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Death Valley vs. Joshua Tree National Park: Two Outdoor Writers Debate Which Desert Park to Visit

The desert can be instantly beautiful to some people. The big skies, sandy and rocky terrain, and unique plants make it a sight to behold. And for those who don’t love the desert, we recommend they try a national park visit to change their mind, but where do you go with a dozen different desert parks? For many, the debate comes down to Death Valley vs. Joshua Tree National Park. 

The two parks sit in eastern California, about four hours away from each other. Many are fortunate to visit both, but if you don’t have time to do both, our two writers can help you decide which national park to see next.

Team Death Valley National Park

By Matthew Kok

death valley vs joshua tree
(Source: Shane O)

1. Death Valley Is a Bigger Playground

If you’ve ever driven through Death Valley National Park, you know how absolutely massive it is. It feels like a new state in and of itself. You have 5,270 square miles as opposed to Joshua Tree’s 1,242. Granted, this adds to the large and looming perception of Death Valley as this terribly dangerous place, but if you ignore that, there’s more places to explore. Death Valley lends itself to a long-term trip or repeated visits. You could spend a whole lot of time wandering through this wilderness and keep finding new, exciting spots time and time again. Death Valley is one of those places where if you get to know some older folks from the surrounding area, they’re sure to let you in on a few secret, beautiful spots, so long as you take good care of them.

2. Death Valley Has a More Interesting Landscape

Along with Death Valley National Park’s international reputation, it has a whole lot of strange, fascinating areas to explore. Pound for pound, viewpoint to viewpoint, I’d argue that Death Valley is coming out on top of Joshua Tree. It’s not that Joshua Tree isn’t beautiful, but there’s an edge that’s missing. Death Valley just has this incredible, out-of-this-world landscape that’s nearly impossible to beat.

If you’re deciding between these two parks, or just somebody planning to check out Death Valley, you should prioritize Zabriskie Point. It is one of the best examples of this victory. Badwater Basin is a shocking, desolate landscape on par with Utah’s salt flats. It’s one thing to know of Badwater Basin’s existence, but it’s entirely another to stand there and see how expansive it is. When it comes to beautiful, otherworldly, desert coloring, you simply have to see Artists Palette. It’s a part of the larger Artist Drive, a popular Death Valley area. You have to see the colors and their gradients to believe them.

3. Death Valley Is a Little More Iconic

Joshua Tree is one of the most popular spots for the population of Southern California, but Death Valley National Park is renowned the world over. Death Valley just has the superlatives that no one else can beat. Its name itself is in some ways a misnomer, because of course, there’s life there. Alongside plants and animals, the Timbisha Shoshone have lived there long before anyone called this place “Death Valley.”

Most folks know that Death Valley is the hottest place on earth, to the point where it is not recommended to visit there in the summer. In fact, it’s incredibly dangerous to spend too much time there in the summer. Generally, at least one person a year dies by ignoring this advice. Even driving through Death Valley is dangerous and is not something to be undertaken lightly. In the form of Badwater Basin, Death Valley is also home to the lowest place in the U.S., and therefore the start of the “Lowest to Highest” Route—a 135-mile trail up to the peak of Mt. Whitney.

4. Death Valley Is Less Crowded (By a Lot)

This is, or should be, always a consideration when it comes to a national park visit. It depends on personal preference, of course, but plenty of nature lovers seek out wide, expansive places like Death Valley specifically to get away from the crowds. Looking at the numbers, around 2.8 million people visit Joshua Tree each year. This is partially because it’s so accessible to Southern California’s metropolitan areas and has become a vacation spot for those crowds specifically. Los Angeles and San Diego love Joshua Tree, and rightfully so, it’s a beautiful park. Death Valley National Park only receives a little over 1 million visitors a year. With such an expansive park, it’s easy to find a little spot to unwind and call your own for a night.

5. The Risk Is Intoxicating

Death Valley National Park has a reputation for danger, and it’s not entirely misplaced. Apparently, back in 1913, the valley once reached a terrifying high temperature of 134°F. While that doesn’t happen every day, in the summer, the heat really does get oppressive. Part of the reason Death Valley is so well-loved, though, is because it’s a great place to visit in the colder months. This is a niche that Joshua Tree can fill as well, but if you’re choosing between the two for a winter national park trip and you go with Joshua Tree, you won’t be able to say, “I’ve been to Death Valley,” which are some fun bragging rights. It’s important to note that you really should take the heat in Death Valley seriously, as it can be dangerous. I know, though, that for some of you, that’s a draw in and of itself. Stay safe in Death Valley, because it’s clearly the right choice over Joshua Tree.

Team Joshua Tree National Park

By Alex Murphy

death valley vs joshua tree
(Source: John Ko)

1. There’s Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree

One thing that keeps kids busy in Joshua Tree is the same thing that attracts climbers from around the world: rocks.

Joshua Tree is littered with boulders. Some are fun scrambles for kids to explore. Others are roadside stops that are worth checking out, like the appropriately named Skull Rock and Heart Rock. 

The national park is also really popular for bouldering and trad climbing. The endless rock formations make unique climbing lines and open a new way to explore the park. If you don’t want to travel with too much gear, you can always bring your climbing shoes for bouldering and rent crash pads from Nomad Ventures, the local gear shop.

2. Enjoy Some Cooler Weather with a High Elevation

Death Valley is famous for being more than 200 feet below sea level. This elevation is part of what makes the park hit its record-breaking temperatures. If you’re looking for less of an extreme, Joshua Tree is the answer. The park can still easily hit over 100°F in the summer, but it is pleasant for a lot of the year, with most of Joshua Tree sitting somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 feet of elevation. Visitors will find plenty of perfect spring and fall days, and, in the wintertime, the park may even see an occasional dusting of snow.

3. The Joshua Tree Is Iconic

Both parks have expansive landscapes, incredible rock formations, and miles of endless sand. However, you’ll find more life in Joshua Tree. The park is full of cool flora, including its namesake, the Joshua Tree, which is actually a kind of yucca plant. There is also a teddy bear cholla garden. (View these infamously pointy cacti from a safe distance.) You can find similar wildlife in both parks. However, the cooler temperatures in Joshua Tree allow for some more life to thrive and a better chance of seeing an animal.

4. Have an Epic Adventure on the California Riding and Hiking Trail

One of the best ways to have an epic adventure in Joshua Tree is to explore the California Riding and Hiking Trail. The nearly 37-mile trail spans the park from west to east. The hike takes about two to three days, and hikers need to cache water somewhere along the way. The backpacking trip allows visitors to see almost everything Joshua Tree offers in some of the more remote areas of the park. Learn more about the California Riding and Hiking Trail.

5. You Can’t Rule out Convenience

For most people, national parks are about the adventure you have once you’re there, but unfortunately, the time constraints of modern life mean you need to factor in drive time. 

Both parks are located around two hours from a major metropolitan area. Death Valley is about two hours northwest of Las Vegas, while Joshua Tree is about the same but east of Los Angeles. However, with Joshua Tree National Park, you also have Palm Springs, a decent-sized community with a reasonably popular airport. The proximity to Southern California makes Joshua Tree an easy trip from San Diego, LA, and even Vegas. 

The proximity to all these cities helps Joshua Tree rank as the eighth most popular national park in the U.S.


Have you visited both parks? Which do you prefer?

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