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Desert Delights on a Weekend Road Trip

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Take a tour through Southern California’s sun-drenched vistas

A baby giraffe and parent at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert.

Story and Photos by Colette Mauzeralle

Many blaze through life, moving from point A to point B, at rocket speed. Yet sometimes it’s best to take the long way around, and what better opportunity to meander through your days than a road trip through Southern California’s desert
I did just that on a recent weekend getaway to Palm Desert. Despite temperatures of nearly 110 degrees (and a need to keep the car stocked with cold drinks), I survived to tell the tale, and now hope to shed the sunlight on how anyone can make the most of a weekend spent wandering the “lost” roads of San Diego, Riverside, and Imperial counties.
Beginning in San Diego, head north on Interstate 15 to Escondido. Here you have two choices: continue on to Temecula, where you can grab State Route 79 east, or depart onto State Route 78 east and wind your way through rugged hills to the barely-there town of Santa Ysabel. I chose the latter.  Upon reaching Santa Ysabel, pull into the general store for a much-needed ice cream sandwich, or stop into the teensy town’s Julian Pie Co. for a slice of your favorite flavor pie. This is a must.
Depart Santa Ysabel via State Route 79 headed north and everything suddenly seems to become more arid. Take in views of endless sun-drenched fields grown high with yellow grasses, only broken by a spindly tree or group of boulders. Your passage through Warner Springs —a popular area for the uncommon sport of sailplaning — lets you know you’re roughly halfway to your next turn off, which will be State Route 371 headed east.
State Route 371 takes you directly into Palm Desert after a mind-clearing drive through rocky deserts and a twisted climb over the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountain ranges. It’s best to take your time when descending down the other side of the mountains, for two reasons: first and foremost, no one wants to plunge over the ledge of this curving route, and second, you won’t want to miss the single turn-out spot on the right hand side of the road.  Here, a small parking lot provides a bird’s-eye view of the winding landscape, and this makes for a photo op that no one should deny.
Pulling into Palm Desert, one can find any range of accomodations, from high-end golf resorts (save your money if you’re planning to stay at one of these) to the trusty chain hotels lining Highway 111. If possible, request a room with a balcony, to sit and enjoy something cold during the warm and surprisingly still desert evenings. I’d also bet money that your hotel of choice will have an outdoor pool, and this will be a perfect place for late night swimming under all those newly-discovered desert stars.
Daytime activities in and around Palm Desert are plenty. Take in a round of golf, which the area is so well known for, at the popular Desert Willow Golf Resort, or swing a tennis raquet at the nationally recognized Desert Spring JW Marriott Resort & Spa. The less athletic bunch can fulfill their shopping fantasies at the hundreds of shops packed into the Cabazon Premium Outlets, El Paseo Street, and the indoor Westfield Palm Desert Mall.  Visitors of all ages will enjoy the impressively laid out Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, and a nice spot to have a family picnic lunch is the Civic Center Park, where a large fountain-laden pond boasts tons of turtles that have no problem swimming right up to the water’s edge.
While Palm Desert and the rest of Coachella Valley have plenty more worth mentioning when it comes to activities, art and culture, the unique experiences need not end once leaving the city. Head south on State Route 86 and cruise alongside the Salton Sea, which rests 226 feet below sea level.  Now get yourself ready for a ghost town experience! Pull into Salton Sea Beach (it’s actually a town) and you’ll notice abandoned buildings lining every street. The seemingly abandoned gas station here lists faded gas prices that haven’t been around in decades, and pigeons fly through hollowed out, delapidated buildings. It’s eery, to say the least.
Pull up to the water’s edge at the Salton Sea Marina and leave your car wherever you please, because there is certainly a lack of any designated lot.  The beach here is not sand nor dirt, but instead a composition of tiny shells.  Dozens of unfortunate fish, tossed on shore and left to bake in the elements, are now sundried skeletons of what used to be. An indescribable stillness — like that of an apocalyptic movie — takes hold, and one now expects movie-like hoards of zombies to pop out at any moment from the abandoned buildings that the pigeons fly through so freely, their soft coos echoing quietly against empty concrete walls.
After driving south for about 35 miles, having had your fill of the Salton Sea and the ghost towns that dot its shores, it’s time to head back to San Diego.  State Route 78, winding westward through the renowned Anza Borrego State Park, is the preferred way to go. Your other option, which goes highly unrecommended, is to keep driving south until reaching Interstate 8, but this only leads to a drive so flat and sightless you wouldn’t wish it upon the worst of enemies (or perhaps…).  Heed my advice: stick to State Route 78.
Anza Borrego State Park is a sight to be seen. Come late winter, the ground gives way to a range of vibrant desert wildflowers that have helped to make it a popular destination, yet any time of year will surely catch the eye, and it’s all because of the uniquely rugged terrain.  The adventurous sort may want to take a side trip down unpaved desert roads to reach destinations like Font’s Point, a popular lookout point that provides sweeping panoramas of this unusual topography. This is not a place for comfort and pampering, so wear appropriate clothing and strong sunscreen, and be sure to stock up on food, water and a first-aid kit before you arrive.  It’s a beauty, but it’s still a desert.
Still seeking out an itinerary for next weekend?  Consider taking this effortless loop to Coachella Valley and back, catching the varied sights of the countryside, the attractions of Palm Desert, ghost towns by the “sea” and a stunning desert landscape. The total driving time of this completely feasible trip? Just under six and a half hours, making it the perfect weekend getaway for anyone seeking a beautiful break from the busy city. Take it from one who has been there: your camera will thank you.

Colette Mauzeralle is a native of Seattle, now residing in San Diego. When not traveling, she enjoys playing piano, horseback riding and studying foreign languages. Though her day job involves working in the field of public relations, she enjoys writing about her travels and other experiences on a frequent basis.

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