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The Definitive Guide To California’s Deserts, From Joshua Tree To Death Valley

The Definitive Guide To California’s Deserts, From Joshua Tree To Death Valley

Joshua Tree National Park, Callifornia

Picture this: you’re driving down the highway, Bruce Springsteen blaring on the speakers, sun shining through the window. You pull up at a cosy diner where a waitress serves you a slice of cherry pie, then retire for the night in a rustic cabin. Sounds pretty good, right?

The great American road trip should be on every traveller’s bucket list, and there’s nowhere better to tick those activities and adventures off, trip after trip, than California. If you’ve already done the iconic Highway 1, there are plenty more routes to explore. As well as lush national parks, The Golden State is home to vast deserts and mythologised destinations – Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Palm Springs among them – that are best reached by car. Add in California’s incredible weather, picturesque palm trees, retro charm and bountiful In-N-Out drive-thrus and you’ve got the perfect place to hit the open road.

Whether you want wilderness exploration, trippy art installations, Wild West ghost towns, or just the chance to chill by the pool, California’s deserts have you covered. Here’s your guide to discovering them.

Stop 1: Palm Springs


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When the weather in LA gets “chilly” (a relative term in California), Angelenos flee two hours inland to Palm Springs. This stylish desert town has long drawn movie stars and creative types, who come to trade the rat race for weekends by the pool.

In April they also come here for Coachella, which takes place in nearby Indio.

Check in at The Ace, a former motel converted into an achingly cool hotel, and you can laze through your days getting massages, sipping cocktails, and playing bingo at the on-site diner. They even do tarot readings on Monday nights.

Design lovers will be in mid-century heaven among Palm Springs’ amazing architecture – get yourself on a Palm Springs Mod Squad tour to discover gems like Elvis Presley’s ‘Honeymoon Hideaway’ house.


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But wait, there’s more…

For slightly more action, use Palm Springs as the starting point for a visit to Salvation Mountain, a brain-bending art installation in the desert. The famed 30m-high hill, a further two hours by car, is covered in technicolour bible verses and has been featured in everything from the movie Into the Wild to Kesha’s ‘Praying’ video. It’s big on Instagram, too.

Stop 2: Joshua Tree National Park


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Forty-five minutes from Palm Springs or two hours from Salvation Mountain, you’ll find another iconic corner of Californian desert. Joshua Tree National Park, named for the unique trees that grow here, is a favoured haunt of enlightenment-seekers, rock climbers, and U2, who named their 1987 album after this otherworldly expanse.

Hikers and mountain bikers will keep busy here but it’s also completely acceptable to just kick back and soak up the mystical atmosphere of this strange landscape.

But wait, there’s more…


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Don’t miss nearby Pioneertown, just 20 minutes up the road, which looks like an 1870s frontier town but was actually built in 1946 as a Western movie set. Mock gunfights take place on main street on select Saturdays between April and October and the town (which now has a permanent population of 420) also offers a charming, on-theme motel that was built to sleep movie stars in the ‘40s and lovingly restored in 2014.

It’s a couple of doors down from Pappy & Harriet’s, the must-visit BBQ joint where rock and roll is on the speakers and, they say, “beer flows like water”.

Stop 3: Mojave Desert


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Spread over a mighty 124,000 square kilometres, you won’t be able to see all of the Mojave Desert, but you can set the GPS for some of its most awe-inspiring areas. Drive three hours from Joshua Tree to explore the rock walls, sand dunes, and extinct volcano of the Mojave National Preserve, or head further north to seek out the Trona Pinnacles, a collection of 500 calcium carbonate spires that rise out of a lake in otherworldly style.

But wait, there’s more…

There are two campsites available in the Mojave if you want to overnight it. Or, for a roof over your head, drive back to the town of Landers to pull up stumps in one of the cosy, converted trailers at Kate’s Lazy Desert, which is owned by B-52s lead singer Kate Pierson.


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A stay here will also give you the chance to visit the Integratron, a giant white dome built by staunch UFO believer George Van Tassel. Here, you can experience the signature treatment: the “sound bath”, a sonic healing session where guests lie down while sounds that apparently keyed to the body’s chakras are played, promoting relaxation and heightened awareness.

Stop 4: Death Valley


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With a name like Death Valley, California’s famously steamy desert might not sound inviting, but it’s a must-do for the dedicated road tripper. This is the hottest, driest and lowest place in America, a post-apocalyptic landscape that needs to be seen to be believed. It was even used as a Star Wars filming location.

Explore its dunes and salt flats by day then get a room for the night at The Oasis, stopping along the way for a prickly pear margarita at The Badwater Saloon. A word of advice: time your trip to the springtime; Death Valley can get as hot as 56 degrees Celsius in summer.

But wait, there’s more…


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Between the Mojave Desert and Death Valley you’ll find Calico Ghost Town, a former mining town-turned-historical landmark. After silver lost its value in the mid-1890s, Calico’s population quickly moved out, leaving the town deserted. It was restored in the 1950s and is now a piece of living history complete with shops, restaurants, and a museum.

(Lead image: Frank McKenna / Unsplash)

Start planning your dream 2019 California road trip today.

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