36 hours in Joshua Tree

Over MLK weekend, Elliot and I took a spontaneous road trip to Joshua Tree National Park. We were greeted with warm winds, vibrant colors and endless horizons. 

Getting there

It takes 8 hours to get from SF to Joshua Tree, and the majority of that drive is along the oft-forgotten agricultural engine that is California's Central Valley. You know you're in the middle of nowhere when:

  • Aromas of manure waft through the thick air
  • Enormous beds of tule fog erase almost everything from view
  • Rolling tumbleweed is the most consistent form of vegetation for miles
  • Signs that protest the congress-created dustbowl pepper the landscape
  • Fast food joints are the only eateries around, despite being in one of the world's most fertile farmlands

This is the California that no one visits. It's monotone and melancholic. And yet, there's a pervasive grit beyond the sand and gravel that gust from the ground. It's in the unsung spirit of California's truest backbone – a land that supplies a full quarter of the food America eats.

There's something beautiful in that. 

The park

We took our time driving to Joshua Tree and got there right as the sun was setting on Saturday. My first impression? The wide open sky. 

Dusk fell quickly, cloaking the sand and rocks with a blanket of stars. We gazed up at the heavens at Jumbo Rocks point, then filled our bellies at a lovely little bistro the nearby town of Twentynine Palms. 

The next morning when we entered the park, it was like a Dr. Seuss book brought to life. Forests of spiky cacti stood like armies of misfits. They were surrounded by forts of enormous, otherwordly rock piles that seem to have plopped straight out of the sky. 


Our first stop was Keys View, where you can see the Salton Sea, the San Andreas fault, and on a clear day, Mexico. The vista was sweeping indeed.

As we continued exploring, I took a closer look at the things around me and began to notice a world of minutiae. I wondered at the ecosystem that thrives there, product of earthquakes, volcanoes and erosion. The adaptations of organisms that live in the park seemed to tell as much of a story as the geology of the land. 

The range of flora was incredible. Joshua trees aside, there were more varieties of cacti that you could count. Lots of them weren't in plain sight, but if you looked mindfully there they were, bold and bright.

We drove a bit further into the park and were delighted to find a big patch of cute, chunky cholla trees. 

With so few sources of shade, light and shadows give the land distinct (if fleeting) moods. During the day, the brightness is barely escapable. Depending on where you stand, you might see larger-than-life silhouettes emerge from different forms and animals. Neon streaks scrape the sky at dusk, bursting with one last breath of vibrance before night turns everything black.


Should you ever find yourself around Joshua Tree, nota bene: 

    • Just 10 minutes outside of the North entrance, there's a delightful little oasis of healthy food where you'll find really nice fixings for a desert picnic.
    • Palm Springs is only one hour's drive from the south entrance, and a lovely way to end a daytrip. You'll find a wide variety of eating options, but we really enjoyed our meal at Trio Restaurant.
    • Joshua Tree National Park is totally doable for a long weekend roadtrip. Things move slowly down there. Take your time, break up the drive and soak in the goodness, friends!