Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Parks offer balmy temps just hours from Central Valley!

Desert wildflowers burst forth in Death Valley National Park in February.

Three evocative desert parks, just 2/3 day drive from San Joaquin county…

Wanting to beat these cold, frosty holiday mornings? Get your dose of balmy days with three world-class desert parks, offering daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s, wonderful hiking and exploration opportunities, all flush with history and unique ecology. Best of all, they are all within an 8 or 9 hour drive from San Joaquin County.

Harmony Borax Works wagon-train in Death Valley National Park.

Two are US national parks, while the other is the biggest California state park, larger than the other 259 state parks combined! All offer days of adventure, whether you’re staying in motels or camping, and are perfect for frugal travelers.

Nearest to Stockton is world famous Death Valley National Park. It frames a land of extremes, the hottest, driest, harshest and lowest lands in the United States. During the California gold rush, a wagon-train of 49ers attempted to shortcut across the forbidden valley – after one miner perished, the group looked back and said “goodbye, Death Valley” – forever affixing the name.

In 1873, silver was discovered near Panamint City, elevation sea level, whose population quickly swelled to 5,000 residents. After silver played out within a five years, prospectors discovered “white gold”, borax, mined and refined at the Harmony Borax Works in the 1880s (the facility well preserved in the park). Their 20 mule-team wagon-train would haul 36 tons of refined borax, and 2000 gallons water for the mules, 160 miles to the nearest rail-head.

Railroad to nowhere: the old Rhyolite Railroad Station lies abandoned in the old ghost town on east side of Death Valley. The town became deserted about 100 years ago when the gold ran out and an economic recession sealed its fate.

Gold was discovered on the east side of the park in 1904, leading to the last great American gold rush. Gold drew thousands of people to the mining district and town of Rhyolite, but financial failure lead to the end of the era by 1912. Visit the town for a remarkable remnant of this once huge, luxury town with such a short lifespan.

Highlights within the park include Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a vast sandy desert and nearby Golden Canyon, where a short hike off Highway 190 takes one to a truly golden canyon best viewed around sunrise or sunset. Be sure to make your way to Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest and saltiest land within the United States.

Within the park are picturesque campgrounds and lodging at Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells Village and Furnace Creek. Furnace Creek offers both the most upscale overnight accommodations and, to our minds, the most scenic campground.

Susan and author Tim Viall stand in Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea-level, the lowest place in the USA.

Visitation to Death Valley explodes with the late winter/early spring wild-flower bloom. Depending on rain fall and temperatures, the bloom is spectacular to mind blowing, lasting 2 to 4 weeks. We were there a year ago in March, at the tail end of a spectacular bloom of yellow, orange and purple wildflowers throughout much of the park (best to watch the park’s website for the most impressive bloom weeks).

A bit further south lies Joshua Tree National Park, a park of strange plants, alien landscape, and wonderful hiking, biking and climbing opportunities. Enter the park from the northside, adjacent to Twentynine Palms, the town offering overnight lodging. The northern part of the park, higher in elevation with more rainfall, allows the Mojave Desert to prevail – the habitat of the parks name-sake, Joshua trees.

Eerie Chollo Cactus Garden offers acres of these alien plants in Joshua Tree National Park.

As one moves south through the park, dropping steadily in elevation, the Colorado Desert takes over, with 20 foot tall, spindly Ocatillo plants with bright red flowers, brittlebush, smoke tree, Mojave Yucca and the strange Chollo cactus – creations we never envisioned. The park is studded with other-worldly rock formations; a favorite hiking and camping destination is the campground at Jumbo Rocks, where most campsites are tucked into the oddest of rock formations and kids can climb to their heart’s delight.

The park offers nine picturesque campgrounds with almost 500 developed campsites; most are first-come, first-served, though reservations are available for Black Rock and Indian Cove campgrounds during the busy season.

Inside the park, be sure to take in Keys View, at almost a mile in elevation, with a stunning view of distant peaks and the San Andreas Fault cleaving the valley below. Worthwhile are the short hike into Barker Dam, built in the 1900s to capture rainwater and now an oasis for birds, as well as the old Lost Horse Mine which produced over $6 million worth of gold in its heyday from the late 1800s to 1931. Keep an eye for exotic species such as chuckwallas, greater roadrunners, desert iguana and tortoise and stately bighorn sheep on the bluffs above (rangers offer tips for best viewing).

35 foot-tall Joshua Tree populates the Mojave Desert at the higher elevations in Joshua Tree National Park.

From Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego State Park and the alien Salton Seaare just south and west. That’s a story for another day; watch a coming feature.

The sun rises over Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree National Park.

How to get there: For Death Valley, take Hwy. 99 south to Bakersfield, then Highway 58 east, north on Highway 14/395 then Hwy. 190 into the park. It’s about 480 miles and nine hours. For Joshua Tree, Take I-5 south to the Los Angeles area, then I – 10 eastbound, then north on Highway 62 to the park’s north entrance. It’s 460 miles and about eight hours.

For more information: For Death Valley, NPS.gov/DEVA or call 760.786–3200; for Joshua Tree, NPS.gov/JOTR, or phone (760) 367–5500. Camping can booked through recreation.gov or (877) 444–6777.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in the west!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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