We got up the next morning, checked out of the Wigwam, and got back on the road. It was time to head into the desert… after a filling breakfast, of course. We found the highly-recommended DJ’s Coffee Shop about 15 miles away (but still in San Bernardino, of course), and sat at the counter to eat. It’s a classic greasy-spoon-type place, but their food was great; I had an omelet full of green peppers that was spectacular.
I’ve seen most of coastal California, especially San Francisco and SoCal, but I’ve never really been into the desert (with the exception of the Vegas drive). I’ve always been kind of fascinated with it, so I was excited to see what it was about. We learned from a friend later on that Thanksgiving weekend is the official start of ‘desert season’ in California, where everyone heads over there to camp and ride 4-wheelers around. Kind of like summer cabin season here in Minnesota.
The drive to the Coachella Valley was really scenic:
We got off I-10 just past the Palm Springs exit, and headed east instead. We stopped at a gas station in Morongo Valley, where I bought three bottles of water, in addition to the full Camelbak I had in the car. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that it’s smart to have a ton of water with you in the desert.
Back on the road, we passed through Yucca Valley, a super-cute little town full of art and antique shops. From there we hopped off the main highway, and headed into Joshua Tree National Park.
We bought a park pass and got a map from the ranger station. While I was paying, Matt was busy reading the sign I missed on the building: it said, “Watch out for tarantulas on the road”. While I’m sure that was meant to protect tarantulas, he thought maybe we should run over any of them we found. Hopefully they’d travel in a giant train, so we could get a bunch of them at once.
Since we came in the north entrance, that meant we entered via the Mojave, or high desert side. The hills were very volcanic looking (some of them reminded me of Haleakala), but the geology also varied quite a bit. There were Joshua trees all over, too.
Some of the Joshua trees were dead. They make for good pictures, though.
I have a million pictures of the park, and none of them really do it justice. It’s gorgeous. Also, the sky. Totally perfect.
There were rock climbers all over the bigger outcroppings. These looked appealing:
This is my favorite Joshua tree:
A few miles in, there were cars pulled over because a coyote was wandering down the other side of the road. It would pass each car slowly and approach warily, which sucks because that means it had been fed by tourists before.
This was a popular climbing rock. You can see some of the lines right in the middle. I bet the scrub was chock-full of tarantulas, too.
Several miles in, there’s a turnoff for a spot called Keys View. It’s a few miles up a mountain at about 5,000 feet, with a short trail to an overlook. It’s worth the drive.
Off in the hazy distance, it’s the Coachella valley. I really didn’t know how much farming went on there; it’s a lot. This is looking west, directly over the San Andreas Fault, with the San Jacinto Mountains in the background.
Looking south, you can make out the Salton Sea, and Signal Mountain near Mexicali in the far distance.
We headed back to the park road, and passed through a section of giant rocks. (I think one of the turnoffs is actually called Giant Rocks.) This is Skull Rock:
I wish we had more time to stop at all the roadside attractions, but it was a long drive through the park. We did have to stop to see the cactus garden, though. By then we’d crossed into the low desert, the Colorado, and the landscape started to change quite a bit.
(Confession: I touched the cactus and lived.)
The cactus garden is surreal. There are a million of them, just waiting to kill you.
This is the inside of a cactus stem:
Bally liked the view. Bally likes everything, really.
We stopped at the visitor center on the south end of the park to pick up a souvenir and to fill my Camelbak, because yes, I’d consumed all three bottles of water plus that entire container. It’s the desert, man.
Rather than get back on I-10, we followed Google’s directions (which were suspect in California at best, even with GPS enabled) toward Mecca. This led us through Box Canyon, which was kind of amazing.
The road twists and winds through at least 10 miles of canyon like this, and there are areas on the side of the road where people have parked their campers and created little compounds. They all had ATVs, too.
We exited Box Canyon onto the road heading into Mecca, a small town at the north end of the Salton Sea. Looking for the road to the sea, we passed acres and acres of produce of all kinds. It was kind of amazing to see that much food production up close, and in full bloom during late November.
We finally found our way to the highway that circled the Salton Sea.
We headed east, toward the state park area. The sun was starting to set, so we had pretty spectacular views. I pulled off at one of the beaches so we could get photos, and upon leaving the car was instantly greeted with the main reason people had deserted the Salton Sea: the smell. It smelled like dead fish and chemicals, and not just a little bit. It was overpowering.
In case you weren’t aware of this bizarre wonder in the California desert, here’s the short version (or the long version, via Wikipedia): the Salton Sea was formed accidentally in the early 1900s while workers were trying to funnel water into the very fertile Coachella Valley. It flooded the low basin, and created a huge inland sea. It soon became a huge resort and vacation destination, because, well, look at it.
The problem, however, was that there’s no natural exchange of water in the Salton Sea; it’s not fed by streams, nor does it have any drainage. So all the industrial and farming runoff from the valley poured right into the sea, and it poisoned everything. Almost all the fish died, creating a hell of a stink, and people left in droves. In many cases, they just left the stuff in their houses, and fled.
So now you have places like Bombay Beach, a former resort town that’s mostly abandoned and falling apart.
We unfortunately got there very close to sunset, and couldn’t see as much of it as we wanted to. It’s strange and mostly-deserted, but there are still people hanging on there at the end of a giant stinky sea. It’s a really bizarre place.
And then it was dark, so we pointed our car in the direction of Palm Springs. It took about an hour to arrive at our hotel, the Movie Colony. I’d picked it because it was walking distance to Tonga Hut, the only real destination we had in mind there, because we knew virtually nothing about the town beyond its awesome 1960s architecture.
The hotel was an excellent choice. It was very small, centered around a courtyard with a firepit, outdoor bar (which currently had free happy hour cocktails), and swimming pool. The lady working there was super-friendly, and took us up to our room on the second level overlooking the courtyard.
Matt had done some research on dinner options on the way there, and we’d decided on a place a few blocks away called Workshop Kitchen. We changed clothes and walked down there, finding it in the back of an open mall area. It was small, modern, and thankfully had a couple seats for us at the bar, since the entire rest of the place was already booked. We had a great meal, one of those that reminds you how completely spoiled California is, foodwise. It’s so easy to be vegetarian there.
We’d made plans to get together with my very longtime friend Paul, who lives in Long Beach, while we were in Palm Springs. He was there for Thanksgiving, and it just so happens that he and his friends love tiki bars as much as we do. So our obvious next stop was Tonga Hut to meet them.
We walked several blocks down there, passing a ton of great-looking restaurants and super-cute shops, which were all closed for the night. I kind of regretted not having more time in Palm Springs, because I’m pretty sure we’d have loved it. I liked that everything was centrally-located, too.
We headed upstairs to Tonga Hut and didn’t see Paul there, so Matt and I grabbed seats at the bar. We were worried we’d missed them, since they had dinner reservations elsewhere. After a while, they all showed up: Paul, his husband Eddie, and two of their friends who loved tiki far more than we ever could… they regaled us with stories of all the places they’d been, and the huge tiki collection they had in their new house in Palm Springs. (Paul sent photos later – it’s truly amazing.)
We hung out with them for an hour or so, talking about travel and what it was like living in the area. Apparently it’s really common for everyone in the LA area to head out into the desert that time of year, like a pilgrimage. I’d do the same, really.
Then it was time for them to head to dinner, so we said goodbye and hung out a bit longer before deciding to walk back to the hotel. It was even colder than it had been in other places in the desert at night, but it wasn’t cold enough to deter us from hanging out in the hot tub for a while before bed.