Southern California's Off-Season Gems: Mojave, Death Valley, Alabama Hills, and Joshua Tree

Arkansas to Southern California - One week under $500!

By: Tyler McKay + Save to a List

It all started with a simple Google search.

My buddy, Cameron, and I were procrastinating studying for our law school finals when we started daydreaming about a getaway. We both love to camp, and we have always wanted to check out the Pacific Northwest, but a quick look at flights and weather quickly ruled that out. We then started discussing different southern areas that might be bearable to camp.

It was a toss up until Cameron found a round-trip flight from Dallas to Las Vegas for $150. Finding this flight was huge because our student budget was tight, so we quickly decided that Vegas would be our destination and we would work around that. Next, we were able to rent a car for $300 total with unlimited mileage. Once we realized we had all our transportation for $300 each, we just needed to figure out where we were actually going.

We knew we would be close to the Mojave National Preserve, so that was a must. Next, I looked at Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park (Pro Tip: an $80 America the Beautiful Pass will save you a lot on entrance fees if you plan to hit multiple national parks). If you haven’t ever checked out, I highly recommend it for trip planning to give you an idea of a good route to drive. And of course, you can always find awesome adventures on The Outbound along the way.

From there, we had our plan. We’d go from Vegas to Mojave; Mojave to Death Valley; Death Valley to Joshua Tree; Joshua Tree to Vegas. Boom! That was the trip (or so I thought). We realized it would be a lot of driving, but we knew it would be well worth it. 

The trip was getting finalized when I was scrolling through one of the hundreds of outdoor accounts I follow on Instagram and stumbled across the Alabama Hills. I knew I couldn't get to California and not check this place out, and man, I am so glad that we decided to drive up that way.

So that was it, we didn't have any more nights to spare, but we would be able to see Mojave, Death Valley, Alabama Hills, and Joshua Tree! It would be a packed six days, but definitely worth it.

Once we landed in Vegas, we made it a point to get out of there ASAP. We picked up our rental, an AWD mid-size SUV, that proved quite clutch running through the desert. We then went straight to the Mojave National Preserve. Cameron’s friend had mentioned some old miner’s cabins out that way, and it was our goal to find them. Lucky for us, we bumped into a man that spends his free time as a caretaker of sorts for the cabins. As a self-proclaimed “ghost town explorer,” he vetted us to make sure we wouldn’t harm the property and happily showed us where the cabins were located. He even included a nice overview of the cabin history and the people who made the property home. The cabin we stayed in was being restored to the condition depicted in the earliest known photographs ca. 1930. This was big time because it meant there were gas lanterns and even a makeshift wood-burning stove. Oh boy, we were glad because that night the temperature fell below 20 degrees without factoring in the wind chill. Without the fire and walls protecting us from the howling wind, our down sleeping bags (rated to 20 degrees) would have been put to the test. The next morning we woke up and did a little exploring of the old mines and jumped in the car to set off for our next destination…Death Valley.

We made it to Death Valley with barely enough light to explore Badwater Basin. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and provided an out of this world experience. We ended up camping in one of the designated areas because in the backcountry they don’t allow fires. December in Death Valley gets pretty cold, so we opted for a location where fires were permitted. After some incredible stargazing, we quickly fell asleep and set off the next morning toward the Alabama Hills, making sure to stop at the massive dunes within Death Valley.

The Alabama Hills are a geological formation that sits at the base of Mount Whitney and provides a setting that makes you wonder if you’re on Mars. This was by far one of my favorite places to ever camp. It has been home to many Western films and scenes from famous TV shows. The landscape was remarkable, and all the dirt roads are well-maintained, making it easy to get around. The best part about camping in the Alabama Hills is that it is managed by the BLM, i.e., dispersed camping that is first-come, first-serve with plenty of excellent places to pull off. We quickly found a pristine secluded area to set up camp and left to drive north towards Mammoth. There we stopped at Wild Willy’s Hot Spring for a couple of hours to enjoy the night sky in some warm water. After soaking until our skin was waterlogged, we drove back to Alabama Hills to make a fire and unsuccessfully try our hand at nighttime photography.

The next morning, we looked up at Mt. Whitney and saw what appeared to be a snowstorm rolling over the mountain range. Naturally, we glanced at each other and decided our next stop was Mt. Whitney. After a twenty-minute drive up the range, we set out on the Mt. Whitney trail. We didn’t make it far down the path before it started to snow pretty hard, which would make for a tricky descent down the windy two-lane road. We decided it would be best to head back before the road became impassible with snow. We also were not aware at the time that you need permits to hike Mt. Whitney, so it was for the best.

Once we made it down the mountain road, we set off to Joshua Tree National Park. We got in pretty late, but still decided to hang out at the local watering hole—The Joshua Tree Saloon—where we helped ourselves to some overdue burgers and beer. The next morning, we arrived at the national park as soon as the gate opened and spent the entire day exploring until we could not see to hike any further. Joshua Tree is a cool town, but the park itself was the real gem. It is a pretty large area and the terrain changes depending on what part of the park you’re in, so at least a day or two is recommended for exploring. We stayed another night in Joshua Tree and the next morning we left for Vegas to fly home. (Pro tip: when booking red-eye flights, ALWAYS double check dates to avoid buying two tickets).

Between gas, fast food, flights, and a rental car, we both came in under $500! (Well, I would have if I didn't have to book a new flight on the way back after booking the redeye for the day before…) A week spent in California soaking up the desert sun and being able to experience some of California’s coolest parks during their slow season was a much-needed trip to disconnect from the chaos of law school final exams. 

My Pack List:

  • Patagonia BlackHole 120 Liter Duffel
  • Marmot Tungsten 2p tent
  • REI Igneo 25 Down Sleeping Bag
  • Mountain House Meals
  • Klymit Sleeping Pad and Pillow
  • Petzl Headlamp
  • Camera/GoPro Gear
  • Clothes for 6-7 Days (Lots of layers!)

Cameron’s Pack List:

  • North Face 132L Base Camp Duffel
  • Marmot Tungsten 2p tent
  • Klymit KSB 20 Down Sleeping Bag
  • Klymit Sleeping Pad and Pillow
  • Mountain House Meals
  • JetBoil
  • Grayl Water Purification System
  • Camera
  • Petzl Headlamp
  • Clothes for 6-7 Days (Lots of layers!) 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Do you love the outdoors?

Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.


24 Hours in Joshua Tree National Park

Holly Mandarich

My First Trip Down to Joshua Tree National Park

Benjamin Canevari

A Beginner's Climbing Guide to Joshua Tree

Sarah Horn

Photo Essay: One Day in Joshua Tree National Park

Kevin Tangney

5 Things to Know Before Adventuring in Joshua Tree National Park

Brynn Schmidt