Admire Two Deserts at Once: Joshua Tree
55 miles, 4 hours with stops, best October through April
Joshua Tree National Park—nearly 800,000 acres of desert east of Los Angeles—rewards travelers with a full range of peculiar treasures: spiky yuccas, spiny cacti, spindly ocotillos, gangly Joshua trees, and dramatic geological formations, including Skull Rock and the elephantine Jumbo Rocks. And they're all easy to see in a half-day's drive.
Arch Rock, 30 minutes from the park's north entrance at Twentynine Palms, offers a fine opportunity to pose for a photo with one of those geologic marvels. An even bigger wow can be had at Keys View on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. To the west, distant San Gorgonio Mountain and San Jacinto Peak— both topping 10,000 feet—scrape the sky. Looking south, you can spy the Salton Sea and, on a clear day, Mexico.
As you drive down Pinto Basin Road, past the Cholla Cactus Garden, you cross the transition zone between two major desert ecosystems: The higher Mojave Desert merges into the lower Colorado, and Joshua trees give way to ocotillos.
From Cottonwood Visitor Center on the park's south boundary, it's a short walk to Cottonwood Spring, where American Indians collected water and used bedrock mortars to grind seeds. Savvy travelers linger as the evening gathers. After sunset, the park's dark skies provide a perfect view of the glittering Milky Way.