A Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park & Pioneer Town

In honor of the National Park Centennial today (August 25, 2016), we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to share with your our first visit to Joshua Tree National Park. Since that visit, we’ve had many guests ask us about this park.  Frequently asked questions include:  what’s the best way to get there?  What should we bring?  What should we make sure we see on a day trip?  Thanks to Megan, Jess and Noelle (my Gensler girls) for joining me on a little reconnaissance mission.  Jess had her fanny pack and cut-off jean vest, Megan wore layers of sunblock #90, Noelle had her U2 album cover on the brain, and I had my rusty driving skills.  And so, the adventure began.

a woman in a jean jacket and hats jumping up off the sandy ground in the desert

Jumpin’ Jess (with fanny pack)

There are two main routes into Joshua Tree National Park.  From The Monkey Tree Hotel to the West Entrance is 50 miles away and it takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes to get there.  The West Entrance takes a bit longer to get there, but once you enter the park this is where most of the dramatic (and popular) sites are located.  The East Entrance is also 50 miles away, but only takes about 45 minutes to get there (mostly highway driving).  I would describe the East Entrance as “the build”.  Once you enter the park, you drive for about an hour before you see an actual Joshua Tree.  We chose “the build” and set out with a full tank of gas and a cooler packed with ice, water, granola bars, random cheeses and of course – some wine (with a screw top cap).  I highly recommend bringing all of these things.

On the one hour drive before seeing any Joshua Trees, there are many other interesting desert plants.  For us, the gigantor Ocotillo was awe-inspiring and our first chance to get out of the car and stretch our legs.  (Also a chance for the people in the back seat to get some air and fight off the motion sickness from my driving.)  With something of this scale, you can’t take a selfie. So, wait for another person to come by and take the opportunity to get a group shot with your friend(s).

4 women in exercise clothing standing in front of a large cactus

Giant Ocotillo and a non-selfie photo.  KF, Noelle, Megan and Jess

The great thing about the one road through the park is that you can pull over anywhere and take some time to look around.  Next stop for us was the Cholla Garden and a chance for more stretching and seeing these beautiful hombre-colored plants up close.  At this stop there was a Park Ranger who warned us that  these plants shoot prickly burrs if you walk too close to them, but of course, we had to see if that was true.  Noelle was the brave (crazy) one – sticking her finger very close to a branch and nothing happened.  I am not saying you should try this. She may have just gotten lucky and her little Cholla was sleepy.

a field of cactus plants in a large expanse of desert with blue skies overhead

The Cholla Garden

a field of cactus plants on the desert floor with mountains in the distance

More Chollas

And then about an hour into the park we spotted our first Joshua Tree. I slammed on the breaks and we all jumped out of the car and proceeded to take a bunch of photos.  I am not sure whose idea it was, but we decided to take a series of semi-dangerous photos laying in the center of the road.  I was the lookout and also the photographer (probably not a good idea to have the same person doing both of these things).  But, all made it out safely and ran when the signal was given.

a large tree called a joshua tree in the foreground with mountains and blue sky in the distance

Behold the first Joshua Tree we saw!

Back into the car where we proceeded to see hundreds (maybe even thousands) of Joshua Trees. The uglier, the better, we thought.  And then of course, there were other interesting sights along the way.  Keys View is probably the best place for a panoramic view of the south-central area of the park.  From here you have an expansive view of the entire Coachella Valley (from Palm Springs all the way out to Indio along the line of the San Jacinto Moutains).  The San Bernadino Range is to the west.  Sometimes smog from Los Angeles (a 2-hour drive away) can obstruct views. But when we were there, all was clear.  Nearby is Inspiration Peak and this is a nice place to take a hike if you want to go a bit higher.

a view from the top of the mountains with a view of the town and mountains below and blue skies above

Key’s View overlooks Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley

One of the most famous sights in Joshua Tree is Skull Rock.  The gigantic boulders in this part of the park are a must see – plan to spend some time in this area.  There is a nice little hiking loop around here (1.7 miles) and takes about 1.5  hours with a difficulty level of: Easy.  Or just pick a big rock, climb up, and watch other people climb (like I did).

a woman wearing a black shirt and red pants standing in front of a large rock shaped like a skull

Posing in the nostril of Skull rock

a large group of tan boulders with a blue sky in the distance

Fun to climb – or pick a rock to just sit and enjoy

We spent about 4 hours in the park – stopping the car and pulling over all along the way at interesting spots.  Of course you could spend many more hours here and even do some camping and serious climbing, but if you only have a day – or even a half day, don’t miss checking out this National Park.  The entrance fee is $20 per car and you can use the pass for a full week at no extra charge.  Many guests here at the hotel have loved it so much, that they have gone back for a follow up visit to spend more time at the park.  If you can stay for sunset – do it!

And if you’re not too tired on the way back to Palm Springs — or on your way to Las Vegas, check out Pioneer Town.  Pioneer Town is about 25 minutes from the west entrace of the park.  This was originally a 1940’s old western movie set where Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey frequently filmed TV westerns.  On Main Street, you’ll see an old western saloon, bank, stables and of course these provide many photo opportunities along the way.  Pappy & Harriets is a very popular restaurant, bar and music performance hall.  Although  I have not been there (closed Monday and Tuesdays when I’ve been there), I hear it is not to be missed – both food and music is excellent.

two women standing in front of a very tall cactus and a brown building behind the cactus

Giant Cactus in Pioneer town

a woman in a black shirt behind the bars of an old fashioned jail cell

Megan – stuck the Pioneer Town Jail…needs bail!

This trip to Joshua Tree started out because we wanted to re-create the famous U2 Joshua Tree album cover.  One thing to note:  we looked at the original U2 album cover together before we set out, but we forgot to take a screen shot of the album and since there is NO CELL SERVICE in Joshua Tree, we had to re-create it from memory – which explains why it’s not perfect, but also not really a copyright infringement (we hope)!

a black and white photo of the band U2 and four women below making the same pose as the U2 band

Our Album Cover – Noelle, KF, Megan, Jess – channeling our inner U2.

Important to note about this day trip…don’t forget to pack water and food because nothing is sold there.  Jess had the bright idea to buy an inexpensive styrofoam cooler and fill it with ice from the hotel – which was genius.  We now keep a closet full of coolers on hand for guests to borrow before they head out.  Also – don’t forget to gas up before you enter the park…there are no gas stations in the park. There are however, compost port-a-potties along the way!!

If you’d like to suggest other must-see places to see in Joshua Tree National Park, please add a comment!  Happy sightseeing!



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