An arid, solitary tract of sweeping mesas, eerie rock formations, and those strangely beautiful trees for which this land is named, Joshua Tree National Park comprises some 800,000 acres bridging two of North America's largest deserts - the Colorado and the Mojave. The park feels utterly remote but is surprisingly accessible, just an hour or so from the neatly manicured golf courses and posh spa resorts of Palm Springs.
Explore the meandering backcountry roads, palm-shaded oases, and hulking boulder-scapes, however, and you'll feel transported from the man-made sprawl of Southern California. A key destination among photographers, hikers, mountain-bikers, and rock-climbers, Joshua Tree ranks among America's most visually arresting, singular settings.
5…Plan Your Adventure
Begin your trip to Joshua Tree by checking out one of the park's three visitor centers. The most comprehensive one, the Joshua Tree Visitor Center (Park Blvd., off Hwy. 62 in the town of Joshua Tree, 760-366-1855, $15 for 7-day vehicle permit, www.nps.gov/jotr), is just off the road leading into the park's West Entrance, in the dusty town of Twentynine Palms. Additional centers are at the South Entrance (the Cottonwood Visitor Center) and North Entrance (the Oasis Visitor Center). All the centers have bookstores, distribute maps and brochures, and show a video about the park's history and natural setting.
Keep in mind that there are few facilities actually within the park, so stock up on plenty of bottled water and snacks (of course, remember to carry out anything you carry in). Adjacent to the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, however, you’ll find a fine source of sustenance: the cheap and simple Park Rock Cafe (760-366-3622, lunch $7) turns out reliably good sandwiches, salads, snacks, and coffee drinks; you can also pick up a box lunch to take with you into the park.
4…Take the High Road
At a minimum, you should set aside a four hours to drive the main park route between the Cottonwood (South entrance) and Joshua Tree (West Entrance) visitor centers, about a 60-mile journey. Add an hour if you opt to take the side trek to Keys View lookout, from which you can gaze out over the Coachella Valley, the 10,000-foot peaks above Palm Springs, and a stretch of the infamously shaky San Andreas Fault.
From the park road, you can access dozens of turnouts and sign posts interpreting the flora, fauna, and geology of the park. More intrepid explorers should consider off-roading onto the 18-mile Geology Motor Tour - it's a dirt road with 16 designated stops (pick up a brochure from the visitor center that explains each site). The road conditions are suitable for standard autos for a good bit of the way, but you'll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to complete the entire tour, which takes about two hours. Even if touring the park primarily by car, be sure to take a short meander along at least one of the park's dozen self-guided nature trails.
3…Bark up the Right Tree
Although the park encompasses a fantastic diversity of flora and fauna, it's named after the distinctive Joshua tree. Throughout the upper elevations, you can spot hundreds of these striking figures, named by Mormon settlers because the spiky, slightly gnarled branches reminded them of the Bible's Joshua holding his hands toward the heavens. Joshua trees are actually members of the lily family; part of the yucca genus, they're technically not trees at all. The oldest ones within park limits are estimated to be more than 300 years old. If you're fortunate enough to visit the park from February through mid-March, you may see a Joshua tree in bloom. The plumy white blossoms don't appear every year, and they most often occur after a period of rain.
Also keep an eye out for other plants common to the park, such as aromatic creosote bushes, which dominate the southern elevations, and myriad desert wildflowers. Joshua Tree is also home to five of North America's roughly 150 fan palm oases - groves of towering palms that thrive along fault lines. Spotting wildlife requires a bit more patience (many animals here are nocturnal), but you may very well see coyotes, jack rabbits, and bighorn sheep around sunrise and sunset. More than 75 bird species reside in the park, as do many lizards and snakes (rattlers among them).
2…Venture into the Backcountry
While you certainly could experience the park exclusively from the comfort of an automobile, you'll be well rewarded by any efforts you make to dig deeper into Joshua Tree's vast, unspoiled, and largely unvisited backcountry. The park is laced with miles of unpaved backcountry roads, which are ideal for mountain biking. That's one of the top park activities, with rock-climbing another favorite pursuit. Die-hard explorers might want to pitch a tent at one of the nine designated campgrounds.
Hikers will discover some truly mesmerizing scenery. Around sunrise or sunset, you'll experience the Mohave's soft lighting (just prepare properly with headlamps, flashlights, and good trail maps). With time for just one hike, consider the 3-mi round-trip 49 Palms Oasis trail, which passes by stands of graceful fan palms. You can also learn about the region's mining and homesteading history by taking the ranger-guided 90-min (half-mile) ramble through historic Keys Ranch (760-367-5555, $5, www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/ranchtour.htm). These tours are given twice daily on weekends from October through May, and less often on weekdays. Reservations are required and it's best to call a few days ahead as tours can book up quickly.
1…Soar to New Heights in Palm Springs
In the absence of rustic park lodges, Joshua Tree offers a notable asset many national parks don't: close proximity to one of America's swankiest resort communities. The Rat Pack-cool city of Palm Springs abounds with posh resorts, not to mention plenty of stellar restaurants. Mexican food is a specialty - try El Mirasol (140 E. Palm Canyon Dr., 760-323-0721, entrees $10 to $18) for its authentic moles and enchiladas. After a hot day of traipsing around Joshua Tree, stop into Palm Springs Fudge & Chocolates (211 S. Palm Canyon Dr., 760-416-0075) for a local delicacy, a date milkshake ($6), made with puree from locally grown Medjool dates.
Another way to cool off in the desert? Take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (1 Tram Way, off N. Palm Canyon Dr., 760-969-4377, $22.95, www.pstramway.com) high into Mount San Jacinto wilderness (elevation 8,500 feet). The 80-passeger tram cars steadily revolve as they rise above the desert floor, affording you a stellar view wherever you stand. The view takes in the entire Coachella Valley, from its thousands of electricity-generating wind turbines to Joshua Tree National Park's rugged terrain. The crisp, refreshing mountain air is a bonus - in winter, you'll often discover a fresh blanket of snow at the top.