8 Incredible Stops on a San Francisco to Joshua Tree Road Trip

san francisco to joshua tree road trip
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One of my favorite places to go in California is Joshua Tree National Park, which is probably why I’ve been there multiple times. It’s such a relaxing break out of the city, and the park is so unlike any other park in the country with its unique Joshua trees. However, it’s a bit of a drive – over eight hours to be exact – so you’ll want to know where you can take a break on your San Francisco to Joshua Tree road trip.

I’ve gone on dozens and dozens of road trips at this point and only continue to go on more each year, so I get smarter about where I stop. While I do like being spontaneous, I also like having a general list to choose from so I know when I’m about to go through a big city and can get food, or when I’m passing through a smaller one and can get out to explore. That’s exactly what you’ll find on this list – a mix of bigger areas as well as more remote towns, if that’s your kind of thing, when driving from San Francisco to Joshua Tree.

With that, let’s get into planning your San Francisco to Joshua Tree drive! You can stop at all of these places if you really want to extend your trip, or just pick a few that make sense for where in the drive you want to stop.

Tips for a San Francisco to Joshua Tree Road Trip

joshua tree cholla 1

Road trips can be daunting, but I believe that they are definitely worth the worry, even if you need a bit of extra help to get you started. I’ve gathered a few helpful tips and tricks to help you along the way and answer any questions you might have.

How Long Is the Road Trip From San Francisco to Joshua Tree?

The most direct route from San Francisco to Joshua Tree is around 500 miles via the I-5 S and CA-58 E highways. In regular traffic, you can expect that trip to take you about 8 hours one way.

I find the Lake Tahoe Route toward Sacramento a more scenic route, though. At about 822 miles, it’s much longer and will be just over 14 hours long in normal traffic conditions. This route is great for the extra views of lush forests, epic mountain ranges, and the gorgeous blue lake.

I’d still recommend carving out at least 3-4 days for your trip on the Lake Tahoe Route. That way, you can stop at some spectacular towns and enjoy breathtaking locations between San Francisco and Joshua Tree.

If you’re looking for other drives to compare to, this San Francisco to San Diego road trip travels along the Pacific Coast Highway and has some great stops, too.

Can You Drive From San Francisco to Joshua Tree in One Day?

The simple answer is yes — you can do a Joshua Tree road trip from San Francisco in a single day – but it’s a bad idea, to be honest. Depending on your route and stops, the trip can take 14+ hours, so it’s a good idea to have another driver with you to take turns behind the wheel. You’ll also barely get to enjoy the park before you have to turn around.

When’s the Best Time To Do a San Francisco to Joshua Tree Road Trip?

One thing you should know about visiting Joshua Tree is that the summer months (June, July, and August) can get incredibly hot — I’m talking upwards of 95°F. To get the most out of the different stops along the way, the optimal time is before or after the height of summer.

Generally speaking, this means going on your road trip in late spring (April or May) or early fall (September or October). During this time, the weather is nice and mild but warm enough to enjoy the outdoors. As a bonus, you’ll get to view those gorgeous orange and red fall hues in the foliage on your trip.

If you want fewer crowds, the chance to take advantage of the snowy scenery, and lower prices on attractions, the winter months (December through February) are best. Luckily, most national parks on the route, including Joshua Tree National Park, are open year-round, so you can still explore, albeit in chilly weather.

What To Pack for a San Francisco to Joshua Tree Road Trip

It’s important to look at a good family road trip checklist before packing for your journey. Here are a few packing essentials that I’d recommend:

  • Water bottle: Keep hydrated during your drive and explorations.
  • Sunscreen: It’s important to stay protected against that hot California weather.
  • Hiking shoes: You’ll likely be hiking and walking a lot at your stopping points, so durable shoes are a must.
  • First aid kit: Accidents happen, so it’s always best to be prepared for minor injuries during your trip.
  • Camera: A smartphone works, but a good camera is even better for capturing those unforgettable memories you’ll be making.

San Francisco to Joshua Tree Road Map

Take a look at this map of the route and see what your drive from San Francisco to Joshua Tree might look like.

8 Stops on a San Francisco to Joshua Tree Road Trip

joshua tree sign

Your California trip will be jam-packed with nature’s finest national parks, gorgeous towns and cities, and plenty of fantastic activities to tickle your fancy.

Here are the top eight stops along a scenic Lake Tahoe route on your road trip from San Francisco to Joshua Tree.

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1. San Francisco

San Francisco

The starting point for your road trip is the Golden City itself, and believe me, the tourists flock to it for a reason.

Start with sightseeing at some of the most popular attractions in the US, like the iconic Golden Gate Bridge — I mean, how could you not go there? You can just drive across if you’d like, but the best thing to do is take it in from popular lookout spots like Crissy Field or Baker Beach

A boat ride out to visit the former prison, Alcatraz, is also a must. San Francisco is packed with amazing spots for delicious food, but the markets and stalls near piers, like Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, are my favorite options. If you’ve scheduled enough time, take a ride on those famous cable cars before you leave.

Other San Fran places to visit if you have time on your San Francisco to Joshua Tree road trip include the Hidden Stairways of San Francisco or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

2. Sacramento

Sacramento

Once you’re done in San Francisco, you can travel around 88 miles (1 hour, 20 minutes) to the capital of California, Sacramento. This city is full of excitement, stunning architecture, fun, and welcoming locals.

Sacramento is known for its culture and music scene, so live performances and festivals are always happening somewhere. Of course, you need to try the food too — classic French toast, cream-filled buns, brandy-fried chicken — the list goes on. I always try to fit in a visit to one of the plethora of museums there, like the California State Railroad Museum or the Crocker Art Museum.

If you’d rather have a more relaxed day, you can spend time in the stunning World Peace Rose Garden adorned with colorful roses. That’s not even mentioning the nightclubs, bars, theaters, water parks — I can go on. 

3. Eldorado National Forest

Eldorado National Forest

Now it’s time to venture out into the wilderness and enjoy the beauty that the California natural environment has to offer. Eldorado National Forest is 56 miles (1 hour, 13 minutes) from Sacramento. 

The forest is the perfect place for nature lovers to catch some amazing photos and enjoy many outdoor activities. The lakes, rivers, and streams are teeming with life, so you can kick back and relax while fishing. Eldorado National Forest also has plenty of picnic and camping spots for you to try.

One of the hallmark features of this spot has to be the hiking trails. Take in the scenery of the lush forest, the beautiful blue streams and lakes, and even the tall summits. Trust me, it’ll feel great to take a break to stretch your legs on a road trip to Joshua Tree from San Francisco.

4. South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe

Next up is South Lake Tahoe, a small resort city named after the iconic lake it sits beside. It’s only 8 miles from Eldorado National Forest, so a quick 12-minute drive is all you’ll need to get there. 

Lake Tahoe sits on the border of California and Nevada, but the city is in California. Forests of tall, luscious pine trees surround the massive freshwater lake, creating breathtaking views

Here are some must-do activities while you’re there:

  • Visit a casino resort – A few hotels have casinos, like Harrah’s Lake Hotel, where you can stay overnight and have some fun in the process.
  • Go hiking – It’s always great to get the most out of the views, whether on designated hiking trails or along the lake’s edge.
  • Try local restaurants – Whether you want Mexican food or fine dining, there’s no better way to enjoy a good meal than by trying restaurants overlooking Lake Tahoe.
  • Go shopping – South Lake Tahoe has some adorable shops and lovely boutique stores where you can get a little souvenir from your trip.

If you want to see South Lake Tahoe but are traveling from somewhere else, here’s a Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe road trip that might be useful.

5. Mount Patterson

Mount Patterson

Once you’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in South Lake Tahoe, drive another 74 miles (1 hour, 42 minutes) down to the epic Mount Patterson. Sure, there are plenty of mountain ranges along the route, but this one just has something special about it.

It’s the tallest mountain among the Sweetwater Mountains, with the summit about 11,673 feet tall (yikes). Like other mountains in the range, Patterson is made from colorful volcanic rock with purple, green, yellow, red, and white hues — it’s a unique geological formation. 

Climbing and hiking are great activities for the more extreme and adventurous individuals, but even if you don’t have the energy, I’d suggest you stop nearby to take some incredible photos on your San Francisco to Joshua Tree road trip.

Another stunning trip is the drive from San Francisco to Seattle, or going the opposite direction for a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip.

6. Mono City

Mono Lake

Another 47 miles (1 hour, 6 minutes) along your road trip, you’ll find Mono City. The city itself is small, with not much going on, but it’s the surrounding places that are worth the stop. Cooney Lake and Lundy Lake are gorgeous and worth a quick look, but the main lake I’d recommend is Mono Lake.

Mono Lake is a saline soda lake that is potentially over a million years old, making it one of North America’s oldest lakes. The large calcium carbonate spires that jut out from the lake are one of the most unique and exciting natural wonders you’ll have the pleasure of witnessing.

Apart from the lakes, you can try a few hiking trails and lookout points in and near the city, like Tioga Pass Valley Lookout, the Mono Lake Trail, and the Lee Vining Creek Canyon Overlook.

For a different type of trip, go on a San Francisco to Portland road trip.

7. Death Valley National Park

The next stop is one of California’s best national parks — Death Valley National Park. It’s around 205 miles (3 hours, 25 minutes) away from Mono City. Along the way, you’ll pass Yosemite National Park, which is also a great visit, by the way (I have a separate San Francisco to Yosemite itinerary if you want it).

Death Valley has everything an adventurer could ever want. Trail running and hiking along designated routes are popular, but you can also go mountain biking or drive on backcountry roads. If you’d prefer, you can try a Death Valley self-guided tour and explore it independently. 

Nighttime here is incredible for stargazing, so camping overnight is a fantastic option. For the interest of movie lovers, Death Valley was the filming location for two Star Wars movies, so you can see what it feels like to be on Tatooine. 

If that wasn’t enough, here are other impressive spots to check out:

  • Dante’s View – a stunning overlook giving panoramic views of the park.
  • Zabriskie Point – another lookout point, but perfect for catching the sunrise or sunset.
  • Badwater Basin – The Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America and was once a large lake, now an empty stretch of land covered in salt and gypsum.
  • Darwin Falls – this gorgeous year-round waterfall is a tranquil resting spot after a nice hike.
  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – these giant dunes might seem uninteresting, but I’m sure you’ll understand the appeal once you witness the breathtaking views.

8. Joshua Tree National Park

Finally, 344 miles (5 hours, 16 minutes) away from Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect dichotomy of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. So, now that you’ve reached your destination, what can you get up to?

For starters, you can’t visit a California national park without hiking, so try out trails like Arch Rock (an easy 1,8 miles) and Ryan Mountain (a more strenuous 3 miles). Ryan Mountain, in particular, leads to a scenic view of the park. There’s also Warren Peak (strenuous, 5.5 miles), among others.

You’ll get fantastic photo opportunities at Heart Rock and Skull Rock, shaped as their namesakes. These can both be accessed through various hiking trails. If you’re a bit tuckered out from hiking, consider a scenic drive up Covington Flat Road to reach Eureka Peak.

On your way back, you can extend your trip by going on a San Francisco to LA road trip. You can also go on a drive from Joshua Tree to Los Angeles.

3-Day San Francisco to Joshua Tree Drive Itinerary

San Francisco

This three-day itinerary is excellent for adventurers and nature lovers. You can take some time to check out key stopping points and recharge at even more incredible locales. 

Day 1: San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe

The first stretch begins after you depart from San Francisco and start your 188-mile drive to South Lake Tahoe. It should take around 3 hours and 20 minutes, but give or take a little time for those small stops along the way.

Before leaving San Francisco, explore some key attractions, like viewpoints looking over the Golden Gate Bridge or Pier 39. Then, enjoy a big breakfast to give you energy for the drive ahead. 

You can pass through and have lunch in Sacramento or stop at photo-worthy spots like Eldorado Forest for a quick snack or air break. Once you’ve reached South Lake Tahoe, check in to your hotel and get ready to explore. 

Remember, the fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. The city also has a booming nightlife, so visit some nightclubs or casinos if you’re up for it.

Where to Stay: The Coachman Hotel offers a beautiful design, comfortable rooms, and unbeatable lake views. (Rates start at $152 per night.)

Day 2: South Lake Tahoe to Death Valley National Park

For day two, head down to Death Valley National Park. It’s a bit of a long drive from South Lake Tahoe, about 314 miles (5 hours, 21 minutes), but well worth it. 

Spend your morning in South Lake Tahoe strolling along the shores of a lake beach and admiring the beauty of the crystal-blue waters before departing. Once you push through the long drive ahead, you can spend the rest of your day enjoying what Death Valley offers.

Spend time exploring through guided tours, hikes along popular trails, or driving (or riding a bike) along some scenic roads. As night approaches, take in the sunset from Dante’s Peak or Father Crowley Vista Point

While you’re at it, try staying up a little longer to do some stargazing — there’s nothing better than getting lost in undisturbed galaxies. 

Where to Stay: The Ranch At Death Valley has this rustic elegance that makes you feel truly special, centered in Death Valley. (Rates start at $161 per night.)

Day 3: Death Valley National Park to Joshua Tree National Park

I know it’s been a long drive, but you’re in the final stretch now towards your destination. Joshua Tree National Park is another 344 miles from Death Valley, so give or take 5 hours

On your way, you’ll drive past picture-perfect places and bask in the views of the California landscape. The Nopah Range Wilderness Area and the Mojave National Preserve are just two locales with spectacular mountain views.

Once you make it to Joshua Tree National Park, you’ve officially made it to your destination. Now, it’s just a matter of making the most of it. Whether hiking along the trails, driving along the idyllic roads, viewing cactus gardens, or rock climbing, this park has it all.

Where to Stay: Consider spending time in Hampton Inn & Suites Indio, CA, which offers comfort, affordability, and proximity to Joshua Tree National Park. (Rates start at $142 per night.)

Want to venture outside of California? Try a California to Arizona road trip, including Joshua Tree National Park and other beautiful locations.

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You’ll love exploring these stops on your San Francisco to Joshua Tree road trip whenever you need a break.

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