Alta California Guide: The Deserts
The good life endures in the remote desert, despite some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded.
Death Valley sand dunes provide a picturesque backdrop to the largest national park in the contiguous United States, old western towns play up their cowboy roots with rodeos, and ATV riders mix with artist colonies far from the glitz and glitter of Palm Springs. The desert has always been an oasis for off-the-grid types to carve out a solitary life, living close to places and communities seen only by those willing to travel the sandy back roads.
Despite its foreboding name, Death Valley National Park is a place of surprising life and abundance. The centrally located Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are a prime example of the area’s rich beauty and semi-hidden wonders, an easily reachable landscape of wind-whipped berms and small plants. The dunes are more than just an Instagram photo waiting to happen—they’re a living testament to the constant movement of this not-so-desolate place.
Appearances can be deceiving: this unincorporated community that edges up against Mojave National Preserve isn’t quite a ghost town. The retro gas station, café, and motel that hugs historic Route 66 will be familiar to any passerby as a frequent, period-perfect location for commercials and movies. The café and motel are closed and undergoing renovation, but the iconic neon sign for Roy’s still lights up the evening sky, if only as a beacon for tourists en route to the 25,000-square-mile preserve beyond.
Joshua Tree is among the most-visited parks anywhere in California. If you’re looking for something less logjammed, the little-known Mecca Hills Wilderness, to the south, deserves attention. The protected land is (surprisingly) open for free public use, making it a legal base for car campers, ATV riders, and rock climbers heading into Joshua Tree via the southern entrance. Hikers will love the many gray, sandy washes and warrens of tall slot canyons.
The dusty main drag here shows off its old roots as a Hollywood film set, complete with low-slung clapboard buildings, an aging bowling alley, and lots of saloon-style doors. The sandy strip hosts weekend craft fairs and live music festivals, while the recently reopened Red Dog Saloon offers a menu of cold drinks and tasty tacos to anyone who wanders in. Step back into a functioning part of the old American West, right down to the cowboys with their lassos.
Sandwiched between Death Valley and the Nevada state line, the Amargosa is a haunting, almost timeless reminder of what’s possible in the open expanse of the California desert. On weekends, a volunteer-run café serves daytime fare and strong coffee, but the real attraction is the opera house, which still provides a home for touring shows six months out of the year. The late ballerina Marta Becket, who ran the opera house for five decades, painted its magnificent interior murals.
What would drive a person to hand-carve a nearly 2,000-foot-long tunnel out of thick stone in the middle of the desert? That’s a question for William “Burro” Schmidt, though sadly the enigmatic homesteader is no longer around to answer for himself. All that’s left is his remote tunnel north of the town of Mojave, some seven miles down a haggard dirt road off Highway 14, ready for exploring by anyone with a headlamp, a sense of adventure, and the grit to make the sketchy drive. The tunnel does end in a pretty spectacular desert vista, but it’s the journey to the view that’s worth the retelling. •