The US Geological Survey says a desert can be hot or cold but is always dry, supporting little vegetation or wildlife. However, deserts are also beautiful, attracting artists, adventurers and tourists seeking new experiences or stress relief. Enjoying the California desert towns and museums or confronting the wilderness starts when you decide which arid adventure to try first.
Joshua Tree National Park
According to the National Parks Service, two desert ecosystems collide a Joshua Tree National Park. The park's 800,000 acres embrace ecologies of both the high and low desert systems: the Mojave and the Colorado. Below 3,000 feet and squarely in the low desert zone you'll find Colorado desert conditions with creosote bushes and cholla cacti. Above 3,000 feet you'll encounter the Mojave's high desert conditions where Joshua trees and palm trees find water is near the surface. The park's nine campgrounds fill quickly, booked solidly from October through May, so consider camping during the week or reserving your campsite in advance.
In the middle of California's Imperial Valley lies the Salton Sea, a terminal lake with no outlets. Since the sea's waters flow nowhere, the salt's concentration steadily increases through evaporation, making it is 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Rumors labeled the sea a man-made disaster. However, the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association disagrees, stating sea formed in 1905 when the Colorado river broke through an irrigation canal. Farm drainage and precipitation now feed it and an electric company uses the local geothermal activity to generate sustainable energy. Individuals who enjoy exploring ghost towns will find Bombay Beach, the nearest community, an explorer's paradise. The 350 square mile sea and its surroundings offer an almost artistic balance of apocalyptic imagery from environmental distress with evidence of a hopeful business community and quiet neighborhoods. The area, once a major tourist attraction, shelters more than 400 bird species.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego is more than the nation's largest national park. It's also one of the best deserts for fossil hunters and paleontology fans as scientists have discovered more than 500 organisms, from pollen spores to mammoth remains, in the park. In fact, the Stout Research Center Paleontology Lab is onsite and processes fossilized remains for study around the world. Since the 1930s, paleontologists have collected and cleaned approximately 13,000 specimens for the park's collection. Visitors can enjoy nature walks and naturalists talks, but for a deeper experience consider joining a guided hike facilitated by park staff. The park has a Jr. Ranger program for students between 7 and 12 years old. The Jr. Ranger program meets Saturdays during winter and spring and is parent-free. Since space is limited, you must make a reservation for your child to attend.
The Coachella Valley
In addition to desert tours, the Coachella Valley is home to the three-day, two-weekend Coachella Music Festival that attracts infamous DJs and pulsating beats. When that festival ends, the Stagecoach country music festival begins, featuring new country talent beside established stars. To have the best experience, arrive between October and May and consider visiting Cabot's Pueblo Museum. The museum, built from re-purposed and reclaimed materials, is 5,000 square feet with 150 windows, 65 doors and 35 rooms. Tours can accommodate only 12 people each, so arrive early.
North of the Sonoran desert, the Mojave is the driest of all US deserts. While it has distinct seasons, winter's daylight temperatures remain comfortable, falling below freezing at night. This desert's popularity may stem from its location as Las Vegas and legal gambling are nearby. The Mojave includes a state park, the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve and the Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area. Museums are scattered throughout the region and you may see bats, bobcats and fringe-toed lizards. Death Valley, the lowest, hottest point in the USA, is inside the Mojave.
The largest national park in the USA, areas of Death Valley have appeared in movies like Star Wars. With summer temperatures averaging 100° F and more, scheduling your visit for autumn, winter or spring makes sense. Scientists believe the area was once an inland sea because salt pans dot the area. However, its plant life explodes after the winter rains. The desert is a 3.4 million acre educational experience that attracts local school groups, and park rangers guide tours through daily programs that can entail hiking the Golden Canyon, learning about the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes or discovering why gold wasn't the only valuable ore attracting miners.
Humans have inhabited the Sonoran for thousands of years. Today's desert community boasts neighborhoods, schools and opportunities for cultural exchanges. Several Native American tribes, including the Gila River Indian Community, the Cocopah, Tohono O'odham, Seri and Pascua Yaqui, live in the region. The desert covers parts of California and Arizona, and completely covers the state of Sonora in Mexico. This is the rainiest of California's deserts. Up to 10 inches of rain falls in a rainy year, making it easier for plants to thrive.
Part of the Sonoran, the Colorado desert is 7 million acres of perpetually frost-free land and protected wildlife. Resting below 1,000 feet, the desert floor is 275 below sea level at its lowest point and is an earthquake-prone region with San Diego, Riverside and San Bernadino counties in its borders. Much of the Colorado desert has been irrigated for farming, but the region also experiences two rainy seasons each year, unusual for the low desert environment. Visitors rave about the Mecca Hills Painted Canyon and seeing the San Andreas Fault, but many enjoy the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicle Recreation Area, where you can drive the Devil's Slide and examine Shell Reef.
Popular with retirees, Palm Springs boasts retro hotels and a resort that spans 94 square miles. Palm Springs encompasses nine cities, giving tourists options unmatched by other desert settlements. Elevated tram cars will take you to mount San Jacinto's ancient palm tree groves or you can tour the museums. A popular place for destination weddings, couples marry during scenic outdoor ceremonies or reserve venues such as O'Donnel House. The Rat Pack and Hollywood stars of the 1950s and 60s made the region famous. Today, Palm Springs attracts active retirees and is famous for its mid-century modern architecture. Visitors can rent the same vacation homes or hotel rooms that housed Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. Women, traveling alone or in groups, can stay at Casita Lupita, a women's vacation resort, but many choose Amin Casa, known as The Gloria Swanson Residence.