Coachella Valley Road Trip: Getting Weird in the California Desert
By Allison Fitts & Lillian Robinson
The Coachella Valley (just 2.5 hours from the Escape LA depot) is the perfect place for a road trip, especially in the winter months. Areas that reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer are now close to perfection in the 70s. Earlier this month, we took a weekend trip to Palm Springs, CA to make the trek to Joshua Tree National Park. It’s our 11th National Park and has been on our radar to visit for a long time. Little did we know, the surrounding areas turned out to be the most magical (and weird!) parts of the trip. Here are a couple of stops and things to do that we recommend for a weekend getaway that’s full of nature with a heavy dose of strange!
If you’re road tripping in the Coachella Valley area, it’s a MUST to drive out to Salvation Mountain. A colorful oasis in the desert, this spot created by the late Leonard Knight has been around for decades. Over 16 layers of paint, plaster and other miscellaneous materials comprise a playground of wonder that you can scramble around and take photos on. Stand atop the magnificent structure and soak in the joy of it all! Whether you’re religious or not, this spot is awe-inspiring.
Right near Salvation Mountain is Slab City, a collective of people who live in an artistic haven for part of the year. It is a community unlike any other in most ways, but explore the area and you’ll find some of the hallmarks of a “traditional” community – a community bulletin board, people exchanging goods, social gatherings. It’s worth a drive through to see some of the art installations and interesting signs.
The Salton Sea and its Communities
On your trek to or from Salvation Mountain, stop in at the tiny town of Bombay Beach to walk the shore of the Salton Sea. The views are great, and the story of the sea’s origin is downright fascinating. The Salton Sea is a manmade body of water, created by accident back in 1905. After a brief period of booming tourism success in the 1950s and 1960s, the area became all but abandoned after it was overtaken by pollution, increase salinity and dead fish carcasses.
As you walk on the shores of Bombay Beach and other seaside communities today, you’ll realize that you are crunching those aforementioned fish bones. It also means that the smell of the air in these parts leaves something to be desired. You may be thinking to yourself, wow, they’re reaaaaalllly selling this area. I want to go now *eye roll*… But hear us out–it’s worth it. It is like being on another planet. You can see for miles on end, and it’s crazy to think that just a few decades ago, this area was bustling and full of life.
International Banana Museum
On the way back into Palm Springs, make sure to stop at any of the Salton Sea beachside spots for views of the mountains. Another place you should you stop? The INTERNATIONAL BANANA MUSEUM. This quaint little place holds the world record for most banana memorabilia. As you pull off the highway, it has about as much visual appeal on the exterior as a music festival port-a-potty. Trust us and soldier on–you’ll want to go in and experience this for yourself.
One of the lovely owners is there to greet you and give you the rundown, along with a handful of banana puns that will have you groaning (in a fun way). One of our favorite lines was during their rundown on rules and expectations while in the museum: “We do ask that you go bananas.” There’s a $1 entrance fee, or you can buy something and have the fee waived. We got a scoop of fresh banana ice cream–worth it.
Joshua Tree National Park
We entered from the south entrance–it’s fun to drive through and see the changes in topography between the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. You won’t see any Joshua Trees in the south part of the park, but once you hit them, it’s a sea of trees unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Sure, there are no majestically towering mountains or roaring rivers like at many other national parks, but the landscape is otherworldly.
Rock climbers scale giant rock faces and desert wildlife is abundant. Keep your eyes peeled for turtles, foxes, snakes, and tarantulas (mostly to run away from the last two). Some highlights of the park we recommend checking out are the Cholla Cactus Garden, Skull Rock, and Key View Point. Drive on up to that last one for great views of the Coachella Valley and a peep at the San Andreas Fault line.
Moorten Botanical Garden
This little gem of a cacti garden in Palm Springs costs $5 to enter, but the price is worth it! You’ll find tons of different cacti, thoughtfully organized and labeled, on a cute little path in the ever-present shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains. They also have a selection of the most adorable tiny cacti for $1 so you can create your own little desert oasis back at home. Pro Tip: There’s a fan in the bathroom that sounds like a giant bug. Don’t worry–it’s just the fan. Pee in peace!
Created back in the 60s by theme park artist Claude Bell, these dinosaurs are a super fun stop right off the Main Street exit in Cabazon on I-10. Larger than life and set against the mountain background, you’re almost (allllllmost) taken back in time.