California Desert

Sand dunes in Death Valley National Park

The California Desert is composed of California's entire southeast corner and offers excellent opportunities for hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.


Map of Desert (California)
  Imperial County
Located in the state's southeast corner, this primarily agricultural county features extreme summer temperatures and below sea-level elevations. The Salton Sea dominates the region, and this massive alkaline lake is worth visiting for the ghost towns, wildlife refuge, and oddball characters that now populate its shores.
  Inyo County
Inyo County is a land of extremes, covering a massive 10,000 sq mi (26,000 km2) expanse of the Eastern Sierra and California Desert. Inyo County is home to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower-48 states, as well as Death Valley National Park, the largest national park in the lower-48 states and host to earth's hottest temperatures and the continent's lowest elevation. In addition, ancient bristlecone pine trees can be found within the White Mountains, the oldest of which is estimated to be around 5,000 years old.
  Kern County
Kern County extends across a number of geographic regions: the western portion is in the San Joaquin Valley, the northeastern portion is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the southeastern part is in the desert. Visitors to the county are most likely to be heading to Bakersfield, one of California's largest cities, or traveling along Interstate 5 past oil fields and agricultural areas.
  Riverside County
The western portions of this county include the far outskirts of Los Angeles, as well as more rural areas like Temecula, known for its wineries and hot air balloons. The majority of the county lies in the desert, with the most-visited portion being Palm Springs and its neighboring resort towns. Further east the county is essentially uninhabited, and includes the remote, rocky desert of Joshua Tree National Park, and the empty landscapes west of the Colorado River.
  San Bernardino County
Massive San Bernardino County covers 20,000 mi (32,000 km) of the California Desert, an area larger than nine of the US states. The Mojave National Preserve is a centerpiece of the region, spanning portions of the Mojave, Great Basin, and Sonoran deserts. Fans of Americana will enjoy cruising historic Route 66, which bisects the county across its southern half and includes the ghost town of Amboy. The western side of the county spans both the outskirts of Los Angeles and the San Bernardino mountains, including popular destinations such as Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead.


  • 1 Baker. Baker is the only significant town on I-15 in the remote desert stretch between Barstow and the Nevada border and, as a result, is frequented by travelers on their way to Las Vegas. It offers food, fuel and lodging, is home to the world's tallest thermometer, and is the starting point for those journeying north to Death Valley.
  • 2 Barstow. Barstow is a city that lies at the junction of I-15 and I-40, with the former Route 66 also passing through town. It offers visitors several historic and natural attractions ranging from the 200,000 year old Calico early man site to the Western America Railroad museum.
  • 3 Bombay Beach. A small town on the east shore of the Salton Sea.
  • 4 Indio
  • 5 Palm Desert
  • 6 Palm Springs. A desert resort oasis that serves as a vacation getaway to guests from around the world and a playground for Los Angeles and other Southern Californians.
  • 7 Twentynine Palms. A small town north of Joshua Tree National Park that caters to park visitors.
  • 8 El Centro , county seat of Imperial County
  • 9 Calexico

Other destinations

  • 1 Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
  • 2 Death Valley National Park – Mother Earth in the raw
  • 3 Joshua Tree National Park – Many well developed campsites and great rock climbing
  • 4 Mojave Desert
  • 5 Mojave National Preserve – 1.6 million acres (6.474.970 hectares) of mountains, jumble rocks, desert washes, and dry lakes
  • 6 Salton Sea – California's largest lake formed when an irrigation canal burst in 1905 and flooded the Salton Basin for more than a year. This unusual area is home to geothermal features, a wildlife refuge, the partially built resort community of Salton City, and the "profoundly strange" artwork of Salvation Mountain in the squatter town of Slab City.


Barker dam in Joshua Tree National Park

For many travelers the California desert is merely experienced on the other side of their car windows on their way to more popular destinations. However, for the adventurous few that take an exit and their supplies, the rewards are unforgettable.

Many extremely exotic forms of wildlife and plant life can be found in any desert. Many cacti will not grow anywhere else except for a desert, and as such, the desert is an ideal destination for seeing these plants. Many species of unique birds (certain owls and others) and arachnids (Tarantulas, scorpions, mites) call this place home. There are also, strangely, reptiles and amphibians, which usually require water to survive.

Some deserts also feature natural rock formations and sand dunes, both of which are quite beautiful. However, reaching them can be an issue if you're not properly equipped.

Get in


By plane


The Ontario (ONT IATA) and Palm Spring (PSP IATA) airports have a good variety of short-haul flights as well as a limited number of long-distance options (usually with connections through other cities en-route). There are additional flights from a greater number of places in and outside the U.S. with a wider range of airlines to Los Angeles International airport (LAX IATA) and Las Vegas Harry Reid International Airport (LAS IATA) which might be more convenient at a more competitive fare.

By train


Amtrak operates trains through the California deserts from Los Angeles. The following routes stop in the desert regions on their way into and out of the Los Angeles Union Station.

MetroLink operates as a commuter train linking the cities such as Riverside, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino to Orange County and Los Angeles.

By car


The whole area is served by excellent though frequently congested roads in urban areas and empty roads in remote areas. Getting in by car is the preferred way to get in and around the remote desert regions. See the "Stay Safe" section in the below on preparing, driving through and staying safe in remote areas of the desert.

Get around


Regular bus service to and between major cities including Barstow, Indio and Palm Springs is available through the Greyhound bus service.

However, the full glory of this region is very difficult to access without a vehicle. Many of the parks in the region have paved roads and developed campsites. However the complete experience can not be had without a bit of exploration on the dirt roads and an inspiring piece of dirt to set up camp – see California desert camping. Believe it or not, even a compact car will survive valiantly on many of the well graded roads in the region although a high clearance vehicle is recommended for full access.

Stay safe

See also Arid region safety

The desert can be a brutal and unforgiving place. Even if you're planning to just pass through, you should be prepared to be fully self-reliant and follow these minimum guidelines. Additional safety guidelines should be adhered to if you are planning to go camping.

  • Hydration
    • Drink even when you do not feel thirsty.
    • When hiking, carry a gallon of water for each day plus extra in case of an emergency.
    • Store extra water in your car.
    • Carry water even if you are only planning to explore a short distance from your car.
  • Dress for Success
    • Wear a hat with a wide brim (a cowboy hat or sombrero would be a good idea) and light-colored, lightweight clothes.
    • Pack warm, wind-proof clothes in case the wind picks up or the weather cools.
    • Wear sunglasses and good sunscreen. Bring enough sunscreen to reapply every two hours, all day, every day. If you aren't using up a substantial volume of sunscreen every day, you aren't getting full protection.
  • Carry a Flare & a Spare
    • Ensure that your car is in good working order – service stations are few and far between.
    • Carry a spare tire, a jack, and some flares.
    • 'Fix-a-Flat' can be a lifesaver along with jumper cables.
    • Do not leave your car unless you are certain that help is close by.
  • Watch for Flash Floods
    • It may seem ironic, but rain in the desert can be a real danger. Many roads in the desert southwest cross dry washes that can turn into raging torrents from rain falling over a mountain range 50 mi (80 km) away. These flash floods can easily carry away you or your vehicle. If you see a sign that says "Do not cross when flooded", obey it! Flash flooding usually occurs during afternoon "monsoon" events from July through October.
  • Misc.
    • Gas: when the sign says "Next gas 50 mi (80 km)," you'd better know you've got enough to make it before you pass the pumps! Never go lower than a quarter tank. You could also keep a completely full tank and carry some extra gasoline in a portable container.
    • First Aid Kit: Always carry a first aid kit that includes tweezers, antiseptic ointment or spray, band-aids, and aloe vera in case you meet any desert wildlife (snakes, spiders, bees, cacti) or get sunburned.
  • Remember: A desert area that is infrequently visited by people will have more wildlife in it; always stay on the trail and in areas designated for human use.

Go next

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