A road trip from Joshua Tree National Park to Death Valley National Park will take you from the hot to the hottest of California’s national parks — passing through Joshua Tree’s high-desert terrain dotted with its twisty, bristled namesake yucca trees, before heading north to Death Valley, home to sizzling sand dunes and salt flats.
Both bucket list-worthy destinations, the two national parks are less than four hours apart and can easily be combined in a splendid desert road trip.
Along the way, you will pass through the awesomely isolated Mojave National Preserve, towns known to be among the hottest on earth, and a classic historic train depot.
With Los Angeles, California, about two hours to the west of the southern entrance to Joshua Tree, and Phoenix, Arizona, three hours to the east, a convenient road trip itinerary begins in Joshua Tree and heads north toward Death Valley.
Of course, the route could easily be reversed. I recently did the road trip from northern Arizona via Las Vegas, continuing west to Death Valley, and then heading south to Joshua Tree — a great option for those starting in Nevada or northern Arizona.
Here are nine stops on an amazing desert road trip from Joshua Tree to Death Valley.
1. Joshua Tree National Park
Bridging the Mojave Desert’s stacked boulders and plentiful cactus life in the west and the creosote and ocotillo cactus of the Colorado Desert in the east, Joshua Tree National Park offers a one of a kind experience in southeastern California.
As the park’s name implies, the spiny, wide-armed Joshua tree is among the main attractions. The good news on a visit to the massive national park is that examples of the signature tree (actually a yucca plant) can be seen all along the scenic drives, the rugged trails, and the streets of the adjacent towns.
A few stellar spots to experience the distinctive trees and unique rock formations are Barker Dam Trail, Skull Rock, Arch Rock Trail, and the Cholla Cactus Garden – all considered easy nature hikes. I also loved the stunning panorama visible at Keys View, accessible by a winding drive on a paved road and a short staircase climb.
Although not as hot as Death Valley, Joshua Tree’s summers still tend to be hot as well, with average highs approaching the 100-degree F mark throughout June, July, and August. The park is perhaps at its best from about October to May, when average high temperatures range from the 60s in the winter months to the 80s in the fall and spring.
A stay of two to three days would allow you to take Joshua Tree’s scenic drives, hike several of its iconic trails, and soak up the high-desert ambience. Five beautiful campgrounds allow RVers and tent campers to get right in the middle of the action.
Pro Tip: Joshua Tree has three convenient entrances, each with informative visitor centers. If you are approaching from Interstate 10 in the south, the Cottonwood Visitor Center is the most logical. If you’re coming from Highway 62 in the north, either the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms or the Joshua Tree Visitor Center in the Joshua Tree Village entrances are convenient.
2. Keys Ranch
For a unique perspective on the region, try to get reservations in advance for a tour of the Keys Ranch, a remarkably well-preserved ranch that offers a frozen-in-time look at the isolated life of the Keys family in the first half of the 20th century.
Listed as a National Historic Site, the ranch is located within the Joshua Tree National Park boundaries, and the tour is definitely worth the time (about 90 minutes) and the small fee. The informative tours guides will walk you through the ranch’s history from 1910 to 1969.
Pro Tip: Tickets are limited and go fast. They can be booked 60 days in advance at Recreation.gov.
3. Twentynine Palms
As you approach the park’s northern boundary, you will pass through the cool little town of Twentynine Palms, where among the first things you’re likely to notice are the outdoor murals that tell the story of the region.
In fact, the town has a number of art-focused attractions, including the 29 Palms Art Gallery, the 29 Palms Creative Center & Gallery, and the Desert Art Studio. Murals also shine in Twentynine Palms, and a tour brochure on the Oasis of Murals is available in this PDF.
If you are not camping in the park, Twentynine Palms makes a good base for exploring Joshua Tree. A two-night stay would allow you to explore the park during the day and take in the town’s attractions in the evenings.
Twentynine Palms is also home to a number of fast-food spots and regional restaurants that serve everything from farm-to-table fare to Mexican cuisine to Mediterranean and Thai food.
4. Joshua Tree Village
For another accommodation and dining option on the north side of the national park, head to the bustling little unincorporated community of Joshua Tree.
Located about 15 miles west of Twentynine Palms on Highway 62, Joshua Tree Village features the popular Joshua Tree Saloon, as well as a number of quirky shops and markets.
5. Kelso Depot Visitor Center And Sand Dunes
A true oasis in the middle of the desert, the palm tree-lined grounds of the Spanish Mission Revival-style Kelso Depot can be seen for miles as you approach from the north or south.
While the Bureau of Land Management visitor center has been closed temporarily in 2021, the depot still makes for a nice stop for a brief walk amidst the billowing palm trees and graceful walkway arches. When I visited, some visitor services were still available, including restrooms and interpretive signs and brochures.
The interpretive signs direct visitors to a number of natural attractions in the preserve area, including the Kelso Dunes, located about 12 miles southwest of the depot. The sand dunes site features a three-mile round-trip trail to the top of the cream-colored dunes.
6. Mojave National Preserve
Much of a national park road trip from Joshua Tree to Death Valley will be through the Mojave National Preserve, which sprawls for 1.6 million acres between Interstates 15 and 10.
Featuring singing sand dunes, cinder cone volcanoes, a Joshua tree forest, and carpets of spring wildflowers, the preserve has countless opportunities for exploring on off-pavement scenic routes and rugged trails.
Pro Tip: The terrain is remote, and temperatures can get extremely hot, so travelers should plan ahead by filling up with gasoline whenever possible and having plenty of water and snacks on hand.
About a 40-minute drive northwest of the Kelso Depot, travelers will arrive at the little desert outpost of Baker, where a number of gas stations and fast-food spots allow for a convenient break and fill-up.
Baker is perhaps best known for two things: its record high temperature of 134 degrees F, and the World’s Largest Thermometer, which commemorates that scorching feat. The 134-foot-high thermometer, which is capable of displaying a maximum temp of 134 degrees, features a gift shop at its base that is billed as serving the “coolest shaved ice on the planet.”
As one of the closest gateway towns to Death Valley National Park, the little village of Shoshone offers a cool, shady spot for refreshments, tourist information, gas, and accommodations.
The village along Highway 127 combines railroad and mining history, a shady setting amidst a grove of mesquite trees, and a western vibe. In addition, Shoshone is known as the home of the Crowbar Café & Saloon, a rustic restaurant famous as a stopping off point for motorcyclists, RVers, and other travelers. I stopped on my trip from Death Valley to Joshua Tree and thoroughly enjoyed sitting on the breezy outdoor patio, breakfasting on fluffy fruity pancakes, and watching the traffic roll by.
Pro Tip: Shoshone Village also features an inn, a campground, an RV park, and vacation rentals, making it a convenient base for exploring Death Valley.
9. Death Valley
Its ominous-sounding name aside, Death Valley National Park is a wonderfully lively spot for lovers of sand dunes, big views, and long, remote drives.
Of course, visitors must take care while visiting the eastern California park because of the extreme temperatures. When I visited in late May, the famous thermometer at Furnace Creek Visitor Center was already clocking in at 110 degrees F. In fact, from May through September, Death Valley’s average highs regularly exceed 100 degrees, with July reaching an average high of 116.
The park’s website doesn’t mince words, noting that Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park. At below sea level, the park experiences steady drought conditions and record summer heat, making for a land of extremes.
But if you can visit between about November through March, you’re likely to enjoy temperatures in the 60-to-80-degree range — perfect for checking out the many natural phenomena that the park is famous for.
Along with the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, which should be your first stop for its informative rangers and the well-stocked store, other not-to-be-missed spots in the park include the Badwater Basin, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point, and the Natural Bridge Trail. All are considered easy hikes.
I especially loved the otherworldly feeling you get while walking far out into the Badwater Salt Flat or hiking along the spiny ridge at Dante’s View.
To be able to get to the various corners of the park and stop along the way for hikes and viewpoints, I suggest allowing two to three days at Death Valley National Park.
Pro Tip: As with most road trips, there are multiple ways to get between Joshua Tree and Death Valley. Another interesting route would be to take Highway 247 northwest from Joshua Tree to Highway 395 heading north, with stops in the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville, the Mojave Desert outpost of Kramer Junction, and the Searles Valley-area Trona Pinnacles.