California – Joshua Tree and Palm Springs

I’d had the supreme fortune of creating a ‘free’ five-day weekend for myself by working alternating weekend shifts, as well as picking up a bonus birthday holiday. I say ‘free’, because I didn’t have to use any of my precious vacation days. I struggled a little with what to do with those five precious days off. The initial thought was to head to NY, but early December didn’t seem like the most ideal time to visit the city. Eventually, through a process of elimination (and laziness to travel far) I ended up with a plan to fly to LA, and rent a car for a side trip out to Joshua Tree and Palm Springs.

They say it never rains in LA. Well, it certainly rained pretty hard when I arrived, so much so that the streets were torrents of brown frothing rapids. After a ridiculous pancake breakfast in LA, and tactically avoiding the morning rush congestion, I was in my rental Kia heading east. I’m not sure if it was the continuing rains obscuring the scenery beyond the same repeated chain stores, or the wide flat roads, or just the sugar crash from my excessive breakfast, but I was struggling to keep my eyes open.

This all changed once I started leaving the crossing into the valley where Palm Springs is situated, amazed at the seemingly endless numbers of small wind turbines, all spinning like mad – I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a densely deployed wind farm!

Joshua Tree National Park

Thanks to following the storm front as I drove east, the usually arid desert was now anything but. The heavy rains continued, and I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake with my timing for the visit. By the time I’d made it to the park entrance, and already stopped for a few photos of the bizarre Joshua Trees (which I read as described as something from Doctor Seuss book and am incapable of thinking of them any other way now), the storm front was starting to deviate into another direction.

The park was not quite what I had been expecting. I hadn’t really thought about what to expect, so that was a sure fire way to be not quite what I was expecting. It was mostly what I would consider desert, with patches of dry spindly grass, and of course the aforementioned yucca/Joshua trees. More surprising were the rock formations, which I’d heard have made this park quite a mecca for climbers.

I didn’t come prepared for longer walks, and especially not for any climbing, so my interactions with the park were fairly limited, mostly sticking to the main drive through the park, stopping periodically to check out the views. The views from the drive were beautiful, and constantly changing, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out on too much.

I did take a slight detour out to see Key Views, but with the storms, it wasn’t quite the ‘as far as Mexico’ views that were advertised, but it was nice perspective to see the plains that had formed from the erosion of these mountains.

The other detour that I took was to see Arch Rock, in the White Tank Campground. The area reminded me a lot of Devil’s Marbles in Northern Territory, with a random cluster of granite rocks eroded into smaller, stranger rocks. I wandered, purposely getting lost in the maze of boulders and rock formations. The sun was getting low, so eventually I made a more concerted effort to get to Arch Rock. It’s hard to really appreciate the scale from the photo, but it was smaller than I was expecting – a little bigger than myself.

I continued to follow the main road that traversed through the park, winding through some tighter canyons, before opening up on expansive plains and giant cactus gardens. While the mountains were not huge, they were well beyond what I had expected to see here, so were quite a pleasant surprise, and beautiful rising from the sandy plains.

There was to be no sunset. Before I knew it, the sun and the day’s light had disappeared, and I was left to make my way out of the park in the dark. I had tossed up between glamping in a tent in the mountains, or a cheap hotel in Palm Springs. I would have gone with the tent if the skies had of been clear, but with strong winds and rain/snow on the forecast, the prospect of a hotel with a hot tub won.

Palm Springs

The next morning I woke early, and rather than getting up to try photos for a sunrise, I laid in bed reading the news. By luck, I happened to catch a glimpse of the colour of the skies outside, so raced out to see if I could get a photo of some kind from the hotel – and that was when I finally saw just how big the mountains are here around Palm Springs. I was also happy to have had my warm hotel, as there was a surprisingly large amount of snow, with it stretching a rather large way down the surrounding hills.

I attempted to find a better vantage point, but the beautiful pink hues were long gone – but I was able to see the absurd number of wind turbines out here. It looked even more than what I remembered seeing yesterday.

I’d been recommended a café in Palm Springs for breakfast, so rather than doing my own research, I went to check it out. King’s Highway is an old diner, straight from the glory days of Palm Springs, with a beautiful futuristic-retro roofline that would have fit in perfectly on Jetsons (which I forgot to photograph). Inside it still feels like the kind of place you’d see in old American movies – though, the menu has been updated to modern standards. The recommendation for the date smoothie was also on point. The restaurant was part of the Ace Hotel, which also doesn’t appear to have changed décor since the glory days, and despite the rather chilly temperatures, the pool was packed with beautiful people working on their tans.

It was a strange town to drive through, with wide roads, towering palm trees, mountains looming large, and the buildings from another age. Makes me wish I had a convertible for a rental car.

Pioneer Town

Rather than head straight back to LA (or spend more time driving around Palm Springs), I took a detour out to Pioneer Town. Sure, it might have been a fabricated set to bring in tourists, but today I was fine with that. It is said to resemble a town from the wild west (if towns back then had souvenir shops). It was kitschy, but without any crowds, it was a bit of a laugh.

Again, rather than take the straight highway back to LA, I decided to deviate via Bear Lake – mostly because the roads on the map looked windy, and windy == interesting. I’m so glad that I did take this detour, because some of the roads leading there were mesmerising.

Eventually the road started to climb up into the mountains, and while it was just t-shirt weather on the valley floor, as I started ascending, I started seeing cars descending with a layer of snow of them. The roads started having occasional patches of snow in the shadows, which got thicker, and more consistent as I continued to climb. I then saw two vans that appeared to have hit a patch of snow/ice on the road and were being towed away. My brilliant plan to go explore in a front-wheel drive rental car seemed a little risky right about now.

Thankfully the road remained mostly clear, even though the rest of the area was still under a solid blanket of fresh snow. Judging by the leaves that were still on the trees, this was quite an early snow. I didn’t realise that there was a ski resort here, and for the briefest of moments, I considered hiring some boots/snowboard and going up for some runs – then I remembered I only have jeans, a thin down, no gloves, and no beanie or goggles.

The drive down the other side, back towards LA, was far more concerning than the ascent. There were quite a few sketchy patches on the road, but before long, I was back on the freeway to LA, once again struggling to keep my eyes open.

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  1. Nice trip! California is made for convertibles 🙂
    Front-wheel drives have a tendency to continue in the direction of travel when losing grip which is considered safer than rear-wheel drives where the back tends to swing around. Or so they told me when I took my license here in Sweden.
    If I remember right, this isn’t the first road trip where you came unprepared for the change in climate.. 🙂

    • Thanks! I’ve rented convertibles (Fiat 500, and Mazda MX5) for two little day trips since living here in SF, and it seems perfectly suited for this state – I just wasn’t ready to pony up the extra few hundred dollars for this particular trip. Still need to rent that American muscle car convertible though…

      And you’re right about the steering. Thankfully pretty familiar with the fun of under/oversteer growing up and playing with FWD/RWD turbo cars 😀

      And yes, I’m getting better at considering the weather when going on trips, but still ranks pretty low on my considerations… Like they say, if you’re going to be dumb, you’ve gotta be tough!

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