Death Valley vs Joshua Tree: Which National Park to Visit?


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When it comes to California-based National Parks, there’s a ton to choose from. From the rocky peaks of Yosemite to the sapphire shores of the Channel Islands, there’s endless beauty and diversity across this incredible state. However, when it comes to the unique and compelling draw of the desert, your choices get narrowed down to one crucial decision: Death Valley or Joshua Tree?

Both offer gorgeous natural landscapes with one-of-a-kind sites you won’t find anywhere else in the world. They’re both perfect for avid adventures, passionate hikers, and curious explorers. While the Death Valley vs Joshua Tree debate has no clear winner, but we hope this guide will help you decide which National Park is right for your next adventure.

Death Valley National Park

As the hottest place on earth and the largest National Park in the continental United States, Death Valley is truly one-of-a-kind. With a landscape that’s often compared to the moon, it’s harder to get more extra-terrestrial than this without leaving the planet.

When deciding between Death Valley vs Joshua Tree for your next National Park adventure, there’s no question that the unique landscape is one of the things that makes Death Valley a worthy competitor.

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley
Zabriskie Point in Death Valley

Accessibility

Though the landscape may put a point in the Death Valley column, accessibility will not. In general, neither of these desert parks is known for being the most accessible place in the country, but when considering the accessibility of Joshua Tree or Death Valley, there’s no doubt that Death Valley scores lower in this category.

While it is necessary to have a car to visit, just having a car is not enough.  Every year, one to three people die in Death Valley, and it is almost always due to a vehicle breakdown followed by over-exposure to heat.

Having a reliable vehicle, plenty of water, and a respect for the elements is a must. It’s also important to consult park rangers in addition to your map, as many roads and hiking trails may seem innocent enough in 2D but provide a gruelling afternoon of near-definite heat stroke if you go at the wrong time of day.

That said, if you come prepared and follow the general safety guidelines the National Park makes available, you will be fine and have an easy enough time navigating this gorgeous desert.

If you need to rent a car for your trip to the Death Valley, you can browse Rentalcars.com which has many options across a number of companies.

Artist's Drive in Death Valley
Artist’s Drive in Death Valley

Affordability

As far as entrance to the park, it’s a wash between Death Valley and Joshua Tree when it comes to affordability. Both parks cost $30 USD for a week pass, or you can purchase an America the Beautiful Pass for $80 USD, which gives you access to every National Park in the United States for 12 months following purchase.

Lodging in Death Valley can be split into two main categories: camping and hotels. Camping in the summer is highly discouraged (read: it’s the hottest place on Earth), but in the winter, campgrounds run about $15-18 USD per night.

Hotels, inns, and lodges range from $80 USD to $250 USD per night, with a variety of qualities and amenities, so you can find something on nearly any budget. There are a handful of restaurants spread in and around Death Valley.

Within the park itself, prices can get up to $20+ USD per main, but outside of the park, there are a ton of cheap pubs and restaurants where you can easily dine on a budget of $7 USD per main meal.

Natural Bridge Trail in Death Valley
Natural Bridge Trail in Death Valley

Things to do in Death Valley

The biggest draw to Death Valley is its unique landscape, and much of your time will be spent driving from one incredible site to another.

Whether exploring the sprawling salt flats at Badwater Basin or checking out the rainbow hills on Artist’s Drive, there’s an endless number of opportunities to see things in Death Valley you won’t see anywhere else.

At first glance, the things to do in Death Valley vs Joshua Tree aren’t all that different: (1) drive the scenic roads, (2) hike gorgeous trails, (3) see some old prospector and/or mining ruins, (4) watch the sunset, and (5) stargaze at an International Dark Sky Park.

Both National Parks put a focus on untouched desert and give you plenty of chances to explore that desert. What sets Death Valley apart, in this case, is the uniqueness and variety of the natural wonders within the park.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park
Badwater Basin in Death Valley

Where to Stay near Death Valley

If you’ve decided that Death Valley is the national park for you, then you’re going to need to find a great place to stay while there. There are plenty of accommodation options to choose from that can accommodate all kinds of travel styles and budgets. Here are a few suggestions:

The Inn at Death Valley – This luxury hotel is a great choice for those looking for a plush stay near Death Valley. They have countless wonderful rooms available, an on-site fitness centre, pool and sauna and there is also a bar to relax in after a long day of exploration. Click here to see their availability

Death Valley Inn & RV Park – For those after a good, mid-range option in Death Valley, then this inn and RV park is a fantastic choice. They have a number of clean and comfortable rooms available a there is also an outdoor pool to enjoy along with BBQ facilities. Click here to see their availability

Private Rental – If you’d like to have your own space when visiting Death Valley, then a private vacation rental is a good choice for you. A place like this unique furnished RV is just one example of many in the national park. Click here to browse more Death Valley private rentals

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Death Valley hotels!

Eureka Dunes
Eureka Dunes in Death Valley

Joshua Tree National Park

While it may not be as hot or as big as Death Valley, visiting Joshua Tree is a truly breathtaking experience. This 800,000-acre National Park still offers plenty of room to explore. Its landscape is more Dr Suess-esc than it is extra-terrestrial, and like Death Valley, when you visit this desert, you’ll see things you wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else in the world.

Accessibility

Joshua Tree is by no means the most accessible National Park. You’ll want to have a car (the park’s first shuttle opened in 2018 and the shuttle system is not exactly extensive) and you’ll need to plan ahead because the only gas stations are at either end of a 75-mile drive through the desert.

That said, when it comes to the Joshua Tree or Death Valley question, Joshua Tree wins in accessibility by a landslide. The park is incredibly easy to navigate, with only two main roads and almost nowhere to get lost, and though some of the side roads are less maintained than others, it’s nothing like the treacherous landscape you might find in certain parts of Death Valley.

While heat is still a concern here, it’s easy to manage as long as you bring water and avoid hiking in the middle of the day.

Beautiful Joshua Tree National Park
Beautiful Joshua Tree National Park

Affordability

As mentioned above, the cost to visit both parks is the same, so the real question is the difference in cost to stay.

Like in Death Valley, you’ll have a choice between camping and hotels/lodges at Joshua Tree. Camping is a little more expensive ($20 USD per night instead of $15-18 USD), and while you do have the odd hostel at $40-50 USD per night, the majority of hotels, inns, and lodges around Joshua Tree cost at least $130 USD per night.

For those interested in the more luxury options, Joshua Tree does offer a few nearby resorts that will run you $250-350 USD per night, but bring a level of extravagance you won’t find around Death Valley.

As for food, similar to lodging, there are no dining options within the park, so if you’re planning to stay in park you’ll need to camp and pack your own food. However, there are a TON of dining options surrounding the park ranging from $5 USD delis to upscale, fine-dining establishments.

Though the average cost of Joshua Tree is a bit higher than Death Valley, you can easily visit Joshua Tree on pretty much any budget.

Barker Dam in Joshua Tree
Barker Dam in Joshua Tree

Things to do in Joshua Tree

Both Joshua Tree and Death Valley are focused on getting you outside and immersing you in the unique desert landscape. Whether you’re visiting Death Valley or Joshua Tree, you’re going to spend a lot of time hiking and driving around to view the beauty hidden within the gorgeous park.

While Death Valley is focused more on strange geology and fascinating terrain, Joshua Tree is more about the exotic and stunning flora, from the aptly named Joshua Trees to the Cholla Cactus, there’s a ton of desert plants on display throughout the park.

The park is also known for its massive boulders, which make it a must-visit destination for anyone who enjoys bouldering and rock climbing.

One benefit of Joshua Tree over Death Valley is that, while hot, it’s not as hot, so there’s a bit more time in the day available for hiking and exploring on foot.

Hidden Valley Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park in California, United States
Hidden Valley Nature Trail

Where to Stay near Joshua Tree

If it’s Joshua Tree that’s won your heart in this desert national park debate, you’re going to need to find a place to rest your head while exploring this beautiful natural area. There are countless places to choose from in and around Joshua Tree. Check out these suggestions if you’re looking for a place to stay:

Inn at Palm Springs – If you’re travelling on a mid-range budget, ten this inn is a great choice for exploring Joshua Tree. Located in nearby Palm Springs, they have a great location, plenty of great rooms available, an on-site swimming pool, and a bar and lounge to enjoy. Click here to see their availability

Alcazar Palm Springs – For those after a luxury stay while exploring the national park, then this high-end place in Palm Springs is a great choice. They have a range of chic rooms available, a fantastic location, a great pool, hot tub and a pool patio and two on-site restaurants. Click here to see their availability

Private Rental – If you want your own space while visiting Joshua Tree, there are countless private vacation rentals to choose from – such as this romantic hideaway for two. There are countless properties available across multiple platforms that can suit all kinds of travel styles. Click here to browse Joshua Tree private rentals

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Joshua Tree hotels!

Skull rock in Joshua tree National Park
Skull Rock in Joshua Tree

Death Valley vs Joshua Tree: Which is Better to Visit

Whether you choose to visit Joshua Tree or Death Valley, you’re guaranteed to see beautiful and unique natural sites in a stunning desert environment.

If you’re more interested in seeing a wide variety of truly out-of-this-world landscapes, Death Valley is a better park to visit.

But if you’re looking to scramble over boulders and explore unique desert plant life, then head to Joshua Tree.

No matter which park you choose, make sure to plan ahead and keep safety in mind, as the desert landscape can be a formidable foe.

If you choose the sand dunes and rock canyons of Death Valley or if you opt for the desert lake and cacti-forests of Joshua Tree, you’re sure to have an incredible time exploring California’s unique desert landscapes. Whatever you choose, it’s bound to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Are you trying to decide between visiting Joshua Tree or Death Valley? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Sarah is a writer for The World Was Here First who has spent over a decade traveling the world and writing stories inspired by the people and places she encounters along the way. She is an avid adventurer who is always seeking new opportunities to expand her worldview and, thus, her writing.

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