All American Road Trip: 5 Days to Explore California’s Desert Country and 2 National Parks

California Desert Country is like nowhere else on the planet. Get ready to drive through naturally carved landscapes, answer the call of calderas, have your nerves rattled by rattlesnakes and bow among canyons during spiritual sunsets. This is your itinerary for five days in the California desert without boundaries.

Cross into the desert gateway by flying into Joshua Tree National Park by way of Palm Springs International Airport (PSP). The airport also offers access to plenty of car rentals for your California road trip. The distance from the airport to the park entrance is about 37 miles.

Cap Rock Hike in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo Courtesy of Ken Lund

DAY 1 – JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

The ecosystems of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert merge in Joshua Tree National Park. Save yourself the hassle of being disoriented when you first arrive by purchasing your digital park entrance passes ahead of time online. You can also download the National Park Services App on your phone to get great tidbits for your visit. There’s a lot to see in the 800,000 acres that cover this park.

Considered the main portion of the park, Park Boulevard is a great starting point for those visiting Joshua Tree for the first time. In fact, driving along this route offers the best way to see most of the splendor of Joshua Tree in just a few hours. Along the way, spot Skull Rock, Hidden Valley and Cap Rock.

Barker Dam in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo Courtesy of Mike Boening Photography

You can extend your Park Boulevard Drive with a few additional detours, hikes and viewpoints. One of the best detours is Barker Dam. Check out the large reservoir, the surrounding yucca trees and even a few Native American petroglyphs. Another great addition to your Park Boulevard adventure is Pinto Basin Road. Explore more of the Colorado Desert, including incredible spots like Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood Spring.

The north side of Main Street in Pioneertown, CA. Photo Courtesy of Don Graham

Where to Eat & Stay Near Joshua Tree National Park

At the end of your first day of your California Desert Country road trip, pop by Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown for some delicious food and live music. Then, head to the Pioneertown MotelFairfield Inn & Suites Twentynine Palms, or Best Western Joshua Tree Hotel & Suites for a night of rest.

View from Black Rock Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo Courtesy of Jeremy Yoder

DAY 2 – BLACK ROCK CANYON

If you’ve been dreaming of seeing the spiny, dagger-fringed Joshua trees that make Joshua Tree National Park so adored, Black Rock Canyon is the place to go on the second day of your road trip. Tucked into the Yucca Valley in the northwestern corner of the park, you’ll find a robust Joshua tree forest that is the perfect spot for taking pictures.

On top of that, Black Rock Canyon is one of the prime spots for wildlife sightings in Joshua Tree. Keep your eyes peeled for jackrabbits, cottontails, cactus wrens, horned owls and roadrunners. Some lucky visitors are privy to sightings of bighorn sheep, bobcats, mountain lions and desert tortoises.

Where to Eat Near Joshua Tree National Park

When you need a bite to eat, head to La Copine for some New American-inspired dishes. Then, spend another night at your hotel of choice to rest up for your next adventure-filled day.

San Bernardino National Forest view from below Fire Lookout Tower. Photo Courtesy of John Heil-Pacific Southwest Forest Service, USDA

DAY 3 – SAN BERNARDINO NATIONAL FOREST

Savor the experience as 823,816 acres of desert-meets-mountain beauty stretch out before you in San Bernardino National Forest! The best things to do here comes down to the time of year you’ll be visiting.

Deep Creek Hot Springs in the San Bernardino National Forest. Photo Courtesy of Beyond My Ken

Spring & Summer

During the warmer months, hiking is the obvious activity. If covering a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail is on your bucket list, follow Lower Deep Creek Canyon. This route leads you to a secluded pair of hot springs called Deep Creek Hot Springs. If you’d like to get to Big Bear Lake, Cougar Crest Trail offers views of the lake and surrounding mountains after a trek through a wildflower-lined route in the summer. Last but not least, Grand View Point Hike is a good choice when you want to avoid the crowds of the more popular San Gorgonio Mountain without missing out on an ounce of Santa Ana and San Bernardino views.

Fall & Winter

In the colder months, the best things to do in San Bernardino National Forest change a bit. The Forest Service provides some great routes for snowmobilingskiing and snowshoeing within if you’re visiting in the winter.

Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino, CA. Photo Courtesy of Marcin Wichary

Where to Eat & Stay Near San Bernardino

San Bernardino offers many chain hotel choices, including Hilton Garden Inn and Days Inn. However, if you’re looking for a more unique accommodation, this California town is also home to one of the last three operating Wigwam Motels in the country. These cement teepees have been drawing visitors since the 1930s.

As for where to grab a bite to eat, The Cutting Board in San Bernardino has some of the best burgers and comfort foods we’ve ever tried in a lovely modern setting.

Kelso Train Depot and Visitor Center at the Mojave National Preserve. Photo Courtesy of ATOMIC Hot Links

DAY 4 – MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE

Wander through mountains, canyons and woodlands in the Mojave National Preserve on the next day of your adventure. To start, stop at the Kelso Depot Visitor Center to get some park information and tour a 1920s railroad station.

Kelso Dunes at Mojave National Preserve. Photo Courtesy of NPS/Kelsey Graczyk

Kelso Sand Dunes

If hiking sounds like music to your ears, definitely follow Kelbaker Road to head to the famed Kelso Sand Dunes. Considered the most popular hiking spot in the Mojave National Preserve, the majestic dunes sing to hikers through an audible vibration phenomenon caused by small avalanches moving up and down the faces of the dunes.

Within the lava field at Mojave National Preserve is a short trail leading to a tube formed long ago by molten lava. A ladder takes hikers down into the tube where skylights (holes in the rock ceiling) illuminate a subterranean world. Photo Courtesy of John Fowler

Cima Doma

From there, make your way to Cima Doma. As the most iconic section of the park, Cima Dome boasts 35 gorgeously preserved volcanic cinder cones and lava flows dating back up to 7.6 million years ago. If you love the topography in this area, continue to weave along Ailken’s Mine Road until you reach Cima Cave, Aiken Mine and Cima Cinder Mine. You can even check in at Cow Cove, the park’s most prolific Native American petroglyph site.

Last but not least, if you’ve done a ton of hiking up until this point in your road trip, you can give your muscles a break with an ATV ride! ATV tours are very popular in Mojave National Preserve, because the area is a bit clearer and flatter than the surrounding desert parks.

Main street in Barstow, CA. Photo Courtesy of Don Barrett

Where to Eat & Stay Near Mojave National Preserve

It is important to note that Mojave National Preserve doesn’t have any spots where you can get food, so be sure to pack your snacks accordingly. If you’re ready to poke your head into civilization, Barstow is the closest city to Mojave National Preserve.

Barstow, California offers many of the same hotel brands as San Bernardino, including the Best Western Desert Villa Inn and Home2 Suites by Hilton Barstow, so there will be no trouble finding a clean, comfortable room from a name you trust. Barstow also has lots of great restaurants, including Peggy Sue’s 50’s DinerPit Stop Bar & Grill and Lola’s Kitchen.

A view of Death Valley National Park in California from Dante View. Photo Courtesy of Thank You (22.5 Millions+) views

DAY 5 – DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK

Famed for being home to North America’s hottest and lowest points, Death Valley National Park is one stop you don’t want to miss in California’s Desert Country. The views are every bit as sharp as the bites of the rattlesnakes that etch into the dusty terrain here. Prepare accordingly for this leg of your trip because you’re entering the country’s lowest and driest National Park.

If you’re here for the views, Dante’s View is the best place to visit. From this spot, you can see incredible views of the Panamint Mountain Range and the famous salt flats of Badwater Basin. After catching a glimpse of Badwater Basin from above, you’ll inevitably want to make it your next stop. Also known as the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin is a surreal landscape that creates some epic photography opportunities.

Badwater Basin isn’t the only place to find salt flats in Death Valley National Park though. Devil’s Golf Course is also home to a terrain of lumpy salt flats. Just watch out for the sharp edges of these spiky formations as you explore. If you’re coming with little ones, skip this precarious spot in favor of visiting a spot like the plush playground of sand known as the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

Artist’s Palette area of Death Valley National Park. Photo Courtesy of Bill Geneczko

Next, meander along Artist’s Drive to admire the pink and aqua hills that make up a park known as Artist’s Palette. Take some time to explore the obscure, brightly hued canyons in the area.

To round out your day at Death Valley National Park, consider hiking the two-mile trek to Darwin Falls. Many people are surprised to discover that there’s a waterfall in Death Valley, so you’ll definitely have to see this 18-foot cascade with your own eyes to believe it.

If you’re still looking for some items to pad your itinerary, consider walking the rim of Ubehebe Crater to see an active caldera, taking a 27-mile detour to check out the mysterious sailing stones at Racetrack Playa, or hiking the park’s highest point at the 11,043-foot Telescope Peak for jaw-dropping views of Badwater Basin and Mount Whitney.

Where to Eat & Stay Near Death Valley National Park

After all of that activity, you’ll likely want to find the closest place to eat and sleep. Within the park, there’s the convenient Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel, which also happens to be home to the well-rated Toll Road Restaurant.


The Great American Road Trip. Photo from our Original Series Venturing Out: Park 2 Park

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