A big part of any road trip is stumbling upon bizarre roadside attractions—and there are plenty to experience in the California desert. Enjoy this 3- or 4-day road trip that will make for some great Instagram moments.
Though hardly a metropolis, tiny Baker along Interstate 15 is a busy hub for Mojave Desert travelers looking for a bite to eat or to stretch their legs. Baker’s most famous landmark is its giant thermometer—at 134 feet, the tallest in the world. Plenty of people also stop in Baker for the otherworldly dried meats at UFO-themed Alien Fresh Jerky, the place to stock up on such tasty, ET-inspired flavors as Abducted Cow Pineapple Teriyaki—the perfect souvenir for the folks back home.
Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve
The graceful, golden Kelso Dunes rise 650 feet above the desert floor. Scramble up the slopes and listen closely to hear these dunes “sing” as cascades of sliding sand sometimes produce an unmistakable moaning sound—one of the world’s only places where this phenomenon occurs. The climb to the top of the dunes, among the tallest in North America, makes for a terrific workout as you take two steps forward and one step back in the soft sands before being rewarded with a sweeping view across the desert.
Rising 250 feet above a barren expanse of desert, Amboy Crater is a volcanic cinder cone that once sent lava pouring across a 24-square-mile area of desert. With its distinctive, conical profile, you would never mistake this unique natural feature for anything other than a volcano. Follow the trail that climbs to the rim, from where you can look deep into the maw and across the 1,500-foot-wide crater. Just off Route 66, Amboy Crater is also less than three miles west of Roy’s Motel & Café, a retro landmark with a sign that just cries out for a few selfies.
For some good vibes—quite literally—check out the Integratron, a wooden dome built on a geomagnetic vortex about 20 miles from Joshua Tree National Park. Come to this unique building near Landers for a “sound bath,” touted as a sonic healing session that uses sound waves to rejuvenate mind and body. (The Integraton’s inventor, George Van Tassel, is also a UFO advocate.) Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Integratron resembles an astronomical observatory and Van Tassel spent 18 years building the 55-foot diameter structure.
In the high desert about 20 minutes from Joshua Tree National Park, Pioneertown looks like it has been around since the 1800s. But these rustic structures were originally built as a tourist attraction and film set in 1946. You can stay in western-style rooms decorated with Native American blankets, cactus, and rustic furnishings at the Pioneertown Motel. Or catch dinner and live music at Pappy & Harriet’s, where Sir Paul McCartney once played a show.
Borrego Springs Sculptures
Just outside Borrego Springs and near the boundary of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Riverside County–based 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. It’s quite a remarkable menagerie, with everything from desert bighorn rams in battle to a gigantic, 350-foot-long sea serpent that appears to be slithering through the desert sands. The effect can be truly dramatic on clear nights when the full moon or star-filled skies light up the sculptures.
Desert View Tower
East of San Diego, Interstate 8 leaves the city behind and enters a dramatic landscape of boulder-strewn hills. From a commanding elevation of 3,000 feet in the In-Ko-Pah Mountains, the Desert View Tower offers sweeping panoramas of this rugged terrain, as well of the desert expanses far below. Take in the views from this 1923 landmark built of native stone, then wander through the maze-like Boulder Park Mystery Caves to see folk art-style carvings created in the 1930s.
San Diego is one of California’s sunniest destinations. This waterfront city is overflowing with exceptional dining and craft beer experiences, outdoor adventures, family fun, and great shopping. Explore diverse neighborhoods like Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter, the East Village, North Park, and Old Town, head to Balboa Park for a museum-filled day or a trip to see the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Enjoy a day at the water at one of the city’s many beaches, such as Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, or Pacific Beach. You can rent stand-up paddleboards or kayaks at sparkling Mission Bay. Don’t forget nearby La Jolla, SeaWorld San Diego, the Maritime Museum, or some of San Diego famous craft breweries.