Palm Springs offers plenty of old world charm, but if you're looking for an authentic desert experience, it's time to pack your hiking gear and head up to Joshua Tree National Park. You can opt for a guided tour through local companies like Desert Adventures or Elite Land Tours, but Joshua Tree National Park, about an hour's drive from Palm Springs, is also achievable as a self-guided day trip.
Joshua Tree National Park
Plan to set out early while the weather is cool - arriving early also means you get to enjoy the silent serenity of Joshua Tree in the early morning hours. It's best to pack a lunch that you can take with you into the park, since it's a long trip back into town if hunger pangs set in while you're in the park. If you have a cooler, you can grab sandwiches from Sherman's Deli.
Otherwise, trail mix, granola bars and other non-perishables are your best bet. Above all, be sure to bring plenty of water - it's easy to become dehydrated while hiking in the desert, especially if you aren't used to the dry heat. Hiking boots and sunscreen are also recommended - and don't forget the camera, so you can snap plenty of vacation shots.
If you're coming from Palm Springs, there are two main entrances to the nearly 800,000-acre preserve of Mojave and Colorado deserts: the south entrance off Interstate 10 at Cottonwood Spring and the west entrance off Highway 62. For a full driving tour of the park, plan on entering through the west entrance and leaving through the south entrance.
Coming through the west entrance, you'll see a visitor's center just off Highway 62 on Park Boulevard. Here, you can pick up a map, buy a few souvenirs and learn all about the park's history and inhabitants. If you need snacks or water, consider this pit stop your last call. As you drive up the windy road to reach the park, you might feel a twinge of jealousy as you pass the quaint and quirky desert homes that call Joshua Tree National Park their backyard.
Sunset at Cholla Cactus Garden
Once in the park, you'll find plenty of turnouts where you can stop and snap photos of the various rocks and joshua trees sprinkled throughout the park. Make your way to Hidden Valley, a favorite stomping ground for rock climbers. Even if you're not chomping at the bit to scale a boulder, you can still hike Hidden Valley Trail, a moderate 1-mile loop.
For scenic vistas that are said to sweep all the way into Mexico on the clearest of days, head to Keys View, the highest point in the park. You'll be able to peer down on the Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea. From Park Boulevard, it's a 20-minute drive and quarter-mile walk to Keys View.
Picnic areas can be found at many trailheads, such as Hidden Valley. When hunger sets in, you can set up your spread on a picnic table or find a private picnic spot to soak in the desert's serene beauty.
Phainopepla at Joshua Tree
After you refuel, continue on to the Jumbo Rocks area. On the other side of the road, you'll find Skull Rock, one of the most popular photo stops in the park. You can take a few snapshots from the roadside, or, if you're more adventurous, climb into one of the "eye sockets" for an unforgettable photo.
Once you've had your fill of hiking and sightseeing, head south on Pinto Basin Road and watch as the Mojave Desert merges into the Colorado. Joshua trees are replaced by cholla cacti, and large, chunky boulders are replaced by a rolling range known as the Little San Bernardino Mountains.
Star trails at Arch Rock
Pinto Basin Road will land you back on Interstate 10 in less than an hour with no stops. From here, you can make your way west back toward Palm Springs for a well-earned meal at Palm Springs' top restaurants.