Fertile ground for artists, adventurers, star-gazers, golfers and spa lovers

By Jan Rodricks

Photo: Photogolfer/Shutterstock

One of the most enduring myths about the California desert is that it is lifeless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just ask the thousands of visitors each year who flock to the resort towns of Palm Springs, Palm Desert, La Quinta and others to indulge in spa culture, superb golf, fine dining and spirited nightlife. And, of course, brilliant weather.

Set at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains, the oasis of Palm Springs is the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Native Americans. This band remains active in local affairs, operating two hotels, two casinos, a golf resort with two courses (Indian Canyons Golf Resort) and an entertainment venue. Visitors can learn about the Agua Caliente through ranger-led tours of ancient palm groves and along streams and waterfalls of neighboring Tahquitz and Indian canyons, and at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in downtown Palm Springs.

Palm Springs is the getaway destination for many athletes and Hollywood stars; architectural tours offer a look at some of their amazing homes (and pools!). Palm Desert, also in the Coachella Valley, is another popular resort for snowbirds and golfers, with world-class golf courses, the excellent Palm Springs Art Museum and the always popular Living Desert Zoo & Gardens. The Coachella Valley also hosts one of the country’s great music festivals, the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival (known simply as Coachella) in Indio. Several hundred thousand music lovers pass through the turnstiles over two consecutive weekends in April.

Motorists in search of an epic road trip can explore the desert along Historic U.S. Route 66—the legendary “Main Street of America”—which once connected Chicago with Los Angeles. There are also spectacular drives through Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Anza-Borrego. Another great way to experience these gems of the desert is on foot, during a well-supplied day hike.

The California desert is one of the Golden State’s most welcoming and surprising destinations. It took the Death Valley 49ers two full months to navigate this forbidding wilderness. You might decide to cross it in two days—but even that’s long enough to separate myth from reality.

Heritage & Culture

At least a dozen Native American tribes, from the Cahuilla to the Yokuts, called the North American desert home before white adventurers moved west from the Great Plains. These First People found ingenious means of survival, trapping the small desert animals and collecting water run-off when the rare rains fell.

The first band of Gold Rush hopefuls to behold the Mojave arrived Christmas Day, 1849. Eager to avoid the grisly fate of the Donner Party—who’d gotten stuck in the Sierra Nevada snows, and were forced into cannibalism—this scrappy lot had traveled southwest, along the Old Spanish Trail. After crossing Nevada’s Great Basin, they encountered a wasteland that practically named itself: Death Valley.

When the Gold Rush petered out, silver beckoned new fortune seekers. Many of the desert’s best-preserved ghost towns, like Calico, were once thriving mines with hundreds of hopeful prospectors. Toward the turn of the century, though, the price of silver dropped. Borax became the mineral of choice. But even borax mining ended about 10 years later, and the new boomtowns withered in the desert wind.

The desert has always attracted those with an independent nature. For more than 160 years, this rough but complex California landscape has incubated uniquely hardscrabble settlers—from Walter E. Scott (the namesake of famed Scotty’s Castle, in Death Valley) to the eccentric residents who live along the shrinking Salton Sea. And others, of course—in the lush oasis communities scattered through the Coachella Valley—have created lavish lifestyles that would strike the early settlers dumb with amazement.

A World of Its Own

California is vast, with a greater land area than Germany or Italy. The southern desert is larger than 10 of the other U.S. states. In many ways that desert is a land unto itself, a place almost unimaginably remote from the cafés of Melrose Avenue, the Big Sur cliffs or the redwood giants.

But the dry, clear climate has an enormous appeal of its own. Palm Springs—celebrating its 75th anniversary—is a mecca for vacationers. The city boasts enough events, from the January Film Festival to the Backstreet Art Walk, to keep you busy every day of the year. Palm Desert is slightly less posh, but equally beguiling, with more than 150 works of public art enlivening the already beautiful landscape.

Though one might choose a base in Palm Desert, San Diego or even Las Vegas, the eternal spirit of the California desert is found in its conservation areas. Death Valley and Joshua Tree are the premier national parks, and many visitors plan their entire visit around one of these magical, even spiritual, destinations. Death Valley alone offers enough spectacular hiking, 4WD routes, ghost towns and natural attractions to merit a four- to five-day visit. America’s biggest state park, Anza-Borrego, is a major pilgrimage site during the wildflower season. The region’s signature towns—Indian Wells, Needles, Salton Sea and Mojave—provide a taste of local character. For more sophisticated pursuits, the desert’s three cosmopolitan centers—Palm Springs, Palm Desert and La Quinta—offer golf, tennis, equestrian sports, fashion shows and film festivals.

Desert Wildflowers

Winters in the desert can be numbingly cold, while summers are blazing hot. But between March and mid-May—if the rains have been good—the desert becomes a magnet for people who love color, fragrance and landscapes of almost surreal beauty. Few wildflower displays on earth compare with the California desert bloom, which transforms the dry, unwelcoming scrubland into a hallucinatory paradise that seems lifted right out of The Wizard of Oz. Death Valley, Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree are the most popular destinations for flower and cactus lovers, with dozens of rare and fantastic plant species—from hearty wolf cholla to delicate ghost flowers—in bloom. Meanwhile, on the Mojave’s edge north of Los Angeles, the Antelope Valley Poppy State Reserve provides miles of trails (some wheelchair-accessible) through rolling fields of lush and unbroken gold flowers.

Family Fun

There are infinite possibilities for adventure and exploration in California’s deserts. Just stay well-stocked with water (one gallon per person per day) and be vigilant of the dangers presented by any desert environment—hazards that can include rock falls, sudden storms and flash floods.

For families, exploring ghost towns is always a thrill. When the warm wind blows and those ancient doors and shutters creak, it’s easy to imagine the spirits of long-departed gold miners haunting the landscape.

Rock hounding delights kids of all ages, with excellent volcanic specimens to be found around Amboy Crater Natural Landmark and red quartz in the Turtle Mountain Wilderness.

Horseback riding, camping, mountain biking and hiking are also popular desert activities. Some federally-managed desert areas (BLM areas) allow ATV expeditions as well.

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