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Road to Vegas

This ocean-to-desert trip connects two iconic cities with a highway that passes through unique natural landscapes and offers a dose of kitsch.

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Venice Beach

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Venice Beach

This funky section of the Los Angeles coast attracts an eclectic crowd of beachgoers to its boardwalk lined with surf shops, street performers, tattoo parlors, and juice vendors. Venice’s wide sandy beach is large enough to accommodate basketball and volleyball courts, a gym (the famous Muscle Beach), and a bike path that continues for more than 20 miles along the coast.

Stroll a few blocks inland to experience L.A.’s walkable—and irresistible—shopping mecca, Abbot Kinney Boulevard. A diverse collection of cafés, boutiques, and design stores make this vibrant neighborhood one of the best spots to find an only-in-L.A. souvenir. Listen before you buy on the turntables at record store VNYL, sample fragrance oils at Le Labo, or browse the whimsical curated gifts at Burro. If you’re in town on the first Friday of the month, head to Abbot Kinney to sample from a collection of L.A.’s best food trucks and shop with live music in the background.

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Gjusta

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Gjusta

Grab provisions at Travis Lett’s epic eatery Gjusta. The egg sandwich is a classic and travels exceedingly well.

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Mormon Rocks

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Mormon Rocks

As the elevation rises and the topography becomes more mountainous heading east into the desert, you’ll start to close in on Mormon Rocks, a series of curiously beautiful sandstone formations about one mile west of Interstate 15. Starting at 3,360 feet, hike the one-mile Mormon Rocks Interpretive Trail, filled with small holes and caves, up to a ridge. Look out over these amoeba-shaped rocks while keeping an eye out for hawks, ravens, lizards, and owls.

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Bottle Tree Ranch

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Bottle Tree Ranch

Follow a narrow strip of asphalt to the strange spectacle known as Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch in San Bernardino County’s Oro Grande. Thousands of multi-colored “branches” hang off a forest of “trees,” creating more than 200 installations along Route 66. This folk-art display is the vision—and home—of artist Elmer Long and has no official hours, but you can just show up and walk around (or take pics through the gates if they’re closed).

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Calico Ghost Town

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Calico Ghost Town

Calico, the site of California’s largest silver strike and home to 500 mines, is now a ghost town theme park with attractions that include the Calico Odessa Railroad and the Calico Mystery Shack, filled with “amazing feats and confusing sights.” Fill a day panning for gold, riding the rails, browsing the shops, and knocking back sarsaparillas at Lil’s Saloon (mosey in through the swinging wooden doors). On Saturday nights, you might be able to make contact with Calico’s ghosts on a tour through the spooky darkness of the 1880s Maggie Mine.

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Peggy Sue's Diner

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Peggy Sue's Diner

Stop in Yermo, where you can sample the classic chicken fried steak and curly fries at Peggy Sue’s Diner—a 1950s establishment resurrected in the 1980s.

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World's Tallest Thermometer - Baker

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World's Tallest Thermometer - Baker

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.

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Mojave National Preserve

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Mojave National Preserve

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).