Desert vacations for Spring Break


Joseph A. Tomaszewski

Joshua Tree Photo Courtesy of Patricia Wheeler


Mojave Desert Courtesy of Patricia Wheeler

If you’re into hiking, camping, the outdoors, or just need some peace and quiet, consider a road trip to one of Southern California’s deserts. Yes, gas prices are up, but a road trip is still more affordable than flying to most places and the drive is an experience in itself.  Spring is a perfect time to visit, with blooming wildflowers and moderate temperatures.  Load your iPod with your favorite playlists. Getting there is half the fun.

Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, and the Mojave National Preserve provide three options within a half-day’s drive from L.A.  Each one has a unique, exotically beautiful landscape that makes you feel like you’re on another planet.  Sunsets reveal a colorful palette of desert flora. Night skies awe, far away from urban light pollution.

At only a few hours drive from L.A, Joshua Tree is doable as a day-trip.  The numerous granite outcroppings provide a perfect playground for rock climbing or bouldering. Some campsites are reservable, but most are first come first serve. It’s usually crowded on weekends, so most campsites are full by Friday afternoon.

For non-campers, I recommend the Joshua Tree Inn.  It’s a short drive from the park. The rustic Joshua Tree Saloon Bar and Grill is a fun place to get some food or quench your thirst.

If you want to get farther away from civilization, the four-and-a-half-hour drive to the Mojave National Preserve is worth it.  There aren’t lodgings nearby, so you’ll have to camp.  But unlike Joshua Tree, you’ll have no trouble finding a site in either of the preserve’s two campgrounds.

The three-mile round trip Teutonia Peak trail winds through the densest Joshua Tree forest on the planet and ends with an expansive view at the top. The Kelso sand dunes are a great place for a sunset hike.  The Kelso Depot diner and museum is open from 9 to 5 daily, but otherwise there are no services in the park. Make sure you gas up in Ludlow on I-40 before entering the park.  Services are sparse in this area of the desert.

You have to see Death Valley to understand the appeal of being in the lowest, driest and hottest place in North America. The canyon walls come alive with color in the morning and evening. The vast emptiness is mesmerizing.

Lodging, stores and campsites are available near the Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek Oases. But I prefer the quieter Mesquite Springs campsite at the north end of the park.  I recommend hiking down into the 800-foot deep Ubehebe volcanic crater nearby.

Climb to the top of a sand dune near Stovepipe Wells and run down. You’ll feel like  a superhero.  Watch a sunset from Dante’s view.  Stand 282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin. It’s even better at night.

When visiting any of these places, whether camping, or just day hiking, make sure to bring a hat and plenty of sunscreen and water.  Plan carefully, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the desert.  There’s pointy and poisonous things out there you’ll want to avoid.  You can rent camping gear at the Northridge REI.