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  • Writer's pictureNicole

California Desert Road Trip

THE PLAN: Two days exploring Palm Springs before driving to check out Joshua Tree National Park, the Kelso sand dunes in the Mojave and then flying home from Las Vegas.

GETTING THERE: We arrived in beautiful, sunny Palm Springs from Calgary and hit the ground running. The Palm Springs international (open air) airport is amongst one of the prettiest I’ve ever flown into. It is small and cute and I instantly got excited about being here the second I was off of the plane.

Welcome to Palm Springs - Palm Springs Airport
Driving towards downtown Palm Springs, California

The first stop was to downtown Palm Springs to check the place out and have lunch. The view of the layers of mountains, desert landscape and palm trees set in the forefront of all of this was so gorgeous. Best of all, almost everywhere you look, you’ve got a view of this stunning backdrop.

Palm Springs is so throwback. It used to be known as the Playground of the Stars. The history is still evident when you look around. Downtown is lovely. A little weathered in some parts, but that only adds to the charm. We found Bongo Johnny’s, a rooftop restaurant where we ate while watching the action on the streets below.

Day one was spent wandering around. It was pretty hot out, so we enjoyed the views of the palm tree lined streets as we whizzed past in our air conditioned rental.

The next day, we got up early and made our way to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to check out the views of the Coachella valley from the San Jacinto mountain summit. At 8516 feet above the city, the view was unparalleled. It was quite a bit cooler up at the top (no surprise there), about 3C.

Nico’s travel tip: If you decide to do the aerial tramway, get there early. This place is a hot spot for climbers and they show early up in droves with their mattresses and a ton of gear. (More after the pictures.)

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Views of Palm Springs below from Mt Jacinth

Views of Palm Springs below from the summit of Mt Jacinth
Views of the mountain range from Mt Jacinth

The gorgeous desert landscape as we descend down on the Aerial Tramway

Next, we hit up the iconic rainbow hued Saguaro hotel to wander the grounds and have lunch at El Jefe, the Mexican street food restaurant that I had read about and wanted to visit. Tim and I pigged out on tacos to round out a nice afternoon. The hotel is like a technicolored dream. It was bliss. I want to live there.

The iconic Saguaro Hotel. The most colourfully beautiful hotel that I've ever seen!

Sitting at the bar at El Jefe Mexican restaurant located inside of the Saguaro

We went to this amazing strip mall Chinese Restaurant in Desert Hot Springs called Kam Lun that I found on trip advisor with great reviews and then food coma’d out at the house in the evening. We eventually got a competitive game of dominoes going (I lost every single game in case you were wondering.)

Visiting Palm Springs has been a dream of mine for many years. I had this idea of canyons, desert palms, mid-century (last century!) buildings, the hot desert sun on my skin and open air restaurants. With a flying time of under three hours, I can't believe that I had never come here. I fell in love with the place. Next time, I will stay downtown to explore more of the city on foot but not this time. Palm Springs was the launch spot for the real reason we were in the desert; the road trip.

Driving on the open road in California
A field of turbines with the mountain range in the background

On the interstate headed to Joshua Tree National Park

A desert road trip through the Mojave evokes feelings of dusty roads, cactus and old deserted mining towns. It also two important places that would be crossed off of the ‘things to see in this lifetime’ list – Joshua Tree National Park and the Kelso sand dunes in the Mojave desert. The desert is a barren place where not much can survive. The plant life that can withstand the elements help make the landscape so achingly beautiful.

Setting out early in the morning, we drove around an hour to 29 Palms, California and Joshua Tree National Park (The Canadian in me keeps wanting to type Provincial Park.) Visiting Joshua Tree has been on my list of things to see for a long time, so I was grateful to finally be there. The park is huuuuuuuge. And just teeming with its namesake trees. The landscape is rough and unforgiving and the silhouette of the Joshua tree is a beautifully unique image against the stark, rocky backdrop. The place is mesmerizing. One can hike, camp or drive through the park. We opted for the third. I am not huge on camping and I feel like Joshua Tree would have tested my mettle – and won, had we decided to stay. We covered some serious ground in our rental car and then headed east to the Mojave desert and another dream about to be realized – the Kelso dunes.

The namesake Joshua Tree at Joshua Tree National Park

Views from Joshua Tree National Park's highest peak

More views of the canyons below from the highest peak in Joshua Tree

Getting to the Kelso sand dunes from Joshua Tree was another hour and a half drive. Again, the views of tumbleweed, abandoned towns and Tim’s banter made the ride seem much shorter. We could see the sand dunes amongst the mountains in the distance. The sun illuminated the dunes, making them look like giant golden mountains and the closer we got, we started to realize just how massive these dunes were. After turning left down the Kelso Dunes Road, we drove the final 3 miles before the dunes were literally right before us. It was absolutely incredible and so worth the drive.

It was so hot there. Everything was hot. The air was hot and dry, my skin felt hot, the sand was burning hot and there was virtually no one else there. Tim made a joke about the dunes looking like a great big litter box. There wasn’t any reasonable kind of shade and we didn’t see any animals. We parked the rental and got out to hang around the base of the dunes. You can hike there – it would take a couple of hours to get to the summit and back down, but us lazy folk decided to wander around and take photos instead of doing any real work. To hike here would require a level of preparation that we didn't sign up for this time 'round. We also had a two hour drive to Vegas ahead of us and didn’t want to over-exert ourselves. Yeah. That’s it. We wanted to conserve our energy.

The sand dunes at Kelso. More like sand mountains.
Me, striking a pose at the base of the sand dunes.

Tim looking at the scenery

A selfie of Tim and I at the Sand dunes
Looking back at the dunes as we drove away.

From the dunes, we continued driving east to Las Vegas, the oasis in the desert. We arrived at around 3pm and like a mirage, Las Vegas always seems to spring up out of nowhere. I’ve been to Las Vegas more times than I can actually remember but I feel a familiar sense of excitement every time I see it from above in an airplane or driving towards it. Tim likes old Vegas and Fremont Street and I prefer the glossy slickness of the Las Vegas Strip. So we did both. The sign on Fremont Street says ‘The Fremont Street Experience’, and that couldn’t be more accurate. This place is an experience and from the people on rides flying past overhead, to the sheer crazy everywhere you look on the street – it is exciting. I’ll give you that. The casinos are a bit weathered and it has a more of a dated feel to it. It is definitely worth checking out for a few hours, anyway. After Fremont, we headed over to the Las Vegas Strip. If the strip was a person, it would be a slick talking pimp. There are lights, flashing lights, excitement, music, throngs of people, fountains, food – oh, the food! People trying to sell, seduce and cajole. It is the fun that has subtle undertones of another other side of Vegas. It is sensory overload like I’ve never experienced before and since. I think that’s why I’ve got a two night stay maximum rule for Vegas.

CURRENCY AND A WORD ABOUT MONEY: The exchange for the Canadian to USD is shit. That’s all. It was an expensive trip. If you do something similar and would like to save money, I recommend staying at an Airbnb or a hotel with a kitchenette and buying your own food and drink as that will likely be your biggest expense.

THE VERDICT: The feeling of lightness and fun that we had on the road was incredible. The joy of being able to set our own itinerary and freedom of doing what we wanted to when we wanted to do it is the reason why some people that I know swear by road trips only. We covered a lot of ground and while this isn’t necessarily a trip I would do over and over again, it was one hundred percent worth it and one that I was happy to cross off of the travel list.

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