Thoughts on Driving the Southern California Desert

salvation mountain 2
It wouldn't be Southern California without extremely eccentric expressions of individuality, like Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea. Cars can be art as well as transportation.

I'm of two minds when it comes to cars. Ok, maybe three.

1) It's awful hard to get around the United States without a car–at least anywhere outside of New York City. There's a lot of big, beautiful country to see in the United States, and there's only one way to do it. Since we don't have a passenger railroad that's any good, that leaves a car. Brief glimpses out an airplane window don't count.

2) The problem with driving is that, often, you're only trying to get to where you're going and you don't stop enough to see where you are. And, of course, if you're the one doing the driving, that problem is exacerbated by your impatience to get somewhere where you can stop for the view–and the fact that you pretty much should keep your eye on the road until you get there.

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3) I love to drive a nice car. Fast if possible, and on an interesting road. Which means curvy and challenging, not scenic. (See above Number Two.)

I'll take these in order, particularly as it pertains to my recent driving trip around the Southern California desert.

1) A car takes you to places where you can walk

While I'd prefer that we could get where we're going on a train (like you often can in Europe, thanks again, Eurail!), there's something to be said for the relative ease of visiting remote locations in a car. Because, let's be honest, who would hike or ride a horse 40 miles into Joshua Tree to get to a trail head where you would just start a hike? It is the 21st Century and, like it or not, the National Parks have long since given up their pristine pretensions in favor of (mostly) paved road access and parking lots. The price you pay to get to the unsullied spots of the National Parks is no longer a grueling trek. It's a tank of gas.

I admit, I do love being able to drive–sometimes over very rough roads like in the Badlands or Lassen Volcanic, but on roads nevertheless–to arrive at someplace to dump the car. I like to strap on my day pack and start hiking, secure in the knowledge that I can carry enough water to get where I am going. With supplies stashed in the car, I avoid carrying two or three days' worth of rations on my back in the desert, an exercise that doesn't really appeal.

So, thank goodness for the car, and the possibility of getting to the trail heads and other myriad attractions without risking your life. The car doesn't solve all your problems, but it certainly makes them manageable.

2) You can cover a lot of ground by driving

So, you're camping at Joshua Tree National Park, but your car is only 50 feet away in the parking area, and Joshua Tree is fascinating in itself, but is also in the middle of some cultural oddities of Southern California that you should make the effort to see.

I had two long days to drive the area. I wish I'd had more because there are a lot of very strange things to see both in and outside of the park.

Inside the park, you have spectacular views like sunsets at Keys View and near the campsite, a freakish island of Cholla cactus, a Hidden Valley with its own micro climate and distinctive vegetation that used to provide a hideout for cattle rustlers, a backdrop of an incongruous snowy mountain top rising out of the hot desert. And finally, you get to sleep out under stars like these.

desert sunset joshua tree
Note the dirt road, which you have to take from the paved road to get to the campsite. A compromise you gladly endure to get to see a sunset like this.

But, perhaps even more fun for a collector of the eclectic like me was spending one afternoon driving around the American icon of the West: Palm Springs. Palm Springs is famous for being where the movies stars made a short escape from Hollywood. Though the legends are interesting, even more fascinating to me is the city's museum of Mid Century Modern Architecture. An hour's drive around the neighborhood reveals dozens of architectural masterpieces built low into the desert landscape.

palm springs home
I drove alone to the city of Palm Springs just to see the modernist architecture of the homes from the 1950s and 60s. There are hundreds of beautiful and unique desert style homes in Palm Springs and are worth the drive just to look back into a golden era of California's past. You could probably imagine a Raymond Chandler novel set here, if he took a vacation from LA.

The next day, I went another direction from Joshua Tree toward the Salton Sea, where we ran across Salvation Mountain and East Jesus, two brilliantly eccentric art installations that I never would have known of or visited had I not been pointed to them on this trip, and had a car to get there. Both were among the most memorable highlights of any road trip I've ever taken.

Another particular interest of mine is World War II aircraft. I built the plastic models when I was a kid and have always been fascinated by their beauty and history. Probably the best place to see planes like this is the Palm Springs Air Museum.

pby Palm Springs air museum
The Navy PBY sea plane at the Palm Springs Air Museum. This plane is especially interesting to me because it was flown during World War II by my father in law. He was a flight instructor. He never saw combat, but he did his part training those who did.

Complementing the visit to the Air Museum, was a visit to the museum commemorating the World War II General George S. Patton, who trained his armored divisions in Southern California for their eventual campaigns in North Africa and Europe. The museum itself is lacking any sort of coherent narrative about Patton or his role in the war, but the collection of bellicose artifacts, especially the yard full of tanks, is attractive to a World War II history buff like me.

mazda and tank H
Mazda provided us with some very nice cars, like this Mazda 6, to drive around the desert. I liked this one fine, and it's got to be considered among the best of the sedans I'd consider buying. But, these days I'm more of a crossover guy, and, if I were currently in the market, I'd surely consider the Mazda CX-5, which I also drove. That one is definitely best of class. This is the General Patton Museum, btw. And I sort of liked the juxtaposition of the sleek sedan with the desert camouflaged tank.

3) If you're going to drive, make it fun

I got to drive two Mazdas on this trip, and I must say, I liked them both very much. The Mazda 6, pictured with the tank above, was far more fun to drive than the average family sedan. Mazda has departed from the obsession with a mushy highway ride that most sedans suffer from in favor of a more decisively sticky “I love to feel the road” approach. The steering is tight and responsive, and the acceleration you get out of the 4 cylinder SKYACTIV (whatever that means) engine and 6-speed transmission is way above anything you'll get from its competition.

But, I really loved my two days in the Mazda crossover CX-5. Now that's a driving experience that makes a mockery of what the others are offering in the mid-sized family vehicle. I'm partial to this sort of car anyway, because, as I've got a bit older, I've tended more toward a utilitarian theory of transportation–and away from the pure speed-and-turn infatuation of the German cars of my youth. What I love about this car is its combination of poise and assertiveness on the road. The CX-5 handles beautifully. It never feels like you're going to roll over on a sharp turn. The receptive steering is far better than you have a right to respect in an SUV, and the acceleration is impressive and smooth. And, it can carry all my camping and road trip junk to boot.

Next time I'm in the market, this car is going to be very high on this old man's shopping list.

Update: I leased a Mazda CX5 in 2018.

Disclaimer: Mazda supplied cars and driving expenses for this trip, but otherwise didn't compensate me for my time or opinion. It's my honest opinion that these are fine automobiles.

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13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Driving the Southern California Desert”

  1. Great post Tom. Coming from rural Nova Scotia I can understand your mixed emotions about having access to a car. In USA/Canada generally without a car you miss the quirky and often spectacular points along the way. Great cactus in the sunset view. Tim

    • Thanks, Tim. A car is a great tool for exploring. I just hate them for long distance transportation when your only objective is to get somewhere. BTW, we’ll be coming to Nova Scotia later this summer. Any tips for a first time visitor. And yes, we’ll have a car.

  2. Hi Tom, Thanks for the tips on places to see in the US. One of our bucket list trips is the whole US. We will likely do it in a van-sized RV. It’s not nearly as much fun to drive, but we’ll be able to stop and rest, and camp in our vehicle. Have you done this. I am open to any tips you want to share as we plan that trip.

    We live in a historic town in PA – New Hope. I do have a couple of posts about this area if you are interested, and will do lots more this summer. Here is the link for a World Heritage site here –

    • Wow, you live near George Nakashima’s home? He’s a personal favorite of mine–actually an idol. I used to do woodworking as a hobby until we hit the road and always was in awe of his work. I’m going to have to stop in there. I own one of his chairs.

      • That chair is worth a lot of money!! Yes, this area is rich in the arts – Michener Museum has a Nakashima room too, as well as an amazing collection of the American Impressionists that started in New Hope (I am a volunteer there and becoming a docent). There’s a ton to see here when you come to see the Nakashima workshop and compound. Let us know when you are coming.

  3. I’m with you on all 3 of your initial points. I used to laugh at the baby blue sponginess of my dad’s Lincoln Landau. But on the long haul south on I-75, it was just the thing: a big long sofa hurtling along. Driving the desert you want the environment in your vehicle to be just so that it’s fun to get back in and go to the next place that you never thought was there. I always felt kinda Rat Packy making the trip from L.A. out there to begin with; often the trip itself was the best part of it. Enjoyed your photos, too.

  4. Wow, I love that first image, I’ve seen pictures of this place and have always wanted to visit this place and Joshua. Love road trips and would love to do a trip like this some day and find some of the cool and quirky spots in this region.

    • Thanks, Noel. I wandered around Salvation Mountain for about half an hour, just taking in all the detail. This wasn’t the only car there, btw. When it comes to quirky, this part of the world is pretty hard to beat. Definitely worth the effort to get around and see it.

  5. I love my CX5. We’re going to take “Blanche” on our road trip in early 2018. So happy to hear it did well in the desert. We’re “seasoned” travelers too; I’m 45 and my husband is 55. Happy to be following your journey.

  6. You own a CX5? Lucky you. I really liked that car. Be prepared to get it really dirty though. It’s dusty out there. My other advice is, if you’re going to camp there, bring warmer clothes. It gets damn cold at night.


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