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.
The thwack of a golf club, the hum of the wind buffeting towering sand dunes, the splash of a dive into a perfect pool—the desert region is a sensory feast.
Following winter rains, springtime wildflowers paint the desert with colour.
Death Valley National Park holds the record for hottest temperature ever recorded (129°F/54°C in 1913), while the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park have giant boulders and alien-like yucca plants. At Anza-Borrego, California’s largest state park, discover amazing springtime wildflowers. The oasis-like Palm Springs region (2 hours east of L.A. and 3 hours northeast of San Diego) has golf resorts, midcentury modern architecture, and every spring, the epic Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
For all of the desert’s natural splendour and outdoor destinations, creativity comes with the territory, too. Throughout the year, the region finds ways to celebrate art, design, music, and film...
You could call it a monumental achievement: In February 2016, three new national monuments were created, protecting a combined total of 1.8 million acres of California desert. The names of the...