One Week in the California Desert – Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks

Get ready to explore a land of hidden oases and canyons, towering snow-capped mountains, and sweeping panoramas of unique environments, all the while also offering modern escapes and amenities. Unlike anywhere else in California, or for that matter the world, the California deserts are a world unto their own. The region lures visitors to elevations of thousands of feet above to more than 280 feet below sea level. The region also offers health and wellness in the natural hot mineral waters that bubble to its surface, and lays claim to hundreds of old mines and ghost towns hidden in its hills and valleys.

This one week itinerary in the California desert is best experienced in the spring or fall as Death Valley can be extremely hot in the summer, holding the record for hottest temperature ever recorded (129°F/54°C in 1913). October through April have more comfortable temperatures.

If you are looking for a summer vacation in California, check out one of our other California itineraries like:

One week trip from San Francisco to LA in the Big Sur

10 days in San Francisco and Northern California

Here is our 7 day itinerary for the California Desert – Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks.  Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas are all good starting points for the trip.  In this itinerary we will assume an arrival in Los Angeles.  If you are starting from Las Vegas you may want to reverse the trip and start in Death Valley.

Day 1

Arrive in Los Angeles, grab your rental car and make the drive to Palm Springs (151 miles, approx. two hour drive depending on LA traffic). Visit the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway if you have time, or just enjoy a stroll along the swanky El Paseo district in Palm Desert.which features art galleries, restaurants and shopping.

Day 2

Drive to Joshua Tree National Park.  The park lies at an ecological crossroads, where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert. The result is amazing desert flora. Enter the park through the South Entrance on Hwy 10. Your first stop is at the Cottonwood Visitors Center. Stop here to top off your water reserves — it’s the last chance for water until you leave in the evening. Just beyond the campground is a small fan palm oasis called Cottonwood Springs. This is the trailhead for a number of day hikes which are a little too long for a one-day visit, but you can still enjoy the palm oasis. It is one of the most unique ecosystems found in the park. Next stop is the Cholla Cactus Garden.  Cholla are nicknamed “Jumping Cholla” for their ability to detach from the plant onto your clothing/shoes/skin. Make sure you’re very attentive as you walk through this dense cactus garden so that you don’t accidently bump into any of them.

Cholla Cactus Garden

If you have time move on to 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).  In the distance, you can pick out the leafy green of Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve directly below you.  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.

Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve

Day 3

Drive to Las Vegas.  I won’t spend a lot of time describing what can be down in Las Vegas as there are many sites with all the Vegas attractions. Perhaps see theStrip, the Venetian Casino and Grand Canal, and the Bellagio Fountains

Possible lodging – The Bellagio (where you can catch the best Cirque du Soleil show ‘O’)

Day 4

Last time I was in Las Vegas I discovered the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.  Located just a few miles west of Las Vegas,  the park encompasses 195,819 acres within the Mojave Desert.  The 13 mile Scenic Drive through Red Rock Canyon is a great drive with some incredible scenery.  There are many scenic stops / parking areas along the drive that lead to hiking trails and some great places to take pictures. Red Rock Canyon features hiking and trails, plants and wildlife, geology, cultural resources and much more.

Red Rock Canyon
Red Rock Canyon Hike

After your visit, head back for your last night in Las Vegas.

Day 5

Drive to Death Valley from Las Vegas.  Shortly after you arrive at the park there is a turn-off for Dante’s View. Once you arrive there is a great view of the heart of Death Valley. Below is Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the United States.

Next check out Twenty Mule Team Canyon, a one-way road through yellow and white mudstone hills. The landscape here is beautiful, as you drive through white and yellow mudstone hills with zero vegetation anywhere.  About two thirds of the way through the drive is a small turn-off, just big enough for several cars, that gives you access to very short hiking trails into these hills. Definitely get out and do this. The view from the tops of these hills is amazing.

Badwater Basin is also a must see.  It is the lowest point in North America, sitting 282 feet below sea level. You can walk out onto the salt flats and enjoy this unique landscape.

Badwater Basin

Possible accommodations for the evening include The Oasis at Death Valley.

Day 6

Head back into the park and drive to Racetrack Playa,  the place to see the mysterious sailing stones.  These large rocks somehow seem to glide over the dry surface, leaving imprinted trails behind them.

Racetrack Playa

Next visit the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These dunes are the best known and easiest to visit in the national park. Located in central Death Valley near Stovepipe Wells, access is from Hwy. 190 or from the unpaved Sand Dunes Road. Although the highest dune rises only about 100 feet, the dunes actually cover a vast area.  Get out and walk around, Get to the top of a dune for a great view!

Make your way back to LA.

Day 7

If you have time before you need to leave stay near Santa Monica.  Santa Monica has a wide, uncrowded beach, a signature pier topped by carnival rides and restaurants, and outstanding shopping at Third Street Promenade and fancy Santa Monica Place shopping center (great for rooftop dining with ocean and city views). You could also follow the Santa Monica Boulevard northeast to visit legendary Beverly Hills, where cars with tinted windows pull up to Chanel and other deluxe boutiques along Rodeo Drive. Continue east to Hollywood to stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame and visit TCL Chinese Theatre.

Tip – To quickly find more details on California attractions,  see the clickable attractions on our California map

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