Scenic Trip Through Joshua Tree National Park
For a place that's pretty desolate, the California desert has a number of ways to get into trouble--as well as cinematic views and tremendous day hikes.
It's lunchtime, so we grab a bite at theChiriaco Summit Coffee Shop. One General Patton burger and bowl of chili later, we're making our way towardOasis Date Gardensin Thermal. There's just enough time to work up the appetite for the second half of our date-shake taste test. We take a self-guided tour, and I can't resist breaking the rules and donning a hard-shelled costume (resembling a wide-eyed smiling date) left in a corner. I pose for funny pictures under the palm trees outside. As for the shakes, Shields's takes the blue ribbon.
We're nearly 15 miles from theSalton Sea Visitors Centerand already we smell the sulfur. Even on this beautiful day we're tempted to put the top up. The smell is due in part to the high salinity levels of the sea; it was created in 1905, when the Colorado River overflowed, flooding the Imperial Valley's salt beds. At 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, it's California's largest body of water, but of interest only to bird-watchers.
So we drive further south to Niland, gas up, and then turn around. Palm Springs is 80 miles away, and the sun is setting. We decide to race it, even though we know who always wins.
- Chiriaco Summit Coffee Shop62450 Chiriaco Rd., Chiriaco Summit, 760/227-3202, General Patton burger $8
- Shields Date Gardens80-225 Hwy. 111, Indio, 760/347-7768, shieldsdates.com, shake $3.50
- General Patton Memorial Museum62510 Chiriaco Rd., Chiriaco Summit, 760/227-3483, $4
- Oasis Date Gardens59-111 Hwy. 111, Thermal, 800/827-8017, oasisdategardens.com, shake $3
- Salton Sea Visitors Center100-225 State Park Rd., North Shore, 760/393-3052, parks.ca.gov
Finding your way
Joshua Tree National Park is at its most crowded from March through May, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the temperatures are still mild; if you're hoping to avoid the crowds, such as they are, consider visiting in the fall. Most major airlines serve Palm Springs International Airport, but if you're in the Los Angeles area, a day trip to the park isn't out of the question--the North Entrance (3.5 miles south of Twentynine Palms) is about 160 miles east of the city. Just be sure to enter the park with a picnic lunch and a full tank of gas, because there's nowhere to refuel once you've crossed the border.