Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks are well known and attract many visitors, but the California deserts are home to plenty of other public lands perfect for outdoor adventures. These are half a dozen of the most uncrowded parks and preserves, all of which are just a few hours from Greater Palm Springs.
Mojave National Preserve
The Mojave National Preserve covers over 1.5 million acres, and with volcanic craters, Joshua tree forests, sand dunes and mountains, you could easily spend several weeks exploring this desert wonderland. From scenic drives to hikes that descend into lava tubes, there is something for every outdoor lover in the Preserve. The 1.3-mile Rings Loop Trail is a visitor favorite, as is the three-mile roundtrip trek to the highest point on the Kelso Dunes. The Preserve is home to two main developed campgrounds available on a first-come, first-served basis only: Mid Hills and Hole-in-the-Wall, the latter of which is accessible to RVs and larger rigs. Dispersed camping is allowed, and visitors are reminded to pack out all trash, and not to build new campfire rings.
The north entrance to the Mojave National Preserve is just minutes from Interstate 40 and the town of Baker, which has dining and gas stations. The closest lodging options are in Barstow (an hour’s drive west of Baker) or Tecopa (an hour’s drive north). If you’re coming via the south entrance, the town of Amboy has a gas station, restrooms and a mini-mart. Day use is free.
Red Rock Canyon State Park
Not to be confused with Red Rock Canyon State Park in Arizona (or Red Rock Canyon in Nevada, for that matter), California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park also offers stunning views of red sandstone cliffs. The Hagen Canyon Nature Trail meanders along a one-and-a-half-mile loop just below the Visitor Center, and another network of short trails starts at the Ricardo Campground. A handful of the 50 campsites at the Ricardo Campground are tucked among these spectacular rock formations, and if you visit during the week, you might not even see your neighbors. All sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and they run $25 per night. Across the highway from the Visitor Center, you’ll find the Red Cliffs Nature Trail, which is a mostly flat, well-marked mile-and-a-half loop. Of course, one of the best views (pictured above) is accessible right from the trailhead parking lot at Red Cliffs, so you don’t need to venture far for a photo op.
The town of Ridgecrest is a 40-minute drive away, and it has lodging, dining and gas stations. The day use fee is $6.
In 1968 the Trona Pinnacles were designated a National Natural Landmark, as they are one of the best examples of tufa formations in North America. With over 500 tufa spires, some of which top out at 140 feet, this spot is the definition of an otherworldly landscape. While a four-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary to access the Trona Pinnacles, the road is rough and washboarded, and it may be impassable after a storm. There is one vault toilet on-site, located five miles down Pinnacle Road, on the loop to the east. Dispersed camping is allowed, and visitors must pack out all trash.
The Trona Pinnacles are a 40-minute drive from Ridgecrest, which has lodging, dining and gas stations. Day use is free.
Nopah Range Wilderness Area
If you’re exploring the southeast end of Death Valley National Park, consider passing through the Nopah Range Wilderness Area. Spanning over 100,000 acres, this desert landscape is home to wild burros, wild horses, desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and a slew of avian species. The Old Spanish Trail Highway runs along the South Nopah Range Wilderness, and to the north, you can cruise along State Route 178 (aka Charles Brown Highway) to admire the views of the Chicago Valley. Both roads are paved with a handful of pullouts. While motorized equipment is prohibited off established dirt roads and there aren’t many trails, Pahrump Point is a solid out-and-back hike, with 3,350 feet of gain over eight miles.
The Nopah Range Wilderness is a 15-minute drive from the small, charming town of Shoshone and 25 minutes from Tecopa, both of which offer lodging, camping, restaurants and gas stations. Day use is free.
Rainbow Basin Natural Area
Rainbow Basin Natural Area is approximately 11 miles north of Interstate 15, but after turning onto Fossil Bed Road, civilization seems hours away. For the first three-and-a-half miles, Fossil Bed Road is wide, well-maintained and suitable for larger vehicles, as is the first quarter-mile of Rainbow Basin Road. However, immediately after Rainbow Basin Road intersects Owl Canyon Road, it turns into a one-way loop, and RVs and trailers are not permitted. While four-wheel drive is not required, the road is rough and prone to washouts. The trailhead for Rainbow Basin Slot Canyon is about halfway through the loop, and it’s a moderate, one-and-a-half-mile hike. Owl Canyon Campground has 22 sites that cost $6 per night, and at the end of the campground, you’ll find the Owl Canyon Trail, which is just over three miles. Owl Canyon Road is wide, well-maintained and suitable for larger vehicles.
Rainbow Basin Natural Area is just a 20-minute drive from the town of Barstow, which has lodging, dining and gas stations. Day use is free.
Salton Sea State Recreation Area
The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is less than an hour from Greater Palm Springs, making it the perfect spot for a day trip. It is a popular spot for birding, and there are a handful of funky art installations at Bombay Beach. In addition to day use areas on the east shore of the lake, there are several campgrounds, including Headquarters Camp, New Camp, Corvina Beach, and Salt Creek. Surrounding attractions include Salvation Mountain, and the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, the latter of which spans most of the south shore.
On the north end of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, the town of Mecca has casual dining and gas stations; on the south end, Calipatria is the closest town with fuel. The day use fee is $7.