Joshua Tree and Mount San Jacinto

Fall is the start of high season for exploring the California Desert, especially Palm Springs and the surrounding cities and parks. Late October is an ideal time to visit because the temperatures are cooler, but the mountain hiking paths are usually still free of snow. Vijay took a trip to the area in late October with his friend Colan, and they had an amazing time checking out the starry skies, swimming pools, desert sands, and mountain summits in the area.

This is also one of the first times Vijay has photographed a trip in virtual reality! To view the VR images, download Google Cardboard and the Cardboard Camera (available for both iPhone and Android).

Weekend Itinerary

  • Fly or drive into Palm Springs on Friday night, and check out a glorious night sky away from the city lights
  • After a lazy morning by the pool, walk to a palm oasis on Saturday afternoon
  • Watch the sun set in the Cholla Cactus Garden at Joshua Tree National Park on Saturday evening
  • Catch an early tram Sunday and hike from Long Valley to the summit of Mount San Jacinto for a gorgeous panorama

Starry Night

Palm Springs is the hub city of the Coachella Valley. If you live in southern California, it’s about a two hour drive from Los Angeles or San Diego after rush hour on a Friday night. If you live in the Bay Area, Palm Springs airport is served by direct flights from San Francisco on Virgin America and United.

If you have enough energy after your travels, this is a great time to check out the beauty of the night sky in the desert. If you’re driving from the coast, you could stop in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which is recognized as an official dark sky community, on your way. If you’re flying and don’t feel like driving too far, like we did, you can instead visit the Coachella Valley Preserve, which is a 20 minute drive from the Palm Springs Airport. The preserve itself is closed at night, but there are parking lots and pull-outs along Thousand Palms Canyon Road from which you have clear views of stars in every direction. Be very careful if you stop by the roadside; when we were there, many cars went whizzing by at high speed!

Vijay had some success taking nighttime pictures with the wide angle lens on his cellphone camera. A simple mount, like this one, allows you to attach your cell phone to a tripod. By putting the camera manual mode, an ISO 600 picture with a 20 second exposure was able to resolve Orion, Pleiades, and many other constellations.

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The night sky, taken with a cell phone

We were lucky to visit close to a new moon during the Orionid Meteor Shower (meteors from Halley’s Comet), so we saw lots of shooting stars, too! The bright galactic core of the milky way wasn’t visible at the time we visited, but if you time your night well and hone your photography skills, you can get gorgeous images of that, too.

Poolside Paradise

There are many options for lodging in the area, spanning the range from budget extended-stay hotels in Palm Desert to luxury mid-century modern boutique hotels in Palm Springs. We opted to stay at Renaissance Indian Wells, a beautiful  Marriott resort with gorgeous views and very comfortable rooms located about 40 minutes from the Palm Springs airport and in between Joshua Tree National Park and Mount San Jacinto State Park, the two main destinations on our trip.

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View from the Renaissance Indian Wells

During peak season, most resorts in the area are expensive, but with a little luck, you can score a deal. We took advantage of Marriott’s Look No Further best rate guarantee. We reserved on Marriott.com with free cancellation and then found a cheaper rate for our dates on a non-Marriott website. We filled out this claim form, and within a day, the Marriott team had beaten the rate we found by 25%, reducing our nightly rate to only $120 including the taxes and the resort fee!

After our late night on Friday, unwinding by the pool was the perfect way to kick off Saturday morning. Luckily, it seems that most pool scenes in the area are not very busy in the morning, so we had an entire pool at the resort all to ourselves!

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Lounging by the pool in the morning is great for beating both the crowds and the heat

Desert Oasis

For breakfast, we had cold acai bowls at Fresh Juice Bar (there are four of them in the area). If you are in the mood for something more substantial, you could also check out Elmer’s restaurant, right off of highway 111 in Palm Springs,  where the German pancakes with lemon and butter were perfectly prepared and very filling!

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German pancake at Elmer’s

After breakfast, we set out for the Cottonwood Visitor Center at the southern entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. It took us about an hour to get there. Interestingly, we saw very few Joshua trees on this trip, but the southern end of the park did have some amazing desert scenery.

We got in to the park around 12:30PM and decided to hike the 7-mile round-trip trail to the Lost Palms Oasis. This hike took us about four hours, including a snack break in the oasis. The hike is totally exposed, but luckily for us the weather was a very temperate 77 degrees that day.

After using the bathrooms and filling up water at the visitor center, we drove to a small parking lot at the end of Cottonwood Oasis Road. Right at the beginning of the trail, you’ll see a beautiful cluster of palm trees at the Cottonwood Spring.

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The palms at Cottonwood Spring

As we set out on the trail, we had great views of boulder piles, the Salton Sea, and many desert plants, like yucca, barrel cacti, ocotillo, and more.

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Ocotillo plants

Some parts of the trail can get confusing when they intersect with a wash, but the trail is usually well marked by cairns and boot prints.

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Trail to Lost Palms Oasis

At the end of the trail, we saw two more palm oases: one down below you in a canyon, and one higher on the hill on the other side of the canyon.

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The Lost Palm Oasis

We’d definitely recommend carefully descending into the canyon to see the Lost Palms Oasis. The trail down is not well-marked or maintained, but there is a path that requires only a very little bit of scrambling to get down. This oasis was formed by a fissure in the earth which caused water to seep to the surface. This inhospitable canyon thus became a verdant watering hole with giant fan palms for shade. The palms are absolutely huge, and seem strangely out of place in this harsh environment. You can check out this virtual reality image for a view of the palm trees from inside the canyon.

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View from inside the canyon

We saw some quail in one of the canyons, and closer to dawn or dusk, you may see more wildlife here gathering at the watering hole.

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Gambel’s Quail

On our way back to the parking lot, we saw some interesting rock formations on the right of the trail that were perfect for some easy scrambling. We stayed out of the cracks, where animals may have been hiding from the sun, but got some awesome views from a unique perspective by climbing around a little.

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View from the top of a boulder pile

After a quick pit stop back at the visitor center, we drove further north into the park to the Cholla Cactus Garden (the drive takes 30 minutes). The structure of desert plants makes them beautiful to photograph near sunset because each plant is encircled by a halo of light. Note that because of the hills, the sun sets over the horizon about a half hour to an hour earlier than the listed sunset time for the park.

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Cholla cacti. Note the small barbs on the ground!

Be very careful as you venture through the garden – even the smallest contact can result in barbs getting stuck to your clothes or worse… in your skin. Wearing long pants definitely saved Vijay from a lot of pain on this short trek.

[Note: If you visit on a day when the temperatures are too hot for an afternoon hike, you could do this day in reverse: start with a sunrise in the cactus garden and then head south for an early morning hike to the Palm Oasis. You could also check out some of the attractions at the north end of the park, like Arch Rock, Joshua trees, and the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum, which lies outside the park’s northern boundary].

For dinner, we wanted something light but filling as we still had a big hiking day ahead of us. We visited Sushi On (formerly Sushi Kitto) in a little strip mall in Indio. The vegetarian dishes in particular were creative, beautifully presented, and well balanced in flavor. The asparagus tempura and tofu/avacado suhsi were great! Colan thought the baked creamy salmon sushi was also very unique.

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Sublime Spectacle

Naturalist John Muir loved the view from the top of Mount San Jacinto, at 10,834 feet. The landscape is incredibly dramatic: from the summit, you are surrounded by rocky and sometimes snow covered cliffs, the flat sands of the desert, and beautiful lakes. The hike from the desert floor to the top of the mountain, known as Cactus to Clouds, is rated as one of the most difficult day hikes in North America.

On this trip, we decided to take on the more relaxing but still very intense hike from Long Valley to the summit of Mount San Jacinto, which is about 10 miles round trip and took us just under 6 hours, including breaks at the Wellman Divide and at the summit. Note that this hike starts at about 8,000 feet, and so can be substantially cooler than the desert floor. For example, when we visited, it was about 60-70°F on the mountain top while the temperature soared into the 100s down in the Coachella Valley. Bringing layers, sunscreen, and plenty of water and food is very important on this hike.

To get to long valley, we took the Palm Springs Aerial Tram, a gondola that fits about 80 people. There is plenty of parking ($5/car), but to get a closer spot it’s best to arrive early (even the base of the tram sits at 2,000 feet, so it’s quite a hike up if you’re parked far away). The tram costs $25.95 per adult round-trip ticket. We purchased our tickets around 8:40 AM and boarded the 9:00 AM tram. The floor of the tram rotates relative to the windows on the way up (so you have to keep changing your grip if you are holding on to a wall), giving you incredible 360° views. We were packed like sardines inside, so if you visit be sure to grab a spot by a window if you want a good view and hold on tight as the tram moves over the towers on the way up!

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View from the tram

From the top of the tram (8516 feet), after using the restrooms and filling up our water, we walked down the concrete ramp to the Long Valley ranger station, within Mount San Jacinto State Park. Besides the fee to use the tram, there was no additional fee to enter the park from this side, but you do have to register at the ranger station.

The trail to the summit is fairly straightforward, following the Round Valley Trail until the trail to the summit of the mountain. Don’t get confused by the Round Valley Loop signs; on your way to the summit, always take the right fork of the trail whenever you get to a junction. There are pit toilets near some of the campsites along the trail, mostly clustered towards the early part of the hike in Round Valley.

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The trail has a fairly steep grade and is also pretty rocky, in parts, so it takes a fair amount of effort to navigate. But the trail is mostly shady until the Wellman Divide, making for a very pleasant walk. Check out this VR image, too.

The Wellman Divide, at about 9700 feet (halfway through the ascent), has awesome views of the Salton Sea, the mountain range, and the forest below. We stopped for a snack and enjoyed the view here (VR here)

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View from the Wellman Divide

The section of the trail from the divide to the summit was more exposed, but also offered some awesome panoramas, giving a glimpse of the desert floor.

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It also felt steeper and more rocky than most of the trail that came before. This is the section of the trail where we started to feel the effects of altitude, namely a small headache.

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The final stretch to the summit of the mountain isn’t very well defined, so you basically just keep scrambling up.

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Scrambling up towards the summit

Finally, you’ll see the sign for the summit!

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Obligatory pose with the sign

We walked around the perimeter of the summit and had great views of both the Coachella Valley desert and the hilly country to the west. The summit was also perfect for eating lunch and sunning on a rock to dry off the sweat from the trek up!

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Although gravity was on our side for the hike back down, it still was pretty hard because of the need to navigate the rocks. Nevertheless, the weather was still super pleasant and we made it back to the tram station in time to catch the 3:30PM tram back down to our car.

After our excursion, ice cream was in order, so we decided to check out Nitroinfusions in the cute little old town of La Quinta. Their made-to-order pumpkin and strawberry flavors were a nice, refreshing treat after this grueling day!

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Liquid nitrogen pumpkin ice cream from Nitroinfusions

For dinner, we went to Eureka!, a small American restaurant group with creative, filling food and drink options. An appetizer and two main dishes were plenty for the two of us; the portion sizes were quite generous. We would recommend getting the mac and cheese balls to start because most of the dishes come with truffle fries on the side. Vijay very much enjoyed the falafel taco, which was served on lettuce instead of in a tortilla. It was chock-full of vegetables, and the falafel patties were crunchy on the outside and warm and spicy inside. Colan’s ribs with chimichurri sauce fell right off the bone. The whiskey and bourbon menu is extensive, as is the selection of non-alcoholic cocktails (like the cold brew old fashioned we tried).

If we had had an extra day, we probably would have checked out some of the stores, museums, and galleries in Palm Springs as well as some of the desert art exhibits (not to mention more time by the pool). But we were plenty tired after our weekend, so we spent one more night at our hotel and then headed back home the next morning.

That was a wrap our weekend in the Palm Springs area! What sorts of things do you like to do in the area? What else would you recommend seeing in Joshua Tree National Park? Any tips for night photography? Please leave your comments below!

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