Boulders and buttresses, rugged mountains, gold mining ruins, desert plains dotted with the oddball trees—this is one weird place. Joshua Tree, nicknamed “J-Tree” by locals, lies at an ecological crossroads, where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert. The result is amazing desert flora, including those wacky namesake trees (actually a type of yucca). Joshua Tree’s beauty shines around the clock, with vibrant sunsets melting into nights filled with uncountable stars.
Pick a clear morning to visit Keys View for a sweeping panorama that takes in two of Southern California’s biggest summits: Mount San Jacinto (elevation 10,834 feet/3,302 meters) and Mount Gorgonio (elevation 11,502 feet/3,506 meters). Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley frame the background, and the vast Salton Sea shimmers to the southeast. Look carefully and you can pick out the leafy green of Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve directly below you. On the clearest days, peer through binoculars to spot Mountain Signal in Mexico, more than 90 miles/145 kilometers away. Stretch your legs on a short paved trail, or, if you’re feeling lively and want the kind of piece and quiet found only in deserts, follow the path to neighboring Inspiration Peak A worthy side-trip: Since you’ve already driven out Keys View Road, be sure to stop at the Lost Horse Mine trailhead and take the moderate hike to Lost Horse Mine.
Continue north to one of the world’s most unforgettable destinations. While its name might sound ominous, Death Valley is actually filled with spectacular sites, including colorful canyons, soaring sand dunes, and even a castle.