The Best California Desert Road Trips You Can Take Over a Weekend

The Best California Desert Road Trips You Can Take Over a Weekend

By Ani Karibian June 23, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

For all the adventurous souls out there, we’ve got plenty of national parks, rugged hiking trails, and scenic views coming your way. Not feeling the au naturel scene this weekend? No worries, we’ve got you covered with accommodations (it’s totally okay to skip the camping), trendy boutiques, and fabulous restaurants. So, create your road trip playlist and get ready to cruise over to SoCal’s hottest desert destinations. 

Cruise over to the trendy desert town of Palm Springs for a weekend of indulgence and relaxation.

San Diego to Palm Springs

Distance: 158 miles

From the bustling downtown San Diego scene to the gorgeous villas of Palm Springs, this trip will have you feeling all the Southern California vibes. Hop in the car and head to the exquisite Cleveland National Forest for your first pit stop. The forest is a haven for wildlife and plants, featuring various wild shrubs and tree-covered mountains, which are now remnants of the landscape that used to cover most of SoCal. Until the arrival of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the lands within Cleveland National Forest were known only to the desert and coastal Indians, and you’ll have a hands-on experience as you traipse across many of the historic trails first used by these early inhabitants.

Wander your way through the majestic forest, and get lost in its magnificent beauty as you follow the gorgeous trails. (You can even explore a portion of the famed Pacific Crest Trail.) For those who have their camping gear in the trunk, now’s the time to pull it out; Cleveland National Forest offers several notable campgrounds. Target shooting, horseback riding, fishing, and ATV riding are also available here, so you’ll love every second of this adventure. After enjoying a couple of lovely nights in the forest, it’s time to go to trendy Palm Springs. Wash off the dirt and dust at the luxurious Hotel Paseo, Marriott Autograph Collection or the Westin Mission Hills Resort Villas

Luxury knows no limits in this hot desert town, so if you’re dying to go on a shopping spree, make sure to check out the El Paseo Shopping District, which is on par with Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive. If you’re looking for great deals on clothing and accessories from the world’s hottest designers, then the Desert Hills Premium Outlets is the place for you. Although it’s a short drive from Palm Springs, you’ll want to carve out time from your busy day for this. From Burberry and Fendi to Ted Baker and Alexander McQueen, the outlets have everything you need for your new summer outfit. 

Enjoy an array of unique outdoor adventures in the striking desertscape of Joshua Tree National Park.

Palm Springs to Joshua Tree National Park

Distance: 66 miles

If your type of vacation is part relaxation, part roughing it, then you’re going to love Palm Springs. This destination is home to elegant villas, posh resorts, naturally healing hot springs, and rugged desert terrain. You can rid your body of environmental toxins, heal your skin, and bathe in the hot mineral springs before dozing off into a deep, blissful sleep at an all-inclusive resort. We recommend the El Morocco Inn and Day Spa, Miracle Manor Boutique Hotel and Spa (located in Coachella Valley), and The Spring Resort and Spa. (If a beautiful Airbnb has stolen your heart, then you can purchase a one-day spa pass to these resorts.) 

When in Palm Springs, there’s no reason to rush around. Stop by the Palm Springs Art Museum, and take the time to admire the exquisite beauty of the Faye Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden, Bill Anderson’s photography, and more. Then, leisurely stroll around the streets of downtown before heading to Integratronthe out-of-this-world sound bathfor further relaxation. (Make sure to book your time in advance, as Integratron fills up quickly.) 

A fusion of art, science, and magic, Integratron promises its guests a divine, metaphysical experience. Created in 1954, George Van Tassel claimed that the structure was “based on the design of the Moses’ Tabernacle, the writings of Nikola Tesla, and telepathic directions from extraterrestrials.” While Van-Tassel originally designed the all-wood dome as an electrostatic generator that could regenerate the body and initiate time travel, it is now the site of 60-minute sound healing sessions. During this time, crystal singing bowls are played; the sound is keyed to the energy centers (chakras) of the body. 

You’ll leave incredibly rejuvenated and energized for your next stop: Joshua Tree National Park. Located less than 20 miles away from Integratron, this national park is an easy and unforgettable stop on your trip. Joshua Tree is where the ecosystems of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts become one, resulting in surreal geological features, starry night skies, and a fascinating array of plants and animals. 

If you’re an avid camper, you may want to consider camping here instead of returning to your gorgeous resort in Palm Springs, so you can enjoy an enchanting night out in nature. In the morning, you can grab your climbing gear and conquer one of many obscure rock formations before heading home. A combination of deep relaxation and adventure, your trip from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree will be a trip to remember for a lifetime.

Experience otherworldly natural wonders and unparalleled night skies in the remote expanse of Death Valley National Park.

Los Angeles to Death Valley National Park

Distance: 214 miles

Welcome to the country’s hottest, driest, and lowest national park. Death Valley National Park is definitely a park of extremes. The continual drought and summer heat along with towering, snow-capped peaks offer a striking contrast. Due to its remote location and vast expanse of dry, arid desert, this national park is a designated International Dark Sky Park, which means it’s a phenomenal place to scope out constellations and unobstructedly gaze at the gorgeous Milky Way. 

Death Valley is also the largest national park in the continental U.S., so you should plan accordingly when hiking throughout its vast landscape. Popular day hikes include Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, and Telescope Peak (if you’re up for a bigger challenge)—make sure to come prepared with plenty of water. 

Given the intense heat, it’s also best not to camp here during the summer season since temperatures can be well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead, come in the fall months to experience the park at its best. Contrary to its reputation, Death Valley is home to a variety of fish, wildflowers, and wildlife, so start planning your trip and prepping your gear.

Spend a weekend boating, fishing, and hiking in Southern California's scenic national forests.

Los Angeles to San Bernardino National Forest

Distance: 117 miles

For adventurers who would like nothing more than to turn off their phones and plunge headfirst into nature, this trip is for you. So grab your trusty hiking boots, plenty of water, and best outdoor gear—the mountains are calling. 

As you leave the urban jungle of L.A., the concrete buildings give way to the forests, rugged slopes, and rocky canyon of the Angeles National Forest—your first stop on the way to San Bernardino National Forest. When you arrive at the verdant expanse within the San Gabriel Mountains, park by the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail and gather your belongings before hiking up to the Gould Mesa Trail Camp. This hike-in campground is easily accessible; follow a short section of the 28.8-mile Gabrielino trail along the sycamore-shaded Arroyo Seco.

Gould Mesa is the perfect home base for exploring the 700,176-acre Angeles National Forest, which offers many miles of hiking trails. Challenge yourself by climbing the roughly 9,400-foot Mount Baden-Powell. Your reward? A gorgeous, 360-degree view of the Mojave Desert. 

After enjoying a relaxing evening under the stars at Gould Mesa, pack up your belongings in the morning and hike back to your car. But before heading to the San Bernardino National Forest to spend more time in nature’s sanctuary, check out the Grizzly Cafe, located right off of the Pacific Crest Trail, to satisfy your hunger. Treat yourself to that big, juicy burger and crispy french fries to fuel your excursions in the San Bernardino National Forest. Here, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument provides a stunning backdrop to the Coachella Valley communities. 

The forest is divided into eight Wilderness Areas: San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, Santa Rosa, Bighorn Mountain, Cucamonga, Cahuilla Mountain, South Fork San Jacinto, and Sheep Mountain. So, pick your place and explore. No matter which area you choose, you definitely won’t be bored. Get on your mountain bike, spend the day fishing, go for a hike, or tour the forest on horseback. The grandiose beauty of the park will have you mesmerized, and you’ll be planning your return trip before you know it.

Which desert road trip will you go on first? Let us know in the comments below.

WRITTEN BY
Ani Karibian

WRITTEN BY Ani Karibian

Ani is the content manager for California.com. She savors her time discovering California's hidden gems and writing about the hottest spots in town. She's got an unquenchable thirst for adventur…

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