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Winter is a great time to explore the magic of the desert. The Sonoran Desert that surrounds us here in central Arizona is an incredibly rich region for biodiversity, with the desert’s borders covering roughly 100,000 square miles in Mexico, Arizona and California.
Just a mere four hour drive away is one of the most interesting regions of the Sonoran Desert, where it meets the Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park.
Visiting Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the National Park Service’s most popular destinations, with good reason. Epic boulders, a wide diversity of wildlife, a rich history and miles of beautiful trails draw visitors from around the world (although this year with coronavirus precautions, most guests are hailing from California and the Southwest). Coming from Phoenix, the I-10 freeway is a direct shot from Arizona to the southern entrance of the park making travel a breeze.
While campsites in the park are currently closed, there are several safe and available options for the weekend traveler. Hardy campers may opt for backcountry camping, available off several trail and wilderness areas. Backcountry camping isn’t for everyone – you have to be prepared for low temperatures and the lack of any amenities – but for the seasoned camper, backcountry camping in Joshua Tree is worth the challenge.
For those who tend more towards “glamping” it can be just as rewarding to book a stay at one of the unique hotels or Airbnb cabins available in the area. The rustic high desert towns outside Joshua Tree National Park are full of unique travel experiences to explore, many set amidst gorgeous natural surroundings. While much of the Joshua Tree area is known for its remote beauty, visitors in search of more luxurious accommodations can find plenty of spots in the nearby desert resort town of Palm Springs.
What To See
Joshua Tree National Park is full of surprises and hundreds of miles of trails across diverse terrain. Coming from the south entrance, you’ll want to spend time exploring the Cottonwood area of the park. This area falls in a distinct transition zone from the Mojave desert to the low desert region of the Sonoran Desert sometimes also categorized as the Colorado Desert. The flora and fauna of the two ecosystems overlap here, as well as a rich history of indigenous peoples.
Day long hikes can be taken at Cottonwood that take you to remote palm oases or stunning mountain top views. Or, on a weekend trip, you can opt for shorter hikes like the Cottonwood nature trail that give you small samplings of the desert’s offerings. Heading up Pinto Basin road, be sure to stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden – a photogenic area with a surprisingly dense cactus population and a short trail.
For those opting for short hikes, heading to the Wonderland of Rocks will give you a glimpse of some of the area’s most striking landscapes. Both the Barker Dam trail and the Hidden Valley trail are short loop paths showcasing the unique majesty of the park.
If you have time to fit in more into your trip, consider venturing to the park’s western side. Separate from the main roads of the park, the Black Rock Campground sits to the south of the town of Yucca Valley. While camping isn’t allowed here, Black Rock is a hub for a diverse cluster of hikes. We especially like the Panorama loop trail that features the distinct black rocks of the area as well as sweeping views and lush natural beauty that can’t be found in other areas of the park.
What To Do
While the region around Joshua Tree National Park is known for its active community of artists and musicians, much of the social atmosphere of the region is on hold, adhering to Covid-19 precautions. However, you can still take advantage of some of the desert’s biggest resources: silence and stillness. Take time to unwind after a day in the park. The desert’s dark skies ensure that Joshua Tree is a fantastic location for star watching. Getting up early to enjoy a clear desert sunrise can also give you perspective and help you unwind. A weekend in Joshua Tree just scratches the surface of what the National Park has to offer, but will always deliver beautiful moments to savor.