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    California deserts: discovering the Mojave and the Colorado Desert

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    Lluis Enric Mayans

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    In many, when they refer to the California desert, they use the singular but not imagining that the main deserts of California are at least two: that of Mojave and that of the Colorado (if we really want to be precise, there is also a small section of the Great Basin Desert).

    Both the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert hide many curiosities and hidden gems, not to mention the natural parks, which are definitely worth knowing and going to visit in person. So prepare your water supply and let's set off to discover the deserts of California.


    • Mojave Desert
      • Natural parks
      • Main cities, curiosities and oddities
      • Interactive map of the Mojave Desert
    • Colorado / Sonoran Desert
      • Natural parks
      • Main cities, curiosities and oddities
      • Interactive map of the Colorado Desert

    Mojave Desert

    Natural parks

    Although it may seem counterintuitive, some of California's most beautiful parks are located right inside a desert, that of the Mojave, which contains some of the most visited attractions in the state.

    Death Valley National Park

    Its particular arid and desert landscape attracts millions of visitors every year fascinated by the almost extraterrestrial views that can be observed. The places not to be missed are:

    • Badwater Basin: a large dried up lake located at the lowest point in all of North America (86 meters below sea level) where you can go in search of the characteristic polygonal formations of land to take a perfect photo and enjoy the view in silence unreal of the area.
    • Zabriskie Point: one of the most famous scenic spots in the whole park, made immortal by Michelangelo Antonioni's film of the same name, which inspired not only artists from all over the world but also philosophers such as Michael Focault who claimed that the vision of Zabriskie Point had been for him the most important life experience.
    • Dante's View: the vantage point from which you can admire a large part of Death Valley and the city of ... Mos Eisley! It is precisely this point in fact that George Lucas has chosen as one of the many Star Wars locations in California.
    • Racetrack Playa: if you want to closely observe the mystery of the rocks that move by themselves, leaving traces of their path behind them, you are in the right place.

    But this is only the surface of everything that awaits you in this park, to discover more attractions and to know the precautions to take into account, you can refer to our article on how to visit Death Valley.

    Racetrack Playa
    Zabriskie Point

    Our tips on where to sleep in Death Valley

    Joshua Tree National Park

    One of the most famous parks in California that has its main strengths in the surreal landscapes formed by the typical twisted Yucca trees, and by a series of viewpoints that can be easily reached with your rental car. Obviously, some simple recommendations must be taken into account before visiting this park. You can discover all the secrets it hides and tips on how to best visit it by reading our in-depth study on Joshua Tree National Park.

    Look for a hotel near Joshua Tree

    Mojave national preserve

    The Mojave National Preserve is a park a little off the beaten track from the classic tourist routes, but it may be worth visiting just to reach the fascinating Kelso Dunes, also known as the singing sands or, in other words, the "singing dunes". This particular phenomenon occurs when a person walking on the crest of the dunes slides a considerable amount of sand along the sides. The noise you will hear is caused by the vibrations produced by the sand sliding along the ridge.

    Look for accommodation in the Mojave National Preserve area

    Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

    A corner of… Holland in the middle of the Mojave desert. In fact, a microclimate favors the development of a very particular plant in these latitudes, namely the poppy. The panoramic routes present will take you to the top of some reliefs from which you will be able to admire the "red expanse" below you almost as far as the eye can see.

    By visiting the park's official website you can see in detail the map of the trails and find out what is the best time of the year (generally between March and April) to visit it.

    Look for a hotel near Poppy Reserve

    Trona Pinnacles

    Located near the town of Ridgecrest, it is a star in this park imposing towers of white tuff from the most disparate shapes that rise from the dried up bed of Searles Lake.

    The surreal scenery that can be admired did not leave the producers of Hollywoood indifferent. The landscapes of Trona Pinnacles have been the location for numerous science fiction films and successful TV series including: Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek V and Planet of the Apes.

    You can learn more about this park by reading our article entirely dedicated to Trona Pinnacles.

    Nearby a hostel in Trona Pinnacles area

    Main cities, curiosities and oddities

    It is not only the large natural parks that dominate the Mojave desert, in fact there is no shortage of oddities and particular attractions.

    Route 66: Victorville e Barstow

    The stretch of Route 66 in California passes right through the Mojave Desert. The city of Barstow in which the Route 66 Mother Road Museum and the murals of Main Street that trace the history of the town and of the Mother Road in this section. Also in Victorville you will have the opportunity to find out more about the history of this iconic American road by visiting the California Route 66 Museum.

    However, you can discover everything that awaits you along this road by reading our article completely dedicated to Route 66 in California.


    If western cities are your passion, you cannot miss a visit to Pioneertown: a real film set that has developed over time to become a small town. Stroll along Main St, the dusty main boulevard in beaten earth flanked by the most representative buildings of the city, or stop for refreshment at the historic local Pappy and Harriet's, to take a real step back in time.

    Then you want to fully experience the Old West why not stay overnight in the quaint Pioneertown Motel? However, if you want to find out more about this particular town, read our in-depth study dedicated to Pioneertown.

    Kill Bill's church

    On the outskirts of the city of Lancaster in California is the Two Pines Chapel, the small church known for being immortalized by Quentin Tarantino in the film Kill Bill. The physical address is 19857 E Ave G.

    Musical Road

    Also in Lancaster there is this other curious attraction: we are talking about a short stretch of road in which, maintaining a fixed speed, thanks to the special grooves carved into the asphalt, you will hear the final part of the Overture of Guglielmo Tell by Rossini.

    To find it, you can search for “Musical Road Lancaster” on Google Maps.

    World’s Tallest Thermometer

    In the town of Baker at the gates of the Mojave National Preserve there is the highest thermometer in the world (41 meters high), which reports the temperatures recorded at these latitudes. The highest temperature it recorded was 54 degrees celsius in 1913.

    Calico ghost town

    If you are nostalgic for the old west, the Mojave Desert is the right place for you. We are talking about the Ghost Town of Calico, located near the town of Barstow which can be a perfect stopover for those traveling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

    Although the city has undergone numerous restorations over the years to meet the needs of tourists, it still hosts well-kept historical re-enactments that will make you take a real journey through time. Read our article on Calico Ghost Town to find out more.

    Interactive map of the Mojave Desert

    Colorado / Sonoran Desert

    Natural parks

    Also in this case the word "desert" should not be too misleading. So do not imagine an endless expanse of sand dunes alone but be ready to discover natural parks and hidden pearls.

    Joshua Tree National Park

    No, we were not wrong, and we are not even contradicting what was said above, this is because Joshua Tree National Park is located in the middle of these two deserts. The southern part of the park is in fact part of the Colorado Desert, so it was right to report it also under this section.

    Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

    Despite being perhaps one of the most unknown natural attractions to tourists traveling to these latitudes, Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California. Here too the temperatures are very high, just think that the visitor center (open every day from 9 to 17) was built underground to make it easier to visit.

    Unfortunately it is also one of the most difficult parks to visit independently because the most important places of interest, such as Fonts Point, are located in places that are somewhat inaccessible to reach with a non 4 × 4 car, and the most fascinating routes (such as the Pictograph Trail) are to be done strictly on foot.


    In the vicinity of the park there is also a real hidden gem that is worth visiting if you have time available, we are talking about the Biscuit Meadows Estates: what we will be able with no little difficulty to define a Jurassic Park with giant metal sculptures by the artist Ricardo Breceda.

    Some of these particular structures can also be seen from Borrego Springs Road.

    Look for a hotel in the area

    Salton Sea State Recreation Area

    A huge expanse of polluted water, dead fish carcasses on the shore and nauseble smells: welcome to Salton Sea. Yes, we are not exaggerating: what in the 50s was one of the most popular holiday resorts, due to pollution and the lack of water due to the lack of emissaries, has become over the years a practically abandoned area, almost the location of a dystopian film.

    Most of the towns along the shore of the Salton Sea are now little more than ghost towns (especially in the southern part of the lake) and, despite being an area under the aegis of California State Park, tourists are passing through. in these areas they are mostly attracted by the particular atmosphere of decadence and abandonment that characterizes them.

    As we have said, there are no accommodation facilities in the immediate vicinity of the Salton Sea, apart from some campsites. If you are looking for overnight accommodation then you will need to head north to the Palm Springs area or opt for the towns south of the Salton Sea.

    Cotton Dunes

    A large expanse of sand dunes that stretch for more than 70 kilometers. If you were looking for a desert panorama you are in the right place. There are many viewpoints from which to observe this immense expanse of sand but in my opinion the best is Hugh T. Osborne Lookout Park (also known as Osborne Overlook). Easily accessible along Hwy 78, it has a convenient parking and you can see the Chocolate Mountains in the distance, as well as giving you the opportunity to walk on the dunes.

    In the southern area, closer to the Mexican border, the very popular is the Buttercup Valley which owes its notoriety above all to the fact that it is another Star Wars location in California.

    As for the nearest accommodations you will need to head to the area west of the Algodones Dunes where you will encounter towns such as Brawley, El Centro and Calexico near the Mexican border.

    Main cities, curiosities and oddities

    Do you want to visit the Mountain of Salvation or the center of the world? Then you have come to the correct place.

    Palm Springs

    A veritable oasis in the desert, this city is famous for its peculiar architectural style in adobe, and for the houses of the stars of the American show who over time have chosen Palm Springs as a holiday destination. In addition to being a pleasant city to explore, it is also an excellent base for staying and discovering its surroundings.

    You can learn everything important to know about this city and its attractions by reading our article entirely dedicated to Palm Springs.

    Search for a hotel in Palm Springs

    Salvation Mountain

    The work of visionary artist Leonard Knight made immortal by the Into the Wild film. God is love is the phrase that stands out from the summit of Salvation Mountain at the gates of Slab City that many define as the last truly free city in the United States.

    Although Leonard Knight passed away in 2014, his mission is carried out by a charity of volunteers and Salvation Mountain continues to attract thousands of visitors every year.

    You can learn more about this particular attraction by reading our article dedicated to Salvation Mountain and the curiosities of Slab City.

    Sunnylands – Annenberg Estate

    In the Colorado desert lies a lavish mansion that has been dubbed the "Camp David of the West". Originally home to Walter and Leonore Annenberg (he United States Ambassador to England, she Head of Protocol of the United States during the administration of Ronald Reagan). Over the years it has hosted numerous US presidents and Barack Obama used this venue in 2013 for the international meeting with President of China Xi Jinping and in 2014 to meet with King Abd Allah II of Jordan.

    Located on the outskirts of Palm Springs, today you can take tours of the residence surrounded by greenery and certainly fascinating architecture. If you are interested you can book through the official website.

    Official Center of the World – Felicity

    In the middle of the Colorado desert you can also come across the officially recognized center of the world. If you wonder who was able to formalize all this, the answer is simple, namely the mayor and founder of the city of Felicity himself, Jacques-Andre Istel.

    A small pyramid stands at the "exact point" where the phantom center of the world is located and around it over time many bizarre attractions have been built including a church, a labyrinth and the long granite walls in which they were sculpted. among other things, the history of the United States, California and humanity (the latter, however, is still a work in progress).

    Interactive map of the Colorado Desert

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