In 1 day, you can start in San Diego or LA and see Julian, Anza Borrego, Font’s Point, Salton Sea, Painted Canyon, Bombay Beach, and finally Salvation Moutain, Slab City and East Jesus. Yes, in 1 day! Throw in a second day and you can see Joshua Tree, ending with the sunset at Keys View. Here’s how.
Whether you’re starting in San Diego or LA, you’re going to drive to the pretty mountain town of Julian first. Drive through the pine-oak forests and narrow, winding roads. Grab some Apple Pie at Julian, elevation 4235 feet, refill your canteens and hit the road! Oh, and if it’s winter, you might even see snow in Julian!
Take highway 78 east out of Julian. You’re in for a treat. The road winds down sharp curves with gorgeous views to the Anza-Borrego desert. Turn left on to S3 to Borrego Springs. If you have time, the Palm Canyon hike at Borrego Springs is a fun hike. You can even camp here! Get info at the Anza-Borrego park visitor center. Otherwise, take S22 east. The road curves northwards, then curves eastwards again. After it curves eastwards, go about 4 miles, and you’ll see a sign for “Font’s Point” on your right. Keep an eye out, because the sign isn’t easy to spot. All you’re looking for is a sandy road that seemingly goes to nowhere. Take the road! After about 4 miles of driving on sand, the road will abruptly end at a cliff. You clamber out of your car, run to the cliff, and gasp! For this is your vista. Be careful while driving through sand. A steady foot on the accelerator is useful. Drive back to S22. Head east. Now, before we move on, there’s a pretty cool slot canyon down the road. There’s a parking lot next to an emergency phone pole, and across from it is a ramp that goes down to the slot canyon. Ask the Anza-Borrego visitor centre for exact directions. A friend and I hiked the slot canyon, then climbed out at the end, and hiked up the badlands to see this gorgeous vista.
Yes, there an entire ‘sea’ in the state of California. I was rather peeved when no one told me of its existence. Descend down the bandlands, down the winding S22, to the great “Salton Sea”. The Salton Sea was formed when the Colorado river flooded. Now, its claim to fame is the rotting skeletons of millions of tilapia that line its banks. It’s an oddly trippy place.
Head straight up Route 86 to Mecca. At Mecca, go down 66th avenue and turn left onto the dirt road with the useful name “Painted Canyon Road”. Follow it to the parking lot. Congratulations! You’re at Painted Canyon! I always take the canyon’s right fork and hike a bit past the point where they have the ladders. The Anza-Borrego visitor center can give you more information if you ask ’em. The canyon is pretty cool and it does feel like a legit canyon. The rock colours are fantastic. I like it.
Bombay Beach is this abandoned community on the shores of the Salton sea. Head down Route 111, and turn off for Bombay Beach. Wander around, gawk at abandoned houses and graffiti, and just think about how random this is. You’re seeing a portion of California that’s a far cry from LA, the beaches, and Hollywood. Yet Bombay Beach is California. Walk to the Salton Sea’s edge and gaze out at the mountains across. Perhaps the Sun is going down now, transforming the sea and mountains into a trippy, otherwordly mirage as tilapia bones crackle underneath your feet. Hah.
Salvation Mountain!! This is your journey’s conclusion. You, weary traveler, have sojourned across southern California to complete your pilgrimage here. At Slab City, under the psychedelic aura of Salvation Mountain. Head south down Route 111 and turn off at Niland. Salvation Mountain rises, unmistakable. It could only be born of the desert Southwest and of California. A chimera brought by clairvoyance from the world of spirits. Walk around and drink it in!
Slab City & East Jesus
You’re not done! No roadtrip of Southern California is complete without Slab City. An anarchist, organic, chaotic commune with no rules out in the desert. You will spot the Confederate flag to your left as you enter. Drive around and check it out. Then, ask for directions to the East Jesus sculpture garden. You simply need to take road that curves left and loop around. The sculpture garden is sweetly trippy. Aah! Now you have been consecrated by California’s desert aether. Bathe in it and rejoice.
This is the point when you either drive back or spend another day to check out Joshua Tree. Drive north and enter from the Cottonwood gate. The Cottonwood campground is a some miles from the gate. The next day, hike to the top of Mastodon peak. It’s a bit of the scramble but the sunrise is worth it. Marvel at the stark, desolate landscape. Then climb down, drive along the park road and generally take in Joshua Tree. The cactus garden and Barker dam are fun to check out. For a more serious hike, try Ryan Mountain. Now! For sunset, head to Keys View. The vista is fantastic. When the air is clear, as in winter, you can see till Mexico! Looks for the faint smudge of Signal Mountain (supposedly) on the horizon in Mexico (supposedly). The Salton Sea glimmers mirror-like while Coachella Valley lies before you framed by the backdrop of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. The two highest mountains in Southern California, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto, lie to the northwest. A great sunset! Time to bid the Joshua trees goodbye and make your way back to LA or SD as it happens.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Think of this as your ‘bonus’. The aerial tramway goes to 8000ish feet up the side of Mt. San Jacinto. You can hike the remaining ~2000ish feet to the top to grab your fantastic view of – well – everything. I’ve never taken the tramway because I just hiked all the way to the top. But if you’re too cool to hike, take it and grab yer view!