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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 meters 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 delivers a series of unforgettable experiences in picture-perfect backdrops.

Leg 1: Los Angeles to Death Valley

Driving Distance & Time:  276 miles/444 km (5.5 hours)

Stops & Attractions: Ridgecrest, Mosaic Canyon, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course, Zabriskie Point, Artist’s Palette, Dante’s View

Dining & Drinking: Classic Gyros and Desert Brew (Ridgecrest), Last Kind Words Saloon & Steakhouse and The Inn at Death Valley Restaurant (Furnace Creek)

Accommodations:  The Cottages at the Oasis in Death Valley

Hit the highway and leave the city crowds behind as you head inland to Death Valley National Park. Stop to stretch your legs, refuel and have lunch in Ridgecrest, a military town and recreation area that has set the stage for many feature films such as Top Gun: Maverick. Continue to Death Valley, the largest national park in the contiguous United States at 3.73 million acres (13,848.44 km2). Death Valley is defined by extremes. It’s North America’s driest and hottest spot, averaging fewer than two inches (5 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.

Leg 2:  Death Valley to Joshua Tree via Baker

Driving Distance & Time:  246 miles/396 km (4.5 hours)

Stops & Attractions: World’s Tallest Thermometer, Mojave National Preserve (or Bagdad Café), Roy’s Motel & Café, Amboy Crater

Dining & Drinking: Kit Fox Café (Tecopa), The Copper Room (Yucca)

Accommodations:  The Bungalows by Homestead Modern or AutoCamp Joshua Tree

This longer day of driving features many photogenic stops, including the quirky town of Baker, home to the World’s Largest Thermometer, the Country Store filled with funky souvenirs and several gas stations. Before Baker, the Kit Fox Café is a good road stop in Tecopa for quality coffee and healthy eats. From Baker there are two routes to choose from: driving through to Mojave National Preserve where the sea of yucca trees calls for photo ops, or via I-15 S to see the filming location of Bagdad Café on the original Route 66 in Newberry Springs. Either way, you’ll travel a portion of historic Route 66 to arrive in Amboy, home to the midcentury relic, Roy’s Motel & Café. The town of Joshua Tree will be one hour’s drive from Amboy, descending into Wonder Valley. Have dinner at The Cooper Room in Yucca, a buzzy spot with vintage vibes on an airstrip.

Leg 3: Joshua Tree National Park to Borrego Springs

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, Salton Sea, Anza Borrego State Park, Fonts Point Badlands Lookout

Dining & Drinking: Crossroads Café (Joshua Tree), Big Horn Burgers & Shakes (Borrego Springs)

Accommodations:  Borrego Valley Inn

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. After breakfast at Crossroads Café, enter the park from the town of Joshua Tree’s West Entrance. Plan your route to exit from Cottonwood Entrance, dropping you onto the interstate. En route to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, stop for photo ops of the Salton Sea. On your way into Borrego Springs, go off roading to Fonts Point for an epic view of the famed Badlands.

Leg 4: Anza Borrego to Palm Springs

Driving Distance & Time:  66 miles/106 km (1.5 hours)

Stops & Attractions: Anza Borrego Metal Sculptures, Uptown Design District, Desert Adventures Indian Canyons Red Jeep Tour, Palm Springs Surf Club, Spa at Séc-he

Dining & Drinking: Kendall’s Café (Borrego Springs), Sixth Street Coffee (Coachella), Shields Date Garden (Indio), King’s Highway (Palm Springs), Amala (Palm Springs), Boozehounds (Palm Springs)
Accommodations:  Ace Hotel & Swim Club

Start the day in Borrego Springs exploring the charming downtown, visiting the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association’s gift shop and nature center and walking among the giant Galleta Meadows Sculptures created by Ricardo Breceda. En route to Palm Springs, stop in Coachella to walk the revitalized downtown, see the street art and have some of the valley’s best Mexican food. Stop in Indio for date shake at Shields Date Garden. 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. Book a guided Red Jeep Tours Indian Canyons hiking tour, visit the new The Spa at Séc-he, for a healing treatment and soak in the hot mineral water, and splash around at The Palm Springs Surf Club.