California’s Mojave and Sonoran Deserts

California has some beautiful deserts, the biggest and grandest being the Mojave and Sonoran. These two deserts comprise the majority of eastern Southern California, and they also extend into Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico. I don’t know enough about these places to do a top whatever, but I can show where I’ve been. They are:

Palm Springs

Palm Springs is the most famous city in Southern California’s desert region, and it is my favorite as well. Many So-Cal residents retire here, giving the city an older demographic, complete with shopping, fine dining, and lots of air conditioning and golf courses. But the city also has great outdoor activities and a strong art scene, so there’s plenty to for all ages (well, maybe not little kids), as long as its not too hot to leave your hotel’s pool.

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Beautiful Palm Springs, from a mountainside hike bordering the city

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Downtown Palm Springs is filled with great shops and restaurants. It usually is more crowded than this.

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Date shakes are super-popular in Palm Springs, and they are really good! I’ve never seen them anywhere else in the world.

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Artwork at a Palm Springs botanical garden. Lawn/metal art seems to be the art of choice in these desert communities, and they are beautiful.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Palm Springs’s greatest attraction is its aerial tramway, the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world. The tramway connects Palm Springs to an 8,500 foot elevated basin near the San Jacinto Peak. The tramway travels through five “life zones”, including: desert steppe, woodlands, fir forest, spruce forest, and alpine tundra. In summer the top of the basin provides great hiking opportunities, and in winter, well, just check out the pictures below:

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The tramcar approaching the lower station (elevation 2,650 feet).

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View of the desert as we ride up the tramway.

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Approaching the upper station, elevation 8,500 feet. Not what you’d expect a fifteen minute tram ride from the desert.

There was so much snow up here, it was crazy. This place was like a winter wonderland, like Santa’s village or the North Pole; it did not feel like a So-Cal desert at all.

Palm Springs’s Resorts

The Desert Springs Marriott in Palm Springs is one of the Marriott’s grandest hotels. I usually don’t stay here when visiting Palm Springs, but I did once and I have visited several times.

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The Desert Springs Marriott, and the giant lake that surrounds the resort.

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Pools of water cascade through the lobby, then connect with the lake outside. It is spectacular.

Also in the lobby, the hotel houses lots of tropical birds.

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More birds near the golf course outside the lake and surrounding the resort

The Desert Springs Marriott is Palm Springs’s grandest resort, but it isn’t the only one. The city also has the Hyatt Palm Springs.

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Entrance to the Hyatt Palm Springs Resort.

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Palm Springs’s Hyatt isn’t as nice as its Marriott, but it does have a nicer pool.

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Behind the waterfall that flows into the pool.

Joshua Tree National Park

How do you know if you are in the Mojave or Sonoran desert? Simple, the Mojave Desert has Joshua trees, and the Sonoran Desert doesn’t. Joshua trees are an almost iconic feature of the Mojave Desert, and their simple and unique look has inspired many artists, from U2 all the way to Dr. Seuss.

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The illustrious Joshua Trees. They are so cool!

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Baby Joshua trees. This picture isn’t an optical illusion, the trees really were as small as they look in this photograph.

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Another interesting tree, with a curved trunk? How did that happen?

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Skull rock, also located in Joshua Tree National Park.

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There is a ridge in the center to center-right of this photograph. That ridge is the San Andreas fault, the famous faultline that causes most of California’s earthquakes.

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This photo was taken from inside a 360 degree rock formation settlers used to use to protect their livestock from predators and winds. Today the area is used for hiking, and it is also one of the most photogenic spots in the park.

Box Canyon

Just south of Joshua Tree National Park, Highway 195 cuts through Box Canyon, connecting I-10 to CA-86. It is a very scenic route.

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Entrance to Box Canyon

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Box Canyon’s walls have their own little canyons, carved by rainwater. You could hike through these canyons, and doing so was really fun!

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Entrance to the Painted Canyon, an offshoot of Box Canyon that ends at the Ladder Canyon trailhead, one of the most popular hiking trails in the area.

Salton Sea

The Salton Sea in its modern form was created in 1900, when irrigation canals were built from the Colorado River to the Salton Sink, a dry lake bed where the Salton Sea now stands. The sea filled out-of-control quickly, submerging two towns and carrying a vast amount of silt from the Colorado. That combined with pollution and increasing salinity have destroyed any usefulness the Salton Sea may have had (it was a popular resort location in the 1950s). Today the area is known for its abandoned buildings, dead fish, and its smell, although the smell isn’t too bad anymore, now that most of the fish have died.

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The Salton Sea. Beautiful, kind of…

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Abandoned homes along the sea.

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An abandoned… Porta Potty warehouse?

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Backcountry roads that connect the abandoned areas, and also some (mostly industrial) areas still under operation.

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This seems dangerous…

An abandoned 1920s mineral spa near the south end of the Salton Sea. The white stuff on the ground is salt; there is a lot of it here.

Pioneertown

This town (located 20 miles northwest of the north entrance to Joshua Tree National Park) was originally built in the 1940s as an old-west movie set. They don’t shoot movies here anymore, and now the town has an actual population (350 to be exact). Visiting is a surreal experience.

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The main strip of Pioneertown. Perfect location for a duel, or a gunfight like the one at the OK Corral.

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Detail work of a building in Pioneertown. Hollywood set designers are very good at what they do.

Route 66

North of Joshua Tree National Park, near I-40, Route 66 cuts through the California desert. I explored this area on my most recent desert excursion, where I discovered that Route 66 in California is pretty boring. It is grand in Arizona though!

Edwards Air Force Base

Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona have lots of Air Force bases (desert weather and remoteness are great for airplanes), but Edwards is probably the greatest. Edwards is home to the Air Force Flight Test Center, and is where the majority of Air Force flight testing occurs. As a result, Edwards is the site of numerous aviation breakthroughs, including: Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, the first landing of the Space Shuttle, and the starting and ending point of the first non-stop, non-refueling flight around the world.

I visited Edwards my senior year of college, when my senior design class presented our planes to the base’s engineers and test pilots (I may be a filmmaker, but I studied aerospace engineering in college).

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Edwards Air Force Base is 470 square miles in size. Most of it is vast emptiness. 

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An F4 Phantom on display in the base. The F4, the primary air superiority fighter during the Vietnam War, is one of my favorite airplanes, because it is so weird looking.

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Airplane flyby. Not sure what plane that it, but flybys here happen all the time.

Lockheed Skunk Works

Skunk Works is Lockheed Martin’s experimental aircraft division, and it’s no surprise that the plant is located close to Edwards Air Force Base. Some of the aircraft designed by Skunk Works include: the U2, the SR71, the F117, and the F22. Their current project is the F35 Lightning II.

Like Edwards, I visited Skunk Works my senior year of college, when we presented our design aircraft. We also visited Phantom Works (Boeing’s version of Skunk Works), Boeing Long Beach, and Northrop Grumman. It was a pretty awesome class.

Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, we did not get to take pictures at any of these locations. However, near Skunk Works is Blackbird Airpark, and I did take pictures there.

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The SR71 Blackbird, designed at Skunk Works, is one of the weirdest and coolest planes in existence. Basically, the SR71 is the fastest, highest altitude, most secretive manned plane in the US military, which probably makes it the fastest, highest altitude, most secretive plane ever made. Rather than trying to explain how cool this plane is, simply read this article.

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The F14 Tomcat. This was the plane that was featured in Top Gun.

Cuddeback Dry Lake Bed

Cuddeback Lake is an open-to-the-public dry lake bed between Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake (a naval weapons testing base). I actually worked on a film that was shot here, the location doubling for the Middle East.

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Driving on this lake bed was so much fun; you could literally go any direction you wanted, like a video game! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to do this, nor do I have any pictures, because I was too busy working. This is the only picture I have, of us leaving.

Zzyzx

No, I don’t know how to pronounce it (zizzix?). I don’t know much about it either, other than it is a nothing-special dirt road made famous by its ridiculous spelling.

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Zzyzx Road connects to I-15 between Los Angeles and Vegas. Because it connects to such a well traveled highway, this road, this sign in particular, has become part of Mojave Desert lore. This road is so famous that it inspired two indie films, neither of which are supposed to be very good.

Barstow

There’s not much special about Barstow, other than it is a midway point between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. That, and Barstow has the largest thermometer in the world.

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There it is, the biggest thermometer in the world. Small town America is filled with things like this: largest thermometer, largest picnic basket, largest teapot, largest ball of twine… It all seems pretty silly to me (apparently they do this in Canada and Australia as well).

This marks the end of my So-Cal Mojave/Sonoran Desert experiences. But there’s so much more: Death Valley, Salvation Mountain, aircraft graveyards, Big Morongo Canyon (visited, but I don’t have pictures), Red Canyon, Red Rock Canyon (again, visited but no pictures), Coachella, Slab City, Lake Havasu (visited several times but no pictures), Blythe Intaglios… Even in the desert, California has so much to offer, it’s amazing!

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