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The Golden State Desert Parks That’ll Leave A Lasting Impression

The Golden State Desert Parks That’ll Leave A Lasting Impression

Discover hidden waterfalls, sandy dunes, and oasis-like canyons at California's best desert parks.


6 min read

October 07, 2020

Wanderlust and desert dust meet in the Golden State’s most majestic deserts. Come for the warm air and wind-worn rock formations, and fall head over heels for the desert blooms dotting the striking landscape.

The three main deserts in California are the Mojave, Colorado, and Great Basin—all of which attract visitors from all over the state and beyond. There is so much to do in the deserts of California, but nothing beats traversing through the remote yet vibrant desert parks boasting magnificent natural wonders.

Head to the state’s best desert parks to explore a vast expanse of oasis-like canyons, sandy dunes, and hidden waterfalls.

Joshua Tree National Park

Witness the staggering landscape and unique rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park.

Obscure Joshua trees, exquisite flowers, and star-filled skies make this dramatic desert park a must-see. From gold mining ruins and desert plains to rugged mountains and robust rock formations, there's plenty to see in Joshua Tree National Park. The Mojave and Colorado Deserts come together in Joshua Tree, yielding distinct desert flora such as an abundance of palm trees and, of course, the famous namesake trees. A type of yucca tree, Joshuas are quite the sight to behold both during the day and at night. 

The Joshua Tree desert is a sublime spot for the whole family. Kick-off your park adventure at the Lost Horse Mine—a guided hiking tour will take you on a four-mile loop to learn about the desert's mining history. For a shaded hike, trek the three-mile 49 Palms Oasis Trail, which leads to a fan palm oasis. You can also sign up for a class or a weekend program at the Desert Institute to further your knowledge about the various wildlife in Joshua Tree.

J-Tree Park—as the locals call it—is the perfect place to get your rock climbing on. Register for classes at the Joshua Tree Climbing School to learn the fundamentals of rope climbing and rappelling. If you're already familiar with the basics, then rent pads, helmets, and camp gear at the Nomad Ventures to conquer the rocks. For top-notch live music in the evenings, stop by Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Discover the diverse flora and fauna tucked within Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Looking for a place to uncover the beauty and diversity of the Golden State’s deserts? Search no further, because Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has what you’re looking for and more. Just two hours away from the beautiful beaches of San Diego, Anza-Borrego is a whole other world. California’s largest state park stretches across 600,000 acres of rugged terrain. The park's striking landscape—featuring everything from sandstone and cracked earth to slot canyons and cactus-covered slopes—attracts repeat visitors who come to witness and ponder its majesty.

So, get ready to load up the car and embark on a fabulous California desert road trip with the whole family. Begin your explorations at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center to gather the necessary tips on where to go and what to do throughout your venture. Another perk of exploring the Anza-Borrego state park? There's no shortage of prime desert camping spots; visitors can set up camp at one of many campsites found within the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground.

Keep it rugged and trek the three-mile round trip hike through Borrego Palm Canyon—you don't worry about the heat, either, thanks to the native California palms lining the trail. During your excursion, keep an eye out for Anza-Borrego's gorgeous desert blossoms, including white chicory, orange desert sunflowers, and purple sand verbena. For more desert adventures, sign up for Jeep tours with California Overland to gain a true understanding of what Anza-Borrego's wilderness is all about, and check out the park's quirky desert art.

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Mojave National Preserve

Mojave Natural Preserve, the third-largest National Park Service unit in the United States, offers breathtaking vistas at sunset.

Colossal dunes and volcanoes—what more can you ask for? Although the Mojave National Preserve may seem a bit intimidating due to the intense heat, you'll never want to leave once you've experienced its majestic desertscape. With carved canyons, lava spills, stone grottos, and towering sand dunes, the Mojave Desert will have you hooked.

As per every desert adventure, you have to start things off right. Head to the Kelso Depot Visitor Center for maps and tips on thriving in this desert. To spice up your adventure, catch the sunrise or sunset at the Kelso Dunes—the largest sand dunes produced from desert winds. Climb the highest dune, if you dare, for gorgeous panoramic views of the wilderness. No trip to the California desert would be complete without hiking. For a challenging workout, hike to the summit of Teutonia Peak along the 3.2-mile Teutonia Peak Trail studded by Joshua trees.

Red Rock Canyon State Park

Admire the vivid desert cliffs and spectacular rock formations of Red Rock Canyon State Park.

Spend your days sauntering through the rusty red sandstone cliffs scattered throughout this stunning desert park. Roughly 80 miles east of Bakersfield, the abraded wilderness of Red Rock Canyon State Park greets visitors with bright-colored cliffs, crumpled sandstone piles, and sandy soil. Shutterbugs and romantics gather in this photographer’s haven to capture the vivid colors at sunrise and sunset. Take a hike on the Hagen Canyon Nature Trail for a 1.2-mile trip among the oh-so-wonderful Joshua trees and fiery red caves. 

Springtime is perfect for strutting around the wildflower fields—the desert is home to 600 different species of plants; keep an eye out for the red rock poppy. Make sure to stay for the awe-inspiring sunset, but the show doesn’t stop there. Amateur stargazers and professional astronomers flock to the park to gaze at the star-studded night sky for an opportunity to see the Milky Way and a few shooting stars (it's time to make a wish). Set up camp at one of the 50 campsites found at the Ricardo Campground, or perhaps opt for glamping at Olancha RV Park and Motel.

Indian Canyons

Comprised of three different canyons, Indian Canyons offers scenic hiking trails and a hidden waterfall.

Although Palm Springs is known to host many California desert weddings and luxurious special events, the area has quite the rugged, untamed side as well. The Indian Canyons are home to towering California palm trees, desert bighorn sheep, and birds. One of the more popular canyons found on site is Tahquitz Canyon, where visitors can join a guided hike or trek to the 60-foot waterfall base.

When you arrive, head to the visitor center for information regarding the region and watch a short film to learn more about the local Native American culture. The two-mile out-and-back trail into Murray Canyon will take you past more than 150 species of plants. The canyon’s twists and turns will stun hikers; bright red cliffs, towering palms, and cactus-studded terrain await you. If that's not enough, don't stop at the end of the trail—hike your way to the Seven Sisters Waterfall and refresh yourself in the waterworks.

After a day spent in the great outdoors, rest up in Palm Springs, which is famed for its chic desert hotels. Spend the evening at the Avalon Hotel and Bungalows for a good night's sleep before continuing your Palm Springs adventures the following day.

Palm Springs Dog Park

For a fun-filled day with Fido, head to the beautiful Palm Springs Dog Park.

Situated behind Palm Springs City Hall, the Palm Springs Dog Park is a 1.6-acre paradise for pups and humans alike. The expanse park is covered in rolling grass and offers plenty of picnic tables and benches, so you can relax while the canines are off running wild. Even the fence stands out—Sacramento architect and sculptor Phil Evans fashioned cacti, trees, dogs, and a car from hot-rolled steel bars, adding quite the touch to the park. 

Palm Springs Dog Park is divided into different sections for large and small dogs. With plenty of shade, dogs can run around leash-free. The best part? the park never closes. After a day filled with Frisbees and tennis balls, take your dog along for lunch or dinner at El Mirasol Cocina, where authentic Mexican food meets a festive ambience. 

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