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San Francisco to Joshua Tree

San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park Road Trip

Explore some of California’s best and most diverse landscapes on an 8-day road trip from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park on this California desert itinerary. Pick up your Escape Campervan in San Francisco then hit the road!

Along the way, you’ll explore the coast, the Central Valley, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the California desert. Every day offers something new and unique as you check off many California desert bucket list destinations!

Travel Time for a California Desert Road Trip from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park

The total drive time from Escape Camper Vans in San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park is 13 hours and 30 minutes. It’s a total of 688 miles via this itinerary.

Start by taking California Route 1 south to Santa Cruz, then head southeast to Pinnacles National Park. Next, continue east to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks then head south to reach Joshua Tree National Park.

At the end of your trip, you can return your Escape Campervan to Los Angeles, just two and a half hours west of Joshua Tree National Park.

A California desert road trip from San Francisco to Joshua Tree is the best way to explore the state.

Best Time of Year for a California Desert Road Trip to Joshua Tree National Park

The drive from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park hits many California highlights. It’s possible to road trip at any time of year (weather permitting) but each season offers a different experience.

Fall

With fall foliage and comfortable temperatures, October and November offer some of the best weather across all the destinations on this 7-day San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park road trip.

Skies are generally clear in the late fall along California’s Coast. Changing leaves cover the landscape in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. California desert temperatures in Pinnacles and Joshua Tree National Parks range from the upper 60s to low 80s. You can’t go wrong road-tripping in the fall and you’ll avoid the summer vacation crowds.

Winter

The winter months from December through February bring cooler temperatures across the whole state of California. This makes winter a good time for a California desert road trip from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park but weather can bring its challenges.

Expect a higher chance of snow in the mountains and rain on the coast. Sometimes it even snows in Joshua Tree in the winter! If you’re willing to bear cooler temperatures and possible precipitation, the winter is the least crowded time of year to visit most of these destinations.

Spring

Like fall, spring is a great time to road trip from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park. Temperatures are usually comfortable except for at high elevations in the mountains where snow has settled. Spring brings a chance of rain along the coast but that also means wildflowers start blooming. If you’re traveling after a very wet winter, there’s a greater chance of seeing a super bloom along your road trip!

Summer

If possible, it’s best to avoid a San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park Road Trip in the summer. Both Joshua Tree and Pinnacles National Parks are very hot, reaching above 100 degrees. From June through September, it’s very hard to sleep in a campervan in those temperatures. In addition, all the other stops on this itinerary are usually crowded with summer vacation goers.

You can cook in the back of you Escape Camper Van on your California desert road trip.

Preparation for a California Desert Road Trip

Following these basic tips will help your trip run smoothly. Planning ahead is important so you can pack properly, stay up-to-date about conditions, and know what you’re getting into while out on the road.

Check the Weather

Before hopping on the plane check the predicted weather of all your destinations. From the coast to the central valley to the mountains to the California desert, the drive from San Francisco to Joshua Tree visits many different climates with temperatures that drastically vary throughout the year.

Pack Layers

With all the diverse environments you will explore it’s important to pack the proper clothing so you’re comfortable on your trip. California’s Coast receives more rain than other parts of the state. Daytime and nighttime temperatures in the California desert can vary by more than 30 degrees. At higher elevations in the mountains, the weather is cooler.

Layers of clothing make it easy to stay comfortable when traveling in so many different environments.

Purchase and America the Beautiful National Parks Pass

This San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park road trip itinerary includes four national parks. Each national park costs $20 – $35 per park for a 7-day visit. Cut back costs by purchasing an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass. It’s only $80 for the year and you can access any national parks, forests, recreation sites, and more with the pass.

The America the Beautiful Pass will save you a lot of money. It is available as an add-on in the Escape Camper Vans extras. You can also buy a pass at the entrance kiosk of the first national park you visit.

Check Park Updates

Roads and trails in national parks are sometimes affected by weather and construction projects. Check each national park website before visiting the park for up-to-date weather and road conditions. Any notable information or alerts are listed at the top of the park page.

Reserve Campsites in Advance

A San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park road trip is a popular route and therefore, campgrounds book up quickly. Reserve your campsites well in advance. Most campground reservations open 6 months out. Reserve sites as early as possible otherwise you might have to camp farther from your desired destination.

Fuel Up

Many of the national parks have limited to no services and are located in remote areas. Fill up your car every morning before hitting the road and refill your tank before you enter a park. You never know how long your next stretch will be before you reach a gas station!

Pack Your Food

The drive from San Francisco to Joshua Tree passes through populated and remote areas. Go grocery shopping on your first day in Santa Cruz. Stock up for when you enter remote areas; it’s always good to have more food than not enough.

Download Offline Maps

There are many segments of the drive from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park where there is no cell coverage. Download offline road maps before you head out. If you know where you plan to hike, download hiking trails ahead of time too. AllTrails has great options to download offline hiking maps.

Pack a Rechargeable Battery and Solar Panel

A rechargeable battery is a great option to charge your devices while on your San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park campervan trip. You can charge devices while the campervan is running but when you’re relaxing in bed at night, it’s nice to have an easy way to keep devices going. A solar panel also works well to recharge your devices.

California Desert Road Trip Itinerary: San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park

Explore many scenic destinations along the drive from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park. First, head south along California’s Coast via Route 1 to Santa Cruz. Then explore the volcanic landscape of Pinnacles National Park.

Continue east into the Sierra Nevada to explore high mountain peaks and giant sequoias in Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks. Then head south to the impressive California desert, Joshua Tree National Park.

Lastly, wrap up your road trip by dropping off your camper van in Los Angeles, located two and a half hours west of Joshua Tree.

A camper van is the best way to explore California from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park

Days 1 & 2: Santa Cruz

Head out early on the first day of your road trip to enjoy a full day of exploring in Santa Cruz. Famous for its coastal views, marine wildlife, and redwoods, there’s a lot to explore in the Santa Cruz area, so it’s nice to have two days here.

The drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz via California Route 1 is an hour and 45 minutes without stops. Of course, it’s hard to drive Route 1 without stopping because the views are so impressive.

Route 1 is the best route to drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz for scenic coastal vistas and to avoid early morning traffic on 280 South.

Things to Do in Santa Cruz

Go Whale Watching

Head out into Monterey Bay on a Santa Cruz whale-watching tour. Santa Cruz is a year-round whale-watching destination with chances to see Humpback, Minke, Gray, Blue, Sperm, Fin, and Beaked whales depending on the season. Other prevalent marine life include sea lions, several dolphin species, sea otters, harbor seals, and leatherback turtles.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

If you’re visiting the Northern California Coast, you don’t want to miss out on one of the most impressive and unique endemic species – seeing the California Coastal Redwoods. The Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is located just east of Santa Cruz and features a large 40-acre grove of old-growth redwood forests. Walk among the skyscraper trees and enjoy hiking, picnicking, or camping there.

Big Sur

Big Sur is one of the most iconic spots along California’s Coast. It’s famous for its long bridge, redwood forests, striking beaches, and hiking. Big Sur is an hour and twenty minutes south of Santa Cruz. It’s worth adding a stop here if you spend two days in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz Wharf

Head down to the Santa Cruz Wharf for shopping, dining, drinking, fishing, and wildlife spotting. The Santa Cruz Wharf offers breathtaking views of the California Coast. The wharf is 2,745 feet long, making it the longest wooden pier in the US. The wharf is also a popular spot for many large seasonal events.

Natural Bridges State Park

Check out an impressively large natural bridge located just off the coast of Santa Cruz in the Pacific Ocean. Natural Bridges State Park is a popular spot to view migrating whales, shore birds, tidepools, and other marine wildlife.

Santa Cruz Camping

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Campground

Reserve one of the park’s 107 campsites at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Campground. The campground entrance is located off Graham Hill Road, a separate entrance from the day-use area of the park. The campground is surrounded by a shady pine and oak forest. Campgrounds cost between $7 – $35 a night.

Sunset State Beach Campground

Sunset State Beach Campground is about 20 minutes south of Santa Cruz. It’s located right on the coast offering gorgeous ocean views. Sites are available starting at $35 a night. Reserve your spot a few months in advance as these coastal campgrounds book up fast.

Santa Cruz Ranch Campground

Santa Cruz Ranch Campground is located in the center of the city of Santa Cruz. It has bathrooms, showers, and many amenities including a swimming pool, laundry service, a library, and paid wifi service. Campsites start at $65 a night.

Best Restaurants in Santa Cruz

Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery

49A Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Enjoy seafood, steaks, and pastas at the Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery located right on the Santa Cruz Wharf. Not only does the restaurant serve great food with fantastic ocean views, it also has seating at a rotating bar in the middle of the restaurant making for a fun and unique dining experience.

Humble Sea Brewing Co.

820 Swift St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Humble Sea Brewing Co. is located in the heart of Santa Cruz. It’s a great place to sample a variety of local beers as well as grab an empanada from the Fonda Felix food truck. The second food truck option varies throughout the week.

Crow’s Nest Restaurant

2218 E Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95062

The Crow’s Nest Restaurant is one of the most beloved Santa Cruz restaurants. It’s located seaside near the Santa Cruz Harbor. The downstairs dining room serves daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with weekend brunch. The upstairs Breakwater Bar & Grill offers impressive sea views and has happy hour, drinks, appetizers, and grilled eats.

Explore the California desert in a camper van rental.

Processed with VSCO with kp3 preset

Day 3: Pinnacles National Park

Where the California Condors, America’s largest birds soar, and where a unique landscape of volcanic pinnacles and caves blanket the landscape, Pinnacles National Park is worth checking out for anyone wanting to experience the California desert. 

The drive from Santa Cruz to the east side of Pinnacles National Park is only an hour and a half. Pinnacles National Park has a west and an east entrance that does not connect. For the best flow of this road trip, visit the east side of the park. There are many hiking trails and a campground on the east side.

Pinnacles National Park is a small park with minimal services and amenities. Aside from a small selection of food and items at the camp store, there are no restaurants in the park or within proximity.

Things to Do in Pinnacles National Park

Moses Spring Trail to Bear Gulch Reservoir

The 1.2-mile out-and-back Moses Spring Trail to Bear Gulch Reservoir features some of the best viewpoints on the east side of the park in the short hike. The trail gains about 300 feet and is considered moderately challenging. Along the way, you’ll pass through Lower Bear Gulch Cave, one of the unique cave features in the park and a home for bats at certain times of the year. Check the status of the caves to see when the caves are open for hiking.

Condor Gulch Trail

The Condor Gulch Trail to the Overlook offers an impressive view of the High Peaks in Pinnacles National Park. The trail is a popular spot to look out for California Condors because many of them circle the High Peaks. The 2-mile out-and-back trail gains 530 feet of elevation over the hike making it a moderately challenging route.

Camping in Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles Campground

Pinnacles Campground is the only campground in Pinnacles National Park. It’s located on the east side of the park and does not connect to the road on the west side of the park. Pinnacles Campground rates start at $40 a night and the campground has flushing toilets, drinking water, and showers.

The campground has a small camp store with basic camping supplies and food. From April through September the swimming pool at Pinnacles Campground is open. Reservations open 12 months in advance and are recommended.

San Benito Campground

Thousand Trails San Benito Campground is located in Paicines just north of the east entrance into Pinnacles National Park. The large campground offers both RV and cabin lodging. Campervans would have to rent an RV site as there are no tent-only sites. Sites start at $59 a night and have access to water, bathrooms, a pool, a pavilion, and the lodge.

Days 4 & 5: Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks

Continue your road trip by heading east into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Your first stop will be Kings Canyon, located just north of Sequoia National Park. The two parks flow into one another and are a combined park unit with Generals Highway connecting the two parks.

The drive from Pinnacles National Park to Kings Canyon National Park is three and a half hours. Once you reach the parks there is plenty to explore from serene walks among the giant sequoias to scenic drives with breathtaking viewpoints.

Don't waste any time on your California desert road trip setting up tents. Travel in a camper van for the smoothest road trip experience.

Things to Do in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

General Sherman Tree

The giant sequoia, General Sherman Tree, is the largest tree in the world according to cubic volume and it’s located right in Sequoia National Park off Generals Highway. General Sherman stands 275 feet tall and is over 36 feet in diameter at the base.

Handicap parking is accessible via Generals Highway. All other visitors must hike from the trailhead parking lot via the General Sherman Tree Trail, a 1.2-mile round trip hike that gains 200 feet round trip.

Moro Rock

Moro Rock is a large granite dome standing high above the landscape in Sequoia National Park. The incredible geologic feature can be viewed from the parking lot or by hiking up 350 steps to the top of Moro Rock.

The round-trip Moro Rock hike is only 0.5 miles out & back. It’s a short but steep and exposed hike. There are handrails for assistance. From the top, you’ll have 360-degree views of the surrounding national forests to the south, the Central Valley to the west, and the distant high peaks in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to the east.

Panoramic Point Overlook

Panoramic Point Overlook is an impressive viewpoint looking out on hundreds of miles of Kings Canyon National Park and the surrounding national forests. Panoramic Point Overlook is located near the Kings Canyon Visitor Center. Panoramic Point Overlook is a great spot to stop and stretch your legs when driving Generals Highway.

Kings Canyon Scenic Byway

Kings Canyon Scenic Byway runs 50 miles from Dunlap, starting at the northwest of Kings Canyon National Park, to Roads End, deep into Kings Canyon National Park, just past Cedar Grove. The road is open seasonally when clear of snow. Kings Canyon Scenic Byway usually opens in the late spring to early summer and closes in the late fall.  

Tunnel Log

You can drive through the famous Giant Sequoia Tunnel Log in Sequoia National Park. It fell across the road in 1937. Rather than removing the tree the Civilian Conservation Corps created a tunnel through it. It’s a must-visit stop when checking out Sequoia National Park and is located off Crescent Meadow Road close to Moro Rock Trailhead.

**Escape Camper Vans may not fit under the Tunnel Log. There is a place to pull off next to it to take your photos.** 

The Tunnel Log is 8 feet tall – I’m not sure how tall the campervans are.

Camping in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Azalea Campground

Azalea is a year-round campground in Kings Canyon National Park with 110 sites available for $32 a night. Azalea Campground is surrounded by giant sequoias and has potable water and flushing toilets. The campground is by reservation only except in the winter when 20 sites are open first come, first served.

Lodgepole Campground

The Lodgepole Campground is a seasonal, reservation-only campground. It typically opens the second Friday in June and usually closes in the late fall. Lodgepole Campground has 214 sites available for $32 a night. It’s located next to Lodgepole Village which features a market, shower, visitor center, and laundry facilities. It has potable water and flushing toilets.

Potwisha Campground

Potwisha Campground is a year-round campground located in the foothills of Sequoia National Park. It has 42 sites available for reservations and is usually snow-free all year with hot, dry summers. It has potable water and flushing toilets. Potwisha Campground costs $32 a night. 

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park Restaurants

The Peaks Restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge

64740 Wuksachi Way, Sequoia National Park, CA 93262

The Peaks Restaurant offers the finest dining in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Located in the Wuksachi Lodge, the Peaks Restaurant serves locally sourced, sustainable dishes ranging from pure grass-fed burgers to rub-red trout. Dine here for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or cocktails. The Peaks Restaurant is open year-round except January 7 – March 14, 2024, in which just box lunches are available.

Grant Grove Restaurant and Courtyard

83923 CA-180, Hume, CA 93628

Grant Grove Restaurant serves traditional American entrees made with sustainable, locally sourced ingredients in a homey, lodge setting or on the outdoor patio featuring scenic views of the park. The Grant Grove Restaurant is open seasonally from early spring through late fall.

Lodgepole Market & Grill

Sequoia National Park, 63204 Lodgepole Rd, Pk, CA 93262

Lodgepole Market and Grill is open from mid-April to mid-October for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lodgepole Market has a deli, market, and snack bar. Healthy options are available with both gluten-free and vegan meals upon request.

A camper van parked on the side of the road on a California desert camper van trip in Joshua Tree National Park.

Days 6 & 7: Joshua Tree National Park

The drive from Sequoia National Park to Joshua Tree is the longest stretch of the road trip, but well worth it. It’s 5 hours and 15 minutes from the south of Sequoia National Park to Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree is famous for its gigantic rock boulders, California desert wildlife and flora, and of course, the namesake Joshua Tree. Take a picturesque drive, wander through downtown Joshua Tree, hike up a mountain, or stroll along a scenic trail. There’s plenty for everyone to explore in Joshua Tree National Park

Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park

Hidden Valley Nature Trail

The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is an easy 1-mile loop hike that showcases some of the most popular scenery in Joshua Tree National Park. The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is located off of Park Boulevard at the Hidden Valley Campground. Along the walk, you’ll stroll through a rock-enclosed valley with giant boulders and see many California desert plants and occasional wildlife.

Keys View

Keys View offers sweeping panoramic vistas from 5,185 feet high. It’s accessible via a 0.2-mile paved and wheelchair-accessible trail. From the overlook, you’ll have impressive views of Joshua Tree National Park, the San Bernardino Mountains, and the Coachella Valley. On a clear day, you can even see into Mexico!

Skull Rock

Skull Rock is one of the most iconic rocks in Joshua Tree National Park, named for its human skull-like features. The parking lot is located right off Park Boulevard. Of all the famous rocks in the park, Skull Rock is the most easily accessible and can’t be missed!

Cholla Cactus Garden

Take a short stroll among the cholla cacti. Also known as teddy bear cholla or jumping cholla for easily attaching to anything that ever so slightly brushes against the spines, the cholla cactus garden is a beautiful spot to visit in the park. The 0.2-mile flat trail is located right off Pinto Basin Road.

Barker Dam

Explore Barker Dam along the 1.1-mile Barker Dam Loop. This family-friendly hike passes by many gigantic Joshua Tree boulders, among California desert flora, and by the historic Barker Dam.

Ryan Mountain

Ryan Mountain stands 5,456 feet high in Joshua Tree National Park and is the most popular high peak to hike. The 3-mile round trip trail ascends 1,050 feet on the 1.5-mile climb up. It’s a strenuous trail but offers rewarding views looking across the park, at the San Bernardino Mountains, and of the Coachella Valley.

Camping in Joshua Tree National Park

Jumbo Rocks Campground

Jumbo Rocks Campground is a reservation-only campground with 124 sites. It’s located in the center of Joshua Tree National Park surrounded by big boulders and fantastic views. Jumbo Rocks Campground costs $20 a night and has pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. There is no water.

Cottonwood Campground

Cottonwood Campground costs $25 a night and is a reservation only. It has 62 sites with water, flushing toilets, tables, and fire grates. Cottonwood Campground is located near Joshua Tree National Park’s south entrance near the Cottonwood Visitor Center.

Indian Cove Campground

Indian Cove Campground has 101 sites available for $25 a night. Reservations are required. Indian Cove Campground has tables, fire grates, and pit toilets but no water. It’s located off of 29 Palms Highway in between the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. Indian Cove Campground is not connected to the main park roads.

Hidden Valley Campground

Hidden Valley Campground is a first-come, first-served campground with 44 sites available for $15 a night. It is located centrally in the park off Park Boulevard across from the Hidden Valley Nature Trail and near Barker Dam. Hidden Valley Campground has fire grates, tables, 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

The Joshua Tree Saloon is a classic stop on your Joshua Tree National Park visit. Since 1984, this old Wild West saloon has served great food from cocktails and steaks to burgers and kid-friendly meals.

Joshua Tree Coffee Company

61738 29 Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, CA 92252

Grab some of the best-tasting organic coffee in the area at Joshua Tree Coffee Company. This fresh local coffee shop is located just outside the western park entrance and is open every day of the week.

Kitchen in the Desert

6427 Mesquite Ave, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

Kitchen in the Desert is located in the town of Twentynine Palms near the north entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. The Caribbean-influenced establishment has a charming outdoor cafe, bar, and restaurant that serves family-style dishes, smoothies, juices, and more.

Day 8: Drive to Los Angeles and Drop Off the Campervan

Finish off your San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park road trip by dropping off your Escape Campervan in LA. Los Angeles is only two and a half hours from Joshua Tree so it’s a great way to wrap up your trip rather than making the long drive back to San Francisco!

Why Rent a Camper Van for a San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park Road Trip?

A campervan is the perfect way to road trip from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park. There are many spots along the route that you don’t want to miss and an Escape Campervan is compact, mobile, and easy to drive. Unlike renting an RV which requires specific campsites and electric and sewer hookups, a campervan is convenient while lacking no comfort.

Escape Camper Vans have everything you need for your adventure and you can even add on extra accessories for your trip like a kitchen kit, camp chairs, a solar shower, and much more to ensure your trip is as comfortable as you want!

Reserve with Escape Camper Vans for your San Francisco to Joshua Tree Trip

Now that you have your San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park itinerary planned out the hard work is done. All you have to do is book your flight and reserve your Escape Campervan in San Francisco then hit the road! You’re sure to enjoy this incredible California desert bucket list road trip itinerary and with the comfort and ease of a campervan, there’s no point in delaying this next adventure!

Book My Joshua Tree Trip!

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