Beyond Palm Springs: How To Spend 1 Epic Day in the Central California Desert
By nature, when it comes to exploring new places I am sort of easy to impress. Plop me in a new country in the middle of a beach or a town square and I’ll probably drop my jaw on the ground from taking it all in. I love seeing new things and I am a sucker for unfamiliar experiences that are far away. I had no idea that I’d find the same sense of awe so close to home, but just a few weeks ago, only a 2-hour drive from LA, I had yet another embarrassing moment dropping my jaw from saying ‘wow’ too much in public. I should probably get my jaw checked.
I’m talking about the desert. The central California desert to be exact. And ‘wow’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Even if you’re not from California, you probably already know the Mojave Desert because of Palm Springs. I dreamt of Palm Springs and fell in love with it the first time I visited 4 years ago to head to my very first Coachella. But there is so much more to this part of the desert than Palm Springs, pools, and palm trees (even though I can’t complain about any of that). On this particular day I’m talking about, we woke up early to spend 1 epic day exploring the desert beyond the familiar resorts and restaurants of Palm Springs, and I was honestly speechless at how overwhelmingly beautiful it all was. Here’s exactly what we did and where we went.
What You Will Need:
1 full tank of gas
Clothes you don’t mind getting dusty / dirty
How to Spend 1 Epic Day in the Central California Desert: 5 Things to Do
Experience Desert Art Installations
As if it wasn’t mesmerizing enough already, the desert has become widely known for its strange, fascinating art installations. We visited Desert X, an art festival collective of various temporary installations throughout Coachella Valley. Each installation in this biennial festival is meant to bring color, attention, awareness, or reflection to visitors, and it’s not hard to inspire such extreme emotions in such an extreme setting. Since Desert X is only every other year during March and April, here are a couple other art-centric stops in the area I have heard are worth checking out:
Open biennially from March - April, Coachella Valley (next one should take place in 2021!)
An art festival with various provocative art installations spread throughout Coachella Valley
Open every day from sunrise to sundown, Joshua Tree
A 10-acre museum of ‘Dadaist’ junk-turned-art created by artist Noah Purifoy
Open every day, Helendale
Located on Route 66, this is a cluster of metal and glass trees in the middle of the desert. When it’s windy, the glass bottles act as wind chimes to serenade your visit.
Open every day, Calipatria
One of the largest art installations in this part of the desert, Salvation Mountain is famous for the message it spreads, and for its interactivity – you can climb all over the mountain and explore each nook and cranny throughout.
Explore Smaller Towns, Like Yucca Valley Twentynine Palms
Our second stop was in Yucca Valley so we could fuel up on coffee for the rest of our day! Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms are neighbor towns in the Mojave Desert, about an hour east of Palm Springs. Both towns boast two of the main entrances to Joshua Tree National Park. Because of that, both Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms already offer a taste of the signature beauty (read: Joshua Trees!) that can be found inside the national park.
Stop at Frontier Cafe for tasty coffee and healthy lunch bites, or head further up the road to Crossroads Cafe for dinner. Also, be sure to walk around and pop into any antique store or boutique you see – odds are you’ll find things you can’t find anywhere else!
Check Out an Old West Hollywood Set in Pioneertown
For another, even more unique, desert town experience, we took a short drive up the road from Yucca Valley to Pioneertown, a standing Old West set created by Hollywood investors back in the 1940’s that you can actually visit and explore. More than 50 films and TV shows have been filmed here since the town was created!
Here, you can walk around a town of 1880’s-style wild west facades, like saloons, hotels, jails, and stables. Some of the town is actually designed so you can walk inside and hang out, too. My day was made here, because I got to hold a 2-week old baby goat and admire the town’s gorgeous horses. For BBQ and live music, don’t leave without visiting Pappy & Harriet’s.
Spend Time Trekking Around Joshua Tree National Park
A $30 admission and a quick 45-minute drive from Yucca Valley will take you into Joshua Tree, where we spent the rest of our day. I always thought I knew what to expect out of Joshua Tree: Joshua trees (obviously), rocks, and desert. But thinking it, and seeing it, were wildly different experiences for me. I was floored from the moment we entered the park’s gates. Wide-open expanses of Joshua trees as far as the eye could see, towering boulders and rocks being scaled left and right by expert climbers, and crazy (friendly-looking?) cacti I’ve never witnessed anywhere else in California. And because Joshua trees are so skinny they don’t really lend themselves well to creating a ‘forest,’ you could see in every direction for miles. I saw families and couples and backpackers running through the fields and trails, scaling rocks, and setting up camp in the most unreal setting imaginable. I kid you not, impressed does not even begin to sum up my first impression of this beautiful place!
Unless you are camping or plan on spending the day bouldering, I think it’s safe to say that you can get a good taste of Joshua Tree in just a couple hours. We spent 3 hours here and though I could’ve stayed longer, we wanted to get home early enough to get ready for work the next day.
Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden
Before leaving Joshua Tree National Park, we drove deep into the park to visit the Cholla Cactus Garden, a cluster of cholla cacti (the friendly-looking cacti I mentioned earlier!) that you can walk through and explore. It’s a beautiful area to look at and experience up close. But, not too close, because I got one cactus spine stuck in my thumb, and as I am writing this blog post, it’s still there. And it’s painful (but so worth it).
We started our day at 7 am and got home around 8 pm. It was a long day and by the end of it our gas tank was empty and we were dusty and tired, but it was without a doubt one of the most fun day trips we’ve ever taken from LA! The desert is such a special, weird, enchanting, and inspiring place, and there’s definitely so much to see, both in Palm Springs and beyond.
Have you ever been to this part of the California desert? Was there anything I missed? Tell me below so I can start planning another visit!