Into California’s Vast and Wild and Wonderful Desert

One writer treks from the bacchanalia of Palm Springs to the eye-catching jumble of Joshua Tree to the fetching desolation of Death Valley

Photograph by Chad Ress

The rich smells of Asian spices roasting in woks, the movement of glimmering palms, the inviting windows decorated with Prada and Ferragamo, all coupled with polite announcements in Mandarin broadcast over loudspeakers—I could have been in Macau or Taipei. Instead I was in the eastern San Bernardino County town of Cabazon, standing in the pulsing main ventricle of the immense and purple Desert Hills Premium Outlets. Unlikely as it may seem, the mall is our own stucco gateway to the great California desert. Here, by the Bose demonstration room and Le Gourmet Chef, asphalt ribbons spiral out in every direction, leading to faraway Kelso Dunes, dramatic Zabriskie Point, forgotten ghost towns like Rhyolite and Ballarat, the mysterious underground Amargosa River, and lonely Saline Valley’s storied hot springs.

California’s desert encompasses three deserts—the Mojave, the Colorado, and the Great Basin—millions upon millions of largely untrod acres where the hottest temperatures, the fewest people, and some of the state’s most unparalleled scenery are found. I had eight days in mind, and I’d traced a route that resembled the arc of a fly fisherman’s cast: unreeling southeast past Palm Springs and Anza-Bo-rr-ego, looping northward around Joshua Tree, and whipping through the Mojave National Preserve and Baker before making a final hook into Death Valley.

I’ll be the first to admit that starting out you see awfully little—rocks, tumbleweeds, and one black speck on the horizon. But then that black speck blooms on your eye. “My God,” you think. “That’s a tarantula jogging down the road 100 yards out, and I can count every hair on its fuzzy head.” You acquire your desert eyes. Petroglyphs now appear on canyon walls where before there were none; a scattering of pebbles reveals itself to be an ancient intaglio; coyotes, desert tortoises, even bighorn sheep detach themselves from the mute landscape. And colors? Blonds, mochas, chocolates, mauves, golds, greens, and purples glow where once you saw only gray.

So having stuffed my AmEx with Prada shirts and Ferragamo loafers, I took a deep, decisive breath, stepped across the street, and walked straight into the California desert—specifically, into the Hadley Fruit Orchards stand, an acme of roadside Americana. Inside, one can buy packages of Medjool and Deglet Noor dates, crinkly bags of pignoli and pepitas, bottles of Cheerwine, giant ostrich eggs, spelt, Laci Le Beau Super Dieter’s Tea, and, of course, the frozen sweet wonder that is the California date shake. Many of the world’s most enduring religions were birthed from the desert’s privation, but I’m sure that historical coincidence occurred only because the date shake had yet to be invented. I enjoyed mine with a soft chicken salad sandwich at the counter and then moved on.

Before I saw Palm Springs at the base of Banning Pass, I heard it: the Human League rotating with Mel Tormé on the local radio station, proof that this is a town where hipster tourists regard consignment shopping as seriously as they do their 4AD vinyl collections. For decades, beginning in the modern middle of the last century, rich people with impeccable taste have traveled to Palm Springs to retire and eventually die, whereupon a life’s furnishings—picked up by secondhand buyers—are shuttled to North Palm Canyon, home to the best consignment store collection in the west. I dashed into 20 First Modern & Vintage and marveled over ancient artifacts otherwise known as my parents’ furniture: blue Murano glass lamps ($2,100 a pair), galaxy-size chandeliers, and Lucite bent into enough contortions to wow even Jenna Jameson.

Have you ever seen a dozen women in bikinis getting tipsy while proudly sporting LESBIAN GAY BISEXUAL TRANSGENDER FOR OBAMA buttons? I can now say that I have, after exploring the new Ace Hotel, where Bliss Weekend, complete with twin DJ stands, was in full swing. The double-decker, five-building hotel is jammed with twentysomethings who drink kiwi caipirinhas in the hotel’s dark Amigo Room or eat delicious lobster BLTs at its King’s Highway restaurant. My reservation was across the way at the quiet Horizon Hotel, where the only other visible tenant was a charcoal-colored roadrunner boop-booping past the cactus garden. The architect William Cody designed the Horizon—a collection of trapezoidal bungalows positioned around a sprawling lawn and pool—for a Texas oil magnate named Jack Wrather and his wife, Bonita. A recent low-impact makeover has left a tastefully underfetishized midcentury gem that’s also underappreciated come weekends. I propped myself like a swizzle stick in the hotel’s pool and watched the sunset paint the towering San Jacinto outlet mall plum. A mile up the road I sipped a daiquiri with a decidedly unmodern crowd at Melvyn’s, which has the town’s last great old-school bar and hides behind a hedge wall at the Ingleside Inn.

You reach Pioneertown, a hamlet that began as an old western movie set 45 minutes north of Palm Springs, after climbing past the commercial strips of Morongo Valley and into the scrubby hills above Yucca Valley. When I arrived, an industrial grill was gusting at full steam in back of Pappy & Harriet’s, the adobe roadhouse there. Waitresses were hauling in plates of ribs, and onstage was even more Red Meat, the country-western roots band woodshedding through an old Buck Owens weeper. A mix of high-desert fauna—cowboys, jarheads, art rats, KCRW donors, holy loners, and greasy bikers—had straggled in off the hardpan and packed themselves along plank tables beneath the room’s big-beamed ceiling, listening politely (with occasional catcalls and hollers) to the evening’s lineup of musical acts, which in any given week range from prog folk to scumbag country.

Coffee the next morning arrived at Koffi, the southern outpost of a neighborhood start-up. If you’re a gay man of about Alec Baldwin’s age and build, Koffi at 7 a.m. is apparently the place to sit and eye the Ace’s male guests as they parade by like the local pastry delivery. I got my $4 cup of Sumatra and dropped in at Palm Springs’ new farmers’ market, held Saturday mornings in the parking lot of the Camelot Theatre. Sage Mountain Farm is the stand to find, its Armenian cucumbers, purple tomatillos, and plum radishes perfect for bringing along on a day’s excursion. Palm Springs boasts more tours than kidney pools—celebrity home tours, off-road tours, tramway tours, tours of the windmill farms—but none is likely as animated as the Segway trek Robert Imber leads through the town’s architectural past under the moniker PS Modern Tours. For three hours, as Imber chatted away in his porkpie hat, I ogled the A. Quincy Jones catalog, Cary Grant’s bachelor pad, and Elvis’s Honeymoon Hideaway (which you can rent for the night). Once I had gotten my land legs back, I left for Cathedral City and a meal at El Gallito, a homespun Mexican joint behind a picket fence, where the red leather booths fill at 10 a.m. with snowbirds who beg for baskets of hot chips—amazing, light, iconic chips.

South of Coachella, old Highway 86 gets lost among the valley’s endless tracts of emerald green date palms, agricultural groves thick and crystalline enough to make Francis Ford Coppola long for a tanker truck of napalm to drop on them. Piled in the backseat were supplies I had picked up at Shields Date Garden in Indio: pumpkin butter, fig syrup, prickly pear jelly, and Dickies Jumbo Peanut Patties, which, believe me, are the confection equivalent of crack cocaine and worth every cent. After an hour’s drive that brushed up against the Salton Sea, I landed in Borrego Springs. A second home to off-road enthusiasts, wildflower fans, and shutterbugs wearing pith helmets, the town is the only one in California set smack in the middle of a state park—the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego.

Six blocks square at most, the place (which bills itself as a quiet escape from glamorous Palm Springs) doesn’t even have a traffic light. Afternoons, there are two busy destinations: the local post office and the Krazy Coyote restaurant inside the Palms at Indian Head. The hotel’s august name outdistances its pedigree. The Palms is one of those forgotten vessels of hospitality launched in the 1950s that has drifted unnoticed in the arid doldrums—“rustic modern” you might call its style, with Mondrian panes of glass, a soaring second-story wood deck, humble rooms, an Olympic-size pool with showstopping views, and a plastic Playmate cooler that doubles as the lobby’s ice machine.

Following lunch—surprisingly good fish tacos—I crossed the valley in 15 minutes, arriving at the Bo-rrego Ranch Resort & Spa. I’ve always imagined that the property, called La Casa del Zorro until a year ago when a redo created a series of inviting cactus gardens, was where Old San Diego money came to spend itself. Private casitas with their own pools and driveways can go for up to $790 a night. The hotel, which doesn’t allow kids, features the Fox, a cozy bar as big as a postage stamp. The dining room’s windows open at night onto a fragrant xeriscape, and the library is swinging enough to stock both Jonathan Franzen and Neil Gaiman. As for my room, well, a ceiling must have been up there somewhere, though it was lost in the stratosphere even with the assist I got from the feather mattress that lifted me far above the fireplace.

I played giant chess on the lawn, mountain-climbed a fake K2, got lost in the resort’s garden labyrinth, shot archery, tossed horseshoes—and that was before waffle service. A short walk leads to Galleta Meadows, a sculpture garden spread across dozens of dry acres and stocked with life-size saber-toothed cats, elephants, and one stunning gomphotherium. Near the Borrego Valley’s western foothills, back roads run through citrus groves, where you can pick up bags of fresh oranges and grapefruit at honor stands beside farmhouse driveways. The Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area offers great opportunities for watching dune buggies take headers in the sand, and Agua Caliente County Park, about 40 miles away on San Felipe Road, has naturally fed hot springs and hiking trails.

Of all California’s desert scenery, Joshua Tree National Park’s is the easiest on the eyes with its Cholla Cactus Garden; oases like 49 Palms and Cottonwood Spring; those jumbo gyms for rock climbers, Hidden Valley and Wonderland of Rocks; and acres of the ugliest duckling in the lily family, the Joshua tree, which explorer John C. Fremont called “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”

With so much parkland to climb, hike, and squeeze into a viewfinder, you’ll need at least a day and strong sunscreen. The town of Joshua Tree has been hailed as the new Marfa, that Texas outpost known for its concentration of art, and there are several spots worth visiting to see what the New York Times Arts & Leisure section has been mooing about over the past decade: galleries like the Red Arrow and True World and the freaky Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, pieced together from found objects by the outsider artist of the same name.

A few minutes to the north in Landers sits the Integratron, an acoustically perfect dome that looks like an enormous coconut cake with a horizontal ring of glowing cigarettes jammed into it. George Van Tassel, its creator, claimed that space-traveling Venusians told him the Integratron would extend one’s life expectancy. He died not long after stepping in, so I’d wager money the Venusians were pulling his leg. Today it’s used for New Age “sound baths.” When I arrived, more than 50 visitors were splayed out, listening as an alarmingly attractive brunet hostess cooed, “A lot of juicy energy is just flying through here right now.” (“OK, and your shift ends when?”) Once bowls shaped from quartz crystal had been placed before her, she raised a wooden wand and began slowly tracing their rims, producing clear musical tones that sounded a little like a Brian Eno Unplugged CD.

Returning to downtown Joshua Tree aurally cleansed, I toured the new Mount Fuji General Store, stuffed with art books and local crafts, and scored a bag of apricot scones and sour cream coffee cake at Teacakes, the bakery next door, for tomorrow’s breakfast. Ricochet Gourmet, beside the busy Crossroads Cafe and Tavern, gets a lot of press, but it can’t measure up to the all-but-invisible Joshua Tree Health Foods store a block away, where you can buy fresh organic fruits and vegetables, fragrant cheese, and Belgian ale for a sunset meal at the park’s Keys View, a precipice overlooking the Coachella Valley’s soundstages.There’s nothing like a dark night in a black house to make one appreciate the desert sunrise, a real retina-bruising, 2001 “Dawn of Time” morning. Emerging from Rosa Muerta, black coffee in hand, I felt like I’d been hit in the face by a 40-pound slab of color. I left, traveling northeast past the mining town of Amboy on Old Route 66, long one of my favorite spots if only because of the FOR SALE sign that was perpetually posted out front until someone bought the town in 2005. This stretch of desert between Joshua Tree and Death Valley, which includes the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve, teems with strange and wondrous sights: Fossil Spring, Spooky Canyon, the Birdman Petroglyph, Mitchell Caverns, Impassable Pass, the Mystery Furnaces. In Barstow, which is anything but wondrous, I crossed the railroad tracks and grabbed a seat at the bar inside the Idle Spurs Steakhouse, where I ordered a Jameson and patty melt and admired the photos of topless women gracing the walls.

Afterward I spent an hour near Rainbow Basin on treacherous dirt roads looking for Inscription Canyon (possibly the Mojave’s most concentrated collection of known petroglyphs), before I moved on to NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, 50 miles north of Barstow in the middle of Fort Irwin. Once you’ve received your credentials for the public tour of the space agency’s compound, cleared the military base’s gate, and passed the TANK XING sign, you will hear the whack, whack, whack of distant artillery fire punching out the sky. During my two-hour visit, everyone at Goldstone was calmly bugging out. The LCROSS sensing satellite was set to crash into the moon and, if all went well, instantly explode a cloud of frozen crystals into space that might prove water exists beneath the lunar surface. (Update: It did, it does.) Goldstone’s parabolic-dish antennas—massive metallic catcher’s mitts propped on hills nearby—would receive the transmitted data first.

Most people gas up in Baker, 60 miles east of Barstow on I-15, and then angle north toward Death Valley. But a side trip south on Kelbaker Road leads you to the restored Kelso Depot, the Mojave National Preserve’s visitors’ center. It was quiet at the depot when I arrived. On the front lawn a baby coyote was enjoying a sunbath while inside, two chatty rangers pointed out exhibits on local geology, wildlife, and pelt-taking pioneers who would have relished meeting my friend outside. I’m told people like to slide down Kelso Dunes, 45 square miles of aeolian sand located a half hour from the depot, listening to the booming noises that naturally erupt within. It seemed promising, but the sun was setting, so I crossed over 4,000-foot Cima Dome—atop which the world’s densest Joshua tree forest grows—then wheeled north to Tecopa Hot Springs, one of the last stops off Highway 127 before Death Valley.

Stepping out of my truck’s cab, I found Rosie, who was wearing a pair of hot pink short shorts, an orange halter top ready to be whipped off in the nudist springs, and about eight decades of good living on her skin. “Are you coming in?” asked Rosie, leaning against the Ford’s warm hood. “You have to stay, and not just for the day, either.”

The springs were inviting—his and her pools with gorgeous mineral-rich water going for $8 a soak. Next door at Pastels Restaurant, snowbirds stake out tables every night, munching pizza and chicken marsala under the starlight. The subterranean Amargosa River flows close by, and the riparian landscape is lush—fields, marshes, and arroyos choked with cedars and warbling birds. The air was rich and velvety, abloom with new-fledged humidity. I wanted to stay the week with this peppy, shriveled woman in hot pants.

“I’ll return for you, Rosie,” I promised, and then ran off to meet another woman.

A few miles east of Tecopa, Cynthia Kienitz oversees a tepee resort called (wait a beat) Cynthia’s on a date plantation that sits in a canyon atop the Amargosa. The tepees are cozily appointed, with Indian rugs, big beds, and gas fireplaces. Down-canyon, the Amargosa bursts from hiding in a series of waterfalls that attract so much wildlife, a nearby refuge has been noted for hosting more unique species than any other spot in the United States. Cynthia, a city-bred former interior decorator, told me she planned on never leaving the desert because of an encounter with a tarantula that had wowed her.

“I was with an artist friend, and it was the way that he saw the tarantula that made it wonderful,” she said. “I love the desert!”

I waved good-bye and moved north on Highway 127 to the town of Shoshone. On the front porch of the Crowbar Café &  Saloon, a German couple was happily learning the phrase “another round.” There must be some EU regulation that states Germans of drinking age are to be shipped for a week into the California desert for beer tasting—you see them everywhere. On my waitress’s recommendation I ordered the Delmonico steak and watched as a pink cloud drifting overhead paused to take interest in little Shoshone: one post office, a gas station, the Shoshone museum, a hot spring in a local trailer park, and the busy Crowbar. A loaf of French bread arrived at my table, along with a salad and the Delmonico—a rib eye the size of a desert tortoise smothered in mushrooms. At that moment it was the best steak I’d ever had.

There are two roadside settlements one can stay at in Death Valley: Stovepipe Wells Village (gas station, café, motel, nearby sand dunes) or Furnace Creek (gas station, ranch, pricey inn, nearby Borax Works Interpretive Trail). I awoke at the latter and discovered that the Furnace Creek Ranch, while cheaper, was not as fetching as the Furnace Creek Inn across the road. A mash-up of two-story shoe-box buildings and some old-timey cottages (ask for a mountain view), the ranch is part rustic getaway, part Howard Johnson—a golf course and pool included. At night the wait can be an hour at the Wrangler Steakhouse, where they serve ribs, chops, and bacon-wrapped dates—the next best thing to a date shake.

No man over the age of 40 enters Death Valley with anything smaller than a Canon EOS Mark III hanging around his neck. There’s a reason for that equipment: Zabriskie Point, Artist’s Palette, Dante’s View, Eureka Dunes (the highest sandpile in the state), and Badwater (the lowest spot). The national park is a 3 million-acre chunk of earth buffed to luster by wind, time, and—let’s face it—a helluva federal PR campaign, given that this is the hottest, driest, deadest place on the continent. It’s not for nothing that Satan’s presence is invoked wherever you turn: the Devil’s Golf Course, the Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Hole, Devil’s Speedway, et cetera. Who spends a week vacationing in a valley named after the one thing we’re all politely avoiding?

Plenty of people, I learned after running up to Zabriskie Point the next morning. Dozens of tourists already sat in the dark, waiting for the dawn. Maybe, I thought, they’d seen the Michelangelo Antonioni film and were expecting an orgy on the rocks, but once the light hit us and cracked the sandstone into a prism of luminous colors, I was sold on the valley. Golden Canyon, an accelerator punch away, offered a mile-long walk to the rouge stonework of Red Cathedral, and a trek up Mosaic Canyon’s trail, which leaves the Stovepipe Wells parking area, led past the kaleidoscopic swirls of Tucki Mountain.

From Stovepipe Wells I traveled north to Scotty’s Castle, the valley’s own Mesopotamia: cool lawns, shaded groves, bubbling streams, magnificent Moorish architecture, and civilized enough to provide the only cold drinks and public bathrooms for 60 miles. Just across the border in Beatty, Nevada, I discovered the reason childhood exists—the warehouse-size Death Valley Nut & Candy Company, crammed with row upon row of bagged sugar gelatin compounds in every form imaginable: Gummy Sharks, Sour Peaches, Amargosa Toad Brains. Jellied cerebellums in hand, I slipped back into California, drove west across Death Valley toward the distant Sierra Nevada, then idled momentarily at the crest of the Panamint Range, contemplating the crossroads of Highway 190 and Saline Valley Road. Fifty miles down that infamous washboard known for eating tires lies the most legendary grouping of undeveloped California hot springs, a sulfur-scented Valhalla for every hesher, Dharma bum, off-road freak, and Phish-head on the West Coast. “Go,” my heart said. “Stay,” my Uniroyals begged. Off I continued on 190 into the Panamint Valley, where I hooked a left on Trona Wildrose Road and found Ballarat and the Arkansas-born Rock Novak resting in the sun on the porch of his general store with three pet burros.

Later I’d pass through the mining town of Trona, then Ridgecrest, Johannesburg, and the “living ghost town” of Randsburg, with its restored inns and curio shops, before finally becoming lost in the sand while searching for the Mojave’s Desert Tortoise Natural Area—40 square miles of protected habitat. For now, however, I wanted to linger a moment in Ballarat.

Before us stretched Novak’s city—the crumbling schoolhouse, the old post office, the haunted cemetery. I thought that life in a ghost town might get dreary.

“I don’t think of it as a ghost town,” Novak said. “When it rains, we get lots of wildflowers, them purple ones that are pretty as hell and run all the way to Ridgecrest. I got my burros and a mine in the hills. I go to town once a week for supplies, and I hang out. I’m the only living person here, but I think of it as more of a recreating area than a ghost town. That’s just me.”