Editor’s Note: While there’s always a lot going on in Burbank, myBurbank’s “Get Out Of Town!” highlights some of our favorite activities and events outside the town borders.
The otherworldly and breathtaking expanse of Joshua Tree National Park transcends photos and description. It is a place that must be experienced in person to be understood.
Much can be seen from the inside of a car, but getting out on the trails, which range from very easy and accessible to extremely difficult and very long, is a prime way to experience the Park.
About 2.5 hours drive east of Burbank, bordered by tiny desert towns of Joshua Tree and Twenty-nine Palms on the north and the more developed Indio and Palm Springs on the southwest, Joshua Tree National Park is the meeting point of two massive desert environments, the Mojave and the Colorado Desert portion of the Sonoran.
Whether you go for the day or plan to spend a few days in and around the Park, there’s more than enough scenery and activities to engage even the most cynical urbanite.
Start out your Joshua Tree adventure with a breakfast or lunch at the Crossroads Cafe, near the northwest entrance to the Park. Hearty or light, healthy or indulgent, Crossroads Cafe’s popularity is well-deserved with excellent plates and an eclectic atmosphere.
Be prepared for a wait at this busy local spot. People watching is a good pastime in this part of town. Service is friendly and funky and restrooms are adequate and clean.
We fueled up on the Crossroads Cafe’s delicious Portobello Mushroom Burger with a flavorful spinach, blue cheese and walnut side salad, a BLTA sandwich and a hand-made juicy burger cooked perfectly with crispy home-made fries and eggs over easy with herbed polenta and black beans.
Getting into the park through the very popular Northwest gate took some time. However, our Joshua Tree annual pass ($30) helped us skip a small part of the line and be on our way.
The extremely popular Hidden Valley and Barker’s Dam are usually very busy, any day of the week. These hikes are two of the easiest treks in the park with well-marked trails and lots of scenic boulders to climb. Even though the trails are only about 1 – 1.5 miles round trip, a casual walk can easily take close to an hour.
For the more motivated, the heart-pounding trek to the summit of Ryan Mountain at 5457 feet takes about 2 hours up and back down at a good pace, including some rest at the top. The 3 mile round trip hike covers over 1000 feet in elevation gain, at the very heart of the Mojave desert in Joshua Tree.
Another fantastic hike and well-worth the drive to the southern Park entrance ranger station is the 2.6 mile loop to Mastodon Peak from Cottonwood Spring. Only about 440 feet in elevation gain, this hike is not usually crowded and the panoramic views from Mastondon Peak of the surrounding Colorado Desert are lovely.
Remnants of an old mine are visible just below Mastodon Peak. For those more motivated, the hike to Lost Palms Oasis is over 7 miles round trip from Cottonwood Spring and not for the faint of heart in this arid landscape.
While most of Joshua Tree National Park’s visitors spend time in the Mojave section and the Wonderland of Rocks area of the Park, in between Cottonwood and Ryan Mountain lie interesting stops.
The Cholla Cactus Garden and the Ocotillo Patch showcase two unusual desert plants. The spines of the Cholla Cactus contain micro-barbs that stick to just about everything but rock and are very difficult to remove from skin and clothes. The crazy looking spikes of the Ocotillo are studded with long thorns and every spring in March burst forth with colorful flowers.
Wildflowers permeate the grounds of Joshua Tree in spring, after winter rains. Joshua Trees are also in bloom. Coyotes, birds and chipmunks abound and Bighorn Sheep roam the park but usually stay far from people and out of sight.
Camping and stargazing are very popular in the Park, along with rock-climbing. Bikes are permitted on the roads only, so riders must share the road. Dogs are not allowed on the trails in the Park.
For those in need of something more than a protein bar and fruit for sustenance, The Restaurant at the 29 Palms Inn is highly recommended for lunch or dinner. Open every day, the restaurant also feature live music in the evenings and can be very crowded with a usual wait of 30-60 minutes for dinner.
Food at the 29 Palms Inn is worth the wait and the cocktails and wine list are notable. Fresh fish, perfectly prepared seafood and steaks and several vegetarian options are highlights of the short but varied menu. Excellent and friendly service and a laid-back creative desert vibe are pluses.
Depending on how early you start and your fitness/motivation level, multiple hikes and amazing meals may not be accomplished in a single day. Keys’ View is a great way to see spectacular views of the Coachella Valley, from Salton Sea to Palm Springs and the mountains beyond.
The rocky lunar-scape and unusual plants of Joshua Tree National Park seem very different from what we’re used to here in southern California. Gorgeous and wild, the Park is a living treasure with something new for people to discover every visit, any time of day. Get Out of Town, Burbank, and check it out!