I love deserts. They make me feel free. Roll down the car window, queue up some songs by the Eagles and let the magic of wide-open spaces do its work.
Getting out of the car and adventuring in the desert is even better. I love camping under the stars, hiking toward an endless horizon, examining all the unlikely flora and fauna, and holding my own in a harsh climate.
California is a huge and varied state. If you’ve only spent time in its northern reaches, you might not think that vibrant desert landscapes are one of the things California is known for. But the southern quarter of the state, from Los Angeles on down, contains over 25,000 square miles of desert!
The southern California desert parks and preserves in this list are perfect for spending quality time under open skies, especially during the spring and autumn months when temperatures are milder and mountain trails elsewhere in California are buried under snow. Hikers, bikers, climbers, campers, equestrians, stargazers, history buffs, and wildlife enthusiasts will all find something to love in these famous California desert destinations.
When you’re ready for a tiny bit of civilization, drop by some of the small and quirky California desert towns – like Wonder Valley, Zzyzx, and East Jesus – creatively holding their own on the harsh land. Larger towns like Palm Springs and Twentynine Palms offer every convenience and even options for stylish vacation rentals, if that’s how you roll.
Link them all together in an epic Southern California roadtrip, or just pick one for a long-weekend getaway. Either way, these Southern California deserts will inspire anyone who can understand the feeling of your spirit growing freer when the horizon is further away.
Where to Stay in California’s Deserts
You have a ton of great options on a desert roadtrip like this, despite all the wide open space. Desert explorers can choose between camping, glamping, motels, or even renting an entire home in many of the communities bordering these massive expanses of desert beauty.
If you love camping, a California desert roadtrip is the perfect time to log some quality nights under the stars. Every destination in this list is home to some excellent desert camping, and I’ve included further details in each section down below.
In addition to established campgrounds, most of these desert destinations have great options for dispersed (read: free and uncrowded) camping. You can stick to the more common roads, or drive your (hopefully 4wd) car down some lonely dirt tracks and not see other humans for days. You’ll find plenty of great places to set up a tent or enjoy the convenience of camping in your car or campervan.
Lodging in Towns
For those times when you’d like a roof over your head and a shower to wash away the sand, you’ll find surprisingly many options in the desert towns and small communities in this area. Whether it’s the convenience of a budget motel in Twentynine Palms, a cute small-town Airbnb near Death Valley, or even an upscale resort in Palm Springs, there is lodging to suit every type of traveler.
Southern California Roadtrip Route
Here’s a map of a southern California desert roadtrip route linking all six destinations recommended in this post:
It’s not meant to be followed mile for mile – definitely branch off and explore each park in more detail – but it’ll get you between each destination and help you stay oriented. If you follow this route and take time to explore each park, you’ll experience the best desert landscapes California has to offer.
This route could be driven in just a few days, but it’s nicer to take at least a day in each location to enjoy the hiking, biking, or other adventures nearby. A week would be nice, and you could easily spend even longer if you have the time.
If you’re looking to link up with an even longer roadtrip route, these other American southwest roadtrip ideas will take you further east into the stunning and different desert landscapes of Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.
And now, let’s get to exploring the best deserts in California!
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 offers excellent and varied desert camping. Choose from many developed campgrounds, or camp for free (where permitted) along the park’s backcountry roads. Generally speaking, choose lower elevation sites during the winter and higher elevation sites for relief from the heat during hotter months.
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.
Camping enthusiasts will find more open space than they know what to do with, especially if you’re looking for secluded primitive (and free!) camping opportunities (known as dispersed camping). In my opinion this is some of the best desert camping in southern California. There are also two developed campgrounds for those wanting more amenities.
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.
Joshua Tree has a number of nice developed campgrounds, though they can be very popular in peak seasons of spring and fall. Jumbo Rocks is my personal favorite. Free primitive camping is limited within the park, but there are two BLM areas just outside the park boundary (near the south and north entrances) where dispersed camping is allowed.
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.
Camping in Mount San Jacinto State Park is restricted to two drive-in campgrounds and a handful of primitive walk-in campsites.
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). If you don’t mind the smell, there are a few campgrounds along the shore for a truly unique desert camping experience.
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.
Staying Safe in the Desert
Before we finish, a quick word of caution. I’ve visited California’s deserts in all seasons, and I can tell you 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 (seems unfair, right?).
Combine all 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). Don’t worry, you’re not doomed, just follow these simple tips and you’ll be fine.
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.
Don’t hike or camp in canyons when there’s rain in the forecast, even far away.
Planning Tips for a California Desert Roadtrip
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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