We’ve visited Joshua Tree at least a half-dozen times over the years. It’s an enchanting panorama of enormous boulders rising from the desert floor, unique shaggy Joshua trees, palm oases, and magical golden afternoon light. We wanted to share this special place with our traveling buddies Ted and Katherine, and it was conveniently on our route to southern Arizona.
Getting From The California Coast To Joshua Tree
The only problem is getting there from the coast. Google or Map Quest would take you south on Highway 101 along the coast into the hellacious hornet’s nest of southern California highways before heading inland. Or make a beeline across the mind-numbingly post apocalyptic terrain of Bakersfield. We’ve done both routes, and we’re not eager to repeat either.
But with the help of a trusty old-school table-sized paper map, Eric created a wonderful route that eased us from the beauty of the coast into the beauty of the desert, meandering along back roads that wind through a landscape of gently rolling hills and farmland. (Should you want to take this route, travel south on 101 from San Luis Obispo to CA 166/Maricopa Highway just north of Santa Maria; travel east for 119 miles and head north on Old River Road; follow Old River Road and CA 223 East/East Bear Mountain Road to Hwy 58 and then on to Tehachapi.)
Two Nights In Tehachapi
At 175 miles from Morro Bay, Tehachapi is the perfect place to pause between California and Arizona. Several years ago we discovered a little RV park at the glider port. It’s blessedly quiet, dark, and just a few miles from town. The sunsets are always impressive. And so is the wind, so don’t even think about unfurling your awning. For $25 a night, you get a spacious, level site; electric/water hookups; nice showers; decent Verizon coverage; and a laundry. The park is just a few miles from town should you choose to explore Tehachapi.
We spent two nights, which gave us time for a relaxing day in the pretty little town. We strolled the streets and visited the Tehachapi Depot Railroad Museum, where we enjoyed a delightful free tour of all things train-related provided by a knowledgeable and kindly docent.
Joshua Tree National Park
Slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island, stark and stunning Joshua Tree National Park straddles two deserts: the higher and cooler Mojave Desert and the lower Colorado Desert.
It’s a magical landscape of enormous boulders scattered like the playthings of the gods across the desert floor. There are lovely shaggy Joshua trees (a type of yucca), gardens of prickly cholla cacti that appear fuzzy and friendly (but are most definitely not), and hidden palm oases that provide cool refuge.
When First-Come, First-Served Campsites Are A Problem
On all previous trips, we’ve stayed in the park. Most of the campgrounds are first-come, first-served, and offer only dry camping. There’s not even the convenience of central water in most of the campgrounds (you need to fill up your tanks at the entrance stations). We love staying in the park, but found ourselves arriving on Friday afternoon after a 180-mile drive from Tehachapi.
One does not successfully compete for campsites at a popular first-come, first-served park on a Friday afternoon. Especially one within striking distance of major population centers—Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas are all within a day’s drive of the park.
It’s also trickier when caravanning, because we require not just one, but two campsites. With a bit of research, we found Joshua Tree Lake RV campground, about 10 miles outside of the north entrance of the park. Although we would have preferred staying in the park, this worked out fine—not cheap at $30 per night, but full hook-ups; sandy but spacious sites; showers and laundry; and reasonably quiet after I asked the guys across from us if they would mind turning down the music booming through their outdoor speakers at 10:30 p.m. There was rap music blasting from one trailer and the soundtrack from Disney’s “Frozen” competing from the other. The bizarre combination of music made sense after I met the culprits—two single dads camping with their three little girls.
Exploring The North End Of Joshua Tree National Park
We spent only two nights, but had plenty of time for exploring the north end of the park. We hiked Jumbo Rocks in the late afternoon—the bewitching hour just before sunset when the desert turns to gold.
The next morning, we got an early start for a hike on the 49 Palms Oasis trail, a three mile steep round-trip hike leading to a shaded oasis in the otherwise dry, rocky, and cacti-studded terrain.
The morning we left, we finished our brief visit to Joshua Tree NP with a meandering drive through the park, stopping to visit the Cholla Cactus Garden along the way. We know that we’ll return to this uniquely beautiful park. Next time, though, we’ll make sure that we’re not arriving on a weekend.
Another of our go-to stopovers in this desolate part of the country is Tonopah, Arizona. At almost 240 miles from Joshua Tree, it’s a longer drive than we prefer, but there’s nothing in between that appeals to us.
The reward at the end of the day is El Dorado Hot Springs, a rustic desert retreat with an assortment of natural hot springs soaking pools. We booked an evening soak in two outdoor private pools with views of the starlit sky. Soaking in a tub is a rare treat for those of us who live full-time in our RV’s. We stayed just a couple of miles away at Saddle Mountain RV Park, a nice park with full-hookups, guaranteed gorgeous sunsets, and a bargain at $16 with Passport America.