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Sun, Sand and Sculpture in the Southern California Desert


Located in Joshua Tree National Park, Jumbo Rocks is a unique place to see massive stone formations.
Located in Joshua Tree National Park, Jumbo Rocks is a unique place to see massive stone formations.

Choosing a vacation destination can be difficult—do you want to spend a week lying on a beach? Visiting the tourist spots in a big city? Escaping from everything in a mountaintop cabin? Or do you want to ride four-wheelers, explore jumbo rocks and check out astounding artwork in the desert?






Joshua trees abound in the desert around Jumbo Rocks, including along the hiking trails.
Joshua trees abound in the desert around Jumbo Rocks, including along the hiking trails.

While this last choice may not have been at the top of your list, a visit to the small towns of the southern California desert can be a fantastic choice for those looking for something different. Not only are there super welcoming, well-equipped campgrounds where you can spend a fairly inexpensive night, but there is also an astounding array of things to do and see when meandering through the arid areas south of San Diego.


On a recent girls’ getaway road trip, three friends and I piled into a Roadsurfer campervan and visited a number of memorable sites, including Jumbo Rocks in Joshua Tree National Park, Pioneertown, Galleta Meadows, Borrego Springs and Julian, CA. Along the way, we rode ATVs, saw where westerns used to be made, admired amazing sculptures, enjoyed some great meals and spent the evenings staring at star-filled skies in an International Dark Sky Park.


Jumbo Rocks


Jumbo Rocks is exactly what the name says; an area within Joshua Tree National Park that is filled with mammoth, towering rocks. The landscape is surreal; not just because of the rocks but because it is filled with spindly, twisty trees that look straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Wildlife abounds; we spent some time walking alongside a tarantula, as well as watching a family of Gambel’s quail play near our campsite. We also startled a very long-eared black-tailed jackrabbit while hiking the Skull Rock Nature Trail, a 1.7 mile loop that includes a rock formation shaped like a skeleton head.


Pioneertown


In Pioneertown, a film museum documents some of the more than 50 movies and TV shows that were filmed there.
In Pioneertown, a film museum documents some of the more than 50 movies and TV shows that were filmed there.

In 1946, Pioneertown, in San Bernardino County, CA was founded by a group of Hollywood investors, including actors Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. They created a movie set that turned into a tourist attraction; while the front of the buildings look like they’re from the 1880s, numerous boutique type stores are now located inside the stables, saloons and jail along ‘Mane’ Street, providing a fun shopping experience as well as a trip back in time. One of the highlights of the town is the film museum, which is a treasure trove of Hollywood memorabilia. I could have spent hours looking at the movie posters and photos featured there, preserved from the more than 50 movies and television shows filmed in the area in the 1940s and ‘50s.


Borrego Springs/Galleta Meadows


While the town of Borrego Springs only houses about 3,500 people, it is also home to a number of surprising creatures—including a sea dragon, Tyrannosaurus Rex, giant sloths and wild stallions. These huge outdoor iron sculptures, located on Galleta Meadows Estates, dot the landscape and are enough to stop any road tripper cruising along California State Route 3 in their tracks.


The land on which the sculptures sit was originally owned by Dennis Avery, heir to the Avery labels fortune. He decided to add ‘free-standing art’ to his property, and artist and welder Ricardo Breceda complied—adding more than 130 intricate and surreal sculptures to the landscape. Words can’t really describe what it’s like to suddenly come upon a 10-foot elephant in the middle of nowhere—or to drive through the middle of a giant sea dragon, whose 350-foot length straddles the road.





Not only is the town completely surrounded by a state park, but Borrego Springs is also an officially designated Dark Sky Community—the first and only one in California—dedicated to protecting the night sky from light pollution. Though we planned an early night when we arrived at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, instead, we spent the evening sitting outside the campervan and admiring the sparkling skies above.


Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA)


If you’re looking for something active to do, it’s super easy to rent a UTV (utility task vehicle) from Ironwoods Off-Road Rental in Ocotillo Wells and cruise through the desert! Half and full-day rentals are available, and provide access to some of the 85,000 acres of the SVRA, which is adjacent to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.


Whether novice or expert, it’s easy to explore the desert in a rented UTV.
Whether novice or expert, it’s easy to explore the desert in a rented UTV.

Both novice and experienced riders can enjoy flying over sand dunes, motoring down the Devil’s Slide, or visiting the Pumpkin Patch, an area where wind and water continually erode the desert surface to create ‘globular sandstone concretions’ (otherwise known as big, funky rocks). We spent a half-day driving through the desert, and it was a blast. But remember your sunscreen, sunglasses and a scarf for your face—and note that it is a bumpy, sometimes chaotic ride (though I expect that was our driving).


Julian, CA: Apple Pie and Gold Rush History



A visit to Julian isn’t complete until you’ve tasted some apple pie.
A visit to Julian isn’t complete until you’ve tasted some apple pie.

When you’re ready to return to civilization, Julian, CA is a welcoming stop. Located in the Cuyamaca mountains only an hour east of San Diego, the town got its start during the 1870s gold rush and still has a frontier-like feel. Shops are housed in historic buildings, and there is a self-guided history walk that highlights homes of early settlers, as well as town hall and the jail. You can even stay in Southern California’s oldest operating hotel, located in an 1890s historic landmark, or choose from many other accommodations in what is known as the B&B capital of Southern California.


One of the biggest reasons for making a stop in Julian is that it’s famous for its apple pie—and you can get a slice just about anywhere. We stopped at the Julian Pie Company, owned by the Smothers family, and there was a line out the door—but it was well worth the few-minutes wait to try a piece of this freshly made fruity concoction. We also stopped for lunch at Miner’s Diner, established in 1928, which features a historic soda fountain as well as photos, signs and more showcasing the history of Julian.


While we planned this trip ourselves, it’s easy to find out more about where to visit in Southern California. Check out www.visitcalifornia.com for more information.

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