Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis

Refreshing palm oases, intriguing wildlife, and miles of hiking trails draw visitors to the Coachella Valley Preserve

On the northern side of the Coachella Valley, nestled at the feet of the Indio Hills, the Coachella Valley Preserve is the Old West just minutes from Palm Springs, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indio, and other desert cities. The Preserve is a natural refuge where visitors can discover rare and wonderful wildlife species. Enjoy some of the 20,000+ acres of desert wilderness and over 25 miles of hiking trails, most of which are well marked.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By a quirk of nature there’s water here, too, but it doesn’t usually come in the form of rain. The Preserve is bisected by the San Andreas Fault and this natural phenomenon results in a series of springs and seeps which support plants and animals which couldn’t otherwise live in this harsh environment.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy palm groves, picnic areas, a diverse trail system, and the rustic visitor center, the Palm House. Inside the historic building are trail maps as well as unique displays of the natural and historic features of the area. 

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The palm encountered in the oases within the Preserve is the California fan palm, or Washingtonia filifera. It is the only indigenous palm in California. The Washingtonia filifera has a very thick trunk and grows slowly to about 45 feet. Dead leaves hang vertically and form what is called a skirt around the trunk providing a place for various critters to live. Inflorescences, or fruit stalks, extend beyond the leaves and bear masses of tiny white to cream colored flowers. During the fall months, large clusters of small hard fruit hang from the tree. The palms may live 150 to 200 years.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No one knew just how significant a 6-inch lizard would be to conservation in Coachella Valley. In 1980 a lizard small enough to fit in the palm of your hand brought the $19 billion Coachella Valley construction boom to a screeching halt. When the lizard was placed on the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all development was jeopardized because it might illegally destroy habitat for the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A six-year conflict ensued as environmentalists battled developers over the fragile desert habitat. Finally, the Nature Conservancy was called in to resolve the bitter stalemate and the result was a remarkable model of cooperation through which endangered species and economic development could co-exist.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Conservancy proposed creating a nearly 14,000-acre preserve that would provide permanent protection for the little reptile and other desert species, while allowing developers to build elsewhere in the valley. It was a great experiment in cooperation that produced astonishing results. The creation of the Coachella Valley Preserve proved that through consensus, economic development, and species protection can indeed be compatible. 

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From easy to moderately difficult, from flat terrain to steep grades, hikes of all varieties are available. There are also several designated equestrian trails, but there are no bike or dog-friendly trails. One hike that is a sure bet for all levels, is through varying desert terrain to the McCallum Grove, about a mile from the Palm House visitor’s center. There are about a dozen isolated palm groves within the preserve, the largest being McCallum Grove.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s more water here than anywhere else in the preserve and the overflow allows a large and diverse community to thrive, including tiny freshwater crayfish called red swamp crayfish, desert pupfish, and the occasional mallard duck making a brief stopover during its annual migration.

After leaving McCallum Grove keep hiking west on marked trails out to “moon country”. You will come to an overlook that provides you with great views of the entire area. From there you can return to the visitor’s center or continue via the 4.2-mile Moon Country Trail Loop, or the more advanced Moon Country Canyon Extension which adds an additional 1.63 miles roundtrip.

Other delightful trails include Pushawalla Palms, Horseshoe Palms, and Hidden Palms which are all somewhat more strenuous hikes.

Coachella Valley Preserve is a great way to spend a day with its fantastic hiking trails, and beautiful vistas, but best of all it’s free and also easy to find. No matter how you choose to spend your time at Coachella Valley Preserve, you won’t be disappointed.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Palm Springs take Interstate 10 East to the Ramon Road exit. Turn left and follow Ramon Road and make a left turn on Thousand Palms Road. The entrance to the visitors center is located about two miles on the left.

Worth Pondering…

Wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders.

—Edward Abbey

Monsters in the Desert: Sky Art Sculptures of Borrego Springs

Something prehistoric. Something mythical. Something otherworldly. Here, in the middle of the desert, is a magical menagerie of free-standing sculptures that will astound you.

Imagine driving along Borrego Springs Road and something catches your attention—a dark form in the desert landscape. You spy a horse as it rears off to the side of the road. You look again and it is big, but it doesn’t seem to be moving. Then you look again and you realize it is a huge sculpture that has captured your attention. Then, rising out of the flat desert landscape, an elephant appears. Alarmingly close by, a T-Rex bears its maw chasing a saber-tooth tiger.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the corners of your eyes these large structures can be deceptively realistic. This is not a mirage but the gifts of visionary benefactor Dennis Avery (now deceased) and the craft of artist/welder Ricardo Breceda.

The original steel welded sculptors began arriving in April 2008, taking up residence on Avery’s private parcel of land known as Galleta Meadows Estate and easily visible from Borrego Springs Road, north and south. There are now over 130 meticulously crafted metal sculptures sprinkled throughout the small town of Borrego Springs. Elephants, raptors, mammoths, sloths, and saber-toothed tigers prowl the desert off Borrego Springs Road north and south of the town proper. From ground-hugging desert tortoises to rearing horses, each rust-colored sculpture is filled with intricate detail–from the curling eyelashes of 10-foot high elephants to the shaved metal fur of the equally imposing sloths.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Made of waffle-sized pieces of shaped steel, the sculptures weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds each. It’s just basic rusting steel that gives it a very nice patina resembling hide. The forms are representative of prehistoric animals, the original inhabitants of Borrego Springs. The Gomphotherium free-standing art structures are placed in various locations along Borrego Springs Road and Henderson Canyon Road. The sculptures are set in natural areas where the animals appear to be a normal part of the landscape.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery is the son of the founder of Avery Dennison, one of the world’s largest label-making companies. In the early 1990s, Avery was persuaded to buy land in Borrego Springs, primarily by people who wanted open space preserved.

“When there was the huge savings and loan crash in the early 1990s everything was for sale in Borrego,” Avery said. “Nobody wanted to buy a thing. So I bought everything.”

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery owns roughly three square miles of noncontiguous parcels stretching across town.

“I ended up being landed gentry in the basin of Borrego somewhat accidentally,” he said. “I haven’t done anything with it except open it up to the public once a year when the flowers show up.”

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery had long been interested in the paleontological history of the basin. In 2006, he helped finance a book about the fossil treasures of the Anza-Borrego Desert. He also came across a Mexican artist, Ricardo Breceda, who worked out of Perris, California, and conceived the notion of having Breceda re-create the fossil history in a way people could appreciate. The designs are based on the book’s renditions, drawn by other artists and based on fossils, of what the animals looked like.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Starting more than 100 years ago, some paleontologists started kicking up some tusks and bones and birds, and it turns out Borrego Springs is the burial ground for the past 7 million years of these fossil remains of the original inhabitants of Borrego, when it was really water and jungle-like,” Avery said.

The sculptures, two of which are 12 feet tall and 20 feet long, depict a family of gomphotheres—relatives of the woolly mammoth that lived roughly 3 million years ago in the Borrego Valley. All are three-dimensional replicas of animals that roamed the Borrego Valley during the Pliocene epoch, when the area was riparian forest.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Palm Canyon Campground (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park); The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course

Worth Pondering…

I am part of all that I have met
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.

—Alfred Lord Tennyson

Spotlight on California: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

California is such a large state there is no shortage of exciting road trips and fun things to do

California is, hands down, one of the best places for a road trip. It’s the third largest state in the US and its 164,000 square miles are packed with glorious, varied terrain highlighted by 66 scenic byways. Rocky desert landscapes give way to rolling farmlands and two-lane highways carve through quiet groves of towering sequoias before climbing into the high, rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada.

There isn’t a single amazing thing about California. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Giant trees and giant mountains set the stage for an endlessly eye-popping trip along Generals Highway. Named for two of the world’s largest trees, the General Sherman tree and General Grant tree, this long and winding drive takes visitors from the southern entry point of Sequoia into the Giant Forest and beyond to Kings Canyon. As elevation shifts, views change from valleys and mountains to trees so enormous that they block out the sun.

Along the Gold Rush Trail in Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold Rush Trail (Highway 49)

Throughout its length, the Gold Rush Trail winds through many of the towns that sprung up during the Gold Rush as it twists and climbs past panoramic vistas. Rocky meadows, oaks, and white pines accent the hills while tall firs and ponderosa pine stud higher slopes. The old mining towns along the Trail retain their early architecture and charm—living reminders of the rich history of the Mother Lode. Placerville, Amador City, Sutter Creek, Jackson, San Andreas, Angels Camp, and Murphys all retain their 1850s flavor.

Sun Dial Bridge in Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Redding

With mountains all around, a river running through it, and national parks nearby, Redding is an outdoor paradise for all ages. Cradled by Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, Redding has 300+ sunny days per year. Redding is also home to the famous Sundial Bridge and world-class fishing.  Turtle Bay Exploration Park is a 300-acre campus along the banks of the Sacramento River. Gateway to the city’s 220-mile trail system, the Park features a botanical garden, natural history and science museum, and exploration center. The 300-acre complex is tied together by Redding’s jewel, the Sundial Bridge.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amador City

One of California’s smallest incorporated cities with a population of just over 200 residents, Amador City is a little city with a lot to offer. The original mining-era buildings are home to unique shops including Victorian clothing, custom quilts, local handmade gifts, and antiques and books from the Gold Rush Era. You will also find wine tasting, an old fashioned soda fountain and lunch counter, an artisan bakery, and gourmet lunches and dinners.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Covering more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in the contiguous United States. From a distance, its mountains and valleys look dry and barren—yet amidst the arid, sandy landscape you can find regions rich in vegetation and animal life. Lush oases with graceful palm trees lie hidden in valleys where water bubbles close to the surface and desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky mountain slopes.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jackson

The historic town of Jackson is nestled between 1,200 and 1,600 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Jackson is home to the deepest mines on the continent, the Argonaut and the Kennedy both in excess of 5,000 feet deep. At the turn of the 19th century the town had about 3,000 residents with three churches, three newspapers, four hotels, five boarding houses, eight physicians, and two dentists. Visitors can explore these historic buildings and artifacts among the many shops, restaurants, and lodging facilities that include the iconic National Hotel.

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Temecula

Stroll the streets of Old Town Temecula with boutiques, eateries, and a relaxed Old West feel. Take a hot-air balloon ride or play a round of golf. Or just hang out in a wine tasting room and gain insights into this unique and surprising region. History buffs can wander the streets of Old Town Temecula viewing rustic buildings, sidewalks, and storefronts reminiscent of the historic golden west in the 1880s.

Corning © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Corning

Known as the Olive Capital, Corning is located 110 miles north of Sacramento in the fertile Central Valley. An agriculturally based community with small town charm, Corning is home to the largest olive processing plant in the U.S. as well as award winning olive oil producers and product retailers. Other area crops are walnuts, almonds, prunes, and figs. 

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Murphys

The town of Murphys is overflowing with wine courtesy of 25+ tasting rooms dotting Main Street. The microclimates in the Sierra Foothills AVA allow for all kinds of grape varieties but the most common varietals include zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. There are also numerous nearby vineyards that offer on-site wine tasting. 

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

Rising from the Coachella Valley desert floor, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument reaches an elevation of 10,834 feet at the summit of San Jacinto Peak. Providing a picturesque backdrop to local communities, visitors can enjoy magnificent palm oases, snow-capped mountains, a national scenic trail, and wilderness areas.  Its extensive backcountry can be accessed via trails from both the Coachella Valley and the alpine village of Idyllwild.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. Pinnacles have over 30 miles of trails that show the best of the park and of the rock formations for which it was named. Hike through the caves, grasslands, and mountainous areas or up close to the spires and pinnacles.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs 

Once an inland sea, Palm Springs and its neighboring cities in the Coachella Valley is a desert area with abundant artesian wells. Palm Springs acquired the title “Playground of the Stars” many years ago because what was then just a village in the desert was a popular weekend Hollywood getaway. Today, the village has grown and consists of much more than just hanging out poolside. Whether its golf, tennis, a trip up the aerial tram, or hiking the Indian Canyons, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise!

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Julian

Julian is a small mountain community in Southern California. This historic gold-mining town is nestled among oak and pine forests between the north end of the Cuyamaca mountains and the south slope of Volcan Mountains. Take a step back in time to the days of Julian’s beginning rooted in the 1870s gold rush and discover the charms of Julian. You’ll enjoy visiting Julian for its laid-back charm, historical buildings, beautiful surroundings, and the delicious apple pies.

Borrego Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Borrego Springs

A big part of any road trip is stumbling upon bizarre roadside attractions—and there are plenty to experience in the California desert. Just outside Borrego Springs and near the boundary of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, sculptor Ricardo Breceda assembled roughly 130 gigantic scrap-metal sculptures of animals, including dinosaurs, and a saber-toothed cat. These fanciful creatures seem to march across the scruffy flats.

Salton Sea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Salton Sea 

The Salton Sea was created after a Colorado River dam overflowed in 1905. Today, the Salton Sea is one of the world’s largest inland seas, lying at 227 feet below sea level and measuring 45 miles long.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of this lively wilderness environment. Elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape with jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area where bubbling activity still appears reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Angels Camp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Angels Camp

Along the Gold Rush Trail is Angels Camp, where—if you happen to be there in May—you might catch a frog-jumping event in honor of Mark Twain’s first short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The story, which won him literary acclaim is based on a story he heard in an Angels Camp bar when he lived there.

Lodi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lodi

Lying at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, Lodi enjoys a classic Mediterranean climate of warm days and cool evenings, ideal for growing wine grapes. Wander historic downtown Lodi with century-old brick buildings, brick-cobbled streets lined with elm trees, and turn-of-the-century light poles. You’ll love this area and the way the city has maintained its history and heritage. Many unique shops, restaurants, and more than a dozen wine tasting boutiques and exciting restaurants.

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer

Best Places for RV Travel this December

The seven best destinations for RV travel this December from Southern California to the Sunshine State

September, October, November, and December are where the names that derive from gods as people end and numeric-naming conventions begin. Thanks to the Roman rearranging the numeric names don’t correspond when the actual month appears on the calendar. Decem is Latin for the tenth month.

Cave Creek Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But in 46 B.C., the beginning of the Julian calendar bumped each of those months backward to create the calendar we all know and use today. Good thing the Roman Empire fell so they could stop moving months around.

Forget summertime: December just might be the best time of year to travel. There are the Christmas classics.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in September, October, and November. Also check out our recommendations from December 2019.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona

The Grand Canyon State is a place where you’re amply rewarded for looking beyond the obvious. You’ll find dramatic geology beyond the Grand, rivers beyond the Colorado, and ancient ruins that you’ve probably never heard of. You may equate Arizona with desert but much of the state is mountainous and its home to six national forests. You won’t want to miss the mighty canyon in the state’s far north, but venture farther afield and you’ll find gentler canyon country near Sedona, mountain hiking near Phoenix and Tucson, and some ancient dwellings that are still inhabited.

Corkscrew Sanctuary, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Florida

You’re picturing white sandy beaches, and you’re not wrong: Florida has endless miles of picturesque sand. But it also has countless opportunities for adventure and discovery of Florida’s natural wonders. Everglades National Park, on the southern tip of the state, is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. and an absolutely otherworldly landscape full of rare plants, alligators, and birds. The Keys are paradise for wreck diving while the interior of the state is full of crystal-clear springs ready for swimming and hiking and biking trails that meander through cypress forests.

McKinney Falls State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas

Texas is divided into numerous climatic zones. Each zone has its own weather patterns. During the winter, most RV travelers choose the Texas Gulf Coast, Central Texas, or South Texas. The Gulf Coast and Central Texas typically have daytime highs in the 60s during the winter months, while highs average around 70 in the southernmost parts of the state. Houston, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi have RV parks that are open year round. From Brownsville to Mission the Rio Grande Valley welcome thousands of Winter Texans looking for a warm winter home.

Coachella Valley Preserve, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern California

Well-known for weather that remains balmy year round, Southern California is an ideal winter destination for RV travelers. Temperatures in San Diego and Los Angeles rarely drop much below 70 degrees and precipitation is minimal. The beaches are open, as are all of the region’s attractions. Note that Southern California is a popular winter destination for travelers of all types, not just those in RVs. Expect crowds and high prices throughout the winter season.

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama Gulf Coast

The Alabama Gulf Coast is warmed by sunshine, history, culture, and unspoiled natural beauty. You’ll find 32 miles of sugar-white sand beaches made almost entirely of fine, quartz grains washed down from the Appalachian Mountains thousands of years ago. Once you visit the Gulf Coast area of Baldwin County, you quickly realize these are some of the finest beaches in the world and one of America’s hidden gem locations. You’ll yearn to return year after year to feel the sand between your toes, splash around in the turquoise water, smell the salty air and admire the jaw-dropping sunsets of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

The Old Pima County Courthouse in El Presidio, Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

Tucson is a city set in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. The city is surrounded by several mountain ranges, such as the Santa Catalinas. You’ll find a strong historical heritage here with a number of restored historic mansions in the El Presidio and Barrio Historic Districts. The University of Arizona is based here and the area around campus has many unique shops, a variety of nightclubs, and quality restaurants. Saguaro National Park is easily accessible and offers stunning desert vistas with saguaro cacti. Winter is somewhat busy in Tucson with mild temperatures compared to much of the year.

Smitty’s Market, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart, Texas

Eat your way through the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Lockhart is home to three of Texas’ most legendary barbecue joints: Kreuz Market (go for the sausage, stay for the smoky pork chops), Black’s BBQ (dinosaur beef rib, anyone?), and Smitty’s Market (lines form for a taste of its shoulder clod, brisket, hot links, and pork ribs). Why not try all three in a day? If you are a Texas BBQ enthusiast, all roads should go through Lockhart.

Worth Pondering…

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

—Norman Vincent Peale

3 Classic California Road Trips to Drive in Your Lifetime

California’s iconic sunshine, endless outdoor experiences, and ever-changing landscapes is your road trip dream come true

California is, hands down, one of the best places for a road trip. It’s the third largest state in the US and its 164,000 square miles are packed with glorious, varied terrain highlighted by 66 scenic byways. Rocky desert landscapes give way to rolling farmlands, and two-lane highways carve through quiet groves of towering sequoias before climbing into the high, rugged peaks of the 352 mountain ranges.

Famous Sundial Bridge at Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With all that, it’s no wonder you simply cannot get to know the Golden State unless you hit the road. We’ve gathered together three essential California road trips to get you started. Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Distance: 188 miles

Lassen Volcanic National Park and the area around form one of the more beautiful parts of California especially if you’re a mountain junkie who loves craggy peaks and volcanic rock. But it’s one that even locals often miss, partly because of its distance from major population centers. But those who make the trek should plan for a minimum of three days with plenty of day hikes and geologic curiosities—this is, after all, volcano country. 

Sacramento River as seen from the Sundial Bridge in Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in Redding, a bustling city on the Sacramento River, travel north on 1-5 to Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in California. Continue north on I-5, passing through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and maybe stopping to take in the ragged spires at Castle Crags State Park before reaching Mount Shasta where you can stop to stroll through town or hike in the mountain’s foothills.

Lassen Peak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, escape from the interstate and head south on Highway 89. This section of the highway is actually part of the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway which travels from Oregon in the north down to Lassen along the Cascade Mountain Range. Take some time to hike McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park and see the 129-foot-tall waterfall that shares a name with the park. Or kayak and paddleboard on serene Lake Almanor. Finish your trip with a day, or two, wandering through Lassen Volcanic National Park which is filled with mud pots, geysers, lava fields, shield and cinder cone volcanoes, mountain lakes, and even a few green meadows where you’ll find wildflowers in the spring. 

Along the Gold Rush Trail in Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold Rush Highway (Highway 49)

Distance: 295 miles

Follow in the footsteps of miners and prospectors through California’s Gold Country along Highway 49—a road named after the gold seekers or “49ers” who made their way to the state during the 1849 Gold Rush. Plan for five days to provide time to strike it rich panning for gold in the region’s rivers. You’ll want to spend time exploring the rocky meadows and pine-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevada too. 

Along the Gold Rush Trail in Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start off with a history lesson at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa, just north of Oakhurst. As you drive north along the route, you’ll pass a number of Gold Rush–era buildings and towns. In Coulterville, Hotel Jeffery, first built in 1851, is known for paranormal activities and claims John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt as past visitors. Jamestown’s Railtown 1897 Historic State Park gives a glimpse of what transportation was like in the late 1800s and Columbia State Historic Park and the town of Jackson are both well-preserved mining towns. 

Along the Gold Rush Trail in Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 49 passes over the South Fork of the American River near Placerville which is a popular place for river rafting. A little farther north here, in Coloma, you can actually try your own luck with a gold pan at Sutter’s Mill in Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Continue up through Auburn State Recreation Area where the north and middle forks of the American River meet stopping in Auburn’s Old Town and later Nevada City for Victorian-era homes and a little more historic charm.

Along the Gold Rush Trail in Murphys© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there Highway 49 heads northeast through Tahoe National Forest but there’s more mining history to see before you end in Vinton. Be sure to stop at Empire Mine in Grass Valley, one of the oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines in California.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Desert Drive

Distance: 290 miles

Plenty of travelers make the trip from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park to marvel at its spiky namesake trees. But many think of Joshua Tree as a destination and miss out on all the beautiful and sometimes quirky things the deserts of Southern California have to offer along the way. In fact, you should really spend a full week exploring the rock formations, wildflower meadows, art installations, and architectural hot spots of this region.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in San Diego, point your vehicle northeast on Highway 163 to Highway 78 heading toward Julian, a year-round getaway for the day, a weekend, or longer. Julian is also well-known for its famous homemade apple pie served year-round. Born during the 1870s gold rush, Julian is a small town cradled in the mountains, surrounded by apple orchards.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue east to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, famous for its wildflower super blooms in the springtime. But even when the flowers aren’t blooming, the landscape is striking, with its badlands, slot canyons, and cactus forests. Near the park entrance, keep an eye out for the 130-foot prehistoric animal sculptures created by Ricardo Breceda.

Borrego Desert sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve explored the park, you can either head north on Highway 79 and cut through Anza en route to Palm Desert—the drive through wooded Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is a nice break from the desert sun—or continue on Palm Canyon Drive toward the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in late afternoon light © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Salton Sea is fascinating: It’s one of the world’s largest inland seas and is rapidly drying up. Skirt the southside of the body of water then make your way toward Slab City, an abandoned Navy base that’s become an off-grid living community and the massive, hand-built and brightly painted art piece Salvation Mountain just outside.

Salton Sea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Slab City, take Highway 111 north to Palm Springs, an oasis of midcentury modern architecture that’s home to plenty of pools that provide respite from the heat. From Palm Springs, follow Highway 62 to Yucca Valley and Pioneer Town for a drink or a meal or maybe a concert at the famous saloon Pappy and Harriet’s. Joshua Tree has long attracted artists and bohemian types, so while there’s plenty of natural scenery to enjoy such as Jumbo Rocks or Skull Rock.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer

The Charms of Julian

There is always a reason and a season to visit Julian

Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

Julian is a small mountain community in Southern California located at the intersection of California highways 78 and 79, about 50 miles northeast of San Diego and 100 miles south of Palm Desert. This historic gold-mining town is nestled among oak and pine forests between the north end of the beautiful Cuyamaca mountains and the south slope of Volcan Mountain. Take a step back in time to the days of Julian’s beginning rooted in the 1870s gold rush and discover the charms of Julian.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original mining-era buildings in Julian are now home to unique shops—but my interest lay elsewhere, in the gold mining history of this small town and the famous apple pies of the region.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Confederate veterans from Georgia headed West to seek their fortunes in a new, mostly unsettled land. Among these were cousins, Drue Bailey and Mike Julian, who found a lush meadow between the Volcan Mountains and the Cuyamacas to their liking. The town was named Julian, in honor of Mike, who later was elected San Diego County Assessor.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town was never big, at the most it boasted a population of about 600. Rumor has it that Julian almost became the San Diego County seat.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A cattleman, Fred Coleman, found the first fleck of gold in a creek in early 1870. It was San Diego County’s first and only gold rush. The gold rush was short lived, near over in less than a decade. But the pioneers stayed and turned to the land for their livelihood. While many crops were planted and animals pastured, the rich land and mountain weather proved to be ideal for apples and orchards cropped up around the town.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apples continue to be produced in Julian. Their sweet, fresh flavor lures thousands to the mountains each fall, when visitors will find fruit stands overflowing with crisp fruit, homemade cider, pies, and other delicacies.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At 4,235 feet, Julian’s high elevation provides clean air, blue skies, and four distinct seasons, unusual in sunny Southern California. The first cold spell of fall prompts a blanket of color as the trees prepare for a winter of gentle snowfalls. Sledding and snowball fun add to the season’s activities.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its tiny, four-block-long Main Street is home to country stores, wineries, bed and breakfasts, galleries, and fine restaurants.

A year-round getaway, Julian has a wide variety of activities for visitors. Enjoy a cool summer evening riding down Main Street in a horse-drawn carriage or explore the many gems that dot Main Street.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy a tour, sample wines from the local wineries, visit the historical museums, ride a horse through serene meadows or hike to the top of Stonewall Mountain for a panoramic view that goes on for miles. Julian has something for everyone’s taste regardless of the season.

The entire township of Julian is a Designated Historical District. Its image as an early California frontier town with pioneer store fronts, historic sites and guided tours of Eagle and High Peak Mines accounts for much of its modern appeal.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Housed in the restored walls of the Treshil blacksmith shop, Julian Pioneer Museum offers artifacts from the Julian of yesteryear―wall to wall photos of local pioneers, examples of mining equipment, an old carriage, clothes, and household items. You’ll leave with a taste for what life was like when the town was established.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike other gold rush towns, Julian never became a ghost town. Maybe it’s just too pretty to leave. Whatever the reason, today’s Julian exudes small-town charm and country friendliness.

I enjoy visiting Julian for its laid-back charm, historical buildings, beautiful surroundings, and the delicious apple pies.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During our recent visit, we bought four pies, one each at Julian Pie Company, Mom’s Pies, Julian Cafe, and Apple Alley Bakery. It’s all for the sake of science; taste testing required to determine a favorite. And, that my friends, is the subject of another post.

Worth Pondering…

Cut my pie into four pieces, I don’t think I could eat eight.

―Yogi Berra

Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Two major deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran, come together in Joshua Tree National Park

A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases.

Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches.

Keys Point, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. This outstanding scenic point overlooks a breathtaking expanse of valley, mountain, and desert.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few roads pass through Joshua Tree, but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive, with spur roads to specific attractions.

Entering the park at the south entrance off I-10, our first stop was the Cottonwood Visitor Center where we picked up a map and park newspaper listing a number of ranger-led activities and hiking trails.

Cottonwood Springs Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Half a mile down the road we took a short walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods, all planted in the early 1900s by miners and pioneers who used this spring as their source of water. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of an even more ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its bird life. 

We continued north along Pinto Basin Road past Smoke Tree Wash and Porcupine Wash through Fried Liver Wash and Ocotillo Patch.

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cholla Cactus Garden, a few miles beyond, glowed in shades of soft, silver green. We hiked the ¼-mile loop nature walk with caution as this cactus isn’t referred to as “jumping cholla” for no reason. Just the slightest brush and a piece will imbed itself painfully into your skin. Remove carefully with a comb.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we continued north, the look of the desert changed and the temperature grew cooler. A roadside exhibit describes the merging of the Sonoran Desert we were leaving with the Mojave Desert beyond. The road snakes through enormous piles of monstrous boulders. Soon we were among the Joshua trees, whimsical looking plants with arms twisted in all directions.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua trees are rock stars in the plant world when it comes to their ability to survive in scorching heat, freezing cold, and environments with little water. They can be found in the Mojave Desert at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically, Joshua trees are not trees, but plants. In 2011, The American Journal of Botany published a report confirming that there are two distinct varieties of Joshua trees: brevifolia and a smaller plant, jaegeriana McKelvey. The plant is a member of the agave family.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s uncertain how the Joshua tree got its name though it is thought to have originated with the Mormon pioneers heading west. The strange, contorted branches, it is said, made the sojourners think of the Biblical figure Joshua, pointing westward to the “promised land”.

Here in the Mojave, winters are harsher and more precipitation falls than in the Sonoran Desert which is lower in elevation and generally hotter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fascinating geologic landscape of Joshua Tree has long fascinated visitors to this desert region. Smooth granite monoliths and rugged canyons testify to the tectonic and erosion forces that shaped this land. Washes, playas, alluvial fans, bajadas, desert varnish, igneous and metamorphic rocks interact to form a pattern of stark desert beauty.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths. Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park. The aptly named Jumbo Rocks has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Barker Dam walk (1.1 mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

With 8 different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no name, where the streets have no name…

—Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987

Out and About In Southern California

Start your Southern California journey in the Coachella Valley

Southern California boasts a diverse geographical terrain—you can experience the desert, sandy beaches, and snow-capped mountains all within just a few hours drive.

Shields Date Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your Southern California journey with something sweet by visiting Shields Date Garden in Indio and you’ll find yourself in a date oasis where the Shields have been growing their own since 1924. Enjoy a date milkshake, a variety of date-centric dishes in the garden café, or educate yourself by viewing a short documentary on the cultivation of this exotic fruit. Be sure to also take a stroll through the garden in the back.

Shields Date Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established in 1970, The Living Desert started as a nature trail and preserve dedicated to preserving desert flora and fauna. Now a remarkable zoo and botanical garden representing desert environments around the world, The Living Desert contains lush botanical gardens representing 10 different desert ecosystems. Located in Palm Desert, the Living Desert showcases more than 430 desert animals from the deserts of four continents with appropriate dry climate landscape.

Coachella Valley Nature Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Indio, and their neighboring desert cities are in the Coachella Valley of Southern California. An escape from winter’s chill, it is also a destination filled with plenty of places to visit and things to see and do. Whether it’s golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, hiking, biking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are so many great trails from which to choose—but none can surpass Tahquitz Canyon. Nowhere else can you to see a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, rock art, an ancient irrigation system, numerous species of birds, and plants—all in the space of a few hours.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tahquitz Canyon is at the northeast base of 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs. Located at the entrance to the canyon, the Tahquitz Canyon Visitor Center, at 500 West Mesquite, just west of Palm Canyon Drive, offers exhibits, an observation deck, and a theatre room for viewing a video that narrates the legend of Tahquitz Canyon.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

East of the desert cities, Joshua Tree National Park protects two unique desert climates. In the eastern part of the park, the low altitude Colorado Desert features natural gardens of creosote bush, cholla, and other cactus. The higher, moister, and cooler Mojave Desert is the home of the Joshua tree, a unique desert plant with beautiful white spring blossoms. A third type of environment can be seen at the six palm oases in the park, where water occurs naturally at the surface and creates a whole new ecosystem.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to desert flora and fauna, the western part of Joshua Tree National Park includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, and owners of high-clearance vehicles can explore these craggy formations on a series of signed dirt roads that penetrate the park.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Covering more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is the largest state parks in the contiguous United States. From a distance, its mountains and valleys look dry and barren—yet amidst the arid, sandy landscape you can find regions rich in vegetation and animal life.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lush oases with graceful palm trees lie hidden in valleys where water bubbles close to the surface. A multitude of birds shelter beneath the long frond skirts hanging from the palms, and a few rare desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky mountain slopes. Coyotes fill the night with their laughing song and mountain lions prowl the high country. Situated northeast of San Diego and due south of the Palm Springs/Indio area, Anza-Borrego is easily accessible from anywhere in Southern California.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Born during the 1870s gold rush, Julian is a small town cradled in the mountains, surrounded by apple orchards. Julian is at its most charming―and busiest―during the fall, when leaves change color and local apples ripen. Stop by an apple orchard to sample local varieties not found elsewhere, pick up some of your favorites, or pick your own. Any time of year, Julian cafes serve apple pies and sell whole ones.

Julian Pie Company © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a recent visit to Julian, we bought four pies, one each at Julian Pie Company, Mom’s Pies, Julian Cafe, and Apple Alley Bakery.

Mom’s Pie House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer