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.
Oh I got it now. So that is how you made it to AZ in a few steps! Old school route planning trumps technology,thanks to Eric :)
We have never been to Joshua Tree NP so thanks to your preview Laurel.
Hauling out the maps is sometimes best! MonaLiza, you guys have to visit Joshua Tree NP. You’ll love it.
Thanks for a more detailed look into Joshua Tree. We were there two years ago for a very short visit and are hoping to get back out there in the next few weeks. I may have to add the El Dorado Hot Springs to our ever-growing list. They look quite inviting. Are you two still heading out to Anza Borrego SP? We would love to rendezvous with you if you are still planning to head this way.
LuAnn, El Dorado Hot Springs is very “rustic” but the pools are wonderful — I highly recommend booking the Sunset tub at sunset for a spectacular view. We would love to rendezvous with you guys — we’re going to be in Anza Borrego for a week at the end of February, and then near San Diego for a few days.
LOVE J-Tree! We’ll be there next month! (Starting our own XC rambles this weekend, albeit in a slightly smaller rig than y’all’s…) Have fun! Great pics.
How fun, Gretchen! Would love to hear more about your journey — we’re looking forward to seeing you on Lopez this summer. Happy travels! :-)
I love that first photo of the reflected sunset on the rocks! The Jumbo Rocks are so much fun:) Glad you enjoyed your short visit to Joshua Tree. I am still fascinated when we find palms in the desert.
Hope you are enjoying your time in Gilbert Ray!!
Pam, we always enjoy Joshua Tree — it’s so much fun hiking on the rocks, as you know. We’re having a great time in Gilbert Ray — our hike with you guys was one of the highlights! Hope you’re having a great time in Bisbee. :-)
Love the sunset over palms, my Dad would draw and color that same theme when I was really young, guess it was a good memory in a brutal mind numbing time during WW2 in the Pacific. Thanks again for sharing your adventures, the photos and the writing are such a touchstone in your absence in our lives here in the cold Rogue Valley. Soak up the bliss!
What a sweet memory of your dad, Diana. So happy to have you traveling with us via the blog — looking forward to seeing you back in the Rogue Valley to celebrate spring in your beautiful garden! xoxo
It is amazing how many funky little hot springs spots are scattered around the South West! Nice job finding an interesting route from the coast to the desert.
Lisa, we love hot springs and are always on the search for them. El Dorado is funky but nice — the Sunset Tub is our favorite. Hope that route comes in handy for you guys someday!
Just look at that sky in your header picture. Gorgeous. If I haven’t said so before, your purple template is so YOU! Love that! 10 thumbs up to Eric for finding a better route. Your pictures of Tehachapi make it look like a wonderful little place. Hope the Chamber sees your post. Joshua Tree is definitely on my list. Your pictures of the cacti and your campsite are wonderful. And that followed by hot springs sounds and looks heavenly. What skies!! You surely are showing your friends some fantastic places.
Haha, yes, purple is definitely my color! Sherry, I was thrilled when Eric found a more appealing route through that section of California. You and David will love Joshua Tree. Tehachapi is worth a stop over, too.
Loved the pictures. Joshua Tree and El Dorado Hot Springs are two of my favorite places. I’ll be camping out out in Tonopah and enjoying the hot springs myself this weekend
Julie, that sounds great! I’d love to be soaking in those hot springs right now. Enjoy your trip!
When you popped up on John and Pam’s blog I wondered what route you took from the coast – thanks for adding that here, it looks perfect :-) We lived in Joshua Tree for a couple years and loved it there. I was looking for a quick stop between Desert Center and Tombstone so I’ll have to check out Tonopah for sure. That massive creosote bush is beautiful! Love all the pics.
Jodee, I’m happy the route might be helpful for you. :-) I think you’ll enjoy the hot springs in Tonopah — it’s a relaxing stop in the middle of nowhere.
Sounds wonderful – especially the hot springs! Can’t wait to get out west!
You guys are going to love it all!!