Phil Kaufman, who was a close friend, decided to honor a pact they had made. Parsons had expressed his wish to be cremated in Joshua Tree National Park if he were to die. Kaufman, along with another friend, snuck into the Los Angeles International Airport and stole Parsons’ body before it could be shipped. They drove the casket to Joshua Tree National Park and, in the early morning hours of September 20, 1973, set it ablaze at a distinctive rock formation called Cap Rock, fulfilling Parsons’ final wish.
Now that you know all about Gram Parsons, should you opt to stay at a rental home, the following is a nice selection:
Where to Hike or Enjoy Nature Walks:
Cholla Cactus Garden: The Cholla Cactus Garden is a unique area within Joshua Tree National Park known for its dense concentration of cholla cacti. It offers a short loop trail of approximately a quarter-mile where visitors can stroll among the cacti and appreciate the desert landscape. The best time to visit is during sunrise or sunset when the soft light enhances the beauty of the cacti.
Arch Rock: Arch Rock is a popular natural rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park. It features a large granite arch shaped by natural erosion over time. A short loop trail takes you to the arch, starting from the White Tank Campground. The trail is approximately half a mile long and offers a unique opportunity for photographs and exploration. There are also some other cool rock formations in the area so it is worth exploring a bit.
Skull Rock: Skull Rock is another distinctive rock formation in the park, resembling a skull when viewed from a certain angle. It is located along the main road of Joshua Tree National Park and is easily accessible for visitors to stop and take pictures. While there isn’t a dedicated trail for Skull Rock, you can park nearby and explore the area on foot.
Lost Horse Mine: The Lost Horse Mine trail takes you to an old gold mine that operated from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. You have a choice of taking either a 4-mile out-and-back hike or a 6.8-mile loop, both of which offer scenic views of the desert landscape. I highly recommend the loop trail and we were told to hike it counter clockwise. Once at the mine, visitors can explore the remnants of the mine and learn about the area’s mining history.
Hidden Valley: Hidden Valley is a picturesque and secluded area within Joshua Tree National Park. Cattle rustlers once used it to hide stolen livestock. The nature trail is a one-mile loop that takes you through the valley, surrounded by towering rock formations.
Desert Queen Mine: The Desert Queen Mine trail leads to the remains of an old mine active in the early 1900s. The hike is about 1.6 miles round trip and offers insights into the park’s mining history. Visitors can explore the remnants of the mine structures and enjoy scenic views of the surrounding desert.