When someone says they hate driving in Southern California, they’ve been driving in the wrong places. And they probably haven’t even been really driving – they’ve been sitting in traffic, crawling along, dodging motorcyclists, construction crews, and the Highway Patrol.
But it is possible to drive for pleasure – leisurely – amidst wide-open spaces and gorgeous landscapes in Southern California.
That is, if you go to the desert.
Now, the desert has the reputation for some pretty great historic roads like U.S. Route 395 and Route 66. And there’s always the main thoroughfares through Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Mojave Preserve. But here are five scenic desert drives that are destinations in their own right – and with plenty to see along the way.
So fill up your tank, charge your phone, and stock up on water – because the freeways have got nothing on these vehicular excursions through the backcountry and beyond.
Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park
You might accidentally find yourself at the wrong end of Titus Canyon, since it only goes in one direction. If you happen upon it along Scotty’s Castle Road – maybe on your way to Ubehebe Crater – you can actually park there and walk in. But that doesn’t replace the drive, so make a point to pick up the access road at its eastern end off of Daylight Pass Road / Nevada 374 (maybe after a sightseeing trip to nearby ghost town Rhyolite). The official Death Valley National Park map recommends but doesn’t require 4WD for the entirety of the road, but with Death Valley’s variable road conditions, you’ve always got to be careful. Even a high clearance vehicle can get its tire punctured by a sharp rock, and out there, you’re far from any AAA service trucks (not to mention a cell signal).
That being said, I survived it in a subcompact hatchback, whose nimbleness proved to be an asset when it came to veering around debris in the road. If you can make it, the payoff is tremendous – with sweeping views and white-knuckle curves giving way to a slot canyon. You also pass through the Leadfield ghost town, though there’s nowhere really to pull over and get out of your car to explore. A small car also has the advantage in the slot canyon, where the road is graded but the turns are hairpin, the walls are only 20 feet wide, and the path is full of hikers staring at their phones. Give yourself enough time to get through the whole thing – because it takes a lot longer than your GPS will estimate, and for most of it, there’s no turning back. Give yourself at least two hours for the entire trek, and check weather advisories before heading out. A slot canyon is probably the last place you want to be when it rains.
Rainbow Basin, Mojave Desert
Less than 10 miles north of Barstow in the Mojave Desert, there’s yet another slot canyon that you can both drive and walk through. Personally, I find the maneuvering to be particularly amusing from behind the wheel. Rainbow Basin Natural Area is run by the BLM, so naturally it’s difficult to find, and you can’t trust the signs you see on the road. If you mistakenly end up at Fort Irwin, you’ve gone too far down Irwin Road and should turn back. Even if you find yourself driving in circles for a bit, if you can finally find it, it’s worth it.
When you get there, you’ll take a four-mile one-way loop dirt road around the batholith, which gives you views of the rainbow-colored striated rocks that rise up around you. Stripes of green and red rise out of the rocks in stunning patterns, still subtle and blending in with the desert palette, but remarkable nevertheless. Each twist and turn requires speeds of less than 20 mph in a vehicle no longer than 25 feet. The course feels like something designed by an Imagineer, dipping and rising, sloping sideways and bumping you along like the chug-chug-chug of a rollercoaster. The challenge is harrowing, but it’s not unmanageable in the average passenger car, as long as you keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. Don’t try to Snapchat it as you go.
Hwy 78 / Julian to Salton Sea via Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
This is one of those drives where it really feels like you’re going somewhere. Starting in the quaint, almost New Englandy small town of Julian on Highway 78 in East San Diego County, passing through the former gold mining town of Banner and crossing the California Riding and Hiking Trail, you emerge from a woodsy landscape into the veritable rock desert of Anza-Borrego, the sand dunes of Ocotillo Wells, and finally, the low desert ramshackle Riviera known as the Salton Sea. Even if you didn’t already know where you were headed, you’d spot it from the high elevations of Anza, where the giant inland sea glows bright blue – an optical illusion if there ever was one, thanks to a reflection of the clear sky above. When you reach the Sea – and you may smell it before you see it – be prepared for the annual fish die-off, the bodies and bones of dead tilapia lining the shore, with barnacles crunching underfoot. In the summer, there’s not only the heat, but also the smell, and the flies. None of it keeps the locals from fishing, boating, and camping, though – or even eating some of the tilapia they catch, despite decades of rumors about the water quality.
When 78 hits Highway 86, you can go north to explore the “town” of Salton City, the abandoned and vanished motels and marinas, and the oft-photographed power lines dragging along the surface of the water. Or, you can head south to look for the old Navy base, and take surface streets past the mud pots and wildlife refuges at the southern tip. But why stop there? Pick up Highway 111 and go north, hitting the Ski Inn in Bombay Beach for a patty melt and exploring the remains of the town that have been consumed by floods and sand. Head east to the Dos Palmas Preserve to inspect its adobe ranch house and San Andreas Oasis Trail. Swing by the former North Shore Yacht club by architect Albert Frey (beautifully renovated for the Salton Sea History Museum, but now functioning as a community center). Make a pit stop at the International Banana Museum. If you keep going north, Highway 111 eventually rejoins with Highway 86 to completely circumnavigate the sea.
Hwy 247 / Old Woman Springs Road
Old Woman Springs Road is kind of a “dark horse” when it comes to taking a drive through the desert. If you were in, say, Joshua Tree and heading to LA, you’d probably head west and hop on the 10 freeway like everybody else does. If you’re crafty, you might veer off onto the 210 or 60 freeways for a bit less traffic and more scenery. But if you’re not in a rush, start on Old Woman Springs Road (Highway 247) in Yucca Valley, and head north instead. You can start your journey at the former Sky Drive-In Theater (now the Sky Village Swap Meet) for a bargain, a snack, and a little meditation in Bob Carr’s Crystal Cave, a folk art palace made entirely out of gap filler… and crystals. Passing the “Rhythms of Life” hillside sculpture (which is visible from the intersection at Aberdeen Drive), you can detour to Landers, about 15 miles north of Sky Village, and the Integratron. There, you can take a sound bath, wait for aliens to arrive, or try to time travel, as its creator always hoped to do.
At this point it might seem like you’re really going out of your way, but there’s so much to see here! After Old Woman Springs Road begins to veer east, and then northeast, you can find the giant “King Clone” creosote plant in Johnson Valley, which is the oldest known plant (dating back at least 11,000 years). And then you reach the area from which the road derives its name: Old Woman Springs, home of surprising desert water sources and a history of cattle ranching dating back over a century ago. Though the Old Woman Springs ranch itself is privately owned and not open to the public, there is a historical marker as a point of interest along the side of the road. Finally, at the town of Lucerne Valley (which will probably feel like the first “real” town since Yucca Valley), Highway 247 turns north and joins Barstow Road, while Old Woman Springs Road continues another 1200 feet or so and ends at Highway 18. Here, you’ll want to continue west on 18 for another half mile or so to make your pilgrimage to the very weird and wondrous Jack O’Landia. Themed like an Old West amusement park, it’s actually private property, so enjoy it – and pay tribute to country singer Freddy Fender who passed back in 2006 – from the side of the road. When you’re done, you can head south on 18 to Big Bear, or you can go north to Victorville and proceed from there.
Hwy 58 / Carrizo Plain National Monument
All roads may not lead to Barstow, but at the very least, Highway 58 starts there. Whether you’ve conquered Rainbow Basin to the north or come up from Old Women Springs to the south, head west on the Barstow-Bakersfield Highway to the town of Boron, where you can learn about the Twenty Mule Team wagons that used to cart borax out of Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley at the Borax Visitor Center. You’ll pass Edwards Air Force Base (which isn’t publicly accessible unless you make advance arrangements to take a tour), the Mojave Air and Space Port (and home of the airplane graveyard), and the Tehachapi Mountains (and a windmill farm) as you make your way to Bakersfield.
You could end your trip there, but Bakersfield is the gateway to the largest single native grassland remaining in California, Carrizo Plain National Monument. Nestled in a valley north of Los Padres National Forest, and just beyond the McKittrick Hotel (and its infamous Penny Bar) along Highway 58 is this wide expanse that includes the San Andreas Fault (visible from Wallace Creek) and Soda Lake, an alkaline lake that dries up into a stark white salt flat in the summertime and breeds fairy and brine shrimp when it’s wet from runoff. It might not be desert per se, but it’s pretty deserted outside of wildflower season – leaving you alone with the tule elk, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, migratory birds, raptors, pronghorn antelope, and burrowing owls. A ranger can take you on a tour of the off-limits Painted Rock, a sandstone alcove featuring (unfortunately vandalized) Chumash pictographs, and then you can camp overnight, under a truly dark sky.