So you wanna take an epic Southern California desert road trip? Get ready for tons of arid landscapes, starry night skies, and pool party time. I promise you’ll love the drive from Palm Springs to Borrego Springs → this part of California is utterly fascinating! Keep reading for my exact California deserts itinerary, including when to go, where to stop, and more!
If you follow this Palm Springs to Borrego Springs road trip itinerary, I can promise that you’ll discover more palm tree oases, wacky (and weird) desert art, and solitude than you thought possible along the way. Oh, and we’ll be stopping at some of the oddest road-side attractions you’ve ever seen – what could possibly go wrong? #noshame. The desert in California surprised me in more ways than one.
This SoCal desert road trip drive will have you wondering why you haven’t explored the region before! When international travel was outta the question (hello 2020/21, haha), I thought it’d be the perfect time to head south and explore the dry California desert. And I’m so glad I finally made this road trip a priority — we loved Palm Springs and the surrounding areas way more than we ever thought we would!
California Desert Itinerary Overview
- Days 1-3: Palm Springs
- Day 4: Joshua Tree
- Day 5: Desert Oddities
- Days 6-7: Borrego Springs
- Extra Add-Ons: Death Valley (pre-trip) + San Diego (post-trip)
Over the course of the road trip, expect to drive approximately 7 hours through the desert in California (round trip from Palm Springs, longer from LA/OC) and around 400 miles. In order to complete this full Southern California desert road trip in a reasonable amount of time (1 – 1.5 weeks depending on the length of your trip), you’ll be driving at least a little bit almost every day, with some being longer driving days than others. Plan accordingly and bring snacks! The time in the car doesn’t have to be absolutely horrible. :p
Palm Springs to Borrego Springs Itinerary Logistics
When to take this road trip
I’d suggest planning this California desert road trip between late October and early April. Other times of year will be unbearably hot. Remember — this is the desert we’re talking about! SKIP THE SUMMER as it’s just not safe to be out and about all day!
And of course because I’m exceptionally wordy and feel the need to give you all the information you could possibly need, here’s a breakdown of the seasons in the SoCal desert area:
Spring: Early spring is a gorgeous time to visit the desert! The temps are starting to heat up from the mild winter, but it’s not unbearably hot just yet! It does get pretty steamy as the months progress though (from April onwards). One way to combat this — do all your exploring in the morning, and spend the afternoon at the pool. That’s what we typically did, and it was the perfect balance of hot desert fun and splashing around with cocktails in hand at The Ace’s pool parties.
For reference, we took this SoCal desert road trip in late March, and found the weather to be nearly perfect. I will say we had uncharacteristically hot weather in Palm Springs, so thankfully we chose a hotel with a bangin’ pool!
Summer: The desert in California during the summer months are BRUTAL beyond brutal. Skip May through September. I repeat, do NOT take this SoCal desert road trip in the summer. The temps are sweltering and days over 100°F are not uncommon. They SOAR into the triple digits come mid-summer, so you’ll 100% need AC and the pool. It’s way too hot to really do much of anything besides fry by the pool. Plus, some shops and sites (especially in Palm Springs and Borrego Springs) have limited off-season hours this time of year.
Fall: Early fall is kinda just a continuation of summer (haha), with crazy hot temperatures (well into the high 90’s) and virtually all sunshine. It’s definitely more comfortable than summer, but just know you’ll still want/need lots of pooltime and tons of liquids! The temps FINALLY begin to cool down in late-October/November, so I’d recommend waiting until then to visit the desert.
Winter: Ahhhh, goodbye sweltering heat! Finally you can go for a walk and not be dripping with sweat! Understandably, it’s peak tourism season in the desert, so make sure you book everything in advance (including all your accommodations and car rental!).
What to Pack for the California Deserts
- Slather on that sunscreen, the sun is super strong over here. And on that note, I always like to take along some SPF lip balm to protect my lips as well.
- Keep your eyes protected from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat and polarized sunglasses (like I said, the desert sun is powerful!)
- Some bright bathing suits for the pool, coverups, and of course, pool sandals. A fun pool floaty for Palm Springs never hurt anyone either!
- A portable phone charger’s always a good thing to take along, no matter the trip! Never worry about your phone running out of battery! This one is super tiny and lightweight!
- Your kindle or mini ipad to read by the pool
- A reusable water bottle to fill up on that H2O (gotta stay hydrated, especially in the California desert!)
- These refreshing body wipes, for ya know, when you get all hot and sticky and need a little freshening up before brunch
- Hydrating lotion and/or some cocoa butter for all that dry skin — I found my skin got especially dry after being in the desert and pool chlorine for a few days
- If you’re doing any kind of hiking in the desert in California (whether that be close to Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, Anza-Borrego, and/or Death Valley), make sure to bring along comfy sneakers. I swear by these — I have them in 3 colors!
- Light, airy, and breezy clothing. But don’t be afraid to bring along bold and colorful clothing too — leave all your boring black and whites at home! Palm Springs is all about color and that popular retro, vintage style. I loved wearing colorful, floral dresses here!
- Some fun accessories, like colorful hair scarves, a trendy straw bag, statement earrings, and cute espadrilles!
- A camera to take lots of pretty photos (I typically use my iPhone and Olympus mirrorless)!
- Lightweight jacket or sweater, as the desert drastically cools off at night (I was fine with a jean jacket — my exact one — but kinda wished I brought along a light sweater as well)
Where to Start the Road Trip
I recommend starting this Southern California desert road trip in Palm Springs. I mean, technically, you could start from any spot, but we loved ending with a few days relaxing in Borrego Springs. In addition, Palm Springs is the most accessible to most people, so it’s a good starting point anyways.
Palm Springs is pretty close to other main hotspots in Southern California. It makes for the perfect getaway from both LA and San Diego, and all the spots in between.
But from Northern California, a different story. Originally, we were thinking of making the long drive from San Francisco, but ultimately decided we didn’t wanna spend that many hours in the car so took a short flight (it’s far, see below!).
- From Joshua Tree: 50 minutes | 35 miles
- From Orange County: 1.5 hours | 95 miles
- From Los Angeles: 2 hours | 105 miles
- From San Diego: 2.5 hours | 140 miles
- From Death Valley: 4.5 hours | 230 miles
- From San Francisco: 8 hours | 490 miles
How to get to SoCal/Where to Fly Into:
If you’re not from SoCal yourself, you’ll need to fly on over before getting this road trip underway! Thankfully, there’s a bunch of airports which’ll do! Here’s a few options:
- fly into either Los Angeles (LAX) or Orange County (SNA) and then drive two hours east to Palm Springs (note that LAX is always wildly busy; so account for extra driving time/lots of traffic)
- fly into Palm Springs International Airport (PSP) itself; by far the easiest and quickest option, although I typically find flights to LAX and SNA much cheaper
- fly into Ontario International Airport (ONT) — I’ve heard flights can sometimes be cheaper than PSP, and it’s only an hour west of Palm Springs
Renting a car
Since this is in fact a road trip, you’ll need a vehicle to get you from place to place! Worth mentioning so you don’t forget to account for the cost of a rental car when following this Palm Springs to Borrego Springs road trip itinerary! I like to search via this site in order to compare rental companies to see who has the best price.
Ok, but here’s the thing — you don’t NEED a car in Palm Springs if you’re just hanging out on the main streets and hanging at the pool. But we found ourselves driving way more than we thought — to DesertX locations, to a boozy brunch spot in Palm Desert, to the windmills, and a whole slew of other spots. I like the flexibility of having a car, especially since you won’t wanna walk terribly far due to extreme midday heat.
But if you’re not renting a car for Palm Springs, you’ll need to get one for Joshua Tree (if you don’t wanna take a tour) and the rest of this road trip. You’ll 1000% need a car for day 5, when we make a lot of stops en route to Borrego Springs.
Honestly though, if it’s your first time visiting Palm Springs and the surrounding area, just get yourself a car for the entire time. Both our hotels in Palm Springs had free parking, and we didn’t find parking in town to be exceptionally difficult, so just for it!
And finally, what you probably came here for — a super-comprehensive California desert road trip itinerary! Including all my favorite stops, eats, and wild road-side attractions.
California Desert Road Trip Itinerary Stops
DAYS 1-3: Palm Springs
You’ve made it to the desert! First stop: Palm Springs! Full of mid-century modern architecture, boozy weekend brunches, old Hollywood glitz and glam, epic pool hangs, and those chic desert vibes. We honestly couldn’t get enough of it.
If you’re looking for a design-focused city with palm tree lined streets, colorful accommodations, vintage shopping, and an all-around relaxing ambiance, you NEED to spend a few days in Palm Springs ASAP. A true mix of classic hipster vibes and that desert bohemian spirit. Here’s some of my favorite stops to make while in Palm Springs (check out my full guide for everything you need to know — I go into way more detail over here!).
- Palm Springs DIY Door Tour: Palm Springs is kinda a mecca for their mid-century architecture and design. And the doors are no exception. We had such a great time searching around for all the colors of the rainbow — Yellow doors, bright turquoise doors, orange doors, lime green doors, pink doors, you name it! I have a whole post with exact addresses of all my favorite doors in Palm Springs, but if you head on over to the Indian Canyons neighborhood, that’s where you’ll find them all!
- Andreas Canyon Trail in Indian Canyons: If you’re gonna do one hike in Palm Springs, make it the Andreas Canyon loop in Indian Canyons. Not only is it pretty easy at just around a mile (I even wore sandals, haha), but the views are like no other. You’ll see groves of spectacular California skirted fan palms, the Andreas Creek, and even a mini waterfall. Just go early before the temps really heat up for the day, and bring lots of water!
- Visit the Cabazon Dinosaurs: Quite possibly the wackiest road-side attraction near Palm Springs! I’m sure you’ve seen a photo of them somewhere before. They get painted and decked out depending on the season and holiday — we saw a 65-foot-tall Mr. Rex ready for Easter and a pink 150-foot-long brontosaurus (named Dilly the Dinosaur) for Valentine’s Day! And definitely don’t miss Hadley Fruit Orchards — the best place to get a famous date shake.
- Moorten Botanical Garden: Have you ever visited a cactarium before? Well this one’s been around since 1938! We loved strolling through the botanical garden, and especially the greenhouse dedicated to smaller, unique cacti and succulent plants. Say hello to the desert turtles on your way out — we loved them! Double check the hours before you go because they close on the earlier side.
- Hang at the Pool: Every day is a pool day in Palm Springs — think palm trees, pool floats, and of course, good vibes! In all seriousness, if you aren’t spending your afternoons at the pool, you aren’t doing Palm Springs right. And if you visit anytime between February and October, you’ll wanna jump right into that pool every chance you get. Because let’s face it — it’ll likely be at least 85°F when you visit.
- Palm Springs Windmills: If you’re driving on the 10, you really can’t miss them! It’s by far the largest wind farm I’ve ever seen, with over 4,000 windmills — providing enough electricity to power all of Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley. Whoa! Interested in learning more about the windmills and wind energy? Take a guided tour of the farm! We didn’t have time for this (we simply just stopped by to snap a few photos), but I’d like to make it a priority for next time.
- Eat your Face Off: Palm Springs is a mecca for trendy foodie spots, so it’s not hard to find something amazing over here! A few of my favorites: Cheeky’s (for breakfast), The Pink Cabana (for brunch), Norma’s (for brunch/lunch), Birba (lunch/dinner), Sandfish Sushi and Whiskey (dinner), El Jefe (drinks/tacos), Great Shakes (dessert), and Koffi (coffee).
Where to Stay on Nights 1-3: There’s no shortage of accommodation in Palm Springs — so whatever you’re looking for, this little city’s got it! There’s chic boutique hotels, spruced up roadside motels, rustic meets modern establishments, and even more posh resort-like spots than you can imagine. Here’s some of the best: Ace Hotel & Swim Club (where we stayed and LOVED), The Saguaro (by far the most colorful hotel in Palm Springs), Parker Palm Springs (quintessential Palm Springs vibes), and Korakia Pensione (super upscale and super serene — where I wanna stay next time!).
Drive from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree: ~50 minutes
DAY 4: Joshua Tree
Wild and wacky Joshua Trees. Rugged rock formations and giant boulders. That arid desert landscape. Dark starry night skies. And even a rich (and quirky) cultural history! That’s Joshua Tree National Park in a nutshell — and it’s 100% worth spending at least a day there! This really wouldn’t be a complete SoCal desert road trip without a day among the Joshua Trees!
Expect your day in Joshua Tree National Park to be filled with all the superlatives you could think of — kinda weird, pretty wacky, super strange, and all kinds of amazing! We spent our time in Joshua Tree admiring the wacky trees, climbing up huge rocks, watching the climbers, and heading to the highest point in the park for sunset. And I suggest you do the same!
Thankfully, Joshua Tree’s a pretty straightforward and easy-to-get-around park, so you can see the main highlights in a day or even less! But if you’d feel more comfortable having someone else do the driving (or just want a more relaxing day), there’s a few day tours you can sign up for in advance. Most even bring water and snacks for you! This small group ½ day tour looks awesome, as does this Joshua Tree jeep tour (for those of you itching for a little more adventure)!
Heading out without a tour? Here were our favorite stops:
- Cholla Cactus Garden: While there’s actually no Joshua Trees over here, you will find a whole bunch of cholla cacti, commonly referred to as teddy bear cacti instead! They look super cute and cuddly from afar, but as soon as you get closer, you’ll see they’re surrounded by tons of prickly little needles. The Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail is a flat (and easy) loop walking trail.
- Arch Rock: Arch Rock spans 30 feet over a huge boulder, and is a pretty walk — as long as you know where you’re going! The whole trail is pretty short, at just around 1.2 miles roundtrip. I was silly and was wearing a dress, meaning I couldn’t climb up to take a photo! Boo — don’t be like me! Next time! Oh, note there’ll probably be a bit of a line to take a photo, but worth the wait as long as you can scramble up!
- Skull Rock: Located right off the main road, you’ll find a giant rock that looks like a human skull! When viewed from a particular angle, it’s easy to see how it got its name (look for the two sunken eyes and sunken nasal cavity).
- Hidden Valley Nature Trail: Easily one of the most popular hikes in all of Joshua Tree, and because of that, it gets pretty crowded. The trail is a mostly-flat one-mile loop with less than 100 feet in elevation change, making it a quick and easy walk! And although it’s a short trail, don’t miss the otherworldly terrain! The hike weaves through boulders and some of the valley’s most interesting rock formations.
- Keys View: Being the highest vantage point in the park, there’s epic views from up here, and it’s a great spot to watch the sunset! The viewpoint looks out over the entire Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea, and the San Gorgonio Mountains.
Where to Stay on Night 4: Technically, you could do a day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs (that’s what we did), but I really wanna stay right near the park next time! There’s so many fun spots to check out, including Pioneertown Motel (kitschy and quirky; it looks like a vintage western movie set!), 29 Palms Inn (one-of-a-kind Adobe bungalows and wood-framed cabins), Spin and Margie’s Desert Hideaway (quirky desert chic spaces), and The Castle House Estate (featured on HGTV)!
DAY 5: Desert Oddities
Wake up early, because today’s a long day of driving (about 4 hours total but with plenty of stops, don’t worry)! I recommend filling up on gas before heading out and bringing a few snacks with you, because there’s honestly not much out here! And you may not have great cell service, so definitely plot out your spots on a map beforehand and get a general idea of your route, just in case!
Stop #1: Palm Tree Farm
On our drive to the Salton Sea, we kept passing by fields and fields of palm trees; I just knew we needed to make a quick stop! Who knew there were so many palm trees right near the deserts in California?!
And when we got out of the car, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Rows and rows (and even more rows) of perfectly spaced out palm trees! Sure, I’ve seen palm trees before (I’ve been living in California for a while now), but this was something straight outta a movie.
You’ll find the palm tree farms in between Indio and Mecca on the way to the Salton Sea. Sorry I don’t have an exact address for ya! I promise you’ll see them if you keep your eyes peeled! Just goes to show that sometimes the best spots are totally unplanned for!
Psst — did you know dates grow on palm trees?! I had no clue! The dates grow in large clusters (kinda like bunches of grapes), which hang higher than fifty feet off the ground. Every August, ranches over here collect the dates and they’re then packaged and sold. The Coachella Valley (known as the Date Capital of the World), supplies about 95 percent of dates grown in the United States. Totalling up to roughly 43,600 tons of dates in 2015 alone! Whoa!
And before you get to the Salton Sea, check and see if the International Banana Museum is open! It was unfortunately closed when we drove by though, but it sure looks like a quirky stop!
Drive time from Palm Tree farms to Salton Sea Recreation Area: 20 minutes
Stop #2: Salton Sea State Recreation Area and Visitors Center
Next up, the stinkiest spot on this Palm Springs to Borrego Spring road trip itinerary! Yup, we’re talking about the Salton Sea, one of the world’s largest inland seas and one of the lowest spots on Earth (at 227 feet below sea level). That’s almost as low as the Badwater Basin salt flats in Death Valley, sitting at 282 feet below sea level — taking the cake for the lowest point in the United States.
Yes, it’s quite rundown, and you most definitely will see dead fish and bones near the shoreline, which of course makes the entire area smell absolutely disgusting. But it’s worth a quick stop! We got used to the nasty smell after a few minutes, and then thankfully breathed in some fresh air after we left.
The Salton Sea is so, so, so salty that literally nothing can survive here (the salinity’s twice as high as the ocean)! And it’s definitely drying up and is unfortunately being destroyed by human activity. There’s lots of contaminants in the water, and the mud is laced with toxic chemicals such as chromium, zinc, lead, and pesticides like DDT. I definitely wouldn’t spend all day here. And trust me, you don’t wanna swim here. Did I mention there’s dead fish everywhere?!
Do note you’ll need to pay a fee in order to get in (we paid $7 if I remember correctly) — it’s a state recreation area part of the CA state parks unit, so go support!
Drive time from Salton Sea to Bombay Beach: 20 minutes
Stop #3: Bombay Beach Ruins
Mix Burning Man and Marfa, Texas, and you’ve got Bombay Beach. What used to be an apocalyptic wasteland has recently turned into a cool offbeat artist hub! Imagine a fish airplane, door frames right on the beach, and an artistic chapel. A colorful television art display, abandoned Airstream trailers, and even a burning man airplane itself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place just quite like Bombay Beach. I mean, when else do you see old couches and TVs just hanging out on the beach?
It’s now an artist mecca, and besides all the rubble of this forgotten town, there’s the stunning blue Bombay Beach Opera House (with its cardboard piano), a house plastered with plastic toys, and of course the Bombay Beach Drive In art installation.
Can you believe this place used to be a booming resort town for the rich and famous in the 40’s and 50’s?! Think Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, etc. But when the salinity of the Salton Sea rose and all the fish and birds were dying off, it turned into an abandoned ghost town. Definitely take some time to read up on Bombay Beach; we were so intrigued by the wild history! Now only about 200 people call this town home, but plenty more come to visit.
It’s hardly crowded, pretty creepy, and kinda has an eerie vibe to it, but it’s a total gem for photographers and a crazy place to walk around. I loved it!
Drive time from Bombay Beach to Salvation Mountain: 25 minutes
Stop #4: Salvation Mountain
Beautiful. Bizarre. And completely unforgettable. Salvation Mountain is a true candy-colored fantasy world in the middle of the desert in California. And I couldn’t get enough of it. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over social media — it’s a super instagrammable spot a bit south of Palm Springs! I’d had this spot on my California bucket list for years, so was thrilled when I finally was able to check it off! I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Artistic landscape. Off-beat religious roadside attraction. Vibrant folk art. Whatever you call it, I promise you won’t forget it once you visit. It’s probably the strangest road-side attraction you’ll ever see (way more so than the Jolly Green Giant we saw in Blue Earth, MN on our road trip from NYC to SF.)
There’s a few little convenience/grocery stores around here (on the main road before the turn off to Salvation Mountain) if you’re needing a quick pick me up. Don’t expect to find a huge selection, but we grabbed a few cold drinks and some chips.
Drive time from Salvation Mountain to East Jesus: give or take 5-10 minutes
Stop #5: East Jesus
It’s just a mile down from Salvation Mountain, so obviously head on over right after! Kinda like the Bombay Beach ruins all squished together into one compound.
East Jesus is an artist community on the outskirts of the Salton Sea, with a sculpture garden full of odd and interesting pieces. And get this — everything is made out of junk and waste! There’s intricately decorated old vehicles, a TV wall full of messages, decked out mannequins, and even a giant mammoth made out of tires. But contrary to its name, East Jesus actually has no religious connotations.
The main gate was unfortunately closed when we were there, but we were able to do a quick drive around to see some of the pieces on the outskirts of the compound.
This community literally lives in the middle of nowhere, completely off the grid, and operating without electricity or running water. So if you like running water in the bathroom, definitely go beforehand in nearby Niland, about 6 miles away.
Drive time from East Jesus to Glamis Sand Dunes: 50 minutes
Stop #6: Imperial Sand Dunes (Glamis)
The sand dunes are a ways away (deep in the California desert), but I promise you they’re so worth it! I wouldn’t have you going outta your way if they weren’t. Breathtaking, surreal, and absolutely amazing. It felt like we were on a different planet — even Jumanji 3 was filmed right here!
Surprisingly, we found them even more impressive than the sand dunes we had recently seen at Death Valley National Park! For starters, you literally drive right up to the dunes, and secondly, the sand is so much more pristine! We didn’t have to walk forever through the sand to find those perfect ripples (like we did in Death Valley).
It was super fun to watch the ATV and buggies race on the dunes — they went crazy fast! The Imperial Sand Dunes are the largest mass of sand dunes in not only California, but the entirety of the US, whoa!
Psst: Put in Hugh T. Osborne Lookout Park into your GPS and it’ll take you exactly where I went!
Drive time from Imperial Sand Dunes to Borrego Springs: 1 ½ hours
Where to Stay on Night 5: I highly recommend heading to Borrego Springs after checking out the sand dunes. There’s honestly not really much between Glamis and Borrego Springs, so just prepare for a bit more driving to make it all the way to Borrego for a good night’s sleep.
DAYS 6-7 Borrego Springs
FINALLY — it’s time to relax a little! If you’re hoping for a quiet few days, you’ll love this wide open, desolate California desert landscape, I just know it! It’s laid back and unpretentious, with fabulous night skies and a super funky art scene. But don’t worry, there’s still lots to do here if you have a hard time sitting still (like me)!
I imagine Borrego Springs is what Palm Springs was like decades ago — pristine desert landscapes, super starry dark skies, crystal clear air, extraordinary spring wildflowers, and oases full of cacti and palm trees. The entire town is completely surrounded by Anza Borrego Desert State Park — the largest state park in California!
Here’s our favorite things to do in/near Borrego Springs:
- Hiking the Slot Canyon Trail: With it’s alien-looking landscapes, a narrow siltstone canyon, and spectacular cliffs, it was such a fun morning activity in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. AND we needed to literally squeeze through some rocks, which made it especially exciting! Definitely start as early in the morning as you possibly can, as it gets extremely hot in the desert. It’s only about a mile round trip so anyone can do it, just bring lots of water!
- Metal sculptures in Galleta Meadows: What are they exactly? A large collection of supersize prehistoric and fantastical beasts, all crafted by artist and welder Ricardo Breceda. Probably one of the quirkiest roadside attractions we’ve seen in a while (minus the teeny-tiny Crochet Museum in Joshua Tree!). There’s more than 130 metal sculptures showcased along the highway, so you definitely won’t make it to all of them, but find a few favorites and explore! You can drive right up to most of them so you can even blast the AC between sculptures if need be.
- Go Stargazing: As soon as the sun goes down, you’ll quickly take note of the millions of stars in the sky — it’s simply indescribable! Borrego Springs has some of the darkest, starriest night skies imaginable, and it’s simply stunning. I thought we had seen a lot of stars in Kauai, San Blas, and even Death Valley, but nothing prepared me for what we’d see here! Backyard stargazing parties happen almost every night, and why shouldn’t they?!
- While you can absolutely just look up, we booked a night sky tour so we could learn more about astronomy and look through a telescope! Our guide taught us everything we needed to know and then some, and pointed out constellations, planets, and even other galaxies (which we saw with our own eyes through the telescope). Kinda insane if you ask me!
- Hang at the pool: I won’t lie — we spent a lot of our time in Borrego Springs at the pool. And it was absolutely glorious. Usually I absolutely hate this, but considering we had just had a busy few days in Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and Salvation Mountain, we loved this extra time to just relax and take it easy!
- Borrego Palm Canyon Trail: Looking to stretch your legs one morning and the thought of a 3 mile round trip (flat!) hike to a palm tree oasis gets you excited? Hike the Borrego Palm Canyon trail — it’s one of the most popular things to do in Borrego Springs! The Borrego Palm Canyon trail is a self-guided nature trail that passes a whole bunch of desert-y stuff: think cholla cacti (like we saw in Joshua Tree!), desert lavender bushes, catclaw, honey mesquite, and ocotillo plants. You’ll have a fun time identifying all the desert plants!
Where to Stay on Nights 6-7: If you’re planning to visit in the steamy summer months (not recommended — it’s too hot to enjoy the outdoors), plan far ahead as some hotels close when the temps get too hot. And definitely opt for a hotel with a pool, regardless of when you visit!
I recommend the Borrego Valley Inn as my first choice of where to stay — adults only, in-room fireplaces, multiple pools and hot tubs; the ultimate chic desert hide-a-way. Other top spots include La Casa del Zorro Resort & Spa (cosy rooms and casitas) and Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort (the entire hotel is styled like an old western movie)!
How to Extend This SoCal Desert Road Trip
Have a few extra days?! You could either spend some extra time in Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, or Borrego Springs, or you could fill your days to the max and explore another part of California! My two top picks (that make sense from over here) → Death Valley and San Diego!
PRE-TRIP ADD-ON: Death Valley
If you wanna make this a true road trip through the SoCal desert, don’t leave off Death Valley! It’s one of my favorite national parks in California! I recommend flying into Vegas and starting your road trip there. You’ll drive the 2 hours to Death Valley, and actually begin this road trip over there! Think of it as a pre-trip extra add-on!
Here’s my ultimate 2-day Death Valley itinerary, full of possibly everything you need to know.
→ Psst: I don’t recommend driving to Death Valley round trip from Palm Springs. It’s just too far of a drive (it’s about 4 ½ hours one way). Heading there from Vegas is the much better option. You’ll wanna book a one way flight to Vegas for the start of your trip, then another from where you end up.
Skip Death Valley in the summer. Like the rest of the stops on this road trip, it’s sweltering hot. I mean, it’s the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the USA afterall. It’s also one of the hottest places on Earth (it gets to a blistering 120°F in the summer). And this heat is no joke — it’s called Death Valley for a reason!
Top sites to see in Death Valley:
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: OMG this was SO. MUCH. FUN. And by far one of my favorite things we did in the park. Expect sculpted sand dunes as far as the eye can see. Long-curving shadows. And mountains on the horizon. Now this is what I’m talking about. We spent all morning climbing up and running down the dunes!
- Badwater Basin Salt Flats: Imagine walking out to a bed of geometric-shaped salt flats as far as the eye can see. Yup, that’s Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level! It kinda reminded me of the Bonneville Salt Flats which we saw on our cross country road trip from NYC to San Francisco.
- Dante’s View: Drive up the windy, curvy roads to Dante’s View, and you’ll be greeted with views of Badwater Basin, Telescope Peak, and even Mos Eisley (in a famous Star Wars scene). The 360° views in every direction are absolutely spectacular. It gets chilly up here, so bring some layers!
- Zabriskie Point: Gazing down at the Martian-like moonscape below you will make you feel like you’re on a different planet, easily. A few hiking trails start here (one that goes all the way to Golden Canyon!), but we just walked around the viewpoint and took (loads of) photos. Come for sunset — the colors on the badlands are utterly fantastic.
- Artists Drive and Artists Palette: Looking for those natural pastel colored canyons (everything from blue and purple and green)?! That’s over here at Artists Palette! A geologist’s true paradise with it’s multi-colored mineral rocks and canyons!
- Go for a hike: We loved both Golden Canyon (with its towering golden walls) and Mosaic Canyon (with narrow canyon slots and polished marbleized rock). Remember to take lots of water when hiking, no matter the time of year.
POST-TRIP ADD-ON: San Diego
Did someone say tacos? Get outta the barren desert and head to sunny San Diego (it’s less than 2 hours from Borrego Springs). While it’s not technically part of the California desert, who can say no to an idyllic climate, pristine beaches, and stunning Spanish-style architecture?! You can easily spend a week here and never get bored, if it’s your first time to the city, I think 3 days will suffice!
Here’s a few of my fave things to do in San Diego:
- Go for a trendy brunch: There’s a whole slew of trendy brunch spots in San Diego, but my two favorites (so far!) are Great Maple and Morning Glory. You’ll need to get there early if you don’t wanna wait forever, but I promise you the decor and food is worth it!
- Wander Balboa Park: Like Central Park in NYC and Golden Gate Park in SF, Balboa Park in San Diego can’t be missed! It’s huge and there’s oh so much to do, but don’t miss the Spanish Village Art Center (with its colorful rainbow painted floors), The Museum of Us (or just admire the stunning intricate architecture), and the Botanical Garden and lily pond in front. You could easily spend all day exploring!
- Watch the Seals in La Jolla: Seals hang out in La Jolla almost year round, and you’ll probably hear them before you see them! Hang out by the Children’s Pool and La Jolla Cove, then grab some caffeine at Better Buzz in town nearby.
- Go Mural Hunting: There’s tons of colorful art in San Diego just perfect for your IG feed. Some of my favorites are: Greetings From San Diego, the pink ombre wall at Pigment, and the flowers outside Native Poppy.
- Spend a night eating in Little Italy: Three words — cheese wheel pasta. Whenever I’m down in SD, I NEED a meal at Monello. It’s literally one of my favorite Italian meals in California. The pasta’s homemade and the ambiance is amazing.
- Stuff your face with tacos: You can’t not try all the taco spots in San Diego. Some favorites: Oscar’s Mexican seafood (always a long line for a reason), Lucha Libre (not the best tacos of all time, but such a fun spot), and Puesto La Jolla (make a reservation!).
- Carlsbad Flower Fields: If you’re happening to be doing this SoCal desert road trip from March to May (the best time to do it!), why not head to the Carlsbad Flower Fields? I had this on my California bucket list for years (YEARS!), and was more-than-thrilled when I finally got to spend a day there!
So there ya have it, our complete Palm Springs to Borrego Springs road trip itinerary! Which part of the California deserts are you most excited to check out?!