Joshua Tree To Santa Monica Via Malibu In Southern California


If you want to spend a week in Southern California but skip all the mainstream and crowded spots, this would be the perfect itinerary for you. I seriously recommend visiting in the Spring or late fall because LA weather is best in those seasons. However, summer is also an option if you don’t mind the heat as much.

7 Day Southern California Roadtrip

We would start about two hours south of LA in Joshua Tree National Park and travel northwards to the Santa Monica Mountains. Along the way, there are 6 nice places to visit on the way. Despite these places, on this trip you are guaranteed to pass by Disneyland, Universal Studios, Santa Monica Pier, LA, and some other top places tourists love in Southern California. These spots that I am offering are less crowded yet still really fun to visit.

Joshua Tree

We will start at Joshua Tree National Park. This is a desert so if your visit is during the summer, be prepared for some pretty serious heat. The name Joshua tree comes from the infamous trees that litter the entire desert. Joshua Trees were named after the biblical story of Joshua reaching up to god. It was said the tree looked like the character Joshua.

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree

This place is probably prettiest at sunset, sunrise, or at night. The weather is also nicest at these times. I would very strongly recommend staying at Joshua Tree for one night. If camping is your speed, I would suggest that as your first option. If you choose to camp I am most familiar with Black Rock campsite which is only a few minutes from a park entrance and as well as grocery stores if needed. However, if you prefer the luxuries of travel, there are a couple of really nice resorts throughout the park. These can also get a little pricey so if you would prefer a place just for sleeping, I would recommend finding a hotel near the park. Palm Springs is a great option.

Sightseeing spots on the road

The entire park has a single two-way road that goes from one end of the park to the other. On this road, you are bound to stop at multiple sites. Most of the best sites are near the west entrance of the park. If you end up camping at Black Rock you will enter from the west entrance.

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Upon entering you will find many trails and options where you can stop. Depending on your preferences you can choose sightseeing and photo spots, hiking, or even rock climbing. Some of my favorite spots are Skull Rock for sightseeing, Hidden Valley Trail for hiking, Barker Dam for sightseeing, and Jumbo Rock for rock climbing.

Cholla Garden is also a great place however it is farther into the park. In fact, it is right in the middle of the park and away from almost all air pollution. I recommend going to Cholla Garden after moonset or before moonrise for prime stargazing. If you choose not to go so late, Cholla is also great at sunset and sunrise because it has a perfect horizon. 

Palm Springs in Southern California

I mentioned before that Palm Springs is a great place to stay from Joshua Tree. There are many resorts to hang out in Palm Springs and have some pretty cool old towns and thrift shops to visit. However, I do have one major critique about Palm Springs: there aren’t a lot of things to do here. It really only makes sense to stay here for one night. However, the Palm Springs Aerial Tram is pretty cool. 

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The Aerial Tram is the world’s largest rotating tramcar. It rises to be super high, about 8,516 feet. There are some nice restaurants at the top of the tram as well as really pretty hikes. There are plenty of options for hikes but my favorite is definitely the Round Valley trail. It’s mostly flat and is only about 2.5 miles long. 

Cleveland National Forest

So it’s been two days. Now we will travel about a two-hour drive from Palm Springs to Cleveland National Forest. Here, I recommend staying here for two nights.

Cleveland National Forest was founded in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt actually opened all the national parks due to a man named John Muir. The first national park was Yosemite. Muir developed an automatic obsession with Yosemite and made incredible efforts to show how sheep and human settlements were damaging the land. He first called an editor of a magazine to spread the word about the beauty of the land. From there he called President Roosevelt on a backpacking trip in Yosemite where he convinced Roosevelt to delegate areas in the country as national forests, a place to protect the land from human settlement.

The Cleveland Forest is home to the two biggest wildfires in California History. 

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Hiking Trails

The hikes here are a little hard, which is partially the reason I would recommend not staying for long. There are three main hikes that are worth the visit. The first trail I would recommend is Garnet Peak Trail. This is a great, short morning hike that leads to an incredible view at the peak. It should only take about an hour because it’s a pretty easy hike.

The second trail is Espinosa. This is a slightly longer hike, but in my opinion, is more fruitful. At the end of a trail is a small swimming hole to have some fun if one would want to. The last trail that is probably my favorite is Sunset Trail to Laguna Meadows Loop is a really short relatively flat trail that leads to a really small and serene pond and open area great for picnicking and sunset. I would highly recommend coming here for supper or for a meal around sunset to end your day.  A perfect way to go into your fifth day. 


Next, we will drive west to Temecula in Southern California, about an hour away from Cleveland National Park. I would recommend staying at least one night here, maybe two. One of the first things you will notice about Temecula is it’s weather– ideal California weather. The hills are storybook rolling lush green hills with perfect sunny breezy weather. It was originally inhabited by none other than Temecula Indians. Indians being Native Americans, the namesake of Indians was poorly labeled by Christopher Columbus. 


If you happen to not know the story, though it is pretty well established, Christopher Columbus sailed across the entire world in order to prove it was not flat. In going across the globe he was hoping to reach India since knowledge of the Americas was not yet known. Whilst reaching land, Columbus believed he had reached India, when in fact he hit a land block in between Europe and India on the west side. Still thinking he reached India, Columbus called the natives in the country “Indians” when in fact they are Native Americans with an incredible and rich history. Temecula was originally inhabited by the Temecula Native American group Luiseno. In translation, Temecula means ‘sun place.’ Since then, Temecula has become a place known for its farms and wine. 

Old Town Temecula

I highly recommend going to is Old Town Temecula. If you are even remotely interested in vintage old town stuff to even just window shop it is a must to visit. Three of my favorite most memorable stores I went to were the Candy Shop on the road, the Lavender store, and a garden thrift store. As you go throughout the old town and visit all the places, you will find something really interesting about most store owners is that their shops are like hobbies. Almost all the owners I met had an incredibly successful job with a huge amount of income while opening small thrift shops to pursue their dream. 

Temecula Old Town - Southern California
Temecula Old Town

Another incredible activity for Temecula is a hot air balloon ride. Because Temecula has a huge amount of vineyards and beautiful landscaping a hot air balloon ride is definitely a view to see. And even if it wasn’t amazing to see from such high up, a hot air balloon ride is definitely an experience everyone must-have. 

Hot Air Balloon
Hot Air Balloon

All in all, Temecula is a great place to just chill. A little like palm springs, it’s nice to stay in a nice resort when you’re in this city with a pool and golf course to just hanging out with family and friends. It has incredible food, a great place to walk around, taste wine, etc. 

Artesia in Southern California

So to go into our fifth day, I would say to spend one day in Artesia, otherwise known as Little India. This is probably around an hour and a half away from Temecula. Besides little India, LA in general is known for little areas based on cultured countries around the world. For example, Little Japan, Little China, Little Korea. Each of these places has a blend of LA and the respective country’s culture.

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Artesia has Indian restaurants, Indian shops, and street markets run by Indians while incorporating an LA blend of culture. This is a great day trip. You can find many street shops for vintage shopping as well as some pretty amazing restaurants. Originally, Artesia was a small town with dairy farms on its roads. Farmers from the Netherlands had come to Artesia in the 20th century where they settled with dairy farms. Although the majority of residents in Artesia remain Dutch, Pioneer Boulevard has been now labeled as the heart of Artesia and Little India. 


Since Artesia was only a day stop, I would recommend driving about an hour where you will stay for the next two nights.

Waves at Malibu
Waves at Malibu

We’ve reached Malibu in Southern California. There are plenty of incredible things to do in Malibu. For starters, it is right by the coast so there are enough beaches to visit to take up an entire day and there are plenty of fun trails with incredible views that are worth the look. 

Malibu State Park is one of my favorite and non-crowded places to visit in Southern California. The park was originally owned by Paramount Pictures for shooting movies. Tarzan and a couple of Planet of The Apes movies have scenes shot throughout this park. In fact, Paramount Ranch is probably a top spot in the park. It’s a completely abandoned western town for sightseeing often used in Paramount Pictures’ movies. Besides the ranch, the park is also a perfect spot to camp as it’s only about a 10-15 minute drive away from the Malibu Pier where you can find food, shops, and of course the beach. 

Malibu Beaches, Southern California
Malibu Beaches

At the park, my top spot would be the Malibu Rock Pools where you can go cliff jumping and swimming. Although it may sound scary, I promise it is one of the greatest adventures. Also at the park are some pretty hikes with great views. One of them is Cistern to Lookout. At the vista, you can see a beautiful site of Malibu Lake and its surrounding hills. 

Santa Monica Mountains

Now the Santa Monica Mountains are in Malibu. However, they are separate from Malibu State Park. While you’re in the area something that I’ve seen many times before yet is always worth the visit is the Malibu Temple, located on the most scenic drive in the Santa Monica Mountains. The temple was built in 1981 with incredible and intricate architecture done. It has two floors, the bottom dedicated to Lord Shiva and the top floor dedicated to the form of Vishnu Venkateswara and is made up of white stone. 

Santa Monica Trail in Southern California
Santa Monica Trail

About a 10-minute drive from Malibu is Stunt Road. That road has a beautiful hike through the Santa Monica mountains with a 360 view, perfect for sunrise and sunset. In the year 2016, a man went missing on this hike. In 2018 there were some pretty crazy fires in Malibu that pretty much charred the entire hike. Immediately after the fires, there was an incredible rush of greenery to replace the old. Because of the fires and this new lush plant-life, this hike is truly beautiful.

Santa Monica Mountains - Southern California
Santa Monica Mountains

Hiking options

There are two options on this hike. You can do the entire thing, which can be slightly labor-intensive and difficult but much prettier than the second option. The second option is to drive to the top and do about a 10-minute walk to the graffiti summit. Both options have their own advantages so your choice should be made based on your own capability with hiking. If you are going for sunset or sunrise I would recommend just driving to the top if you would like to avoid hiking at night. 

As a resident of Southern California, I’ll be the first to admit it can get pretty crowded. California is a big melting pot of culture with perfect weather at any time of the year so of course, it’s a perfect place to visit. With this list of places, I can assure you that you will have the opportunity to taste southern California with less of a crowd.

They are definitely not secret spots, but they are resident spots in southern California. These places I know are the perfect example of LA culture and sights that have nothing to do with hiking to big block letters that spell out HOLLYWOOD. 

This post has been written by Navya Batra as part of the IndiTales Internship Program.



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