The Deserts, California
With singing dunes, shimmering salt flats, weathered peaks, steep canyons and twisted vegetation, California’s deserts have a strikingly sculptural appeal. Photographers, artists and stargazers come here to enjoy the clear light and impressive landscapes, whose colours range from palest bone to ochre, russet and crimson. Here and there are natural oddities such as the Trona Pinnacles, pointed tufa rocks which look deliberately planted. The Deserts region has much to offer active adventurers, too: there are rock formations to test climbers, canyons to thrill mountain bikers and, in winter, snow-capped peaks to challenge hikers.
Situated in the rain shadow of the mighty Sierra Nevada, this is a devastatingly arid region. It’s home to the place which holds the world record for the hottest ever daytime temperature, Furnace Creek in Death Valley, California’s largest national park. This is the unforgiving heart of the Mojave Desert, a vast area of almost 50,000 square miles which also contains the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.
South of the Mojave is the Colorado Desert, a huge, sandy region which includes the heavily irrigated Coachella and Imperial Valleys, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the eerie, mirror-like Salton Sea, a shallow salt lake situated right on the San Andreas Fault.
To enjoy the deserts’ kinder side, visit between October and April. It’s particularly beautiful in spring. Between February and April, wildflowers of all colours burst into bloom, carpeting the desert floor, and in February and March, the distinctive Joshua Trees grace the landscape with their large white flowers.
The most popular base is Palm Springs, a city that’s a favourite retreat of the rich and famous, with manicured golf courses and a character all its own, but there are also places to stay in Twenty Nine Palms and Furnace Creek.
The Deserts region occupies most of southeastern California. It’s bordered to the north by the Central Valley and High Sierra, to the east by Nevada and Arizona, to the south by Mexico and to the west by the coastal counties around Los Angeles and San Diego. Death Valley National Park is in the northeast, Joshua Tree National Park is in the south and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is in the southwest.
The highest and lowest points in the region are in Death Valley: Charleston Peak (11,918ft / 3633m) and Badwater Basin, which lies 282ft / 86m below sea level and is the lowest point in North America. Incredibly, Badwater Basin is only 85 miles from Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada, which at 14,505ft / 4421m is the highest peak in the United States outside Alaska.
The Deserts have two distinct seasons: summer, with scorching days and hot nights, and winter, with mild, windy days and cold nights. The best times to visit are autumn, winter and spring, October to April, when the temperatures are manageable.
Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in the world. On the hottest day since records began, the temperature in Furnace Creek hit a blistering 134°F / 56.7°C. In June, July and August, the average temperature in the valley is 115°F / 46°C by day, dipping into the high 80s (31°C) by night. Anza-Borrego State Park and the southernmost points of the Mojave Desert aren’t quite as hot, but the average temperature is still 107°F / 42°C. Things cool down significantly in the winter when conditions can be very changeable, with temperatures averaging 65°F / 18°C by day and dropping as low as 38°F / 3°C at night. The desert is prone to strong winds and flash floods in autumn and winter.
Things to do
Take an architectural tour of Palm Springs
Palm Springs has the largest concentration of 20th century modernist and mid-century modern architecture in California. Many famous architects made their mark here, notably Albert Frey who created the Aerial Tramway Valley Station and was a pioneer of desert modernism, and E Stewart Williams, who created the Aerial Tramway Mountain Station and famously built Frank Sinatra a trend-setting house with a piano-shaped pool. The desert region has always inspired artists and the architecture reflects the creative nature of the city’s residents, which still includes many well-heeled actors and musicians and a large gay community. The Palm Springs Historical Society (pshistoricalsociety.org) runs regular walking tours in the cooler months. The city is busiest between January and May, when the major golf and tennis events are held.
Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
This is the largest rotating aerial tramway, or cablecar system, in the world. First conceived in the 1930s, its pods fly high over the desert as they climb from the Coachella Valley to San Jacinto Peak, spinning slowly past North America’s sheerest mountainface and passing through five distinct biomes. The trip takes less than 15 minutes but it’s well worth it for the stunning views and the short nature trails at the top. Just remember to bring an extra layer – it can be 40°F / 20°C cooler in the mountains, which are snowy in winter.
Visit Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Sabra, owner of Cliffhanger Guides climbing tours, talks about the bohemian spirit, climbing and wildlife in Joshua Tree National Park and the desert. [02:02]
Bizarre rock formations, palm-lined oases and Joshua Trees dancing in the heat haze make this park a must. The rocks offer some of California’s best climbing and bouldering. To learn more about this fascinating environment and its ecological diversity, you can take a ranger-led tour.
Discover the magic of Death Valley
The mysteries of Death Valley make this desert truly magical. The dry desert air, for example, is thought to have healing properties. Make the trek to the top of Dante’s View and, on a clear day, you can see both the highest and the lowest points in the United States outside Alaska – Mount Whitney and Badwater Basin.
Catch a festival in Indio
There’s always something going on in the Coachella Valley town of Indio. This low-key farming town has a packed calendar of festivals, mostly with a foodie theme. The biggest are the International Tamale Festival in early December and the National Date Festival in mid February (that’s the kind of date you eat, not the kind you hope for on Valentine’s Day).
Explore The Living Desert
Learn about the intricate ecology of the Colorado Desert and other deserts around the world at Explore The Living Desert on the edge of the town of Palm Desert
This conservation-minded visitor attraction on the edge of the town of Palm Desert offers an insight into the intricate ecology of the Colorado Desert and other deserts around the world. It’s a well preserved expanse of managed wilderness that’s been turned into a series of show gardens. Among the displays of desert vegetation are animal compounds where you can encounter mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and Mexican wolves.
See the Anza-Borrego Desert in full bloom
It can be tricky to get the timing right, as the winter rains don’t necessarily show up on cue. But if you’re lucky enough to be in the vicinity of Anza-Borrego Desert State National Park around March, it’s well worth calling the Wildflower Hotline (760/767-4684) to find out if wildflowers are in bloom. Dotting the valleys with splashes of pink, white and gold, they’re a truly uplifting sight. Anza-Borrego, the largest state park in the USA outside Alaska, is also home to a surprising array of wildlife including roadrunners, kit foxes (the smallest of the North American foxes), iguanas and the park’s signature species, bighorn sheep.
Go birdwatching on the shores of the Salton Sea
Though fed by freshwater creeks, the Salton Sea is even saltier than the Pacific ocean. Surrounding it is a mosaic of habitats including marshes and sagebrush scrub. This austere environment attracts a remarkably wide variety of birds including American white pelicans, burrowing owls, black skimmers and laughing gulls. It’s common for birdwatchers to tick off over 100 species in a single day.
For California’s most awesome stargazing, head for the desert. From Anza-Borrego to Death Valley, light pollution is practically non-existent. On a typical evening you can see shooting stars, the distant Milky Way, and more stars than you could ever imagine. For the richest panoramas, take a telescope to one of the peaks. The night skies over Death Valley are considered the darkest of all, with only the faint, distant glow of Las Vegas to detract from the experience.
Get your kicks on Route 66
The best-preserved section of the legendary highway that Nat King Cole sang about in the 1940s is in the Mojave Desert, east of Barstow. To get a taste of what it used to feel like to take the Mother Road across the desert, you can turn off Interstate 40 to cruise along the stretch between Ludlow and Essex. There are small Route 66 museums in Barstow and Victorville.
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