Both vast and intimate, the California desert is a region that ranges from arid, barren expanses to oasis-like canyons with hidden waterfalls. Towering sand dunes rise above the desert floor, while Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet/86 meters below sea level. After winter rains, see spectacular springtime wildflower displays splashed across the desert vistas. Explore volcanic craters, and watch rock climbers scramble up towering boulders (and maybe even try it yourself).
To drivers speeding by on Interstates 15 and 40, Mojave National Preserve, roughly 150 miles/241 kilometers northeast of Palm Springs, may appear featureless and inhospitable. But a closer look reveals the preserve’s wonders: water-sculpted canyons, ancient lava flows, limestone caverns, massive sand dunes, and Joshua tree forests reaching to a desert horizon.
Start your visit at the preserve’s excellent visitor center, which is housed in the renovated Kelso Depot, a Spanish Mission Revival style railroad stop opened in 1924. Pick up maps and information, then explore the preserve’s highlights. The most popular sunset and sunrise spot is the nearby Kelso Dunes, the second largest dune system in California. These dunes cover 45 square miles/72 square kilometers and soar to more than 600/183 meters, and in spring, desert wildflowers dapple the sands with color. Climb the highest dunes and you’re rewarded with a desert panorama.
After a seven-year closure, Mitchell Caverns—spectacular limestone caves hidden in a hillside at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area—reopened in late 2017. Take an hour-long guided tour—which involves a 1.5-mile round-trip hike to the entrance—to see the caverns and their remarkable dagger-like formations. (Tours are by reservation only and take place Fridays through Sundays and on holiday Mondays.)
Another popular hike—and a memorable workout—is the 3-mile/5-km round-trip trek to the summit of 5,775-foot/1,754-meter Teutonia Peak, the highest point on Cima Dome, an almost perfectly symmetrical formation covered by the world’s largest concentration of Joshua trees. Take plenty of water, and avoid hottest parts of the day. For an extra dose of desert adventure, pitch a tent at either Hole-in-the-Wall or Mid Hills Campground.
Once a popular backdrop for Hollywood westerns, this parkland, roughly 120 miles/193 kilometers north of Los Angeles, is a land of multihued desert cliffs, buttes, and weathered outcrops. Carved by wind and water, the land unfolds in layers of white, pink, and red—join other photographers to capture it at sunrise and sunset. Paleontologists flock here, too. In the cliff’s sediments are remains of prehistoric animals—three-toed horses, saber-toothed cats, and prehistoric alligator lizards.
The 27,000-acre/10,926-hectare park offers several short hiking trails. First-timers can follow trails to see formations in Hagen and Red Rock Canyons. At Red Cliffs Natural Preserve, a path leads between the reddish columns of 300-foot/91-meter-tall cliffs, then follows an old Jeep track past otherworldly Joshua trees to sweeping views of the El Paso Mountains. Visit after a wet winter to see spring wildflowers erupting in a riot of color.
Nights at the park have a different kind of magic. With no major towns in the region (tiny Cantil is the closest town), night skies are free of light pollution. The 50-site Ricardo Campground is often dotted with telescopes set up by astronomy buffs, and the China Lake Astronomical Society holds frequent star parties. On most Saturday nights, park docents give talks on topics from petroglyphs to desert tortoises—and of course stars.
Discover the natural side of Palm Springs with a visit to these remarkable oases. Home to dense stands of towering California fan palms, these canyons are places of surprising life and beauty, with wildlife including desert bighorn sheep, and the sound of birdsong and trickling streams.
Each of the Indian Canyons, all located within Agua Caliente Cahuilla tribal land on the west side of Palm Springs, has its own distinctive character. One of the most popular is Tahquitz (pronounced “tah-keetz”) Canyon; where you can join a guided hike or walk on your own to the base of a 60-foot/18-meter waterfall—note that in dry years and seasons it might not be more than a trickle). Movie buffs might recognize these falls as the entrance to Shangri-La in Frank Capra's 1937 film classic Lost Horizon. Relax to watch birds flit in the filtered light; also follow trails to see Indian rock art. The visitor center features exhibits and an informative short film, and highlights the region’s Native American culture.
Palm and Andreas Canyons offer footpaths that lead past colorful rock formations and to streamside palm oases. Andreas Canyon has more than 150 species of plants within a half-mile/a three-quarter-km radius; see how many species you can spy along the twisting, 2-mile/3.2-km out-and-back trail into Murray Canyon. The canyon twists and turns, so you never know what’s around the next bend—soaring red cliffs, stately fan palms, and barrel cactus that swell after spring rains. And at trail’s end, you reach the Seven Sisters, a beautiful terraced waterfall (flow varies with rainfall and season).