Starting off with a full disclosure here; I am not a big fan of deserts. Hot, dry, lifeless, crawling with snakes and other weird creatures, what’s to love?! And that in fact was my first impression of Joshua Tree when I went 3 years ago for a meditation retreat. I haven’t been in a hurry to get back but life gave me another chance to experience this weird place and I decided that every place and person deserves a second chance, so why not?
After experiencing its gorgeous sunsets, clear skies lit up by a million stars, quirky little stores, oddly beautiful vegetation, and a small town out of the movie set of a Western movie, I’ve decided second chances are well worth it. Keep reading for a weekend guide to your own unique desert experience in Joshua Tree.
Day 1: Drive to Joshua Tree
We left for Joshua Tree around 10 in the morning. We drove down from San Francisco, an 8-hour easy easily broken up by multiple drivers. The drive itself isn’t much to speak off until about an hour and a half outside of Joshua Tree where the milieu starts to morph into desert landscapes and spiked bushes and trees dotting them. We stopped by Bakersfield for a snack and to fill up on gas but otherwise wanted to make good time to get down to our Airbnb with daylight.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was the Airbnb we were staying in. It was a cozy, rustic cabin painted a lovely mint blue set in a somewhat secluded area not far from the entrance of the National Park. The owner, Jay, came to meet us and orient us to everything including the outdoor shower and toilet. Everything on the property is eco-friendly and was thoughtfully constructed. The cabin itself has sliding doors looking out into vast expanses of the desert, had a view of the rising sun on one end and the setting sun on the other and views of the zillions of stars blanketing the night sky. But more on that later….
Join Airbnb with this link to save $40 on your first booking
This trip was in late September so the sun set around 6:30pm. We made it to our Airbnb just before the sunset to catch the sun descend into the horizon leaving trails of marigolds and fiery oranges in the evening sky. Once, we got in and finished gushing about our cabin, we decided to go back out into town for dinner. Our Airbnb host recommended Sam’s Indian restaurant, saying it was the best food in town, and he was not lying. We loved it so much we ate there 2 nights in a row. Seriously, it’s that good! The first night we had the Indian pizza with a spicy korma sauce base; so delish!!! Then we stopped by the Joshua Tree Saloon which was buzzing on a Friday night to grab a beer and people-watch. We called it a night soon after marveling at the clarity of the skies lit by infinite stars on the drive back to your cozy cabin.
Day 2: Joshua Tree National Park; Pioneertown
It’s the desert guys, so it gets HOT! Start your days early. Being there toward the end of September still wasn’t too bad; it was bearable heat, although spending hours hiking was out of question. But that’s OK because Joshua Tree doesn’t have too many long hikes. If you grab the map at the visitor’s center, you will find a list of places to visit and hikes listed. The list on this page is pretty much exactly what the woman at the Visitor’s Center pointed us to. She will draw out the order of things for you so it’s pretty simple to drive around and stop by what you’d like.
We started our day with coffee at Joshua Tree Coffee Company and breakfast at Crossroads Cafe. Then onwards into the Park! As mentioned before, the earlier you start your day the better the chances of not getting heat stroke. We spent the morning making stops like Skull Rock and the Cholla Garden. The must-see one for me was the Cholla Cactus Garden with its ubiquitous cacti that look like they belong on another planet! In ombre wisps of brown to light green, these cacti look like they are fuzzy from far away, but believe me they are sharp! Don’t touch (you shouldn’t do that anyways) and don’t go there when it’s crazy windy because they can fly off and hit you in the face and that would not be very pleasant.
The rest of the time in Joshua Tree was spent enjoying the drives with views of vast expanses of the desert dotted with the namesake trees with their protruding limbs. A note on these trees: we looked it up, they are part of the yucca family and only grow in the Mojave desert. Pretty cool to think this is the only place you can see them.
Now it’s time to leave the Park but don’t worry, you will be back again! It’s time to head to Pioneertown! I have no idea how I chanced upon this place; my husband asked and I couldn’t recall. All I can say is this place is literally out of the set of a Western movie and for that you have to go! It’s not a far drive from the main entrance of the Park; around 20 minutes or so. Once there, put your name down at Pappy’s and Harriet’s. This place is renowned for its live music and fun times; 4.5 stars with over a 1,000 reviews on Yelp don’t lie! Since it’s lunch time, there may or may not be live music but it’s a great place to hang out nonetheless. Grab a beer and a burger in the dimly lit, cool interior that is sure to be packed with people. While you are waiting for your table, wander around the main street of Pioneertown and marvel at the thought of being taken back in time and onto the set of Wild Wild West complete with a gun show performance. This town was created by some Hollywood actors back in the 1940s to double as a set and a tourist destination. Well, mission accomplished!
Once you’ve had the opportunity to satiate yourself with yummy grub and refreshing beer, the heat is likely to get to you and luckily we have a cozy cabin waiting for us to spend a couple of hours reading/napping. After all, it is a weekend getaway, aka a break from regular life, so don’t forget to make time to relax and rejuvenate.
After our afternoon R&R, it was time to head back into the park to catch the sunset. Catching the sun setting into panoramic views of Coachella Valley and Palm Springs punctuated by the tall peaks of Mount San Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio is a must-do during your time in Joshua Tree. And it’s hardly a secrete because the place gets pretty packed. Get there at least 30 mins before sunset and settle in; it’s a short stroll up from the parking lot to the view point. It gets windy up there so be sure to have something warm to swaddle you and don’t have anything on you that could fly away easily (aka the hat I had in my hand was not optimal).
Our day wasn’t quite done even after the spectacular sunset. As I mentioned before, the star-spangled, clear desert skies were one of the highlights of our time and we wanted to get in some star gazing. I can’t say enough about the Sky’s the Limit Observatory, a non-profit outdoor observatory run by friendly volunteers. You will find yourself driving through the town of Twentynine Palms and then turning away from the city lights and heading into the darkness which is optimal for star gazing. Once there, you will be greeted by a jovial volunteer who will ask you for some information that will help them with continued funding and then you can walk up to one of the many telescopes set up to view planets and other celestial objects. The milky way was blatant to the naked eye but we also saw Saturn with its many rings and a few globular clusters through the telescopes. Public Service Announcement; don’t be one of those people who drives up with your headlights on or walks up with your phone flash flight or something like that. It’s not hard to find your way around and the light really takes away from allowing your eyes to adjust to the darkness to see things better. OK, end of PSA.
Day 3: Joshua Tree National Park; drive back home
On our third and last day, we decided to wake up early to catch the sunrise in the Park. The Cholla Cactus Garden is a popular place to watch the sunrise but we found ourselves running a bit behind schedule and decided to catch the sunset along the main road leading into the Park. As you can see from the photos, below, you can’t go wrong with that.
After sunrise, we decided to get back, pack our bags and leave our rustic cabin behind and head back to the hustle of San Francisco satiated from our desert reverie.
Parting thoughts: for anyone else out there who is as deathly afraid of snakes as I am, you might find the desert intimidating since, as my Airbnb host said, it is their natural habitat. Well, I was not interested in the least in coming across one – it would have genuinely ruined the trip for me. And I was worried that the more secluded location of our cabin would mean I would come across one. But fortunately, I never saw any. I didn’t really spend much time sitting outside the cabin in the night time when they are most prevalent and I always made my husband go scan the area around the car before I got in. But again, if like me, you want to be mentally prepared, just know it is a possibility and prepare accordingly.
Interested in other getaway ideas from San Francisco? Check out some of other posts: