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Unleash your inner free spirit on your way to the Salton Sea

Explore oases of folk art and outsider inspiration along the way!

Since the dawn of time, people have retreated to the desert to find themselves. If you’re looking to get back in touch with your inner free spirit, take a journey into the mystical Mojave. A bastion of nonconformist inspiration and stunning scenery, the deserts around Palm Springs and the Salton Sea are some of the strangest anywhere. Explore giant dinosaurs and UFO hotspots, folk art meccas and forests of gnarled Joshua trees… and by the time you arrive back home, you’ll be feeling the positive, uplifting energy of the desert for yourself.

Aerial view of the Venice Beach Boardwalk. | Photo: TierneyMJ / Shutterstock

1. Venice Beach Boardwalk

Kick off your road trip adventure down the beautiful lost coast of California with an unforgettable stop at MacKerricher State Park. Home to incredible views, a wide range of hiking trails, plenty of spots to camp, and some pretty darn cute gray whales and harbor seals, this state park has a little something for everyone. Take a stroll down the boardwalk, check out the handful of tidepools to see what strange and unique marine life may be hiding inside, or enjoy a nice, afternoon-long picnic. The first of seven incredible stops on your journey up the coast, the good times and memories are just getting started. Did we mention that it’s free?

Outside of Idle Hour bar. | Photo: Idle Hour

2. Idle Hour

Remember back in the day, when it was really cool to put your restaurant or shop in a building that was shaped like something else? You know, back in the 1930s? No? Just me? Well, either way, Idle Hour in North Hollywood was built during the craze (“programmatic architecture” served as advertising back in the early days of road trips and roadside kitsch) in 1941. It was a taproom in the shape of a barrel (you know, ’cause beer). In the early 1970s, it was sold, and had a short-lived stint as a flamenco bar before closing in 1983. It sat abandoned, its fate in jeopardy, until 2010, when the hard work of dedicated locals got it listed as an LA historic cultural monument. Today, it’s back to operating as a bar, specializing in craft cocktails, beer, bar bites, and brunch. We suggest a friendly round of rock-paper-scissors to decide who will be the designated driver before visiting this stop!

Historic site of the original McDonalds. | Photo: First Original McDonald’s Museum

3. First Original Mcdonald’s Museum

Whether or not you’ve got the Big Mac jingle memorized, or ever had a crush on Mayor McCheese, or just happen to be craving a Quarter Pounder and some perfectly crispy French fries, the First Original McDonald’s Museum is an essential road trip stop. Before Ray Kroc became The Founder, he was a milkshake machine salesman who stumbled upon a burger stand run by the McDonald brothers. They were the ones who invented fast food as we know it, turning their drive-in barbecue restaurant into a burger stand centered around speed, low prices, and efficiency. Kroc convinced them to franchise out, and the rest is history. While some people consider Kroc’s Des Plaines, IL, restaurant to be the first, this is the original. Today, it’s run by the owner of the Juan Pollo chicken restaurant as a museum, dedicated to some of the kitschiest McDonald’s memorabilia ever made. It’s fascinating to see how McDonald’s went from local hangout to the most famous restaurant in the world!

The famous Cabazon Dinosaurs in Palm Springs, California. | Photo: CityMorgue / Creative Commons

4. Cabazon Dinosaurs

Standing guard over the desert outside Palm Springs are the famous Cabazon Dinosaurs. The two massive beasts were built in the 1960s to attract tourists to a restaurant. Sadly, the restaurant closed, but Ms. Dinny (the Apatosaurus) and Mr. Rex (the T-Rex) remain. Dinny once had a fully-functioning gift shop inside her belly, and Rex used to have a slide running down his tail, but unfortunately, these features are no longer used. The dinos’ fame was solidified after they were featured in the cult hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure– it’s where Pee Wee meets Simone, and the two watch the sun rise from inside Mr. Rex’s mouth (visitors can actually go inside Rex’s mouth!). The dinos were also featured in the music video for the Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”… and none of that is taking into account the numerous travelers who took in the attraction, especially as kids.

Enjoy delicious barbecue at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. | Photo: Creative Commons

5. Pappy and Harriet’s Palace

Pappy and Harriet’s looks like it was ripped from the film of a classic Hollywood Western… probably because it’s an old movie set. It’s been turned into a honky-tonk-style drinkery with a great crowd, live music, a menu of Tex Mex and BBQ dishes (and, since this is California, you can find kale salads offered as well) for lunch and dinner, and loads of Wild West personality. Shoot some pool, dance to the music, and enjoy yourself!

The world’s largest free-standing boulder. | Photo: Harmony Gerber / Flickr

6. Giant Rock

Okay, okay, so a really big rock might not seem like a must-visit road trip stop, but there are a few reasons why you should check out this giant rock in the middle of the Mojave Desert. For starters, it’s the world’s largest free-standing boulder, at a massive 7 stories tall. Secondly, it’s a UFO hotspot. It was once located on the property of purported UFO abductee George Van Tassel, who organized UFO conventions around the boulder. He also built the legendary Integratron (which he said he constructed following telepathic instructions from alien life forms… but that’s a whole other story).

Superbloom at Joshua Tree National Park. | Photo: Sanna Boman

7. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is proof that there’s life aplenty in the desert. For starters, there are cacti, and then there are gnarled Joshua trees for which the park is named. They aren’t actually trees… they’re giant yuccas. Mormon pioneers fantasized that their branches were pointing the way to the Promised Land like the Biblical Joshua. Hike to Fortynine Palms Oasis, the Wall Street Mill, or Skull Rock; take a ranger-led tour of Keys Desert Queen Ranch; or make the drive up to Keys Point. There are also some really great campgrounds in Joshua Tree, in case you’re the kind to spend a night beneath the stars.

Salton Sea, once a thriving resort community, is now a ghost town. | Photo: Zack Frank / Shutterstock

8. Salton Sea State Recreation Area

The abandoned Salton Riviera was once a thriving resort community, just a few miles outside of Los Angeles. The ambitious development included 25,000 residential lots and over 250 miles of paved roads (along with electrical power, water and sewage). Today it’s a ghost town. And for that reason, it’s worth a visit… even though it smells kiiiiinda bad. The Salton Sea is a saline, inland lake (with no drainage to the ocean) that in the 1950s was developed into a resort called Bombay Bay, which was popular with Hollywood’s glitterati. It remained a popular destination through the 1970s, but by the 1980s, the lake became so polluted that the fish in it started dying… hence the smell. Today, it’s pretty much abandoned, and a visit to the ghostly remains of the mid-century vacation spot is a pretty wild experience.

Folk art on display at Salvation Mountain. | Photo: Kevin Key / Shutterstock

9. Salvation Mountain

As far as folk art goes, Salvation Mountain is probably one of the most iconic sites. It’s a hill made of adobe and straw, painted in a rainbow of positive messages. The visionary behind it, Leonard Knight, actually had to build two mountains, as the first collapsed. His determination to spread his message that God is love was unfazed, and the site has become somewhat of a pilgrimage destination. People come to Salvation Mountain for reflection, and often leave tokens or mementos behind. You may recognize it from the film adaptation of Into The Wild or from one of countless music videos.

Massive mythical-looking beast in Galleta Meadows. | Photo: Flickr

10. Galleta Meadows Estate

Tucked away throughout the desert town of Borrego Springs are massive sculptures of mythical-looking beasts. I say “mythical-looking” because they’re actually based on creatures whose fossils were found in this area. The story of how the sculptures came to be is almost as interesting as the pieces themselves. Artist/welder Ricardo Breceda had created a folk art site he called “Perris Jurassic Park,” inspired by his daughter who, as a child, asked for a dinosaur for Christmas the year she first saw Jurassic Park III. One of the many curious tourists who stopped by was a man named Dennis Avery. Avery was the heir to the Avery label fortune, and he was deeply interested in ancient extinct animals, so Breceda’s dinosaurs were of great interest to him. He eventually hired Breceda to craft sculptures of animals, plants, and even famous historical figures from the Anza Borrego desert. There are a total of 130 across town. Swing by the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association bookstore and grab a map, then set off to find as many of the metal giants as you can.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is home to wildflower superblooms in the spring. | Photo: Sanna Boman

11. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Giant metal sculptures aren’t the only gems to discover in the desert. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is home to petroglyphs, wildflower superblooms in the spring, and some of the best camping in the country, featuring stellar stargazing (the park was recently named a Dark Sky Reserve). Hit up the Carrizo Badlands Overlook for fossils, or Mountain Palm Springs to see intriguing desert plant life. Check out the visitor center that outlines the gold rush and Native American history here, and spend the night at the Palm Canyon Campground. Before you set out on any hikes, remember that it can get dangerously hot here! Bring lots of water and plan to explore in the morning or evening.

With the unusual landscapes, mystical art, and one-of-a-kind attractions along the way, it’s hard not to come back from this adventure totally inspired. Whether you spy a UFO, or glimpse the Milky Way while camping, or have a moment at Salvation Mountain, or find a cool abandoned spot on the Salton Sea, there are many life-changing experiences you can have exploring the desert.

Click below to take this trip!