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11 Desert Getaways in California
Travel

11 Desert Getaways in California

Stargaze under clear night skies and get to know a different side of the Golden State—California’s desert road trips are worth all the hype.

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6 min read

May 26, 2021

Vast sandy expanses, weird art installations, luxurious glamping spots, eerie ghost towns—there’s nothing ordinary about desert getaways in California. 

Whether you want to escape your daily routine or are just tired of seeing skyscrapers around every turn, you’ll find the stark contrast and change of scenery you seek on a trip to the desert. Stargaze under the clearest night skies and get to know a different side of the Golden State—California’s desert road trips are worth all the hype.

Can't-Miss California desert getaways

SoCal's Joshua Tree National Park is best known for its iconic flora. Arid low desert and vegetated high desert meet in this beloved natural gem.

1. Joshua Tree National Park 

We’re starting off with a classic SoCal desert destination: Joshua Tree National Park. This fascinating desert park is where the Mojave and Colorado meet, the combination of which results in otherworldly geological features, starry night skies, and a unique array of plants and animals. 

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When on a desert getaway to Joshua Tree, you’ll spend your days trekking the best trails, admiring the giant trees and rock formations, and discovering unique attractions you won’t find anywhere else. For a comfortable, desert-chic stay, make the Joshua Tree House your accommodation of choice, and you have a formula for a foolproof desert vacation.

Yucca Valley was established by Norman Essig to provide a space for celebrities to have privacy and allow them to be close to their work.

2. Yucca Valley 

For those who think the best desert getaways are the most unconventional, Yucca Valley is a treasure trove. With vast desert landscapes as far as the eye can see, Yucca Valley is home to some truly weird (yet fascinating) attractions.

Check out Bob’s Crystal Cave and Desert Christ Park if you’re into desert art installations. Look for unique souvenirs at the Sky Village Outdoor Marketplace on Theatre Road on the weekends. 

Hundreds of Westerns and early television shows were filmed in Pioneertown, including The Cisco Kid and Edgar Buchanan's Judge Roy Bean.

3. Pioneertown

Four miles northwest of Yucca Valley is the Old West-inspired desert locale of Pioneertown—it’ll make you feel like you traveled back in time. Pioneertown was established for the sole purpose of becoming a living and breathing movie set in the 1940s—somewhere the cast and crew of Western movies could work and play without having to travel far from L.A. or Palm Springs.

Plan a desert getaway today and you’ll find operating movie sets, the famous Pioneertown Motel, old-timey saloons, and more cool sights.

The best desert getaways for families

Palm Springs beckons visitors with its arid landscape, golf courses, magnificent midcentury vacation homes, and excellent restaurant scene.

4. Palm Springs

When going on a desert road trip with your family—especially with kids—you want to make everything as hassle-free as possible. There’s no easier California desert getaway spot than Palm Springs. The popular vacation town has a bit of everything and will keep you entertained. Art enthusiasts visit fascinating art galleries and museums. Architecture enthusiasts feast their eyes on the endless rows of iconic mid-century Palm Springs homes. As for kids, one of the best zoos in the state is located right here.

Finding accommodation is also a non-issue in Palm Springs—some of the best desert hotels are found in the heart of the resort city. More of a camping family? Book a spot at one of Palm Springs’ awesome desert campsites for a more rustic experience.

Red Rock Canyon State Park offers gorgeous views of the desert landscape, has two natural preserves, and recreational activities.

5. Red Rock Canyon State Park 

A fun fact about this California desert state park is that Red Rock Canyon is one of the most frequented vacation spots in the entire state. Rusty red cliffs, crumpled sandstone piles, and vivid sunsets make Red Rock Canyon one of the most impressive desert parks that’ll leave a lasting impression.

Beautiful wildflower fields, fun hiking trails, and incredible stargazing opportunities make exploring this California desert park a treat. If you’re staying overnight, Ricardo Campground will make your desert getaway even more scenic. The gorgeous site has a first-come-first-serve basis and fills up quickly on weekends. We recommend arriving on a Thursday to maximize your chances of finding a free spot.

Romantic desert getaways

A luxurious lifestyle meets a playful landscape in Rancho Mirage. The desert city has earned the nickname “playground of presidents.”

6. Rancho Mirage 

Seeking a California desert getaway but don’t want to rough it? Make Rancho Mirage your vacation destination. This Riverside County spot gives you all the desert views, but lets you enjoy it from the comfort of your luxurious hotel room. 

Explore the surrounding desert throughout the day and cool off in the outdoor pool during the afternoon while staying at the top-rated Omni Rancho Los Palmas Resort. One of the best desert resorts in the area, Omni Rancho Los Palmas has everything you need for a relaxing vacation including a spa, fine on-site dining, and a golf course. Don’t forget to stop by the Rancho Mirage Observatory and Library and Michael S. Wolfson Park for cool sightseeing opportunities on your trip. 

7. Desert Hot Springs

Whisk your S.O. away to a rejuvenating wellness retreat and romantic desert getaway by heading to Desert Hot Springs. Located in the greater Palm Springs area, this sandy destination is a haven of natural healing waters and world-class spas.

The sustainable Two Bunch Palms is one of our favorite hotels in the area for its full-service spa and eco-friendly practices. Plus, as one of the best Palm Springs resorts for couples, Two Bunch Palms is adults only. And let’s face it, as much as we love kids, a romantic desert getaway can do just fine without them.

The Robb Report credits La Quinta as the leading golf destination in the nation. The resort city is located in the Coachella Valley.

8. La Quinta  

Located in Coachella Valley—between Indio and Indian Wells—La Quinta is another idyllic resort town perfect for a romantic desert getaway. From beautiful hotels to some of the best golf courses in SoCal, this beautiful town has everything you need for a relaxing desert vacation.

While it’s entirely possible to spend a full weekend in La Quinta without leaving your all-inclusive resort, make sure you set aside enough time to stroll through Old Town La Quinta and check out the La Quinta Museum.

Incredible desert vacations for friends

The highest point in Death Valley National Park is Telescope Peak, in the Panamint Range, which has an elevation of 11,043 feet.

9. Death Valley

If you and your friends are an adventurous bunch, you’ll love spending the weekend exploring the majestic Death Valley. Before you start making plans, tread cautiously if you want to head to the national park during the peak summer months. As the hottest and driest point in California, Death Valley is simply too hot and can be dangerous to explore during summer.

Coordinate your desert getaway during the spring months and you’ll see incredible wildflowers and interesting towns. Experience off-road camping with your friends and enjoy some of the best stargazing in the entire state.

Slab City took its name from concrete slabs that remained after the World War II Marine Corps Camp Dunlap training camp was torn down.

10. Slab City 

Are you and your friends curious about life outside of mainstream society? If yes, then your ideal desert vacation is Slab City, or as locals call it, The Slabs.

Due to its off-the-grid nature, this community in Imperial County is all about living life without tons of amenities—this is a desert getaway that’s probably best enjoyed before sundown. It’s easy to let your curiosity lead the way while exploring Slab City, but remember to be mindful of trespassing and violating people’s personal boundaries. After all, this is home for many people and should be treated as such.

From slot canyons and cactus-studded hills to peninsular ranges and natural palm oases, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers plenty of hidden gems.

11. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park 

You only need to drive two hours from San Diego’s best beaches to discover the beauty and diversity of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The largest state park in California, the 600,000 acres of rugged terrain in Anza-Borrego are your dream desert playground.

Head to Borrego Palm Canyon Campground to set up camp and start exploring. Hike the Borrego Palm Canyon and the Slot Canyon Trails and keep an eye out for desert blooms. Swing by the Galleta Meadows Sculptures to see life-size creatures taking over the desert landscape. With endless opportunities for exploration, Anza-Borrego is the ultimate California desert getaway.

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