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I’ve been lucky enough to do a dozen road trips to California over the past ten years.
And aside from the glitzy part of Los Angeles, no part of California hasn’t dazzled me. From its cities, forests, and mountains to its vineyards, and of course its beaches.
But it was its deserts that floored me.
The Palm Springs area is an oasis set in the desert of the Coachella Valley. It is close to the Joshua Tree and the Mojave Desert. They are best visited between January and May due to the extreme heat. It was love at first sight.
Next, head for the vineyards and hot air ballooning in the Temecula region. A little-known area if we compare it to the wine valleys of Sonoma and Napa near San Francisco, but it surprised us.
We finish the journey in San Diego.
Take spring break, for example – this trip represents a five to seven-day trip well done.
On the way to the desert
There was a time when flights between Montreal and Palm Springs were direct. They are now made with a stopover and one must set aside at least 8 hours to get there.
The best option is to fly directly to Los Angeles, rent a car, and start the road trip from there.
Airfare in April 2022 was 23,300 Aeroplan points and $80 in taxes. In cash, it’s $650. The points are therefore optimized at 2.4 cents.
It takes between 2 and 2 and a half hours to get to Palm Springs from LAX on Highway 10. But this is still a rough estimate given the ever-present traffic on the freeways of the most congested city in the United States. But don’t worry, this is the only place you’ll experience this level of traffic.
Taking the highway will allow you to witness the transitions between the seaside, the mountains, and the lunar landscapes of the desert. When you see the wind farm of San Gorgonio (more than 3,000 giants) on the horizon, you will know you’re on your way to some place different.
Stop in San Bernardino National Park
For the first stop for the night, we suggest you turn off at exit 44 towards the city of San Bernardino. You are now just a few kilometres from the magnificent national park of the same name which you can enjoy the next day.
Here is a list of the most popular list to hike. Accessible to all levels of hikers.
Big Bear Lake is the best known. Depending on the season, people go there for skiing, hiking, or water sports. A free trolley service takes you from one point of interest (such as the marina and the public market) to another.
From San Bernardino, take Highway 10 to the intersection of Highway 62 East, which will take you to the Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites.
The Fairfield Inn is a good deal. Well situated to spend one or two nights and visit the surrounding area. It’s a few miles from the small town of Joshua Tree. Welcome to the desert.
The accommodation offer is generous but expensive. Many resorts specialize in spa services because of the underground hot springs in the area. Day passes can be purchased to enjoy their facilities without having to pay the full price of a stay.
Joshua Tree National Park
There are several activities close to the hotel. Park rangers give workshops on the local flora and fauna. You can participate in a guided stargazing activity, but the most popular is the hike suitable for all levels.
It’s also possible to travel through this part of the desert by car. For a two-hour road trip, you’ll want to stop on these short trails:
The desert flowers come into bloom between February and April. There are various species of birds and you’ll most likely see mouflon sheep. Of course, the atypical profiles of Joshua trees are everywhere. Finally, the park is full of granite boulder formations that human mountain goats will want to climb.
Leave well prepared and preferably early or after 4:00 pm. Sunscreen, water, and snacks are essential. If you bring two bottles of water, come back after drinking the first one, they say. To get more information, there are four tourist centres.
A village that really existed in the 1950s, Pioneertown then became the setting for a western movie. There are a few stores and a motel. A handful of residents still live there. It takes all but 15 minutes to stroll through its single dirt street.
What makes you want to stay is the restaurant on the square which impresses with an eye-catching outdoor BBQ station. Pappy’s and Harriett’s attracts all the locals from the area on weekends. Typical dishes and live orchestras. You want to go there. Arrive early for a seat.
With the days being so hot, the evenings are surprisingly cool. The sky is starry because of the absence of light pollution. Are we at the end of the earth?
Palm Springs was in the fifties, a destination of choice for Hollywood stars. Their passage is immortalized by stars embedded in the sidewalk of the main avenue, Palm Canyon Drive. The little sister of the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.
This avenue is also home to beautiful retro design stores, art galleries, good restaurants, and public parks where it is nice to sip coffee under the palm trees.
What to do in Palm Springs and surrounding areas?
- First, go through the Palm Springs Visitors Centre not only for its information but also its architecture;
- enjoy one of the fifty golf courses in this golfer’s mecca;
- Take a stroll through a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Palm Canyon Drive to admire the colourful retro homes;
- check out Village fest every Thursday between 6 and 10 p.m;
- take the aerial tramway for an exceptional view of the valley;
- Spend a few hours day or night at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert.
Agua Caliente Reserve
One of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done in the Palm Springs area: the Indian Canyons of the Agua Caliente Reserve.
It’s about twenty kilometres of trails that are subdivided into several smaller trails. They can be explored on foot or on horseback.
The palms steal the show. They are GORGEOUS. More than 3,000 of them stand guard on the banks of the creek. A real oasis in the desert.
Head for the center and its vineyards
Points of view
Now take Highway 74 south from Palm Desert. It will quickly turn into a winding scenic path.
Halfway through this maze of loops, a viewpoint, the Coachella Vista Point, allows you to stop and take beautiful photos of the Coachella Valley. Sunrise or sunset, day or night, the place is magical. However, be aware that this route requires careful steering.
Then, a little further on, another stop at the viewpoint, Cahuilla Tewanet Vista Point.
The area is part of the vast San Bernardino Forest and is known as the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountain National Monument.
Follow the paved pathway, which is lined with about 20 information panels. They tell us about the indigenous peoples and natural resources of the region.
The wine region of Temecula
Temicula is a city of just under 115,000 inhabitants. It has about twenty wineries that offer tours and tastings. Its grape varieties are mainly from Italy and the Rhone.
It is also a popular destination for hot air balloon rides over vineyards and citrus groves. The city also organizes an annual “Balloon and Wine Festival” which will take place in June 2022.
Temiscula is about 100 miles from San Diego where there is so much to do. You can see if the vineyard tour will make you want to stay the night there or not. Several Marriott Bonvoy properties are located here.
End of the road in California
We hope you enjoyed this road trip as much as we did. One discovery follows another – from unusual landscapes, underground hot springs and amazing flora and fauna to colourful architecture and a native legacy for which we are grateful.
Next up is San Diego with Balboa Park, its beaches, old town, naval base, and vibe that we love.
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