After being cooped up for months, it seems everyone had the same idea this summer: get in the car and experience the natural beauty and grandeur of a national park! Many of these protected areas saw record attendance—all the more reason to plan a visit for the off-season. From stunning waterfalls and towering redwoods to mountain vistas and epic sand dunes, each of our picks have unique charms, and all are within an eight-hour drive of Orange County. It’s time to tick these iconic spots off your travel wish list!
✓Culture ✓Proximity ✓Serenity ✖On-Site Lodging
135 miles from Orange County
“Joshua trees embody the spirit of the California desert, and it is crucial that we preserve their unique, iconic beauty for future generations.”
– Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Senator
Where the low Colorado Desert and high Mojave Desert meet sits Joshua Tree National Park, a tranquil shrubland studded with incredible rock formations and the lively, namesake variety of yucca trees native to the area. Just a couple of hours from Orange County, it offers a perfect change of scenery. On top of the natural sights, Joshua Tree is also home to a thriving and eccentric artist community. No wonder 2.8 million visitors come here annually, with the busiest months running from October through May.
The rugged rock piles of Joshua Tree and more than 300 miles of hiking trails provide endless opportunity for adventure and discovery. Skull Rock is one of the most popular formations, with two hollowed out depressions resembling a skull. There’s also Arch Rock, which can be accessed via a 1.3-mile loop that starts at Twin Tanks trailhead.
Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a 1-mile, flat loop traversing through a boulder-enclosed valley with a picnic area near the trailhead. Another easy hike is Barker Dam, a 1.5-mile loop leading to a reservoir. Stroll along the whimsical cacti at the Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail, where you’ll spot other native species such as hedgehog cactus, brittlebush, milkweed, and desert lavender.
For a panoramic vista stretching all the way to the Salton Sea, drive to Keys View, the highest lookout point in the park. The clear skies and open space make for epic sunsets and stargazing at the end of the day.
If you’re a rock-climbing enthusiast, you’ve come to an international hot spot for climbers, boulderers, and highliners. New to climbing? Turn to Cliffhanger Guides for expert-led trips. There are also 253 miles of equestrian trails if you’d like to explore the park on horseback. Knob Hill Ranch has guided trail rides for various levels of experience.
From artist Noah Purify’s outdoor art installations to the World Famous Crochet Museum, the neighboring desert towns offer a glimpse at Joshua Tree’s local art scene. You’ll also find a mix of independent shops nearby such as Grateful Desert, a local apothecary; and The End, a vintage clothing boutique.
While there is only camping available inside the park, there are plenty of accommodations just minutes from the entrance. The Joshua Tree House is a 1949 hacienda that accommodates up to four guests ($300 a night). The private two-bedroom, two-bath property is 10 minutes from the park and shops and restaurants downtown. It features a stock tank pool, king-size beds, a fireplace, and a hot tub. Joshua Tree Acres hosts five charming vintage airstreams, each with a private deck ($159 to $212 a night; sleeps two). The 10-acre site also has shared spaces including a clubhouse, outdoor kitchen, bocce ball court, a seasonal cold plunge pool, an outdoor clawfoot tub and shower, and whirlpool bath.
Crossroads Cafe is an Old West-inspired restaurant serving breakfast until 2 p.m. Try the vegetarian soyrizo hash ($12.50) or the grilled ahi tuna burger ($14.45). Joshua Tree Coffee Company is a local spot that takes pride in organic, house-roasted beans—a freshly roasted bag makes for a great souvenir. Make sure to visit the legendary Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a restaurant known for its Tex-Mex fare, mesquite barbecue, and live music. Modest Mouse is set to perform this month.