Peculiar desert vibes and Palm Springs luxury collide on the way into the Coachella Valley. Familiar freeways and mountains turn to dusty hillsides and, a crest of wind turbines later, you’ll find yourself with nothing but sand along the shoulder.
Hadley Fruit Orchards
The sugary dates here come caked in almonds, dipped in chocolate or diced into bite-size morsels; we suggest slurping down an icy shake.
47993 Morongo Trail, Cabazon (951-849-5255, hadleyfruitorchards.com). Daily 8am–7pm; various prices.
These 100-ton Brontosaurus and T. Rex sculptures once beckoned motorists (and Pee-wee Herman) to a 24-hour diner. Today they guard the entrance to a creationist-themed dino museum with an interesting take on the facts. At the very least, pose for a photo with Mr. Rex and walk into the gift shop housed inside Dinny the Brontosaurus’s belly.
50770 Seminole Dr, Cabazon (951-922-8700, cabazondinosaurs.com). Daily 10am–4:30pm; museum $10, dinosaurs free.
This canyon-hugging gondola ride is well worth the detour. Board a rotating car at the angular 1963 station and after 10 minutes and a double-digit temperature drop, you’ll find yourself facing the entire Coachella Valley below.
1 Tram Way, Palm Springs (888-515-8726, pstramway.com). Mon–Fri 10am–8pm; Sat, Sun, holidays 8am–8pm. $25.95.
Every festival season, the desert outpost of the Ace Hotel network becomes the epicenter of cool. The grounds, anchored by a midcentury motel and diner, are a low-key place to relax poolside or partake in impeccably programmed music sets.
701 E Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs (760-325-9900, acehotel.com/palmsprings). Various times and prices.
If you plan to camp in this dreamy desertscape during a music fest, secure a reservation months in advance or show up a couple of days early for first-come, first-served sites. Outside the park, you’ll encounter a cultural oasis in Joshua Tree that falls between hippie and hipster.
Even cynics will delight in this emporium, where eccentric decor complements rows and rows of cacti of all kinds. Simply wander around and admire the flora, or for only 59 cents, dig up your own cactus to take home.
49889 29 Palms Hwy, Morongo Valley (760-363-6076, cactusmart.com). Mon–Sat 8am–5pm, Sun 9am–5pm; various prices.
Both a pit stop and a destination, this rustic retreat is as well known for its astounding musical lineups as it is for the Western movie sets next door. The saloon is a worthwhile stop, whether you’re hungry for Tex-Mex or in the mood for some honky-tonk.
53688 Pioneertown Rd, Pioneertown (760-365-5956, pappyandharriets.com). Thu–Sun 11am–2am, Mon 5pm–2am (food served until 9:30pm).
Pie for the People
One of the best slices of New York–style pizza comes from the middle of the desert, just outside the gates of a national park. This pizzeria is the real deal, serving satisfyingly cheesy slices alongside gluten-free and vegan specialty pies.
61740 Twentynine Palms Hwy (760-366-0400, pieforthepeople.com). Sun–Tue 11am–9pm, Wed–Sat 11am–10pm; various prices.
World Famous Crochet Museum
Look for the "art queen" sign on the edge of town, and let yourself in through the gate. In the back of a dusty courtyard, you’ll find this lime-green former Fotomat booth, which is no wider than a closet and is filled from floor to ceiling with a collection of crocheted creations.
61855 Hwy 62 (sharielf.com/museum.html). Open 24/7; free.
Brave tediously straight stretches of I-15, and you’ll find an otherworldly atmosphere along the barren desert haul to Vegas. You can discover some hidden oddities if you venture just a couple miles into the Mojave Desert.
Calico Ghost Town
Calico, the ghost town that the Knott’s Berry Farm facsimile used as a model, is the real deal—mostly. Though some buildings are nothing more than facades, the bones of this silver-rush mining town date back to 1881. Today you can pan for gold, watch a staged gunfight and tour the mine.
36600 Ghost Town Rd, Yermo (800-862-2542, calicotown.com). Daily 9am–5pm; $8.
This desolate 4.5-mile–long road may feel like a path to the end of the earth, but it eventually leads to the photogenic ruins of a fraudulent health spa run by a radio evangelist in the 1940s. Its artificial pond and fountain still stand against the barren backdrop of the dried-up Soda Lake.
Zzyzx Rd, Zzyzx (760-252-6100, nps.gov/moja). Free.
The Mad Greek
This roadside restaurant boasts gaudy Grecian statues and surprisingly delicious gyros. Stop by the World’s Tallest Thermometer across the street and Alien Fresh Jerky down the road for extraterrestrial-themed snacks.
72112 Baker Blvd, Baker (760-733-4354). Open 24/7; various prices.
Never mind the casinos: Your first stop in Las Vegas should be this museum. More than 150 towering colorful signs—some from as far back as the 1930s—are on display at this outdoor boneyard. Book a one-hour guided tour to see them; reservations fill up quickly but are typically available if you call a month ahead.
770 Las Vegas Blvd North (702-387-6366). Daily at various times; daytime $19, nighttime $25.
As you leave a forgettable hours-long stretch of farmland behind, you'll find plenty to break up the latter half of the drive to San Francisco and its grape-growing neighbors, Napa and Sonoma.
Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant
This steakhouse—split into two restaurants and a bar—offers one of the Central Valley route’s few sit-down dining experiences, all housed in a charming inn.
24505 W Dorris Ave, Coalinga (559-935-0717, harrisranch.com/dine). Various times and prices.
Winchester Mystery House
Sarah Winchester kept adding on to this beautiful mess of a Victorian mansion to allegedly ward off the ghosts of Winchester rifle victims. Tours play up its eccentric origins and the eerie air of the stairways and doors that lead to nowhere.
525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose (408-247-2101, winchestermysteryhouse.com). Various tour times; $25–$44.
Muir Woods National Monument
Its walkability keeps this redwood forest trail in Golden Gate National Recreation Area busy, and for good reason: A calm creek cuts through a prehistoric forest of redwoods, to tranquil, majestic effect. The park also offers ranger-led tree tours.
1 Muir Woods Rd, Mill Valley (415-388-2595, nps.gov/muwo). Daily 8am–sunset; $10.
Colorful contemporary furniture complements a dusty pickup truck and an old-timey porch at this Wine Country outpost. The diner pulls in crowds for its comfort food: Nashville hot chicken, biscuits galore and a plethora of shakes.
2698 Fremont Dr, Sonoma (707-938-7370, thefremontdiner.com). Mon–Wed 8am–3pm, Thu–Sun 8am–9pm.
Finding pit stops along this stunning stretch of Highway 1 isn’t a challenge—but leaving Big Sur’s perfume of pines and ocean spray might be.
DAOU Vineyards & Winery
Paso Robles beckons visitors with wineries and tasting flights. If you prefer your vino off the beaten path, climb into the canyons and to the hilltop DAOU Vineyards & Winery, a scenic standout with superb pours.
2777 Hidden Mountain Rd, Paso Robles (805-226-5460, daouvineyards.com). Various tour and tasting times and prices.
You’ll wish you could explore all 56 bedrooms of William Randolph Hearst’s residence, which inspired Xanadu in Citizen Kane, but the gold-trimmed indoor pool and a field of grazing zebras are unforgettable consolations.
750 Hearst Castle Rd, San Simeon (800-444-4445, hearstcastle.org). Various tour times and prices.
A narrow waterfall splashing onto a sandy beach surrounded by rocky, turquoise waters, this is a picture-perfect postcard of Big Sur. It’s a short walk to the clifftop viewpoint from the parking lot across the street. Explore the forest hike near said lot and you’ll come to another cascading canyon waterfall.
Hwy 1 at McWay Canyon, Big Sur (831-667-2315, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=578). 8am–8pm; street parking free, parking lot $10.
Where else can you enjoy wine and a cheese plate as puffs of mist from passing whales dot the ocean hundreds of feet below? The coastal Shangri-la is a popular retreat, so swing by at opening if you can.
4851 Hwy 1, Big Sur (831-667-2345, nepenthebigsur.com). Daily 11:30am–4:30pm, 5–10pm; various prices.
Looking for more road trip destinations?
Whether you're itching for a spontaneous weekend getaway or have months to plan an extended vacation, we've compiled the best road trips from Los Angeles for all kinds of adventuring, because on these routes, it's just as much about the journey as it is the destination.