The southern Californian desert offers a landscape bursting with glittering stars though it’s miles from Hollywood. Before the stars appear, animals emerge from their daytime naps to scamper across the desert floor. Even the plants of the desert are star-worthy, a comical yucca starred on an iconic 80s album. Discover a landscape brimming with stars, flora and fauna in four different desert parks near Los Angeles.
1. Death Valley National Park
Though it might sound more like a travel fail than a vacation, Death Valley offers visitors a unique landscape to explore. This national desert park in California captures the imagination of all with just its name.
The 49er’s of the gold rush discovered the valley though today’s guests find glittering stars more than gold. Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park, providing seasonal night sky programs.
About four hours from Los Angeles, Death Valley is the largest national park outside of Alaska with over 3 million acres. Home to the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level and the highest air temperature ever recorded (134 F/56.7 C), Death Valley is a land of extremes.
In some of the harshest living conditions in North America, I discovered a luxurious side of Death Valley. At The Inn at Death Valley, an AAA four-diamond resort, I found an 18-hole golf course, a refined dining room, massages, tennis courts, and a glamorous spring-fed pool.
Minutes away, The Ranch at Death Valley offers a horse corral, another spring-fed swimming pool, a playground and several restaurants with western themes. Explore Badwater Basin, Artist’s Palette, and Mesquite Flat Dunes to sample Death Valley’s unique landscape.
Park information: Death Valley National Park, 274 miles from Los Angeles, is open 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year. Admission is $20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass. The lodging in the Furnace Creek area is undergoing a renovation during 2017. I found camping, cabins and lodging in Death Valley, though reservations are recommended.
2. Mojave National Preserve
From valleys teeming with creosote bush to pinyon-pine speckled mountain peaks, the Mojave National Preserve challenges my perception of the desert. Mojave National Preserve is greener than its neighbor, Death Valley National Park.
As I drive through Mojave, it’s the jack rabbit’s gigantic ears that give him away. Animals are most active in the desert from dusk-to-dawn. Joshua trees thrive in the Mojave desert, find a forest near Cima Dome, Teutonia Peak. For train lovers, a stop by the historic Kelso Depot is a must.
With its convenient location off the Interstates, the first-time visitor can get a glimpse of the Mojave desert as they drive through southern California.
Park information: Mojave National Preserve sits between Interstates 15 and 40, about 200 miles from Los Angeles. Open 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year, Mojave is free to enter. Mojave offers limited services so come prepared. The preserve provides first-come, first-serve rustic camping, with water but without utility hook-ups. Barstow offers limited lodging, 98 miles away.
3. Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
Minutes from Palm Springs and perched high above the Coachella Valley, I found an alpine forest boasting evergreen pines with summer temperatures rarely reaching 80F. A treed oasis for desert dwellers looking for an escape from endless summer sun.
As the seasons change, the mountaintop escape transforms into a winter wonderland perfect for a day of sledding or snow-shoed exploring. Climb aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for a breathtaking ride in the world’s largest rotating tram cars.
The tramway ascends 2.5 miles to reach the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. With mountaintop fine dining and cocktails, the sunset never looked grander in the desert.
Park information: The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is located six miles from downtown Palm Springs and open seven-days-a-week. Admission for tram. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is free.
4. Joshua Tree National Park
An Irish rock band changed the southern California desert when it released an iconic album in the 80s. Suddenly seeing Joshua trees topped everyone’s bucket list.
Just outside Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park offers more than the famous yuccas, they are not actually trees. The area offers a glimpse into two different desert ecosystems.
Take a scenic drive across the national park. Or hike Bajada Trail or the Keys View Trail for short hikes. The northern entrance of the park offers more Joshua trees than the southern entrance.
Park information: Joshua Tree National Park is located 143 miles from Los Angeles and remains open 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year. Admission to Joshua Tree is $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass. Joshua Tree provides year-round camping, some first-come, first-serve. Palm Springs offers nearby lodging and food service.
Tips on Visiting Desert Parks
- Make reservations for lodging and tours as soon as possible. Lodging reservations can be made 13 months in advance.
- The Inn at Death Valley is a seasonal property, open from November until June.
- Carry extra water year-round.
- Plan ahead and pack meals, food service is limited in national parks.
- Don’t rely on technology for directions in national parks, grab a map at the visitor center.
- Flat tires are common on unpaved roads, be prepared.
- Don’t hike at the lower elevations in the summer.
- Don’t leave people or pets in vehicles during the summer in the desert. Temperatures can reach 160F.
- Keep wild animals wild. Don’t feed them for your safety and theirs.
- Do not enter mine shafts or tunnels.
Disclosure: Admission and lodging was provided for review purposes.
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