California Deserts: Six Roadtrip Destinations for Outdoor Adventure
I love deserts. I even love driving through them. Roll down the window, put the Eagles on the car stereo and let the magic of wide-open spaces do its work.
But mostly I love adventuring in deserts: camping under the stars, hiking through the middle of nowhere, examining all the unlikely flora and fauna, and holding my own in a harsh climate.
The California desert parks and preserves in this list are perfect for spending some quality time under open skies, especially during the spring and autumn months when desert temperatures are milder and many mountain trails elsewhere in California are snowed over. Hikers, bikers, climbers, campers, equestrians, stargazers, history buffs, and wildlife enthusiasts will all find something to keep them entertained in the deserts of California.
In addition to established campgrounds, most of these parks have great options for dispersed camping, where you can drive your (probably 4wd) car down some lonely dirt roads and not see other humans for days. When you’re ready for a tiny bit of civilization, drop by some of the quirky small communities – like Wonder Valley, Zzyzx, and East Jesus – creatively making their mark on the harsh land.
Link them all together in an epic California desert roadtrip, or just pick one for a long-weekend getaway. Either way, this overview of Southern California deserts will inspire anyone whose soul gets happier when the horizon is far away.
Word of Warning: Beautiful But Harsh
First a quick word of caution: I’ve visited California’s deserts in all seasons, and the climate is not to be underestimated. The summers are debilitatingly hot, winter nights easily drop below freezing, water is hard to come by and yet flash floods are a hazard. Combine this with the disorienting off-trail nature of many desert hikes and you get a number of people each year who need to be rescued (or worse).
Definitely research the weather ahead of time and check the park websites (or even better, stop by the visitor center and talk with the rangers) to understand any recent hazards. Even when just driving through, always keep a couple days’ worth of drinking water in your car.
When venturing out on foot have a backup navigation plan, be rock-solid in your knowledge of water sources, and always bring more water than you think you need.
Death Valley National Park
Did you know Death Valley also has waterfalls, sand dunes, canyons, mountains, and even ghost towns? Hike through intriguing canyons, ride your mountain bike along hundreds of miles of dirt backroads, and set up camp beneath a sparkling clear night sky.
Death Valley straddles the Great Basin and Mojave deserts, the second of which also contains Mojave National Preserve, next on this list.
Mojave National Preserve
Heading south from Death Valley, Mojave National Preserve is the next desert destination you’ll hit. The 1.6 million acre park offers great hiking, backpacking, and backroads camping.
Slog up the Kelso Dunes for an epic view of the intriguingly named Devil’s Playground (you will have earned an awesome run or slide down the dunes afterward), hike up Silver Peak for amazing ridgeline views, go horseback riding, enjoy seasonal wildflower blooms, or explore several other maintained trails and unmaintained routes.
Mojave National Preserve is also home to Zzyzx, which has to be one of the most curiously named tiny communities on any map.
Joshua Tree National Park
Next up on the journey south is Joshua Tree National Park and its distinctive piles of bulbous rock. The park straddles two different desert ecological zones, the high Mojave and the lower Colorado, and is another excellent California desert park for hiking, camping and dirt road mountain biking.
Hikers can take a short stroll through the Cholla Cactus Garden (best to keep your hands in your pockets along this spiky trail!), explore up to 35 miles of the California Hiking and Riding Trail, and everything in between.
Joshua Tree is also famous for its rock climbing. With hundreds of routes for all ability levels, it’s a great place to climb with friends or take a lesson if you’re new to outdoor rock. The majority of routes are single pitch trad, with solid clusters of bouldering and sport routes. The grippy rock lends itself to surprisingly doable tenuous slab climbs.
Non-climbers can still have fun scrambling around on the lower-angle boulders that are pretty much everywhere.
While you’re in the area, don’t miss a drive through Twentynine Palms and up Amboy Road to the surreal homesteads of Wonder Valley. If wide open spaces call to you like they do to me, you may be tempted by the dirt-cheap five acre plots for sale in this bizarre desert community.
Mount San Jacinto State Park & Palm Springs
Less than an hour from Joshua Tree’s west edge, you’ll find the town of Palm Springs and Mount San Jacinto State Park. While Mt. San Jacinto at 10,834 feet is most definitely not in the desert, its accessibility from the desert floor in Palm Springs makes this a worthy stop on any California desert road trip.
Most hikers summit San Jacinto via a 10 mile out and back hike from the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. This is ambitious enough, but for the truly crazy, there’s the notorious Cactus to Clouds route: 21 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain starting at the desert floor in Palm Springs and finishing at the top of the tram after the out-and-back summit. For fit and experienced hikers (this route is no joke and rescues of unprepared hikers aren’t uncommon), this is an epic day hike for your bucket list.
Salton Sea and Slab City
Heading southeast from Palm Springs, loop around the Salton Sea to the eccentric communities of Slab City and East Jesus for a truly bizarre desert experience.
The Salton Sea is actually an increasingly saline lake, home to a dwindling population of fish and dotted with abandoned resort towns from the lake’s better days in the 1950’s. Visit on a day with no one else around and the whole thing feels decidedly post-apocalyptic (and smells like dead fish).
Venture slightly west into the Sonoran desert to Slab City and East Jesus, a surreal community of snowbirds, squatters and artists who have turned the open desert into a life-size canvas. Wander the off-grid community and check out the creative dwellings, experimental art installations, and even a nightclub, library, and hotel.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Wrapping up the southern end of an epic California desert itinerary, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is almost as far south as you can get before Mexico. Bike along dirt roads, walk through sandy desert washes, follow maintained trails and explore meandering canyons. Along the way you’ll see wildflowers (in the spring), many types of cacti, waterfalls and even ancient pictographs.
Here are some short hikes in Anza-Borrego State Park to whet your appetite. It’s also possible to connect via dirt roads and trail to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and even the Pacific Crest Trail.
California Desert Roadtrip Route
If these lovely deserts have piqued your interest, why not link them all up in a southern California roadtrip?
Here’s a rough idea of a route linking up all six destinations. It’s not meant to be followed mile for mile – definitely branch off and explore each park in more detail – but it’ll help you get oriented.
As you’re planning your roadtrip through the deserts of southern California, be sure to keep a few things in mind:
- Spring and fall are the best time to visit California’s deserts (summers can be brutally hot, and winter nights surprisingly cold)
- Pack plenty of drinking water, in any season
- Don’t expect phone or data signal within these parks or some of the rural areas between them. Download your maps and notes for use offline before you go.
I hope you enjoy the unique beauty, geology and vastness of these six California deserts.
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