24 Hours in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park certainly offered up a wide variety of weather and scenery this Presidents Day weekend.

My cousin and her husband flew in from Chicago to visit and they wanted to check out Joshua Tree National Park. Our timeline was rather compressed, but we managed to see and do quite a lot in just under 24 hours.

We departed San Diego around 9 a.m. Sunday morning and stopped for lunch in the Palm Springs/Palm Desert area (they had never been there, either). By mid-afternoon, we had driven through the wind farms northwest of Palm Springs, through Yucca Valley, and into the national park visitor center in Joshua Tree. Along the way, we encountered on-again, off-again rain showers—nothing too bad, just enough to be a nuisance.

While Chris and Dave were shopping in the gift shop, I picked the brain of the ranger at the information desk on things we could see and do in a day. He gave some excellent advice that actually changed how I would take us through the park.

One of the recommendations was to do a short, easy mile-long hike in Hidden Valley. Not long before we arrived at the trail head, the rain that had resumed turned to snow! Not just a flake here and there, but a full-fledged, wind-driven snow shower. We figured, “What the hell. We’re here, let’s hike.” So hike we did, and it was a hoot. (The cell phone photo below doesn’t do it justice. It got worse.)

Hidden Valley snow shower

After completing the hike, we hopped back in the car, turned on the heated seats to thaw out, and continued driving Park Boulevard to the east, scouting out things that we wanted to see on Monday. We checked into our hotel in Twentynine Palms around 6 p.m., got cleaned up, and headed to dinner at John’s Place.

Monday morning, it was a sunny, brisk 35°F / 2°C with no signs of further snow overnight at our hotel. After checking out, we headed back into the park, stopping at the Twentynine Palms visitor center to stamp our National Parks Passport books.

We stopped at Skull Rock and did another mile or so hike on a discovery trail, but now we were at a higher elevation and a light dusting of snow covered everything. From Keys View, we looked down into the Coachella Valley and across to the Salton Sea and snow-covered Mount San Jacinto, with the infamous San Andreas fault running through the valley. The view was spectacular. The storm and 30-40 mph / 48-65 kmh winds blew away any haze or pollution that typically hangs over the valley.

By midday, we were heading toward the south entrance of the park on Pinto Basin road, stopping at the Cholla Cactus Garden before stopping at the south entrance ranger station to stamp our passports one more time. (I never realized until Dave pointed out that the stamps at each entrance station are unique and contain the station’s name as well as that of the park.)

Thanks to the tip from the ranger at the Joshua Tree station, we saw tons of desert wildflowers in bloom at the very southern border of the park.

Going from snow-covered boulders to wind-whipped valley overlooks to prickly Cholla cacti to blooming wildflowers in the span of 3 hours was a perfect way to describe what is Joshua Tree National Park—great!


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