4 days in the desert: from the Salton Sea to Joshua Tree

I’ve been off the radar a bit more than usual as of late, and you may be wondering what the heck I’ve been up to! Well, I’ve been a little bit everywhere, more specifically a little bit all over the desert.

48-IMG_1076I’m currently in a busy pizzeria in North Hollywood, overpowered by the hustle and bustle that comes with a city like L.A. that is constantly on the go.

I just spent the last 4 days exploring the Colorado and Mojave Deserts in Southern California, without a recent shower or run-in with civilization, I feel a little out of place. But hey, at least I have some great stories to tell.

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I’ve actually spent a lot of time in the desert recently, with another Coachella Music Festival under my belt, and a week and a half of life in San Diego, I’ve again become accustomed to the dry, relentless heat that comes with Southern California.

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After some temporary farewells (I’ll be back soon y’all!) to some close friends in San Diego, my boyfriend and I took off in our new home: a 1996 Dodge Cargo Van, having no smartphones and using an outdated map from the year before I was born: 1989.

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We first drove up the 101 Hwy, stopping in at one of my favorite haunts in Solana Beach: Pizza Port.

Pizza Port is a little pizzeria that makes delectable pizza and brews their own beer. Oh, and it’s located in one of the most scenic areas of San Diego. What more could you ask for?

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Without a doubt, go there if you are in San Diego.

After filling up on a spicy pie filled to the brim with jalapeños, we continued up the coast and reached The Flower Fields in Carlsbad.

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The Flower Fields is a jubilant place filled with 50 acres of colorful Ranunculus flowers, a relative to the Buttercup. We had a grand time walking around the fields and taking pictures of the diverse colors on hand, and the perfect weather of Southern California.

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With San Diego behind us, we hit the road properly, winding our way through the mountains and the town of Julian, famous for the BEST apple pie in the West.

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Within a couple of hours we had successfully driven ourselves to the middle of nowhere, or in other words, right on track to where we wanted to be.

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Day 1 – The Salton Sea

Think of that standard horror movie that includes a dive bar where everyone stares at you when you walk in, and directs you out of town for accommodation even though they call themselves an inn.

That in a sentence was the Salton Sea that we experienced.

We arrived around dusk and we were the only people camping along the entire eastern shoreline of the lake, so it had the serial killer vibe to begin with.

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In the morning it was a nice view, but we also realized how our first instincts weren’t entirely wrong about being surrounded by death.

There were countless dead fish, and a even a few birds littered around the shoreline, increasing as you crept closer to the water. Also, the sand was made of crushed fish bones. Weird.

The water itself felt slimy, and had a greasy sheen to it.

I don’t know if I would recommend swimming close to shore, or even staying the night if you easily get the spooks, but it would be a scenic picnic spot on your way past.

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It’s a favorite muse for many photographers due to its post-apocalyptic nature and desolation.

Day 2 – Salvation Mountain/Joshua Tree

Leaving the Salton Sea by mid-morning, we backtracked a little ways to see the famous Salvation Mountain in Niland, California, and it did not disappoint.

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Salvation Mountain has a ton of colorful artwork that clearly took a lot of patience and perseverance to construct.

Made with adobe, straw, and paint, Salvation Mountain stands high with its cross and has bountiful bible passages and Jesus love everywhere you look.

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Beside the mountain there is another section to walk through, with crevices and corners of artwork to look at as well as cats that may jump out at you for a little surprise – just ask my boyfriend.

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There were no other people around when we were there. Located in a squatter city with dilapidated motor homes and dust in the middle of nowhere, it was hard not to feel a little creeped out. The repetitive religious fervor and stray cats only added to the effect.

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With that said, Leonard Knight, who created the colorful mountain, is said to have been a fascinating human being by visitors who met him before he passed away last year.

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Even still, I don’t think I would feel comfortable camping in the area overnight.

Day 3/4 – Joshua Tree 

Joshua Tree, are you joshing me? Sorry, I know that was lame. It was what I said all week, so I had to get it out of my system one last time.

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Joshua Tree, the place that U2 wrote an album after, a place that everyone always raves about.

And I can now clearly see why: it’s elegant and moving.

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From our first drive into the southern entrance through the Cottonwood Mountains we knew this was worth coming out to.

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I never would’ve thought a desert could be so beautiful, but Joshua Tree changed that. I had never seen a Joshua Tree before my trip to the park, and they quickly became my favorite (read: only) tree to look at.

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The southern section of the national park is at a lower elevation in the Colorado Desert. Dry, hot, with an abundance of shrubbery, there is only one traditional campsite in the area.

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In the transition zone, there is a change to elevation, a mix between the two deserts – Colorado and Mojave.

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We stopped at the Cholla (pronounced “Choy- ya”) Cactus Garden, and found ourselves surrounded by Teddy Bear Cholla. They were adorable, but not something you’d ever want to cuddle.

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We camped at Hidden Valley and Indian Cove in the Mojave Desert elevation. Hidden Valley was higher up so it was freezing at night in our van, but Indian Cove was much more temperate.

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Even with the lower temperatures, Hidden Valley was my favorite place to rest for the night. It’s in the middle of the park so you have countless hikes and lookouts available to you.

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What I really enjoyed was watching all of the rock climbers that are popular in this campsite in particular.

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Being higher up, the constellations were absolutely stellar – pun intended. It was the first time I had looked up at the stars with no light pollution since coming back from the Southern Hemisphere, and that moment alone really brought home back to me.

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Other highlights of Joshua Tree included Keys View, which looked out over the spanning desert, back to the Salton Sea where we had come from, and even over the Coachella Valley and Indio where I had spent the previous weekend.

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We hiked around the Hidden Valley campsite, climbed huge rocks, found the Skull Rock near the Jumbo Rocks campsite, and even wandered down a trail called the Wall Street Mill that showcased an old gold mining operation.

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On the same trail we found a couple of old cars from the early 20th century left to dust in the desert.

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I can see why Joshua Tree is a place people come back to time and time again, I look forward to going back myself someday.

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Every time we’d look out to the horizon, it almost looked superimposed or like a painting, it was that unrealistic and unique.

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It felt so easy to disconnect from all the worries and stress of technology and cities, because there was so much in the desert to be enamored with.

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It was exactly what I wanted after an overpopulated festival like Coachella that made me question human behavior and the extent of the word rude, even if the music was amazing.

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Joshua Tree was our first National Park on our trip, but it won’t be the last. I’ll be getting lost in many a redwood forest up north.

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I can’t deny it, it feels damn good to be home.

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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