Discovering Gems in Southern California’s Deserts

Katherine RivardTravel Ideas
The night sky over the Cholla Cactus Garden at Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park — Brad Sutton/NPS

America’s southwestern deserts are some of the most iconic natural places in the country. The National Park Service has protected Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, and Death Valley National Park for decades, since 1994, 1936, and 1933 respectively. Though sand and heat are expected, these parks are also home to an unanticipated wealth of plant life, incomparable night skies, and a range of varied landscapes. Today, they offer visitors unique experiences that leave them itching to return.

Flowers and Sand

Birdcage evening primoses on the valley in front of Jackass Canyon at Mojave National Preserve
National Park Service

The desert floor carpeted in wildflowers, the Kelso dunes visible in the distance and peaceful silence — these are just a couple of sights to expect on a trip to Mojave National Preserve. Even a simple drive through the preserve is a memorable way to see this beautiful park in a short amount of time. One tip — pull over for a brief moment to stretch your legs and take in the solitude of this serene area of public land.

If time allows, explore the park’s 7,000 acres of wilderness and know in advance that there are few established hiking trails. Given the many routes without trailheads, advanced planning is necessary when exploring by foot. Though wildflower bloom depends on the amount of rainfall, consider visiting in the spring once showers have soaked up the land, and the flowers have their best chance of blooming.

After Hours

A rock climber climbing at night with a headlamp with the Milky Way in the background at Joshua Tree National Park
Hannah Schwalbe/NPS

Joshua Tree National Park is well-known for excellent rock climbing and striking wildflowers. Visit at night to see a whole new side of the park. Stargazing is near perfect given the dark skies, and the park’s animals come out to roam once the hot desert sun sets.

Depending on weather conditions and the moon, the stars can be seen from nearly any spot in the park. Winter months mean longer nights and Orion glowing brightly, while warmer months are peak periods to glimpse the Milky Way or Arcturus, a dazzling star. Check the park’s calendar of events, which often includes a variety of evening programs.

Landscapes Galore

Snow-dusted Black Mountains behind a desert landscape at Death Valley National Park
National Park Service

Death Valley National Park has so many iconic areas to explore that the park has created a list of must-see spots! From the soft waves of Mesquite Sand Dunes to the jagged spires of Devil’s Golf Course, the landscapes vary widely. The contrasting natural features and ecosystems create one of nature’s greatest classrooms.

The park also retains an oft-overlooked history. The Keane Wonder Mine, one of the world’s most successful gold mines of the early 20th century, remains well-preserved, complete with aerial tramway! Whether you drive to each of these highlights or pick just a few, be sure to start at the Visitor Center to explore the park’s museum and watch a short film.

Southern California’s sunshine and pleasant weather draw countless visitors to the West coast each year. However, not far from the state’s metropolitan areas lie a number of national parks to explore. Go #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque in California’s vast desert parks to appreciate these astonishing landscapes and the many activities to enjoy within.

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