Hey there, welcome to I Went Somewhere!
Today's travels take us to California to God's country where the streets have no name. That's right, we're going to Joshua Tree National Park.
With or without You, we're going to that one tree hill until we find what we're looking for. So let's get to it and go to another American national park.
Hello! Tell us a little bit about you and where you traveled to...
Hi! I’m Halle Homel and I’m a student and traveler from Southern California! I’m studying creative writing, and right now, the end goal with that is travel writing. Very recently I planned a very spontaneous trip to finally take my friend Shayna to her first National Park, and we chose the one that’s closest to where to go to school: Joshua Tree!
I am such a National Parks enthusiast and I currently have plans to visit more than 30 NPS sites in 2019 on a giant solo road trip I’m doing over the summer. I travel every chance I get, and my most recent trips include this past one to Joshua Tree, a cold camping experience with a bear encounter in Yosemite in November, and a trip to my (now) favorite National Park in the fall, Sequoia.
I’m a lover of all things nature and outdoors. I’ve always had an affinity for nature and the environment (especially animals), and I want to experience everything I can so that I can spread the message of keeping these places beautiful and wild while we still have the chance to.
How great was the trip?
Our road trip lasted three days and two nights and started at the famous desert landmark, Salvation Mountain, since most of the roads to Joshua Tree were closed due to unexpected snowfall. Seeing the desert art was such a cool experience in and of itself, and our first day ended with us spontaneously trying to find a campsite before the sun went down. This was a little stressful since I usually have at least a backup plan, but it was such a good learning experience, especially as someone who is planning on doing a lot of spontaneous stuff in the coming months! We ended up staying at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, and because most people cold camp in RV’s and camper vans, we were the only tent on the beach. We were greeted the next morning by the most beautiful sunrise, and we quickly packed everything up to get to Joshua Tree early before the crowds.
Once we got into Joshua Tree National Park, from the Yucca Valley entrance, we spent our first moments looking for an empty campground. Just before finding our spot, we stopped to take pictures at Skull Rock and Shayna stepped foot in her very first National Park ever! We ended up getting the last open spot in Belle Campground, which was surrounded by rocks and beautiful views of the Joshua trees.
After pitching our tent, we drove down to Ryan Mountain, where we climbed up through mud, ice, snow, and some of the best views you can get in Joshua Tree! Our day ended with exploring the area around Belle by taking pictures with the trees and climbing some of the iconic giant rocks!
What was the best part of your trip?
Definitely the sunrises. I feel like sunrises are something that we often miss in life, so I made it a point to get up before the sun both mornings, despite the freezing temperatures. Seeing the sunrise over the Salton Sea was absolutely gorgeous since the sun reflected off the mountains across the water, and the morning sky in Joshua Tree was streaked with jet streams from planes that had crossed over the park in the night, creating a sunrise streaked with pink!
What did you do while you were there?
While we were there, the one thing I wanted to do was hike and the one thing Shayna wanted to do was take pictures with the Joshua trees. Luckily, we had time for both! Since it was a National Park, most of what we were doing was self guided via the maps they give you when you enter the park and my general knowledge of the area since I’d taken a trip there once before.
Because all we wanted to do was explore, it was really easy to budget our time and money. The entire trip from start to finish only cost us about $150 total, split between two people, and the main reason for that is because of my America the Beautiful Annual Pass. If you’re someone who plans on visiting more than three National Parks in a year, this is one of the best money-savers you can invest in. You pay $80 for the pass and it gets you into all National Parks in the US for free all year!
Everything we did was generally family friendly as well. I did see plenty of kids on the hike up Ryan Mountain, however, it was quite slippery when we were there just because of the extreme winter weather. Simply exploring the park though, would be a great, and super kid friendly way to enjoy the scenery and there are plenty of cool things to see in Joshua Tree (like Skull Rock!).
How did you learn and prepare for this trip?
Like I said earlier, we planned this very spontaneously. So much so that we didn’t really have a place to stay for the first night. That being said, though, spontaneous travel leads to the best memories! Our stay at the Salton Sea was one of the highlights of the trip and we weren’t even expecting to go there!
I do have a lot of experiences with camping in the National Parks though, and found most of the information I needed to prepare for that on the official Joshua Tree website.
I don’t know that I would’ve done anything differently, but it’s always more secure when you have a place to stay every night, so it would’ve been good to at least try to reserve a spot for both campsites (if possible—camping in the Parks is pretty crowded these days and spots fill up fast).
How did you get there?
Most trips I go on are road trips and I’m usually the one driving. I drive a Kia Soul and it’s honestly the perfect road trip car! Luckily, I only live around two hours from each of our destinations, and taking interstate highways makes road tripping in California really easy.
The first day was around two and a half hours of driving, and that was only because we drove to Salvation Mountain and then back in the direction of Joshua Tree to the Salton Sea to camp, which added around thirty minutes to the trip.
The second day, from the Salton Sea to the North entrance of Joshua Tree National park. I wanted to go in through the North entrance because I didn’t want to risk driving through the whole park and needing to fill up gas during the journey and the North entrance is the closer side to where I live in the Inland Empire. Once we got into the park, it was only about twenty-thirty minutes of driving until we got to Belle Campground. Within the park, there is a shuttle, but we drove to our hike because it was more convenient for us.
Where did you stay?
We camped the whole time we were traveling! I love camping, and feel very comfortable in campgrounds, so finding a place to pitch a tent was really the best case scenario for us. The first night, we didn’t have any true plans for camping, but stumbled upon the Salton Sea by happy accident.
We showed up around three p.m. and there were plenty of campsites left in all of the main campsites off Highway 111. We stayed in the primitive campground, which was $10 per night, and came with a picnic table, fire pit, and pit toilets, as well as beautiful views of the water and the mountains across the way. It was really easy to pitch the tent on the beach and to get up early the next morning to un-pitch and head to Joshua Tree. The only downside of the campground is that it’s fairly close to some train tracks and the road, so we could hear the train throughout the night.
For the second night, we also didn’t have anything reserved, but we did plan on staying in Joshua Tree National Park, so we drove through the park checking campgrounds for vacancies. The first few campgrounds throughout the park were full or reservations only, but we happened to turn down the right road looking for the Cholla Cactus Garden and stumbled upon Belle Campground, which was pretty secluded and didn’t have too many sites. It was $15 per night and everyone in the campground was super friendly. There were honestly no downsides to Belle Campground—it was pretty central to most of the main sites in Joshua Tree and not too far from the Twenty-nine Palms Visitor Center.
What did you eat?
I’m the type of camper who buys a ton of groceries before the trip and then cooks everything on my camping stove! I’m vegan, so when I go toward nature and get further from the city, it does become more difficult to find vegan friendly restaurants. It usually makes the most sense for me to cook everything myself.
We ate a mixture of Field Roast sausages, rice, peanut butter sandwiches, oatmeal, and lots of snacks (including Oreos). It’s also easiest when you go hiking to have food to pack like sandwiches and granola bars!
This is also the most budget-friendly option because you can get multiple meals out of some pre-packaged groceries instead of spending more money on restaurants in the town you’re in, and as someone traveling on a tight budget, this makes things feel a lot more accessible.
How much did it cost?
Doing this kind of travel is super budget friendly! Both campsites only added up to $25 total, and because it wasn’t too much driving, gas for the car only cost around $55 split between the two of us. Including the food and souvenirs (stickers!), the total cost for the trip was only around $150, which was split between two people.
Keep in mind though that we were staying in the most primitive campgrounds and didn’t eat out at all, so if you’re into staying in motels (especially when it’s as cold as it was when we were there), it’s definitely going to cost a little bit more.
Another tip I have for traveling on a budget if you plan on hitting multiple National Parks in a year is to invest in an America the Beautiful Annual Pass, which does cost $80 but has already gotten me into two National Parks for free, so it definitely pays for itself quickly and saved us the $25 entrance fee and got us a fast pass to get into the park—the ranger let us skip the main line since we didn’t have to pay!
Would you go back and do it again?
Absolutely! This trip was really easy and super affordable. I’ve been to Joshua Tree before in the summer season and it was really unbearably hot, so coming in the winter was a perfect experience, especially as Shayna’s first National Park experience. Seeing the desert snow was also a really cool experience that I would absolutely love to experience again!
Going to any National Park is a great experience for people on a budget because campgrounds tend to be really cheap to stay in and are always fun experiences for people on any budget and age! There’s so much to do in the Parks and definitely enough to stretch your trip to last multiple days.
Also, doing the spontaneous camping at the Salton Sea was an amazing experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. If you’re comfortable doing so, its definitely worth it to do things a little more spontaneously because the odds are, you’ll find something really beautiful.
Advice for people wanting to do something similar?
Definitely to let go and do the spontaneous when you can! If you see something cool off the side of the road, stop and check it out! If you’re not sure where to stay, find a nearby campground and see what it’s like. Sometimes the things you’re not expecting end up being the best parts of the trip.
And I can’t stress enough the American the Beautiful Pass—it made things so convenient and saved us money in the long run, so if you want to do a lot of trips like this, that’s definitely worth the investment, and they sell them at all National Park Visitor Centers!
Where can we connect with you?
Youtube: Halle’s Wandering Soul
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