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Desert Destinations Beyond Palm Springs

“The desert, when the sun comes up. I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the Earth began.“     
– Tom Hanks

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🏜 When most think of visiting a desert destination most think Palm Springs. However did you know there are dozens of amazing desert locations throughout California. Places to go for a day, a week or even a longer stay. Here are some our favorite places you can visit this winter that will warm your heart, soul and mind.


Borrego Springs

The only California town that’s surrounded entirely by a state park, this locale blooms with raw desert beauty. It’s a great choice for outdoor recreation and camping. A certified International Dark Sky Community, Borrego Springs boasts some of the best stargazing in the country.


Deep in the magical desert landscape of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, more than 130 gargantuan metal sculptures lurk in the sand. Visit to glimpse a 350-foot sea serpent, a giant scorpion, and battling bighorns among other real and fantastical creatures created by artist Ricardo Breceda.


Explore the vast open desert in an ATV at this state vehicular recreation area, where more than 85,000 acres are open to off-roaders and overnight campers, October through May. Landmarks include Devil’s Slide, a 200-foot-high granite and sand island with hidden mine shafts that are said to be haunted.


This gorgeous green golf course designed by Tom Fazio, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, embraces the quietude of the surrounding landscape for an unforgettable experience. Just over 7,200 yards from the tips, the course serves complimentary tacos to players on weekends and fresh-baked apple-caramel cookies every day of the week after the 18th hole.


A 2.3-mile loop trail winds through a narrow siltstone canyon whose walls tower overhead. While the route is easy, some sections are tight and require a bit of scrambling over rocks. After emerging from the canyon, the loop finishes along a dirt road with no shade but stellar views.


Thomas Long Smith, better known as Peg Leg, claimed he found a heap of gold in the hills of Borrego Springs. Then, he forgot where it was buried. A placard on Henderson Canyon Road immortalizes Peg Leg’s story. Supposedly, tossing 10 rocks into a nearby pile brings luck to all those who dare to search for his hidden treasure.


Slab City

For adventures and the unexpected, take a day trip to East Coachella Valley and explore Slab City, Painted Canyon, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.



Grab a bite for breakfast at Red Ocotillo in Borrego Springs, then drive to the Visitor Center and Desert Garden. To see the best sights, go on the 4.5-hour Overland California Jeep Tour or hike Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. For a more leisurely afternoon, picnic inside the park and explore the Cactus Loop Nature Trail at Tamarisk Grove. Drive through the bronze sculptures at sunset and find the perfect spot for stargazing. Spend the night at La Casa del Zorro.




This uncontrolled, unregulated community is on the site of a former U.S. Marine base, east of Niland and the Salton Sea. The “slabs” are the concrete foundations left after all the military buildings were torn down when the base was abandoned in the late 1940s. Since the ’60s, snowbirds with trailers and other seasonal wanderers have made it a winter home. In addition to The Range, an open-air entertainment venue, Salvation Mountain, a multihued, inspirational manmade mountain, is the community’s main draw.




Coincidently, it was the decision by Riverside County officials to evict seasonal campers from Painted Canyon near Mecca in 1965 that sent the first trailers to Slab City. Painted Canyon is one of the more extraordinary natural wonders in a valley filled with them. A great way to experience the colors and rock formations is the 6.5-mile hike through Ladder Canyon, a trek through steep terrain marked by the necessary presence of man-made ladders.



Twentynine Palms

More than a gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms is home to the largest U.S. Marine Corps base and has burgeoning arts, music, and food scenes. While it may seem like a trek from Palm Springs — 48.5 miles to be exact — the serpentine drive through the High Desert leads to a worthy adventure. For a good time, put these local gems on your itinerary.


Private bungalows and wood-framed cabins punctuate 70 acres of open desert land, with the spring-fed Oasis of Mara at the center of the property. The inn’s restaurant will pack you a picnic lunch to go, but its worth grabbing a seat poolside for happy hour specials and a dinner menu loaded with comfort food like sourdough pizzas and bountiful salads, steaks, and stuffed portobello mushrooms.


This outdoor gallery located off Highway 62 was created by Laurel Siedl to celebrate the beauty of glass. Wander through the open-air art exhibition that draws artists and collectors from across the country.



If you’re headed into Joshua Tree National Park, why not skip the entrance fee and venture in on foot? This 3-mile, out-and-back hike leads to a palm oasis — one of a handful in the park. The oasis is a refuge for wildlife, including bighorn sheep, coyotes, and Gabel’s quail. During summer months, the trail closes to allow animals unfettered access to water; check for closure notices before you go. Always bring more water than you think you’ll need.


The city joined forces with the National Park Service to open a new, expansive visitor center for the national park. The center features a museum space with rotating art exhibitions celebrating Indigenous communities, along with an information center and bookstore.

Where To Shop


It’s anything but slim pickings at this trendy High Desert record shop that also sells vintage denim, books, and Western wear. “Twentynine Palms is changing fast,” owner Stephen Przybylowski reports. “Over the last year, we have seen a surge in new businesses, restaurants, bars, and events.” In lockstep, he recently remodeled the shop’s back patio and will soon begin hosting live performances.



This cool home goods boutique features desert-inspired items ranging from wicker furniture 
and wall art to vases created by local makers.


Where To Eat


The seasonal menu blends Trinidadian inspiration with new American sensibilities. Try the coconut rice and cumin curry channa, jerk chicken with toasted cumin cabbage slaw, dan dan noodles, or the fried-chicken sandwich. It’s not only the food that people rave about — Kitchen in the Desert stokes a spirited vibe on the patio with live music on select nights. Come for the dynamic, family-style dishes and stay for everything else.


You might want to go to The Jelly Donut for, well, doughnuts. And you should — they offer a sweet selection including apple fritters, cinnamon rolls, eclairs, and, yes, jelly-filled options. But it’s their pho that has people veering off the highway. This family-operated business offers a surprising variety of Vietnamese soups.


Operated by a husband-and-wife team, this spot specializes in all sorts of delicious baked goods. Nancy and Travis Poston relocated from New York to SoCal in 2015 prior to opening their bakery in Twentynine Palms. Nancy has a degree in baking and pastry arts from the California Culinary Academy, and Travis has worked in bakeries in across New York, so you can rest assured they know quality carbs. You’ll find staples like sourdough and bagels along with more extravagant options such as strawberry cream cheese brioche, banana bread, and sandwiches — including an option with melty Swiss cheese and bechamel over sliced ham on housemade ciabatta.


Behind this bar’s salmon-colored exterior lies a world of revelry with delicious drinks, a chatty bartender, bar games, and the occasional dance party. According to manager Ian Raikow, the best part about opening a watering hole in Twentynine Palms has been “getting to know the town’s history and community and being a part of a new era with other inspiring businesses in the High Desert.” As for what the next year has in store: “More music programming with DJs and bands and more outdoor movie nights on our patio. Also drag queen bingo!” Sure, it may be out there, but it’s well worth the journey.


Sink your teeth into fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs, mesquite-grilled St. Louis spareribs, and house-rubbed ribs basted with barbecue sauce and Tennessee whiskey glaze. Those who can’t decide can order a sampler and try them all. While ribs are undoubtably the special here, the family-owned operation, established in 1997, also whips up Tennessee whiskey–glazed chicken, fried chicken, steaks, and loaded potatoes. Come hungry.



Touted for its playful, over-the-top pub fare and robust beer selection, this gastropub on Twentynine Palms Highway serves up weekday happy hour specials like soft pretzels and wings along with heartier options like the SQRL Burger: a house-ground beef patty topped with sharp cheddar, caramelized onions, pickles, bacon, and tarragon aioli and served on a Martin’s potato bun.


Joshua Tree

You can go hiking, bouldering/rock climbing, nature walking, stargazing, and experience some amazing photo opportunities. Plus, the small towns that neighbor Joshua Tree National Park are full of quirky art, great places to eat, and fun shops.


You may want to buy a paper map of the area or download your Google Maps just in case you run out of cell service/data (which can be known to happen). Because there will for sure be times where you have been driving for hours in the desert wondering if you are going the right way and a little reassurance from a map can be very nice to have (plus obviously for safety reasons it’s always good to have a backup map).



The three main towns just outside of Joshua Tree National Park are called Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley. Even though they are technically three towns, they are all very small, kind of blend together, and all are just a few minutes outside of the park. I remember being confused not knowing which town was best, but basically, just think of them as all being the same 😉.


Jumbo Rocks Campground: Jumbo Rocks Campground is the dreamiest campground within Joshua Tree National Park (in my humble opinion). We camped here during our May visit and it was one of my favorite things about our trip. As the name implies, this campground is surrounded by amazing ‘jumbo rocks’ and beautiful rock formations. There’s something about watching the sun rise and set each day that is really peaceful and rejuvenating.



Each time we have visited Joshua Tree National Park we had one full day for activities even though our first trip we stayed two nights and on the second trip, we stayed just one night. If you are wanting to see things both within Joshua Tree National Park plus the unique things to see outside the park, I would plan on at least two full days (2-3 nights) but a longer stay would provide you with a more relaxing visit and you’d really be able to see everything.





There are so many great walks and hikes to choose from within the national park. You can obviously experience them on your own, or if you prefer to learn about the area and want real insider information, make sure to book a guided hike in Joshua Tree! You can choose your level of intensity and let the guide know beforehand your interests so he can curate the best experience for you and your group. Hiking Trails



Stargazing & Astrophotography: No trip to Joshua Tree is complete without a night spent stargazing. For some, this may just be the most stars you’ve ever seen in a single night’s sky. One of the absolute best spots to stargaze or take star photos is at Heart Rock. Just be sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight, because you’ll hike a bit in the dark.


Another amazing astrophotography spot can be found by driving along the stretch of road right before Skull Rock if you’re coming from the entrance. Here, you’ll have the silhouettes of many Joshua trees in the foreground making for epic astrophotography shots. You are also allowed to park at any of the roadside pullouts to enjoy stargazing- if you do this, remember to bring a chair and if possible a red light to help your eyes stay adjusted to the darkness.



Joshua Tree National Park gets its namesake from the Mojave Desert’s unique tree-like spiny plants, but no trip to Joshua Tree is complete without exploring some of its incredible rock formations. According to the blog Flying Dawn Marie these are the top rocks to see




Joshua Tree Rock Shop: After spending a day among the rocks in Joshua Tree National Park, head over to the Joshua Tree Rock Shop to wander through amazing crystals, gems and minerals brought in from around the world. Soak in the energy of the stones and find your favorite gem as a trip souvenir.


Pioneer Town: Located about 10 miles outside of Joshua Tree, Pioneer Town is a must-see spot! Pioneer Town was built in 1940 as a movie set, it’s still a fun way to spend a few hours.  The streets are dirt and closed off to motor traffic.  


Joshua Tree Mural: Painted on the side of Natural Sisters Cafe in the town of Joshua Tree is a groovy ‘Welcome to Joshua Tree’ mural. If you are parked in town, be sure to swing by the mural to snap a pic to start your adventures.


World Famous Crochet Museum: One of the quirkiest things to see in Joshua Tree is the World Famous Crochet Museum. What was once a crochet obsession became a creative enterprise. Shari Elf purchased a retro photo booth and converted it into a neon green museum you could easily call an art installation. Elf has been collecting crochet items since the 1990s. You will see a variety of cute pieces including many animals. Plus around the crochet museum, you will also find other artistic spots to discover.


Eclectic Joshua Tree Stores: Swing by some of Joshua Tree’s eclectic stores to window shop or pick up a unique desert souvenir. A couple of great shops to try are Ricochet Vintage Wears (where Old West meets France) and The Station ( a 1940s high-desert service station turned gift/coffee shop).




Natural Sisters Cafe: Natural Sisters Cafe is located just outside the park in the small town of Twentynine Palms and it’s one of my absolute favorite places to eat in the area. Natural Sisters boasts a fully vegetarian menu with vegan and gluten-free options also available.


Here you will find yummy breakfasts and a lunch menu of burgers, sandwiches, wraps, salads, and smoothies. Plus you’ll find amazing vegan desserts to top off your meal. Our friend ordered one of the best vegan carrot cakes I’ve ever tried!


Crossroads Cafe: Crossroads Cafe is an eclectic and laid-back diner located in the small town of Joshua Tree with traditional diner options plus some unique local options. This cafe would be a great spot for a hearty breakfast after a night of camping if you’re tired of eating at your campsite 😉. They also offer some vegan and gluten-free options!


Algoberto’s Taco Shop: You can’t be in southern California and NOT get authentic Mexican food. Algoberto’s Taco Shop is not much to look at which in my experience means it’s probably the tastiest Mexican food around. They are located just a short 10-minute drive from the Joshua Tree National Park entrance plus they have amazing prices (5 tacos for $5.75 type of prices). If you don’t know what to order, try the tacos or burritos! 


Joshua Tree Farmers’ Market: Every Saturday from 8 am to 1 pm you will find the official Joshua Tree Farmers’ Market in the small town of Joshua Tree (here) full of delicious local produce, baked goods, and of course everything else you expect to find at a farmers’ market. 


Joshua Tree

Once envisioned to become a destination resort, nature took its toll and left the beach deserted, covered in fish bones and long-forgotten scrap.



Did you know there are active volcanoes at the Salton Sea? Five small lava domes along the southeastern edge of the sea are fueled by geothermic activity below the surface. Though the last explosive eruption occurred approximately 1,800 years ago, the volcanic areas still contain boiling mud pots, where hot muck bubbles on ground level. You can look, but don’t touch.



Named for the concrete slabs left behind after a World War II training camp was demolished, this off-grid community — dubbed “the last free place in America” — brims with offbeat art and ideas. If you go, check out the East Jesus neighborhood and the Slab City hot spring, which you’ll find along the side of the road.



Strewn with detritus from decades past, the abandoned shores of 
the Salton Sea have become a canvas for installation artists. Much of the art is located at Bombay Beach (including a swing installed in the water), thanks in large part to the Bombay Beach Biennale, established 
in 2015. bombaybeach



Designed by acclaimed modernist architect Albert Frey in 1959, this historic site was intended to be a luxury members-only gathering place for the swanky seaside resort town that never was. The clubhouse shuttered 
in the ’80s but was restored and reopened in 2010. Today, it 
serves as a community center. myrecreation



They say faith can move mountains. Turns out, it can also build them. Colorful, bold, and in-your-face, this 50-foot-high, 150-foot-wide rainbow hillside was crafted over three decades by late evangelist Leonard Knight using adobe clay, straw, and more than 100,000 gallons of paint. Climb it, wander through its tunnels, and marvel at one man’s devotion to God’s love. salvation



Take in the fresh mountain air of Idyllwild and explore the Nature Center, visit a brewery, or take a leisurely hike around Lake Fulmor.


Highway 74, aka the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, will connect yomountu to Highway 243 and the mountain town of Idyllwild — an artisan-centric community with quaint cabins, rustic boutiques, and miles of ponderosa forest waiting to be explored.



Whether the forecast heralds sun or snow, you’ll find plenty of fun outdoor activities at this pet-friendly nature center. Warmer months call for hiking or horseback riding, while winter brings snowball fights and sledding. Breathe in the mountain air and feel your worries melt away.



Learn to throw clay on a pottery wheel in a town that’s known for arts and creativity. The store itself is filled with one-of-a-kind pottery and ceramics made by local Idyllwild artists, while the studio welcomes all levels to get their hands dirty and learn the craft.



Winemaker Chris Johnston grew up in Idyllwild, where he attended the Idyllwild Arts Academy and studied violin as a teenager. Today, he and his wife, Melody, produce small-batch wines from grapes sourced at California vineyards. At their boutique winery, they offer tastings, art shows, live music, and events.



Fresh-brewed beers made with pure Idyllwild well water are the main draw of this rustic mountaintop brewery. You’ll find 21 housemade varieties on tap alongside a full bar and modern gastropub menu. An elevated patio that’s covered and heated overlooks Strawberry Creek.



A small artificial lake off Highway 243 provides a scenic setting for a morning stroll or an afternoon fishing for rainbow trout off the doc. (No swimming or boating is permitted.) An easy path winds around the 2-acre lake, and dogs are allowed on leash.


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