The California desert offers millions of acres of amazing things to see and do. With so much to choose from, where does a person start? We've got eleven ideas here. Did we miss your favorite spot? Let us know.
1. Mono Lake South Tufa Preserve, Mono County
This haunting spot in the Great Basin section of the California desert owes its beauty to the seemingly unearthly setting: odd pinnacles of calcium carbonate rising from a very alkaline lake, all surrounded by sagebrush and rabbitbrush with the Yosemite Highcountry looking down over it all. Populated by tourists from around the world, but these tourists are the ones that have forsaken the Yosemite Valley to get a little bit of desert in them, and we like them for that.
The tufa towers were once covered by Mono Lake; they were formed when spring water with dissolved calcium emerged into the supersaturated water of the lake, and the calcium in the spring water couldn't stay dissolved. That lake level was almost lowered to the point where the lake would have died, by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power diversions from Rush Creek. Citizen action forced DWP to return some of the water, and Mono Lake is slowly healing.
How to get there: Take State Route 120 east from U.S. Route 395 south of the town of Lee Vining, and follow the signs.
2. Rainbow Basin, San Bernardino County
North of Barstow, this series of outcrops of multicolored lake sediments were laid down about 16 million years ago during the unsurprisingly named Barstovian period when the desert was much wetter. You can take a slow ride through the basin's dirt roads, or get out at the Owl Canyon campground and hike up the slot canyon. Fossils abound in the area, but be sure to admire them where they sit and leave them for others to enjoy.
How to get there: From Downtown Barstow, travel north on First Avenue across the Mojave River. Turn left on Irwin Road. After 6 miles, turn left on the graded dirt Fossil Bed Road and follow the signs.
3. Afton Canyon, San Bernardino County
Another set of lakebed sediments, but these were laid down beneath Lake Manix in the Pleistocene. The Mojave River has cut through the sediment here, creating an expanse of calico badlands sometimes referred to as the Grand Canyon of the Mojave. This is one of very few spots where the Mojave River runs above-ground year-round.
A popular BLM campsite sits at the end of Afton Road on the Mojave River, but the Canyon is an excellent day-use-visit location as well, especially for travelers looking to kill a little time driving between Barstow and Las Vegas. It's also a main physiographic boundary between the open, creosote-studded plains of the western Mojave and the more folded topography to the east. As a reliable water source in the mid-desert, Afton Canyon is a great place for watching wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep.
How to get there: From Barstow, head toward Las Vegas on Interstate 15. After 36 miles take Exit 221 for Afton Road. Passenger vehicles should be able to negotiate the rough dirt road as far as the campground. Drive slowly.
4. Crowley Point, Death Valley National Park
This spot's hard to miss for travelers on Route 190 between the Owens Valley and Death Valley National Park: it's the spot where the road suddenly starts switchbacking down off the Darwin Plateau eastward into the Panamint Valley. Near the top of the switchbacks, there's a broad gravel pullout with a historical marker commemorating local Catholic "pioneer" priest John Crowley, who would likely have been well pleased with the choice of location for his memorial.
Get out and stretch your legs and gaze into Rainbow Canyon, so named for the bands of red and yellow volcanic rocks that stripe its 1,000-foot walls. Anywhere else in the country, this would be a nationally famous tourist destination, but wedged as it is between Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada, Crowley Point has escaped some notice. That's OK: you might just have it all to yourself.
How to get there: The viewpoint is on the north side of Route 190 23 miles east of the junction with Route 136, and 40 miles east of Lone Pine. Or, if you're heading out of Death Valley National Park, that's 38.5 miles west of Stovepipe Wells Village.
5. Darwin Falls, Death Valley National Park
This is a good double-bill with Crowley Point, which is only seven miles uphill. Year-round streams are rare in the desert, but not only does Darwin Falls flow year-round, it does so over a pretty little chain of waterfalls totaling 80 feet, the tallest falls in Death Valley National Park.
Access to the lower falls is via a short hike up Darwin Canyon, which can get a little slippery and scratchy. After about a mile, following a conspicuous water pipe supplying the nearby Panamint Springs Resort with its water, you arrive at the lower falls, with a plunge pool rimmed with maidenhair ferns and algae. Experienced climbers should have little difficulty getting to the upper falls, though those of us with less vertical skill can loop around to the top via about six miles of old mining roads that join up with the lower trail a mile below the lower falls.
Or you can just hang out at the lower falls and breathe in that moist, fern-scented desert air.
How to get there: The turnoff for Darwin Falls is on the south side of Route 190 seven miles east of the Crowley Point pullout, 47 miles east of Lone Pine, and just a mile east of the Panamint Springs Resort.
6. Zabriskie Point and Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park
This is the classic Death Valley stop, a badlands of bright blonde lakebed sediments that have played a starring role in westerns, science fiction films, and even their own Antonioni film. The point itself is quite popular among Death Valley's motorized tourists, but if you crave a little solitude it's not hard to escape them: just slip out on the trail that starts at the back end of the parking lot and find a secluded spot among the badlands. That prominent pointy thing you see is Manly Beacon, named for the pioneering party that mostly managed to survive their cross-valley trip in 1849.
The Valley floor is less than two and a half miles away from the Zabriskie Point parking lot, offering interesting options for round-trip or shuttle hikes, but you can also do a lot worse than to just find yourself a bit of solitude 100 yards from the nearest tourist and contemplate for a while.
How to get there: The Zabriskie Point parking lot and trailhead is about four and a half miles east on Route 190 from Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley National Park.
7. Tahquitz Canyon, Palm Springs
This isn't a particularly remote spot: the canyon and its famous falls are more or less in downtown Palm Springs. Perhaps, as a result, a surprising number of desert rats have never been here. That's too bad: it's about as close as the California desert gets to a Shangri-La, and is likely the spot that inspired Eden Ahbez's hit song Nature Boy.
Part of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla reservation, the canyon was off-limits to outsiders for a number of years: visitors to a 1960s-era music festival descended on the canyon en masse and didn't leave for months, distressing tribal members who hold the canyon as sacred. Time apparently heals all wounds, and now visitors can walk the two-mile loop trail from the canyon mouth to Tahquitz Falls for about $12 per person.
The trail is relatively easy for accomplished hikers, but newbie tourists will need to pay close attention to footing and forego their dress shoes. (Tennis shoes should be fine.) Pamphlets available at the tribe's visitor center detail the significance of individual sites in Cahuilla history. Along the way you'll see wildflowers, gorgeous canyon walls holding eagle and hawk nests, and exuberant Tahquitz Creek as it flows past the 60-foot falls to evaporate on the floor of the Coachella Valley.
How to get there: The Agua Caliente Cahuilla visitor center is at the west end of Mesquite Avenue, off South Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs.
8. Lava Beds National Monument, Siskiyou and Modoc counties
A long day's drive from Southern California, Lava Beds doesn't exactly qualify as a day trip. But that's exactly why you need to make sure to see it: you probably won't just happen by. Lava Beds is part of the largest mountain you've never heard of in the Cascade Range, the Medicine Lake Volcano. Here, hundreds of thousands of years of volcanic activity have provided you with eerily quiet lava tubes to explore, natural basaltic forts from which to imagine yourself fending off the 19th Century U.S. Army just like the Modoc Indians did, and sagebrush plateaus where you can watch far-off thunderstorms skidding across Tule Lake on the valley floor to the north. If there's a more serene landscape to be found in the California desert, I do not know it.
How to get here: Leave Interstate 5 in the town of Weed and take U.S. 97 to Dorris on the Oregon state line. Just at the line turn right on California State Route 161, and after 17 miles turn tight again, on Hill Rd. The Lava Beds visitor center will be 20 miles south on Hill, and you can get information on and directions to the far-flung Monument units dotting the Tule Lake basin.
9. Amboy Crater, San Bernardino County
This 250-foot cinder cone of black lava, long a landmark for westward migrants on Route 66 and its forerunners, is an excellent place to get a glimpse of some of the youngest rock in the Mojave Desert. Though it's considered extinct by geologists, this little volcano may have erupted as recently as 500 years ago, though the USGS puts its likely periods of peak activity back around 10,000 years ago. Though it looks to be almost a perfect single crater, complete with a (frozen) lava lake at the bottom, Amboy Crater is actually four merged cinder cones that have converged.
The crater is open to hiking, with convenient parking and a maintained trail. Every hazard of desert hiking is magnified here, what with the black lava and its ability to soak up a lot more solar heat than pale granite. Take enough water, and forget the open-toed shoes for this walk. But do bring a lizard field guide: the crater and its 27-square-mile lava field are an excellent reptile habitat.
How to get there: Amboy Crater is 2.5 miles west of the "town" of Amboy, with parking and an interpretive station off National Trails Highway (Route 66). Don't count on getting supplies in Amboy, which is open irregularly: your best bet for food, water, gasoline and lodging is in Ludlow, on I-40 about 27 miles west of the crater.
10. Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve
The California desert has a lot of wonderful dunes, each with its own charms. The Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve offer a rare combination of stunning, accessible, and not overrun with off-road vehicles. The only other dunes I can think of that compare in those three respects are the Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley, and they're at sea level, meaning you can only visit them comfortably during the cool part of the year. Kelso Dunes, by contrast, top out at just shy of 3,000 feet above sea level, making summer visits less than death-defying.
The Kelso Dunes sing. Walk along the dune edge in the right climatic conditions, and the cascades of sand grains you loosen with each step can cause chain reactions resulting in a "singing" or "booming" sound. Every now and then you'll read that the Kelso Dunes are the only singing dunes in California. That's not precisely true: The Eureka Dunes 180 miles north sing as well, though apparently in a different key.
But even without the singing, the Kelso Dunes are a must-see in the desert. All this sand was brought here by wind and the action of the Mojave River. Ecclesiastes says that even the weariest river flows to the sea, but the Mojave's River of Sand flows here instead.
How to get there: The Kelso Dunes are accessible by way of a high-quality dirt road running west from Kelbaker Road, eight miles south of the Kelso Depot. Drive (slowly) along the road for about four miles until you see an obvious parking area for dune visits, about four miles from the pavement.
11. Trona Pinnacles, San Bernardino County
Starting around a hundred thousand years ago, tufa formations similar to those at Mono Lake began to form in the depths of Searles Lake, which was filled by runoff from the Ice-Age Sierra Nevada. But unlike the spires at Mono Lake, the tufa formations here grew huge, with some surpassing heights of 100 feet.
And then the Ice Age — more commonly referred to as the Pluvial in the desert -- ended. Searles Lake, once 250 feet deep, dried up. And the "Trona Pinnacles" — named for the nearby mining town — emerged into the sunlight, there to be mainly ignored by everyone but cinematographers.
It's a wonder the Trona Pinnacles aren't more well-visited. They're just a bit more than three hours' drive from Los Angeles, and yet you rarely see them mentioned or hear people talking about visiting them. Maybe it's the five and a half miles of dirt road to get there. You'd think that the opportunity to walk among the 120-foot spires grown on an ancient lake bottom would attract more people. Or is that just me?
How to get there: From its intersection with State Route 178 seven miles south of Trona, head 5.5 miles south on Pinnacle Road.