When I think of National Parks in California, Death Valley and Joshua Tree come into mind. Both are famous, but they should not be treated the same. In this blog post, I’ll share the advantages of each National Park and what they have to offer. But I also would like to give you my assessment of where you should spend more time in and how to enjoy yourself while you’re there.
DISTANCE/LENGTH OF DRIVE: Winner - Tie
You might disagree with me because Death Valley is a 4-5 hour drive from Los Angeles. But if you tie your trip with your visit to Las Vegas (since you won’t be going too off-course from the standard Vegas>LA route), you’re kind of getting a 2-for-1 deal. Joshua Tree, on the other hand, is about a 2-3 hour drive from Los Angeles. So, depending on what kind of trip you want to make it, it can end up being about the same drive to each.
HOTEL ACCOMMODATIONS: Winner - Joshua Tree
Hands down, Joshua Tree has the most amount of hotel accommodations around the park. It does not have a hotel inside the park, like Death Valley does with its Xanterra resort property The Oasis at Death Valley. But, I’d rather stay in nearby Palm Springs any day of the week than stay in the middle of the Mojave desert.
The Oasis at Death Valley, formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort, is right in the middle of Death Valley National Park. Just like the El Tovar Hotel in Grand Canyon, the Oasis allows guests to roam around inside the park even after visiting hours. However, it is so dark outside that you are basically confined to the property during those times. I had the mistake of booking our room at the Ranch at Death Valley, which is not the same as booking a room at the Oasis at Death Valley. They are, for all intended purposes, the same property. But with the different price points, they are located about a mile from each other with drastically different accommodation styles. The Ranch at Death Valley was under renovations when I went, but regardless of whatever facelift they’re going to receive, I don’t think it’ll change the feeling of staying at a motel. The Oasis at Death Valley was much nicer and I recommend staying at that area of the property instead of the Ranch. Also, in regards to the food, I would say it was overall subpar. Even the restaurant at the Oasis tried to be fancy, but it reminded me of dinner on a cruise line: nothing special and mass produced.
Now, on the other hand, Two Bunch Palms was an amazing stay even though the property was under renovation too during my time there. This resort is north of Palm Springs. So, if you want to be closer to the action of Palm Canyon Drive, there are plenty of chain hotels and kitschy 50 era’s Airbnb’s at your disposable south of this resort. But if you came out to the desert to relax, this eco-friendly resort is a good answer to that plan. I loved receiving a take home water canteen and bag as part of the stay experience. Since water bottles aren’t provided in rooms, guests were encouraged to fill their water canteen before heading down to their room. The resort also offers limited morning wellness classes such as yoga, sound bath, and meditation in their yoga dome. Other amenities that they had during my stay was a meditation labyrinth, tennis courts, and mineral pools/tubs. Now, I must say that the highlight of this stay were the mineral pools! There are about 3 teak tubs (suitable for 3-4 people) that you can fill with mineral water and just soak in. It’s pretty darn relaxing! There are also 3 other dipping pools that you can use as well, which are more communal.
SIGHTS TO SEE: Winner - Death Valley
I know what you’re going to say, “What is there to see in the desert?”. Well, surprisingly, a good amount. There’s actually something majestic about just seeing vast plains of sand. But, in comparison to Joshua Tree, I would have to say there’s probably more to see in Death Valley. My favorite attraction inside Death Valley National Park would have to be Zabriskie Point, which is the most famous viewpoint in the park. The best times to go are during sunrise and sunset when the sun hits those golden colored badlands. Some other attractions I visited were the sand dunes, Artists Drive (which you can just view from the car drive with stops if you want to take pictures, it’s also a one-way lane), and Badwater Basin (it’s a salt flat that you can see from your car drive or can stop to walk on it).
With Joshua Tree National Park, you are really going to see different types of plant species that grow in the desert. While Death Valley is more about the landscape. I would say my personal highlight of Joshua Tree was the Cholla Cactus Garden. For some reason, being surrounded by a farm of cacti was a beautiful memory of my trip. The whole park is also pretty small in that it takes under an hour to drive from one end to the other.
WEATHER & TIMES TO VISIT: Winner - Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree has probably the best weather conditions year round compared to Death Valley. If you want to see the desert wildflower bloom, visit in early spring (March-April). And even though Joshua Tree will often top 100 degrees in the summer, it is nothing like the average of 116 degrees Death Valley gets.
OVERALL: Winner - Joshua Tree
So if you had to choose a vacation between the two, I would hands down pick Joshua Tree over Death Valley. I would never tell you to limit your travels, so I encourage you to visit both. But opportunities to travel aren’t always available for everyone. And I know that some of you may need to pick and choose what is worthwhile to visit with those precious vacation days. So I hope that this helps you in deciding where to go to on your next nature trip