Desert & winter vibes at Joshua Tree National Park

Hello hello! Joe and I are back from Joshua Tree National Park where we enjoyed intriguing desert landscapes while plunging into the cold winter. It was our first time at the park and definitely a contrast to the usual lush & coastal scenery in SF. Get ready for lots of photos 🙂

Day 1: Drive through Joshua Tree + Skull rock + Arch Rock hike

We stayed in a hotel in Pasadena the night before so we could hit the ground running in the morning. Two hours later, we made it to Yucca Valley, a small town with old western vibes right outside the park. We loaded up the car with water and sandwiches and got tips from a park ranger, and then we were off to the park!

Joshua Tree is a pretty small national park (you can drive through the whole thing in 2 hours). We started off by driving around to get a feel of the landscape. One thing that surprised me was the subtle diversity of Joshua Tree – there were huge flat fields with green cacti, to hilly and mountainous terrain, to huge rock formations that made you feel so small…

Joshua Tree cactus

Our first stop was Skull Rock – a rock that, you guessed it, looks like a skull. We only spend ~30 seconds here because it was SO incredibly cold and windy! It literally felt like we were getting blown away from the super cold winds. We knew we’d have to adjust our plans to accommodate the dry winter climate.

Skull Rock

We had some lunch in our car and then headed to hike Arch Rock, a flat and easy hike that would be perfect for the weather. The hike started off with flat plains filled with small bushes and cacti. It was nice to get off the main road and explore the inner parts of the park.

winter at Joshua Tree

Eventually the landscape transformed into one filled with large rocks left and right. It honestly felt like we were on a different planet…very out-of-this-world in complete isolation. We went off-trail for a bit to explore and climb the rocks.

Rock formations

Finally we made it to Arch Rock, the main attraction of this trail.

After the hike, we drove a little further to the Cholla Cactus Garden. It was a large portion of the park filled with the same cholla cactus. It was a pretty trippy scene and especially a nice view at golden hour.

Cholla cactus
couple hiking

Afterwards, we drove back to town where we settled into our airbnb. It felt SO good to get warm indoors. Our house was western/Christian themed, and we were just happy to have all the space and amenities. We ordered pizza for dinner and watched some tv before passing out.

Day 2: Lazy morning in the hot tub + Lost Horse Mine hike + bonfire and s’mores

The next morning, we slept in and enjoyed a lazy morning in our cozy airbnb. The weather was SO much nicer than the previous day (it hailed at night!), and so we took advantage of all the outdoor space and relaxed in the morning. But first, some donuts from Jelly Donut.

jelly donut

We took a morning dip in the hot tub which felt so nice under the sun. It was still pretty chilly outside (mid-40s) but the wind calming down really made it so much better than yesterday.

hot tub

After chilling in the morning, Joe and I packed up the car again and headed into Joshua Tree. This time, we opted for a more strenuous hike called the Lost Horse Mine hike, a 4-mile out-and-back with some elevation gain.


The hike brought us up a mountain filled with neat desert-vegetation which kept things interesting.

plants at joshua tree

As we got higher up, I was surprised to see pretty nice views of the rolling hills.

Finally we made it to the main attraction of the hike, an abandoned gold mine from the 1800s. It was actually pretty cool to see this in person – it reminded me of the rich history of California and those who came out here during the gold rush. We nerded-out studying this contraption and tried to figure out how it worked.

Gold Mine
Lost Horse Mine hike
adventurous couple hiking

We hiked down the mountain and then drove a little further to a viewpoint with sweeping views of Joshua Tree. Perfect last glimpse of the park before saying goodbye. Overall I thought Joshua Tree was very interesting and great to see once, but I don’t think I will come back again! I realized I’m not really a big fan of deserts and definitely gravitate more towards greenery & mountains. It’s probably because I grew up in upstate NY 🙂 Joe enjoyed Joshua Tree more than me since he’s familiar with the dry canyons growing up in Texas.

desert views

On our way back home, we picked up some firewood and s’mores and got a bonfire going in our backyard. It was the perfect way to warm up after a day in the cold. We roasted s’mores, threw back some beers and jumped in the hot tub one more time. 🙂

roasting s'mores


What a perfect day from beginning to end. It’s been so refreshing to get away from our routine in SF and get to see more of California, especially the desert which we are rarely exposed to. As much as I loved the quiet and isolation of Joshua Tree, I’m happy to be back to civilization and see the coast again. 🙂

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