Many people, when they refer to the California desert, use the singular form, not realizing, however, that there are at least two main deserts in California, the Mojave and Colorado Deserts (if we really want to be precise, there is also a small section of the Great Basin Desert).
Both the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert conceal many oddities and hidden gems, not to mention the nature parks, which are definitely worth learning about and visiting in person. So bring plenty of water and let’s set off to discover California’s deserts.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, some of California’s most beautiful parks are located in the Mojave Desert, which contains some of the state’s most visited attractions.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley’s unique arid desert landscape attracts millions of visitors every year who are fascinated by the almost extraterrestrial scenery found here. The places that I highly recommend you visit are:
- Badwater Basin: A large drained lake located at the lowest point in North America (282 ft below sea level) where you can go find and take the perfect picture of the characteristic polygonal formations in the ground and enjoy the panorama in hallowed silence.
- Zabriskie Point: One of the most famous scenic spots in the whole park, made immortal by Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie of the same name, which inspired not only artists from all over the world, but also philosophers such as Michel Foucault, who said that visiting Zabriskie Point was the most important experience in his life.
- Dante’s View: The observation point where you can see a large part of Death Valley and the city of… Mos Eisley! This is the exact spot that George Lucas chose as one of the many Star Wars locations in California.
- Racetrack Playa: Visit Racetrack Playa if you want to take a closer look at the mysterious rocks that move by themselves and leave tracks behind them.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg of everything that awaits you in this park. To discover more attractions and to read the safety tips to take into account, you can refer to our article about visiting Death Valley.
Our Tips and Accommodations in Death Valley
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most famous parks in California. Its main strengths are the surreal landscapes formed by the typical twisted Joshua trees and a series of overlooks that can be easily reached with a rental car. Obviously, you should take into account some simple recommendations before visiting this park. In our in-depth article about Joshua Tree National Park, we’ll tell you about all of Joshua Tree’s secrets and give you our tips in order to have the best experience during your visit.
Search for a hotel near Joshua Tree
Mojave National Preserve
The Mojave National Preserve is a park that is a bit removed from the classic tourist routes, but it can be worth visiting even just to see the fascinating Kelso Dunes, also known as the singing sands. This fascinating phenomenon occurs when a person walking along the crest of the dunes pours a considerable amount of sand on the sides of the dunes. The noise you hear is caused by vibrations produced by the sand sliding along the ridge.
Search for accommodations near Mojave National Preserve
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
A corner of… Holland in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Due to the microclimate here, the poppy, a flower that is typical of this area, can thrive. The scenic routes will take you to the top of some elevated points where you will be able to admire the “red expanse” below you almost as far as the eye can see.
By visiting the official website of Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, you can study the map of the trails and find out which is the best time of the year (usually between March and April) to visit it.
Find a hotel near the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
Located near Ridgecrest, the protagonists in this park are the imposing white tuff pillars towering over the dried-up bed of Searles Lake.
The surreal scenery that you can see in Trona Pinnacles is also revered by Hollywood producers. The landscapes of Trona Pinnacles have served as locations for numerous science fiction films and hit TV series, including Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek V, and Planet of the Apes.
You can learn more about this place by reading our article about Trona Pinnacles.
Search for a hotel near Trona Pinnacles
Main Cities and Cool and Unusual Things to See
The great nature parks are not the only protagonists of the Mojave Desert. There is also no lack of oddities and unusual attractions.
Route 66: Victorville and Barstow
The stretch of Route 66 in California passes right through the Mojave Desert. Barstow is a particularly striking city and its main attractions are the Route 66 Mother Road Museum and the Main Street murals that trace the history of the city and the Mother Road. In Victorville, you can discover more about the history of this unique road by visiting the California Route 66 Museum.
You will find out all that awaits you on Route 66 by reading our article about the history of Route 66 in California.
If you are fascinated by western towns, you can’t pass up a visit to Pioneertown. It is a film set that over time has developed into a small town. Stroll along Main St, the dusty main dirt road on either side of which are the city’s most iconic buildings, or stop for refreshments at the Pappy & Harriet’s, a historic restaurant that will take you back in time.
If you want to experience the Old West to the fullest, why not spend the night in the characteristic Pioneertown Motel? If, however, you want to find out more about this particular town, read out guide What to Do in Pioneertown.
The Kill Bill Church
Two Pines Chapel is on the outskirts of Lancaster, California. It is the small church made famous by Quentin Tarantino in the film Kill Bill. The address is 19857 E Ave G.
Also in Lancaster, there is another curious attraction. There are special grooves dug into the asphalt on a short stretch of a road and if you drive maintaining a fixed speed, you will hear the final part of Rossini’s William Tell Overture.
To find the musical road, you can type “Musical Road Lancaster” in the search tab in Google Maps.
World’s Tallest Thermometer
Baker, a town located at the gates of the Mojave National Preserve, is home to the world’s tallest thermometer (134 ft high), which measures the local temperature. The highest temperature it has ever recorded was 134 F in 1913.
Calico Ghost Town
If you are nostalgic for the Far West, the Mojave Desert is the right place for you. I recommend that you visit Calico Ghost Town, located near Barstow, which can be a perfect place to stop for those traveling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Although the town has undergone many restorations over the years to meet the needs of tourists, the city still organizes historical re-enactments that will take you on a journey back in time. For more information, read our article about the things to do in Calico.
Interactive Map of the Mojave Desert
Colorado Desert / Sonora
Again, the word “desert” in this case does not mean what you think. So don’t imagine an endless expanse of sand dunes glistening in the sun. Instead, be ready to discover its nature parks and hidden gems.
Joshua Tree National Park
No, we have not made a mistake, and we are not contradicting what was said above, because Joshua Tree National Park is located in both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. The southern part of the park is part of the Colorado Desert, so it is right to include it in this section as well.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Although it is perhaps one of the natural attractions that tourists traveling through these parts are least familiar with, Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California. The temperatures can get very high here as well. To give you some perspective, the visitor center (open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm) was built underground to make it easier for visitors.
Unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult parks to visit on your own because the main points of interest, such as Fonts Point, are located in places that are difficult to access without a 4×4 vehicle, and the most fascinating trails (such as the Pictograph Trail) are only accessible on foot.
Near the park, there is another hidden gem that I recommend you visit if you have time. We are talking about the Galleta Meadows Estate, which you could define as a sort of Jurassic Park with giant metal sculptures by the artist Ricardo Breceda.
Some of these unusual sculptures can also be seen from Borrego Springs Road.
Search for a hotel in the area
Salton Sea State Recreation Area
A huge expanse of polluted water, dead fish carcasses on the shore and nauseating smells. Welcome to the Salton Sea. No, we are not exaggerating. Due to pollution and lack of water from emissaries, what was once one of the most popular holiday resorts in the 1950s has become over time a virtually abandoned area, almost like a location of a dystopian film.
Most of the towns along the shore of Salton Sea are now basically ghost towns (especially in the southern part of the lake) and although it is for all intents and purposes a California State Park, tourists passing through these areas are mostly attracted by the atmosphere of decay and abandonment that characterizes the Salton Sea.
For this very reason, there are no accommodations in the vicinity of Salton Sea, with the exception of some campsites. If you are looking for overnight accommodations, then you will need to head north to the Palm Springs area or look in towns south of Salton Sea.
The vast Algodones Dunes stretch for more than 43 miles. If you are looking for a desert landscape, you are in the right place. There are many viewpoints from which to see this large expanse of sand, but in my opinion the best one is Hugh T. Osborne Lookout Park (also known as Osborne Overlook). The overlook is accessible via Highway 78. There is a convenient parking lot and you can see the Chocolate Mountains in the distance and walk among the dunes.
In the area to the south of Algodones Dunes, closer to the border with Mexico, you will find the very popular Buttercup Valley, which owes its fame mainly to the fact that it is another Star Wars location in California.
To reach the closest accommodations, you’ll need to head west of the Algodones Dunes where you’ll find towns like Brawley, El Centro and Calexico near the Mexican border.
Main Cities and Cool and Unusual Things to See
Would you like to visit Salvation Mountain or the center of the world? Then you’ve come to the right place.
Palm Springs is an oasis in the desert, a city is famous for its unique adobe architecture and the homes of American movie stars and entertainers who have chosen Palm Springs as their holiday destination over the years. Besides being a pleasant city to explore, it is also a great place to stay and discover its surroundings.
You can discover all the important information you need to know about this city and its attractions by reading our article about Palm Springs.
Salvation Mountain is the work of the visionary artist Leonard Knight made immortal by the movie Into the Wild. God is Love is the phrase that stands out on the top of Salvation Mountain, located just outside of Slab City, which many call the last truly free city in the United States.
Although Leonard Knight passed away in 2014, his mission is carried on by an association of volunteers and Salvation Mountain continues to attract thousands of visitors each year.
You can learn more about this unique attraction by reading our article about Salvation Mountain and the points of interest in Slab City.
Sunnylands – former Annenberg Estate
This lavish residence in the Colorado Desert has been called the “Camp David of the West”. Originally the home of Walter and Leonore Annenberg (he was the U.S. Ambassador to England, and she was Chief of Protocol during Ronald Reagan‘s administration). Over the years, it has hosted numerous U.S. presidents and Barack Obama used this place in 2013 for the international meeting with President Xi Jinping of China and in 2014 for the meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Sunnylands is located on the outskirts of Palm Springs. Today you can take tours of the residence surrounded by greenery and fascinating architecture. If you are interested, you can book a tour through the official website.
Official Center of the World – Felicity
In the middle of the Colorado Desert, you can also come across the officially recognized center of the world. If you are wondering who is behind this, the answer is simple. It is Jacques-Andre Istel, the mayor and founder of the city of Felicity himself, Jacques-Andre Istel.
A small pyramid stands in the “exact point” where the mythical center of the world is located and around it, over time, many bizarre attractions have been built, including a church, a labyrinth, and long granite walls in which the history of the United States, California, and humanity have been sculpted (the third part, however, is still work in progress).