The well-worn route to Palm Springs remains full of surprises, even for the most jaded desert travelers.
Growing up, when we would drive to visit my grandparents in Palm Desert, I would hold back tears on the 10 while I watched the city fade into the background as we drove eastward.
I dreaded being in a place that felt — at the time — devoid of any culture and fun things to do. The desert held no appeal for me then.
Funnily enough, I now find myself retracing that road more than a few times a year. Now of my own volition, having developed an appreciation for the quietude and vast emptiness that holds small, beautiful surprises. It turns out the desert is an acquired taste.
So by now, I thought, after having ventured out so many times, tasted so many roadside date shakes, explored the coastline “beaches” of the Salton Sea and attended Coachella far too many times — I’ve done it.
Turns out I’ve only just scratched the surface.
I spent an entire day exploring things I had never heard about (and some things I never had the time to check out) and have returned with an itinerary for the most jaded desert traveler.
Mission Creek Preserve in the midst of a super bloom. Photo by Lauren Arevalo-Downes.
A Creek in the Desert
A short jaunt away from the 10 freeway heading toward Joshua Tree, is a patch of land called Mission Creek Preserve. Yes, it’s an actual creek in the desert.
The caveat to this is you need a trail-ready vehicle (we brought a Chevy Silverado) because it’s a long and windy dirt road with some washed out spots littered with large rocks.
Fair warning: my phone’s GPS lost signal on the way, but fortunately, our truck had better reception than my iPhone, with its 4G LTE Wi-Fi that led us to our off-the-grid destination. We knew we were close when we started to hear water and the desert foliage became greener and greener.
A gate marks the entrance to the preserve and a place to park and explore.
It’s a sight to behold, with its fast-moving water in the stark and otherwise dry desert.
A Desert Homestead-Turned-Museum
The unofficial founder of Desert Hot Springs, Cabot Yerxa was someone far ahead of his time. A seasoned world traveler, Cabot purchased a 160-acre plot in 1913 and discovered a natural hot spring on it, essentially creating the namesake of the area.
Left to right: Cabot’s Pueblo Museum’s gardens frame the 5,000-square-foot estate. A giant Saguaro stands tall next to a pyramid sculpture at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum. A statue of Waokiye carved by Peter Wolf Toth out of a sequoia log from nearby Idyllwild. Photos by Lauren Arevalo-Downes.
Driven by a deep connection to this land and to nature, Cabot built a massive 5,000-square-foot replica of a Hopi-style pueblo. The home is still there — and anyone can visit it. The large dwelling is filled with artifacts left as though he lived there just yesterday. His passion for educating others about Native American cultures is evident as each room is covered with art and artifacts from bygone times.
Don’t miss the sculpture of Waokiye, standing 43 feet tall and carved by Peter Wolf Toth — it is the only one of its kind left in California.
Dig Your Own (Teensy) Cactus
Whenever I’m on my way to Joshua Tree or Pioneertown, I have to resist the urge to pull over when I see the Cactus Mart’s bright yellow sign in Morongo Valley. Inside, are charming rows of neat little cacti and mouse-sized tiny pots alongside giant cacti.
At Cactus Mart in Morongo Valley, a multitude of cactus varieties awaits. Photo by Lauren Arevalo-Downes.
You can “dig” your own cacti — as in pot the plants into those tiny pots — or build your own miniature cactus garden.
Along with the impressive cactus collection, there’s a cat who sits on the check-out counter, slyly commanding attention from all the customers and friendly wandering chickens; it is exactly what makes this part of the planet so special.
Pinball fanatics: did you know there is a non-profit museum with over 1,000 pinball machines in Banning? I certainly didn’t.
The place is outfitted as a warehouse lined with row after row of aglow machines. Hands-down a much better place to pass the time waiting for traffic to die down than window-shopping at the outlets.
Glossy strawberry donuts are in season at Donut Man in Glendora late spring and summer. Photo by Lauren Arevalo-Downes.
Almost Home — with Donuts
If you’re going to sit in traffic, it helps to have Apple CarPlay to listen to tunes like I did, listening to, appropriately, Townes Van Zandt — and don’t forget the requisite stop at Donut Man in Glendora, famous for its strawberry-stuffed confections — on your way back to L.A.
And as you speed home toward the edge of the downtown skyline, don’t be surprised if the desert doesn’t take long to call you back to it, to discover it anew.