8 Best Desert Spots in the Southern California Desert

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Experience The Best Nature Spots of the California Desert

You know what’s funny? The majority of southern California is actually a desert. Many of those who travel to California vacation along the coast so they can lounge by the beach and enjoy the pristine ocean views.

While California beach cities are rightfully popular, there is much more to do and see. The California desert has numerous nature spots to check out. Honestly, I’ve found a much deeper love for California’s deserts than I have for its coastal locations.

If you’re searching for epic desert beauty and an escape from busier cities, you’re in luck. Here’s a list of our 8 best desert spots in the southern California desert.

1. Mojave National Preserve

For being one of the largest desert regions in California, it’s surprising how many haven’t heard of Mojave National Preserve. This preserve lies near the border of Nevada, about an hour away from the city of Barstow.

Visitors can expect hiking trails, view points, dense Joshua Tree forests, massive sand dunes and more. Some of our very best desert hikes have been found right here in the preserve.

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Just to name a couple, The Rings Trail which takes you through a porous canyon and has you climb up iron rings out of the canyon.

Or for a longer more challenging hike, Tahquitz Peak. This trail leads you through the densest Joshua Tree Forest in the world and then has you hike up a medium sized mountain. Expect sweeping views of the desert valley from the top!

For a more unique adventure, make sure to include Kelso Dunes in your itinerary. These huge sand dunes stretch over 45 square miles and stand 650 ft tall from the desert floor.

Haven’t had enough? Well, there’s also an underground lava tube you can climb down into and explore. Stand inside a rare cave created from molten lava oh so many years ago.  Surprisingly, there is just enough light leaking in through the ceiling to be able to see without a flashlight.

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This is just a few of the perks the preserve has to offer. There is still so much to see and do within this place, we’ve barely scratched the surface.

We recommend a few days to explore everything. If you only have one day to visit Mojave National Preserve you can still cover plenty of ground.

2. Joshua Tree National Park

Just below Mojave National Preserve is one of California’s most popular desert national parks, Joshua Tree National Park. Within this park you can expect, you guessed it, Joshua Trees.

Even though this is the main attribute to this park, there are still many other things to see outside of the sprawling fields of J Trees. Hiking being the number one activity.

You can also rock climb, camp, take a scenic drive, ride bikes, and stargaze. Known as one of the best star gazing spots in the California desert!

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What’s great about Joshua Tree NP is that it’s loaded with all types of hiking trails. Trails either short and flat or long and more strenuous. Short hikes allow you to see a great variety of the park in a small amount of time.

Just have one day? Check out the 3 best mile and under hikes in Joshua Tree which you can easily fit into a single outing.

We love this park for its variety of trails. You’ll find dense Cholla cactus gardens, towering canyon walls, a water filled dam, and even a natural rock arch. Just to name a few features!

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3. Red Rock Canyon State Park

For being the smallest on this list, Red Rock Canyon State Park offers some of the greatest views of the California desert. The most iconic attribute known as the gigantic Red Rock Cliffs. These are located both off the main highway and along a couple of the hiking trails.

The cliffs were formed with layers of white and red sediments, which make up the unique folds in the cliff faces. These layers originally resided in an old inland lake millions of years ago and have been lifted by the El Paso, Garlock, and Sierra Frontal Faults.

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Feel yourself become an insignificant speck as you approach these towering cliffs. They are massive! I can honestly say this is one of the most monumental things I have seen in the southern California desert so far.

Outside of the Red Cliffs, enjoy a few hiking trails that take you deeper into the park. Our favorites include Hagan Trail and Nightmare Gulch Loop. Both relatively easy, flat, and full of astonishing desert scenery.

You can read more about these trails on our post of Red Rock Canyon State Park.

4. Whitewater Preserve

Right outside the desert city of Palm Springs lays a hidden gem right off the main highway. Overlooked by many, this quaint and beautiful desert spot is known as Whitewater Preserve.

The landscape consists of gorgeous desert scenery with a small creek that runs through the area, all while being surrounded by tall and impressive mountains.

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After 4 plus visits, we’re both still in awe each time we step foot in this place.

Spend your day, or just a few hours, walking along a well maintained trail taking you alongside the infamous whitewater creek. Not technically “white water” but it appears so from the bright white sand underneath.

Even though there is only a couple trails to hike on, this is still one of our favorite spots to spend the day. Sitting beside the creek with no other sounds but running water and small gusts of wind make this an intimate place for any desert lover.

5. Death Valley National Park

The most popular national park in California, known for its magnificent desert scenery, is Death Valley National Park. Named Death Valley based on the fact that it’s literally the hottest place on the planet.

During summer, this park once reached a record breaking high of 134°F. Although dangerous to visit in the summer, Death Valley NP makes a fantastic desert excursion for all other seasons of the year.

The park is full of unique features and hiking trails that showcase some of the best qualities of the California desert. Badwater Basin being one of the most popular areas of the park.

Amazingly this basin is the lowest point in all of North America, residing 282 feet below sea level. Here you can walk on picturesque salt flats that spread 35 square miles.

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Other popular spots include Devil’s Golf Course and Zabriskie Point. Devil’s Golf Course is a dense area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires. Zabrieskie Point is the most famous viewpoint in the entire park. Here you can see the golden colored badlands which makes for an amazing place to be during sunset.

Oh and don’t forget Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes! These are similar to the Kelso Dunes mentioned earlier at Mojave National Preserve. As you can see, there’s tons to do at this amazing national park.

If you’re coming from Las Vegas, you can sign up for an immersive Death Valley tour around the park. It also includes stops at Rhyolite, Goldwell Open Air Museum, and a drive by Mercury – an area once used as a test site for nuclear firearms.

6. Indian Canyons

Located right outside of Palm Springs is a small desert oasis known as Indian Canyons. This lush nature reserve even boasts a California classic, palm trees.

To fully enjoy the reserve, visitors can choose from a number of different hikes that take you deeper into the canyons. Our favorite being Murray Canyon Trail which is a solid 4 mile hike.

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This trail leads you through the sprawling desert to a stream surrounded by thick palm tree groves. Ultimately ending at a waterfall known as the Seven Sisters Waterfall. Waterfalls in the desert? Yes you heard that right.

However, the stream only runs for a couple seasons of the year. So if you want to see a more wet environment, plan your visit around the winter and spring months.

Besides this, you can hike to the high peaks of the nearby mountains, explore more canyons, or just relax near the calming stream. The combination of water and condensed green palm trees makes this a desert oasis you don’t want to miss.

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7. Alabama Hills

The rolling landscape of Alabama Hills is a natural wonder. This unique location is found in the high desert of California, just outside of the city of Lone Pine.

These “hills” are an arrangement of rock formations that spread far across the land below the Sierra Nevada mountains. What’s great is that this area is all BLM (Bureau of Land Management) which means you can literally camp anywhere. Not only that, it’s free!

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Numerous movies have filmed here due to it’s exclusive landscape. Interestingly enough there are only a few hiking trails in this area. The most popular being Mobius Arch Loop Trail which takes you to a natural rock arch.

Despite the lack of trails, this area is so insanely gorgeous that you don’t even need to hike to be in the thick of it.

The best way to enjoy Alabama Hills is to camp (wherever), wander or scramble the rocky area, and enjoy the incredible views of the magnificent Sierra Nevada Mountains. And of course stargazing once night falls!

8. Amboy Crater

Last but not least, we highly recommend visiting the oddball spot known as Amboy Crater. Not technically a park or nature reserve but more so a random feature of the California desert that most don’t even know exist! Mainly because it’s located in the middle of nowhere off the historic Route 66.

Amboy Crater is an extinct cinder cone volcano estimated to be around 6,000 years old. (Which is actually kinda young!) Not only can you visit this crater, you can actually hike to the very top of it!

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The trail winds you through a field of black volcanic rock and to the base of the crater itself. From here, you can hike up the backside of the volcano which takes you to the very top. It truly is an amazing spot and one of the most uncommon hikes we have done in the California desert.

Enjoy walking around nearly the entire circumference of the crater while taking in endless views of the Mojave desert. A remarkable experience, making it a one of a kind desert hike.

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Explore California and Experience The Magic of the California Desert

Southern California is very much a desert and it’s landscapes vary widely as you trek across the lower state.

We’ve covered Joshua Tree forests, massive sand dunes, underground lava tubes, lush oasis, tall red rock cliffs, and even an extinct cinder cone volcano, all in this list.

What’s amazing is that this is just a few of our favorites from the spots we’ve seen so far. There is still so much more to explore within California’s large desert region. We cannot wait to discover more wonderful locations while we continue to journey across the desert.

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What are your favorite desert locations in the state of California? Have we missed any important ones from this list? Share with us in the comments below!

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About the Author

Shelby Kirk is the co-founder, editor, and author of We Who Roam. With a strong love for nature and adventure travel, she hopes to inspire others to get outside and explore our natural playground that we call home.

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