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S.F. to Borrego Springs: Desert Funk

Jenna Scatena | April 23, 2013 | Story California Destinations

From San Francisco, you only have to drive four hours to land on Mars. At least that’s how it will feel when you hit Monitor Pass [Mile Marker 217], the 8,300-foot panoramic gateway to the Eastern Sierras’ rusty moonscape. And that’s just the start of the otherworldliness on this trip.

An hour and a half down Highway 365, at Mono Lake [MM 292], kayak through a forest of petrified tufa towers: gnarled calcite stacks that jut from the turquoise water. A guide from Caldera Kayak acts as your personal geology professor–fitness trainer on the four-hour trip. Replenish with lobster taquitos at the quirky Whoa Nellie Deli, which proves that the phrase “gourmet gas station” is not an oxymoron.

For a vision quest of another sort, continue along Highway 365 to Joshua Tree [MM 652], where the Hicksville Trailer Palace (rates start at $75) is a veritable Airstream kingdom, with vintage trailers converted to themed rooms, like a swinging ’70s bachelor pad or a genie bottle. A saltwater pool, a BB gun range, and a roof deck with a hot tub help pass idle time. A short drive away in Wonder Valley is The Palms (760-361-2810), a campy saloon that looks as if it were designed by David Lynch.

Venture two hours south, bypassing overtouristed Palm Springs, to the humble town of Borrego Springs [MM 769]; you won’t find a single stoplight or chain store in the modest three-block town. The desert oasis does have one flashy new glass building—the Borrego Art Institute (, complete with an art gallery and workshop. For true funky desert art, hit Galleta Meadows, where 131 larger-than-life steel sculptures, including a 350-foot-long dragon, populate the otherwise deserted plain. Rain willing, this month vibrant-hued wildflowers will carpet the valley floors.

Fall asleep by a roaring fire at the pueblo-style Borrego Valley Inn (rates start at $180), and in the morning, wake to homemade breakfast tacos or chilaquiles. Sip your coffee in the cactus-studded courtyard as you prep for a day in what can only be described as a geology nerd’s playground.

On the drive to Slot Canyon—a sandstone labyrinth worth wandering through for a few hours—you’ll pass honeycomb cliffs surrounded by the desert’s 6,000-foot peaks and diverse terrain. From Fonts Point, a large, angled plateau resembling a UFO launchpad, you can see beyond a vast maze of badlands all the way to the Salton Sea and Mexico. But the best view is the one that astronomer Dennis Mammana provides on his new “Celestial Overnight” trip with California Overland: close-ups of planets, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies (1,000 square miles of darkness makes the night sky clearer). Afterward, you’ll sleep in a tent amid tamarisk trees and sweeping sand dunes.

Add a day: Stray from the bizarre and add an extra night between Joshua Tree and Borrego Springs at the recently reopened Hotel Lautner (rates start at $225) in Desert Hot Springs. The four-unit boutique hotel, adorned with succulent-clad gardens, was built in 1947 by a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé and looks straight out of the set of Mad Men.

More Summer Get Aways:

S.F. to Santa Cruz: Highway 1 via two wheels
Three days (suggested time), 123 miles (one way), $$

S.F. to Borrego Springs: Desert funk
Five days, 769 miles, $$

S.F. to Truckee: Summer camp flashbacks
Two days, 200 miles, $$$

S.F. to Venice Beach: Paradise hopping
Four days, 448 miles, $$$$

S.F. to Humboldt: Oysters, hot tubs, martinis
Three days, 330 miles, $$

S.F. to Mendocino: Wine country underground
Three days, 165 miles (bring a designated driver), $$$

S.F. to Bear Valley: Sierra camping without the masses
Three days, 182 miles, $

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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