Heading West Part IX: Joshua Tree National Park

Bill & Denise Semion
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A Quirky, then Prickly, Stop Before The California Coast

We’ve been taking you on a road trip we took in our 2015.5 Unity Murphy Bed from Michigan to California in the winter of 2022. We’d been traveling a little over six weeks, leaving Phoenix and heading west on Interstate 10 toward Joshua Tree National Park. But first, a quirky stop at an area most of you have heard about or wish to visit.


If you are ever driving along I-10 in Arizona, consider stopping at a legendary place among RVers and rockhounds–Quartzsite. Located about 125 miles west of Phoenix, this town of 2,400 attracts nearly 1.5 million visitors each fall and winter. A few of those might be coming to see the burial site of Hi Jolly (Hadji Ali), a camel driver in the experimental U.S. Camel Corps, or Joanne’s Gum Museum, featuring a huge collection of gum wrappers from around the world. But I’d venture to say most come for various gem and mineral shows and swap meets, in addition to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a yearly event “for people who live in homes on wheels,” and the huge Quartszite Sports, Vacation, and RV Show. If you’ve seen the Academy Award-winning movie “Nomadland,” you might want to see what the fuss is about.

The gravesite of Hi Jolly is easy to find.

We arrived on March 23, so we missed all the event hoopla and spent one-night boondocking (take 95 north out of town, then east to the Plomoso Road BLM area) and visited the various rock shops in town.

Even though we were there after the shows, this outdoor trading post and several rock/mineral stores, offered plenty to see and buy.
We had plenty of space on BLM land near Quartzite. Be sure to fill up with water in town. Staying here means no water and no bathrooms. You will find an occasional fire pit.

Joshua Tree National Park

Like most national parks, it’s important to plan ahead and Joshua Tree National Park is no different. If you want to stay a few days and take a few hikes, carefully plan when to go to avoid the extreme heat. Their website reminds you that there are no gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, or water available in the interior of the park. Since we planned to stay two nights and then head west to the coast, we felt lucky to get reservations at Cottonwood Campground. If we were to do it again, we’d do it differently, but more on that later.

Water is available at Cottonwood and Black Rock Campgrounds. Not much shade. Water is not available in the park.

This rugged park in California, with few roads and lots of hiking trails, is situated between two distinct deserts: the higher, cooler Mojave and the lower, hotter Colorado. We entered the park through the south entrance, which led us to the Cottonwood Campground. We had a free afternoon and hiked parts of the Cottonwood Spring, Mastodon Peak, and Lost Palm Oasis trails.

Boulders and rocky vistas greeted us along our hike.
The Mastodon Mine was one of nearly 300 mines developed in the area that is now Joshua Tree National Park.

Look a flower! I exclaimed when I saw red on this Ocotillo plant.
We didn’t see any desert bighorn sheep, black tailed jack rabbits, coyotes or kangaroo rats that inhabit the park, but we did encounter this desert, or gopher, tortoise along the path.

What’s ahead? Trees? In the desert? Bill was elated to see something green!
Could this be the oasis?

Cottonwood Spring Oasis is one of five desert fan palm oases located in Joshua Tree National Park. With 158 palm oases in North America, we were glad to discover this one.

If you look at the NPS app (and I hope you have it downloaded on your phone), you’ll see Park Boulevard listed under scenic drives. We planned to spend our one day in the park, taking Pinto Basin Road from the campground to Park Boulevard, stopping along the way at various attractions, and ending up at the northwest end of the park by the Visitor Center.

The plan looked good, but by the time we did the drive and stopped for photos and hikes, we wanted to continue west toward the coast, not backtrack to Cottonwood. We mused several times that if we hadn’t left our camp chairs there, we would have simply pushed on west to the coast. If we could do it differently, we would have spent one night at Cottonwood (south end of the park), and the second night west of the park. Here are the highlights of our day trip in the park.

Cholla Cactus Garden, on Pinto Basin Road, is an easy quarter mile walk. Wear closed-toe shoes and stay on the path as you meander through this patch of teddy bear cholla. Again, be prepared for lots of sun and no shade.
Cholla cactus blooms!

Now, on Park Boulevard in the Mojave Desert, we saw distinctive Joshua trees, for which this national park was named. The Joshua Trees were blooming during our visit on March 24.

We continued on Park Boulevard, stopping at Skull Rock, where we hiked a 1.7-mile trail. Skull Rock is a popular photo spot, and I was lucky to get a photo of Bill without other visitors. Made of granite, the hollowed-out eye sockets were carved by raindrops over time. Jumbo Rocks campground is nearby.

We turned off Park Boulevard to take the five-mile drive to Keys View – on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains–to see this panoramic view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and the high peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio.

Park Boulevard took us northwest out of the park; from there, we drove 35 miles south to Palm Springs for dinner and then one hour east back to the campground for the night.

Moving On

The next morning, we headed to the California Coast, overnighting at Arroyo Campground in O’Neill Regional Park near Lake Forest before staying at one of our favorite coastal campgrounds–Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

Finally, shade and trees!!! Bill was ecstatic to see green leaves!

Next up: Our favorite stops along the California Coast!

When You Go

If you have never boondocked or stayed in a desert, read up on what to bring and what to wear, and be prepared for brown, rugged landscapes, lack of shade, water, and cell service. Read all the important notes and warnings about hiking and staying at Joshua Tree National Park. When venturing out, pack plenty of water and wear appropriate clothing, including a good sun hat.

If you haven’t read the other parts of this trip, you can read them here.

Bill & Denise Semion

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