3 Day Itinerary for a Unique Southern California Desert Road Trip

The desert is one of my favorite places to explore and in this post, I’m sharing a California desert road trip itinerary for a weekend in the Colorado Desert.

Maybe you haven’t heard of the “Colorado Desert” before (which is part of the larger Sonoran Desert), but it includes places like Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, the Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

My husband and I took this trip and it ended up being so much fun! I have to say that this might be one of the best weekend road trips in California. I had no idea there were so many cool things to see in the Colorado Desert!

Art Installation for the 2019 DesertX in Palm Springs

We were lucky enough to have the DesertX event (this is what I like to call a “scavenger hunt” of art exhibits throughout the Coachella valley) happening at the same time as our trip, so this made it even more fun!

We planned a very quick trip just to get an idea of what the area is like, so feel free to expand this itinerary and spend more time in some of the places you think you will like the most. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the journey!

Note: This itinerary will work whether you are leaving from Los Angeles, Orange County or San Diego. The distance and driving time are all calculated as if leaving from Orange County.

3 Day Itinerary for a Unique Southern California Desert Road Trip

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Windmills in Palm Springs

Day 1: Arrival in Palm Springs

Start your California desert road trip with a quick night in Palm Springs! This section of the itinerary is going to have the most traffic, so if you are doing this road trip over a weekend, it is a good idea to get a head start as early as you can on Friday.

There are so many things to do in Palm Springs that it really deserves a whole weekend on its own, but for the sake of completing this road trip in just a weekend, I’ll just share a few favorites with you below.

Distance from Orange County to Palm Springs: 95 miles

Driving Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Where to Stay in Palm Springs: Check out these Palm Springs Hotels!

Things to Do in Palm Springs:

Before you leave Palm Springs the following morning, fill up your gas tank and grab some snacks and water. You are about to enter a very remote area and there won’t be many options to do this along the way!

Optional Day:

If you have extra time in your itinerary, spend a day in Joshua Tree National Park, which is just 30 minutes from Palm Springs.

Overview of Salvation Mountain

Day 2: Explore the Salton Sea area

During this part of the road trip, you are getting pretty deep in the remote Southern California desert. You may even feel like you are literally the only person on the road. You just might be! There are no stores, restaurants, and only one gas station that I saw driving through the Salton Sea.

Important note: There is a lot to cover on this day and I recommend getting through all of this and driving to Borrego Springs for the night. If you run out of time and find out that you will not be able to make it to Borrego Springs, find a hotel in El Centro, which is the closest city to civilization (kind of kidding but not really) and has several hotel options.

Total Distance: 218 miles

Driving Time: 4 hours

Where to Stay in Borrego Springs: Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort

Stop #1, Day 2: The Salton Sea

One of the most recommended stops along the Salton Sea is Bombay Beach. Wow, what an interesting place to visit!

If you don’t already know, the Salton Sea was once a pretty happening place and an escape for Hollywood stars back in the 50’s and 60’s. Now, the lake is full of bacteria, the area looks completely abandoned, and it almost feels post-apocalyptic.

You will see abandoned structures in this area, which make for an interesting photo and story to tell, but that eerie feeling might get you back on the road again sooner than you think.

Stop #2, Day 2: Salvation Mountain

Next up is the Instagram-famous Salvation Mountain. This man-made brightly colored “mountain” took a man named Leonard Knight a whole 25 years or so to build. There is a deep history behind this mountain and if you are interested in learning more about it you can visit the official website of Salvation Mountain, Inc.

Info and tips for visiting Salvation Mountain:

  • Salvation Mountain is open 365 days per year from dusk to dawn
  • Parking at Salvation Mountain is free
  • Cash donations are appreciated; there is a box on-site
  • Leashed pets are allowed
  • Follow the yellow brick road!
VW Bus art display in East Jesus

Stop #3, Day 2: East Jesus

Right down the road from Salvation Mountain in this “off-the-grid” community called Slab City, you can find East Jesus. (Slab City is basically a community of people that decided they wanted to live a different way of life – without the pressures of modern life, without modern amenities, even without basic utility services.)

East Jesus has an area of unique art installations made of recycled items. You can walk through the East Jesus art museum for free, but donations are appreciated. While you are there you can learn a little more about the area and the way of life by asking the guide at the entrance.

Stop #4, Day 2: Imperial Sand Dunes

One of the coolest natural sights on this Colorado Desert road trip are the Imperial Sand Dunes (also known as the Algodones Dunes or Glamis). These are the largest mass of sand dunes in the state of California, so it’s worth a quick pit-stop!

Stop at Hugh T. Osborne Lookout Park to check out the views. If you decide to walk out on the dunes just watch out for off-road vehicles because there will probably be a lot of them buzzing around.

The Palm Canyon Hotel in Borrego Springs, California

Stop #5, Day 2: Borrego Springs

Finally, make your way into the cute town of Borrego Springs for the night. The Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort is the perfect place to stay in Borrego Springs!

The resort offers three types of accommodations: standard hotel rooms, glamping in vintage Airstream trailers, and an RV park. All options are budget-friendly and the resort is centrally located right down the street from the entrance to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It has everything you need (restaurant and saloon, pools, hot tubs, a general store, a fitness center, and even a laundry facility).

Get some rest and prepare yourself for a day in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park!

Day 3: Borrego Springs and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

For the last day of your Southern California Desert road trip, take some time to get familiar with Borrego Springs and explore some of the popular spots in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California so there is a lot to see. You definitely won’t be able to see everything in one day, so I’ll take you through some of the highlights.

This is another place that deserves an entire weekend trip on its own. Find out how to spend a weekend in Borrego Springs.

Total Distance: 165 miles

Driving Time: 3.5 hours

Stop #1, Day 3: Breakfast in Borrego Springs

Start the day with breakfast in downtown Borrego Springs. Red Ocotillo is a popular option!

Stop #2, Day 3: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center

After that, head to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center to purchase a park pass for $10. While you are there ask any questions that you have about the park and grab a map!

Scenery on the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail

Stop #3, Day 3: Borrego Palm Canyon Trail

Down the street from the Visitor Center is Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, where you can park for hiking Borrego Palm Canyon Trail.

The Borrego Palm Canyon Trail is one of the most popular hikes in Anza-Borrego and just a short 3-mile trek where you can find a beautiful palm tree oasis at the end. This is a great introductory hike for your first time in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Stop #4, Day 3: Downtown Borrego Springs

Stop back in town to have a filling meal at Los Jilberto’s Taco Shop before heading to the next hike.

Stop #5, Day 3: The Slot Canyons

Another super popular Anza-Borrego hike is the Slot Canyon. If you don’t have enough time for both hikes, I would recommend this one!

After parking, start your hike from the right side where you can start making your way down through the narrow canyons. You can either hike for about a half-mile and return back the same way or climb up to the top at the end of the trail and walk back that way, which will be up to two miles. 

Sea Serpent metal sculpture in Borrego Springs

Stop #6, Day 3: Galleta Meadows Metal Sculptures

A trip to Borrego Springs is not complete until you have seen at least one of the metal sculptures in Galleta Meadows. My personal favorite is the Serpent. You can get a complete map of all sculptures at the hotel, or google “Borrego Springs sculptures”.

Read more:

If you are not able to see everything you wanted to see in Borrego Springs and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, check out this post to plan a weekend trip to Borrego Springs.

Empty Road in Southern California's Colorado Desert

After a super long weekend exploring Southern California’s Colorado Desert, it’s time to head home. I hope you enjoy this trip and feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions.

Which part of this Southern California Desert road trip do you think you will enjoy the most?

Shop all of my Road Trip Essentials on Amazon!

Read next:

How to Spend a Weekend in Borrego Springs and Anza-Borrego

The Best Weekend Road Trips in Southern California

10 Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Southern California Bucket List

3 Day Itinerary for a Unique Southern California Desert Road Trip3 Day Itinerary for a Unique Southern California Desert Road Trip3 Day Itinerary for a Unique Southern California Desert Road Trip3 Day Itinerary for a Unique Southern California Desert Road Trip3 Day Itinerary for a Unique Southern California Desert Road Trip3 Day Itinerary for a Unique Southern California Desert Road Trip

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