Given the right conditions come spring, California’s deserts turn into a hot spot for colorful fields painted with bright wildflowers.
Death Valley National Park encompasses mountain-size sand dunes, below-sea-level salt flats, and colorful wildflowers and sandstone canyons. The park is the hottest and driest place in America, with summer temperatures peaking above 120 F°/49°C, and average rainfall of 2 inches/5 cm per year. Also extreme are the park’s elevations: Badwater Basin, the park’s lowest spot, rests at 282 feet/86 meters below sea level while Telescope Peak soars to 11,049 feet/3,368 meters.
You don’t want to miss Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, when early morning light accents the dunes’ many contours and ripples. Another must-see stop is Zabriske Point and Golden Canyon, where every imaginable shade of gold is visible in the wrinkled cliffs, whose layers glow at sunrise and sunset. Pick your favorite perspective: Drive to Zabriskie Point and survey the scene from on high, or see the vibrant beauty up close by hiking in Golden Canyon.
Insider’s Tip: spring season is the best time to spot rare wildflowers in the park.
Stop in Shoshone for a chili size and frosty beer at Crowbar Café and Saloon.
Pull into Cynthia’s in Tecopa to sleep in a luxurious tepee.
Stock up on nut bread at China Ranch Date Farm.
Though hardly a metropolis, tiny Baker along Interstate 15 is a busy hub for Mojave Desert travelers looking for a bite to eat or to stretch their legs. Baker’s most famous landmark is its giant thermometer—at 134 feet, the tallest in the world. Plenty of people also stop in Baker for the otherworldly dried meats at UFO-themed Alien Fresh Jerky, the place to stock up on such tasty, ET-inspired flavors as Abducted Cow Pineapple Teriyaki—the perfect souvenir for the folks back home.
Protecting an astounding 1.6 million acres/647,497 hectares of pristine desert wilderness, the Mojave National Preserve lets you hear singing sand dunes, explore weirdly contorted Joshua trees, and hike up volcanic cinder cones. Take time to explore, and let the desert’s magic unfold.
Don’t miss nearby Kelso Dunes, the second largest dune system in California, covering 45 square miles/72 square kilometers and soaring to more than 600/183 meters. In spring, desert wildflowers dapple the sands with color.
Another popular hike 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.
This is no lifeless wasteland: wait and watch (especially at dusk and dawn) to see surprising wildlife, including the rare desert tortoise. Spring rains can carpet the desert with wildflowers. And there are people here too: stop in at Kelso Depot, a restored train station housing the preserve’s visitor center, for exhibits and information (open 9 to 5, Friday through Tuesday).
Rising 250 feet above a barren expanse of desert, Amboy Crater is a volcanic cinder cone that once sent lava pouring across a 24-square-mile area of desert. With its distinctive, conical profile, you would never mistake this unique natural feature for anything other than a volcano. Follow the trail that climbs to the rim, from where you can look deep into the maw and across the 1,500-foot-wide crater. Just off Route 66, Amboy Crater is also less than three miles west of Roy’s Motel & Café, a retro landmark with a sign that just cries out for a few selfies.
Fuel up on the way in the town of Joshua Tree with black-bean burgers at Natural Sisters Cafe and a cold brew at Joshua Tree Coffee Company.
Joshua Tree National Park is small enough to drive through in a half-day, but you’ll want much more time than that to enjoy this land of cactus gardens, spiky yuccas, and photogenic boulder piles. Not-to-be-missed highlights include the Cholla Cactus Garden, where hundreds of teddybear cholla fade into a backdrop of purple hills. On the park’s north side, where elevations are higher, you’ll marvel at spindly, cartoon-like Joshua trees (they’re actually a yucca, not a tree). At White Tank Campground, stroll to Arch Rock, a graceful span of ivory-hued granite. Wander the path around Skull Rock to see its alcoves and miniature caves, carved out over eons of time, or hike to the summit of 5,457-foot Ryan Mountain for panoramic views of the Wonderland of Rocks and Southern California’s highest peaks.No matter how you spend your day, make sure it stretches long into the evening—you don’t want to miss this desert’s astounding star show. When evening falls, pick a spot to lay out a blanket near Cap Rock’s quirky rock formations.