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Desert Road Trip: Joshua Tree - Palm Springs - Mojave National Preserve

Los Angeles to Mojave National Preserve

Spend 6 days exploring the Southern California desert on this desert road trip loop from Las Vegas to Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs, and Mojave National Preserve.

Walk amongst giant boulders and Joshua trees, run down sand dunes, or check out the city of Palm Springs. Whether you like hiking, scenic drives, or city life, this road trip has it all and there’s no better way to explore it than in an Escape Camper Van!

Travel Time from Las Vegas to Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, Mojave National Preserve, and back to Las Vegas

The total travel time for a desert road trip loop from Escape Camper Vans in Las Vegas to Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs, Mojave National Preserve, and back to Las Vegas is eleven and a half hours.

This route includes a stop at the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, two famous attractions only minutes off your route, on your way out of Las Vegas!

Best Time of Year for a Desert Road Trip

While the desert is accessible year-round, fall through spring brings the most enjoyable weather. Summers are hot and unfavorable. Check out which season best fits your liking for a desert road trip!

Fall

As summer temperatures drop heading into October it’s a great time to head out on a desert oasis road trip. The weather is comfortable with cool nights and warm days. Fall is the shoulder season meaning fewer crowds compared to the winter holidays.

Winter

Winter is a popular time to road trip throughout Southern California. Many people book campsites months in advance to spend the holidays in Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, and Mojave National Preserve.

Winter is one of the more crowded times of the year to visit the desert. And it gets colder than you might expect; It even snows in the desert sometimes! Pack plenty of layers; it’s not uncommon for night temperatures to drop below freezing!

Spring

Spring is a great time for a California desert road trip from Las Vegas. Wildflowers and cacti bloom across the landscape making it a spectacular time to visit. As spring continues, daylight lasts longer offering plenty of time to explore. Temperatures are very comfortable in the spring.

Summer

Summer is not a great time to road trip from Las Vegas to Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, and through Mojave National Preserve. It’s very hot in all these destinations and it’s tough sleeping in a camper van through the intense heat.

Preparation for a Las Vegas Desert Road Trip

Before you hit the road it helps to know what you’re getting into. Use these tips to help you prepare for your desert road trip.

Fuel Up

There are many remote stretches between Las Vegas, Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, and Mojave National Preserve. Fuel up your camper van as often as possible especially when traveling across the desert parks as services are limited.

Pack Food & Water

There are no food establishments inside Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve. Surrounding towns and the city of Palm Springs have restaurants but the parks themselves do not.

Bring all the food you’ll need for camping while in the parks. Few primitive and established campgrounds have drinking water so pack plenty of water too. Pack at least 2 gallons of water per person per day for drinking, washing, and cooking use.

Check Road Conditions & Weather

In the days leading up to your trip keep an eye on the local weather and road conditions. Rain storms can cause flash flooding in the desert. Roads quickly close to prevent damage to the environment and dangerous driving conditions.

Any road and weather alerts will appear as a banner at the top of the Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve park pages.

Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping is a popular option when visiting the desert. Dispersed camping means there are no amenities. You find a dirt or forested spot to camp on free public land. You must pack everything in and out. Bring your own food and water and pack out all trash and human waste (including your bathroom waste).

Dispersed camping is great because it’s free and you can find some really beautiful spots but you have to do a little work to find your spot and follow the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace to leave the area as you found it.

Apps like iOverlander, The Dyrt, and Campendium mark dispersed camping sites.

Pack a Rechargeable Battery or Solar Panel

Pack a rechargeable battery or a solar panel to keep your devices going while out exploring. You can only charge your devices in an Escape Camper Van while it’s running so rechargeable devices are nice in the evening.

Download Off-Line Navigation

There is limited to no cell service along this desert road trip loop. Download off-line road maps before you start your trip. If you plan to hike, AllTrails is a great option for downloading offline hiking trails.

Also, pick up local paper maps. They’re always good to have as backup.

Las Vegas to California Desert Road Trip Stops

Head east out of Las Vegas to check out the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. These are two can’t-miss spots when visiting the desert city.

Then spend a couple of days exploring Joshua Tree National Park before relaxing in the luxury city of Palm Springs.

Wrap your trip up with a night or two in Mojave National Preserve then finish your desert road trip loopback in Las Vegas!

Day 1: Lake Mead & The Hoover Dam

On your way out of Las Vegas, it’s only a few minutes longer to take the scenic route out of the city, checking out Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. If you haven’t explored this area it’s worth a pitstop on your first day!

Things to do at Lake Mead & The Hoover Dam

Lake Mead Lakeview Overlook

Lake Mead Lakeview Overlook is the perfect spot to stop and check out views of Lake Mead, the large reservoir sourced by the Colorado River and formed by the Hoover Dam. In terms of water capacity, it’s the largest reservoir in the country providing water to the Las Vegas area, California, and Arizona.

Boulder Beach

If you want to explore the mountainous desert lake while relaxing at the closest “beach” to Las Vegas then head to Boulder Beach. It’s located in Lake Mead National Recreation Area and has a campground, picnic areas, a visitor center, and a camp store nearby.

Rent kayaks to paddle around or take a dip in the swimming area. Boating activities like water skiing are a popular option.

Hoover Dam Visitor Center

The Hoover Dam Visitor Center is definitely worth a stop to learn about the dam’s history and construction. You can even take a guided dam or power plant tour to learn about the Colorado River and construction in greater depth.

The Hoover Dam Visitor Center is located along Hoover Dam Access Road which provides scenic views of Lake Mead and also features the Hoover Dam Cafe where you can stop and have lunch or a beer.

Days 1 – 3: Joshua Tree National Park

The drive from Escape Campervans in Las Vegas to Joshua Tree National Park’s south entrance near Cottonwood Spring is just under 4 hours. Entering from this park entrance will help your route flow without backtracking. If you stop by the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on your way, you probably won’t make it to Joshua Tree National Park until the evening.

An Escape camper van on a road trip from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park.

With hiking, camping options, a visitor center, and more, the Cottonwood Spring area is a great spot to base yourself on your first night upon reaching the park! Then start your next day early exploring along Pinto Basin Road and Park Boulevard to see many other Joshua Tree National Park highlights.

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

Cottonwood Spring Oasis

After driving through a barren desert for a few hours from Las Vegas to Joshua Tree, stroll among the tall lush palm trees in awe at Cottonwood Spring Oasis. Many visitors are surprised this best-kept Joshua Tree secret even exists!

Cottonwood Spring Oasis is located 7 miles north of the southern entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. It’s one of the less visited parts of the park but flows well with the Desert Oasis Tour itinerary.

Cottonwood Spring Oasis has a visitor center, hiking trails, some of the best birding spots in the park, historic gold mills, and the Cottonwood Campground.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Continue north along Pinto Basin Road to explore more of the park. The next major highlight is the Cholla Cactus Garden. Stroll the 0.25-mile loop that winds through the cholla cacti spanning for as far as the eye can see.

These cacti are also known as teddy bear cholla or jumping cholla because of how easily they “jump” onto you if you get too close! Give these cacti their space; it’s no fun to pull the spines off your skin!

Skull Rock

Skull Rock is one of the most photographed rocks in Joshua Tree National Park. As the name states, the iconic boulder looks like a skull. Over time water has eroded pockets and eventually formed “eye sockets” in the boulder.

You can access Skull Rock from the side of the road by parking across from the Discovery Trail or stretch your legs and hike the 1.7-mile round-trip hike from the Jumbo Rocks Campground.

Discovery Trail

Wander beyond the roadside boulders by hiking the 0.7-mile loop of the Discovery Trail. The trail starts right across the road from Skull Rock and offers sites of boulders, desert grasses, shrubs, and more.

Hidden Valley Nature Trail

If you’re only going to hike one trail in the whole park then the Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a great option. It’s an easy 1-mile loop that offers some of the most diverse and beautiful scenery in the park.

Walk among boulders through a rock-enclosed valley, take in the desert flora and possible fauna, and read signs about park geology, history, wildlife, and more.

Keys View

Head up to Keys View for panoramic views of Joshua Tree National Park, the San Bernardino Mountains, the Coachella Valley, and on a clear day, even views into Mexico!

Keys View is accessed by road, about a 20-minute drive from Park Boulevard. At 5,185 feet high Keys View is the most expansive view in the park that you can drive to!

Ryan Mountain

Ryan Mountain is a challenging but well-worth-it 3-mile out-and-back hike. Standing 5,456 feet tall, from the summit hikers are rewarded with impressive views looking out on the whole park and surroundings. The trail gains 1,050 feet and there are some exposed sections can get pretty windy but the views are well worth the adventure!

Joshua Tree National Park Camping

Cottonwood Campground

Cottonwood Campground is a 62-site campground located near the southeast entrance of Joshua Tree National Park making it the perfect place to stay on your way from Las Vegas.

The campground has water, flushing toilets, fire grates, and tables. It’s located near the Cottonwood Visitor Center, Cottonwood Spring Oasis, and many hiking trails. Reservations are required.

Jumbo Rocks Campground

Jumbo Rocks Campground is located in the center of the park and has 124 campsites with tables, pit toilets, and fire grates. There is no water at Jumbo Rocks. It’s located off Park Boulevard near many hiking trails including the Jumbo Rocks Campground Loop. Reservations are required. 

Ryan Campground

Ryan Campground is a 31-site basic campground located in the center of the park. It has pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. There is no water. Reservations are required and many trails are located near Ryan Campground.

Indian Cove Campground

Indian Cove Campground is a reservation campground with 101 sites located off 29 Palms Highway, in the center of the towns Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree. The campground is not connected to the main park roads. Indian Cove Campground has pit toilets, tables, and fire grates but no water. Reservations are required.

Hidden Valley Campground

Hidden Valley Campground is a first-come, first-served campground with 44 sites located centrally in the park. The campground is conveniently located right across the street from the Hidden Valley Nature Trail and down the road from the popular Barker Dam Trail. The campground has tables, fire grates, and pit toilets, but no water.

Places to Eat Near Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree Saloon

61835 29 Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree, CA 92252

Enjoy steaks, seafood, burgers, sandwiches, and more at the Joshua Tree Saloon. It’s a quirky, Old Wild West-themed restaurant with pool tables, darts, a funky saloon, and dining. 

Crossroads Cafe

61715 29 Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree, CA 92252

Dine at Crossroads Cafe for creative diner meals serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Omelets, huevos rancheros, hamburgers, tacos, quesadillas, salads, and vegan meals make up the menu. 

Kitchen in the Desert

6427 Mesquite Ave, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

Head to Kitchen in the Desert for tasty American dishes with a Caribbean influence. Serving family-style dishes, fresh juices and smoothies, and a variety of healthy dining options. Enjoy margaritas on the patio every night of the week sitting around the fire pits with music.

Day 4 – 5: Palm Springs

Continue on your desert road trip by visiting Palm Springs! Palm Springs is just about 45 minutes from the northwest part of Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a city known for its luxury amenities from spas and golf courses to shopping and dining. There are also a variety of outdoor attractions around the surrounding area.

The giant Cabazon Dinosaurs in Palm Springs California.

Things to do in Palm Springs

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the top attraction in Palm Springs and it’s unique as the world’s largest rotating tram car. The 10-minute ride gains about 6,000 feet of elevation in 2.5 miles. From the tram, you’ll have spectacular views of the Coachella Valley, San Jacinto Peak, and Chino Canyon.

Mount San Jacinto State Park

Mount San Jacinto is a 10,834-foot tall peak, located in Mount San Jacinto State Park. Snow-capped for a few months of the year, exploring the park’s high elevation is very different from the desert floor of Palm Springs. Spend your day hiking here then camp high up in the mountains at cooler temperatures.

Andreas Canyon

Wander the easy 1-mile loop through Andreas Canyon in Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. This beautiful trail passes among palm trees, waterfalls, creeks, and unique rock formations.

Moorten Botanical Garden

Explore the one-acre botanical garden of Palm Springs to see the beautiful cactus and desert plants of the Colorado Desert. Moorten Botanical Garden is family-owned and was established in 1938. Today you can explore ancient fossils, gold mining relics, glowing crystals, brilliant rocks, and over 3000 varieties of plants.

Palm Springs Art Museum

Located right in the center of downtown Palm Springs is the Palm Springs Art Museum. It’s both a visual and performing arts museum featuring contemporary and modern art and design since 2004. With thousands of pieces of art, it’s worth a visit! The main museum is free every Thursday night!

Palm Springs Air Museum

Learn the history of American aviation through the museum preserves and exhibits at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Featuring aircraft from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Global War on Terror, this variety of aircraft and related artifacts, library sources, and artwork is an important part of American history.

Palm Springs Camping

Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park Campground

Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park Campground has 96 campsites located in the beautiful park with stunning views of the Santa Rosa Mountains and Coachella Valley. Located alongside Lake Cahuilla you can fish, hike, and horseback ride near the campground. Sites have picnic tables and barbecues. 

Black Rock Campground

Black Rock Campground is a 99-site campground located in the northwest corner of Joshua Tree National Park. It’s about a 40-minute drive from Palm Springs, making it the closest national park campground to downtown. Sites have water, flushing toilets, tables, and fire grates.

Idyllwild Campground

Idyllwild Campground is a 28-site year-round campground in Mount San Jacinto State Park. The campground is located a short walk from many shops and restaurants. The campground has flushing toilets, water, picnic tables, fire rings, and coin-op showers. It’s about an hour from downtown Palm Springs.

Stone Creek Campground

Stone Creek Campground is the second campground located in Mount San Jacinto State Park. It has 44 sites with vault toilets, picnic tables, potable water, and fire rings. It’s open seasonally from the spring to fall. Reserve campsites in advance. Stone Creek Campground is also about an hour from Palm Springs.

Places to Eat Near Palm Springs

Farm

6 La Plaza, Palm Springs, CA 92262

Farm is a chic, country restaurant serving all meals of the day with influence from the South of France. Enjoy both their famous savory or sweet crepes at breakfast to full dinner appetizers and entrees.

1501 Uptown Gastropub

1501 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262

If you’re looking for unique comfort dishes, a tasty weekend brunch, or cocktails then stop by 1501 Uptown Gastropub. There’s something for every diner here with happy hour deals, lunch, dinner, salads, shared plates, desserts, drinks, and a variety of crafty mocktails. 

Tac/Quila

415 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262

Enjoy fancy but hip Mexican food at Tac/Quila. This isn’t just average Mexican food – it’s upscale dishes from grilled lobster tail tacos to vegan plates. Tac/Quila is served in a chic, contemporary setting you’ll surely enjoy.

Day 5 – 6: Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve is a diverse ecological desert habitat. It’s often overlooked among California destinations but should not be missed on your desert road trip. Sand dunes, lava tubes, and unique geological formations make up some park highlights.

Most often routes from Palm Springs to Las Vegas pass around Mojave National Preserve. Make sure you drive a route through the park, like Kelbaker Road, to enjoy park highlights and find primitive camping spots!

An Escape camper van driving through Moab, Utah.

Things to do in Mojave National Preserve

Kelso Sand Dunes

The Kelso Sand Dunes are an impressive site to explore in Mojave National Preserve. The dunes span across 45 square miles and the tallest dune reaches 650 high in prominence!

The dunes are home to many animals and insects. Hike the 3-mile round-trip loop up to the top of the highest dune or just wander for a bit to your liking.

Kelso Depot Visitor Center

The Kelso Depot Visitor Center is the main visitor center in Mojave National Preserve. Explore exhibits about the natural and cultural history of the Mojave Desert. Watch a 20-minute film about the park in the theater or chat with a ranger about how to spend your time in the park.

Mojave Desert Lava Tube

The Mojave Desert Lava Tube is a unique feature of the Mojave National Preserve. Explore the basaltic lava tube located in the Cima Dome Volcanic Field. Take a short, but rocky hike out to the lava tube. When the lighting is right the sun shines into the lava tube, a popular photo shot.

To get to the lava tube trailhead you must take Aiken Mine Road. It’s unpaved and requires high clearance to reach. Check road conditions before you head out.

Hole-in-the-Wall

Hole-in-the-Wall is located right in the center of Mojave National Preserve. It’s a popular hiking spot and luckily the road to reach Hole-in-the-Wall was recently paved making it a much easier drive.

Hike the 1.5-mile loop trail to see Banshee Canyon, known for its unique rock wall features, then continue on to petroglyphs and scramble around boulders. Despite the minimal elevation gain the trail is rugged and requires some rock scrambling.

The Hole-in-the-Wall trailhead is located next to the campground and a visitor center.

Boulders Viewpoint Area

Boulders Viewpoint Area is the perfect place to stop upon entering the park from Kelbaker Road. Have lunch, a snack, or watch the sunrise at the granite boulders. The dramatic viewpoint showcases some classic sites of Mojave National Preserve.

Mojave National Preserve Camping

Hole-in-the-Wall Campground

Hole-in-the-Wall Campground is a 35-site campground located in the center of Mojave National Preserve off of Black Canyon Road. It’s located near the Hole-in-the-Wall trail and visitor center.

The campground is first-come, first-served and has pit toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables. There is no water. Sitting at 4,400 feet in elevation, temperatures are generally comfortable in the spring through fall at night.

Mid-Hills Campground

Mid-Hills Campground is a 26-site campground located off the unpaved and steep Horse Canyon Road. It’s surrounded by juniper trees and pinyon pines. Mid-Hills Campground sits at 5,600 feet so it’s a lot cooler than the lower desert.

The campground has picnic tables, fire rings, and pit toilets. There is no water. Sites are first-come, first-served.

Roadside or Undeveloped Campsites

Undeveloped and roadside camping is a popular option in Mojave National Preserve. Most of these sites require high clearance vehicles with 4-wheel drive but there are a few closer spots that you can reach in a 2-wheel drive vehicle.

Like primitive camping, you must pack out everything you pack in and leave the area cleaner than you found it. Don’t take any natural vegetation, collect firewood, or disturb the area. Check the Mojave National Preserve camping regulations page to make sure you choose a legal roadside or undeveloped campsite!

Why Rent a Camper Van for a Desert Road Trip?

Renting an Escape Camper Van is the perfect way to enjoy your Las Vegas to Southern California desert road trip. Our camper vans are comfortable, compact, easy to use, and mobile. A camper van is way better than renting an RV because camper vans don’t require electric or sewer hookups and they are far easier to drive and maneuver.

With Escape Camper Vans you can also add on extra accessories to make your trip as comfortable as possible. 

Reserve with Escape Campervans for your Desert Road Trip from Las Vegas

At Escape Camper Vans we know what’s needed for a comfortable and smooth camping trip. Having a vehicle as your home on wheels makes this easy!

You now have the perfect desert road trip itinerary, so what are you waiting for? With a convenient pickup and drop-off location right in Las Vegas, all you have to do is book your flights and hit the road!

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