California’s vast desert region is a land of hidden oases and canyons, towering snow-capped mountains, and sweeping panoramas that conjure visions of early California and the Old West. Unlike anywhere else in the world, the California Deserts feel like one giant natural theme park—connected by scenic open roads and a network of character-rich lodging properties.
From colorful, otherworldly rock formations, expansive dunes, and natural mineral hot springs to old mines, hidden ghost towns, and outdoor art installations, the desert has no shortage of sights to behold. Travel from elevations that are thousands of feet high to lower depths of 280 feet/85 m below sea level. Discover a region that is vibrant yet remote, colorful and camouflaged, and rustic but luxurious. Whether you power through in a week’s time or linger longer in each destination, this itinerary promises to be unforgettable and truly inspiring.
Leg 1: LAX to Ridgecrest
Driving Distance & Time: 163 miles/262 km (3.5 hours)
Stops & Attractions: Red Rock Canyon State Park, Lone Ridge Trail, Petroglyph Park
Dining & Drinking: Ale’s Steakhouse, Bangkok House, Tokyo House
Accommodations: SpringHill Suites by Marriott Ridgecrest
Fresh off a flight, you’ll want to use this first leg of the trip to position yourself closer to Death Valley, while keeping the driving time manageable. Nestled at the crossroads of three major highways and less than three hours from several of Southern California’s major attractions, Ridgecrest is the perfect base camp to start a desert adventure. The surrounding California high desert is popular for off-roading, rock climbing, and hiking. With the largest concentration of Native American petroglyphs in the western hemisphere, a living ghost town, and several geological attractions, it’s no surprise that Ridgecrest has also captured Hollywood’s attention as a desirable filming location.
Leg 2: Ridgecrest to Death Valley National Park
Driving Distance & Time: 72 miles/115 km (1.5 hours to enter the National Park, which is 100 miles/160 km long)
Stops & Attractions: Trona Pinnacles, Panamint Springs, Mosaic Canyon, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course, Zabriskie Point, The Racetrack, Artist’s Palette, Dante’s View
Dining & Drinking: Desert Brew, Toll Road Restaurant, Last Kind Words Saloon & Steakhouse,
Accommodations: Cottages at Death Valley
The largest national park south of Alaska at 3.73 million acres, Death Valley is defined by extremes. It’s North America’s driest and hottest spot, with fewer than two inches/five cm of rainfall annually and a record high of 134°F (56°C). It also boasts the lowest elevation on the continent at Badwater Basin, which sits 282 feet/86 m below sea level. You could easily spend a few days exploring all sides of the expansive park, which abounds with hiking opportunities, fascinating landscapes, and dark night skies. Given the sheer size, it’s best to plan your journey around three or five main stops a day. It’s also well worth rising early to capture the sunrise from a scenic lookout such as Zabriskie Point.
Leg 3: Death Valley to Joshua Tree via Baker
Driving Distance & Time: 246 miles/396 km (4 hours)
Stops & Attractions: World’s Tallest Thermometer, Mojave National Preserve, Roy’s Motel & Café, Amboy Crater
Dining & Drinking: The Ranch 1849 Restaurant, Los Dos Toritos, Kitchen in the Desert
Accommodations: AutoCamp Joshua Tree
This longer day of driving features many photogenic stops, starting with the quirky town of Baker, home to the World’s Largest Thermometer and funky shops. After lunch and filling your gas tank in Baker, carry on driving through to Mojave National Preserve where the sea of yucca trees calls for photo ops. You’ll get on historic Route 66 to arrive in Amboy, home to its own quirky roadside sites including the midcentury relic, Roy’s Motel & Café. The town of Joshua Tree will be one hour’s drive from Amboy. After dinner in Twentynine Palms, leave room for s’mores by the fire back at AutoCamp.
Leg 4: Joshua Tree to Anza Borrego
Driving Distance & Time: 100+ miles/160 km (2.5 hours)
Stops & Attractions: Hidden Valley Trail, Key’s View, Skull Rock Trail, Arch Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden, Anza Borrego State Park, Badlands Adventure with California Overland Desert Excursions
Dining & Drinking: AutoCamp Joshua Tree, TKB Bakery & Deli, Arches Restaurant, The Fox Bistro
Accommodations: Borrego Springs Resort & Spa, La Casa Del Zorro Resort & Spa
With nearly 800,000 acres of mystical beauty, Joshua Tree National Park is undoubtedly one of the world’s most incredible natural desert treasures. Sweeping, grand in scale, and populated by granite monoliths and voluptuous rock and boulder formations, the park offers wonder to eco-travelers, outdoor adventurists, and naturalists. Evidence of many diverse forms of plant life from creosote and ocotillo are found everywhere, but none as unique or prevalent as the park’s namesake: the Joshua tree, standing majestically across the vast topography. Plan your route to enter the park from the town of Joshua Tree’s West Entrance and exit from Cottonwood Entrance, dropping you onto the interstate. Stop in Indio for lunch and then head to Anza Borrego State Park for a tour of the famed Badlands.
Leg 5: Anza Borrego to Palm Springs
Driving Distance & Time: 66 miles/106 km (1.5 hours)
Stops & Attractions: Anza Borrego Metal Sculptures, Salton Sea, Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours, Downtown Palm Springs Public Art, Uptown Design District
Dining & Drinking: Kendall’s Café, EIGHT4NINE Restaurant, Workshop Kitchen+Bar, Ernest Coffee, Norma’s
Accommodations: Azure Sky Hotel, Hilton Palm Springs, Sparrow’s Lodge
Start the day in Anza Borrego exploring the charming downtown and walking among the giant metal sculptures created by Ricardo Breceda. Stop to see the Salton Sea en route to Indio, where you can stop for a pre-booked guided naturalist jeep tour of the San Andreas Fault and learn more about the plants, animals, geology, seismology, and history of the California desert. End the day in Palm Springs, where you can check into a resort and relax for a few days of sunbathing, art and architecture, shopping, and fine dining. After all that hiking and adventuring on the open road, you’ll have earned a spa treatment or two!