Sure, you can cover the distance from Vegas to LA in four hours flat. But we prefer the slower route: a four-day itinerary that takes in the mountains, the deserts, and the quirky, curbside attractions that define life lived on the open road.
Once you've had your fill of Sin City hedonism and debauchery, it's time to detox. Red Rock Canyon, a scenic 200,000-acre area dominated by red sandstone rock formations a mere 17 miles west of the Strip, is the perfect place to sweat out those booze-induced calories you picked up back in Vegas. Rock climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding, miles of hiking trails—it's all here, and for just a $7 entry fee.
After soaking in Red Rock's natural splendor, head a half-hour south down Veteran's Highway to see Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains—a public installation of seven towers of painted, stacked boulders that stand more than 30 feet high. These day-glow totems stick out like a sore thumb against the ochre-colored landscape. According to Rondinone, the location is mid-way, physically and symbolically, between the natural (the mountains and the desert) and the artificial (the highway and ceaseless traffic that marches between Vegas and LA).
Before you lose too much sunlight, give yourself enough time to tackle the hour-and-a-half-long drive south along I-15 S towards the Mojave National Preserve, a vast, sunbaked desert of shifting sands and rugged mountains home to coyotes, lizards, and dense forests of Joshua trees. You might want to check out the famous Kelso Dunes, among the tallest in the States. For hikers, Mojave's two-mile Ring Trail loop circles a massive mountain base into a slot canyon, and features some incredible views across the plains.
Though you can pitch a tent basically anywhere with a fire ring, there's plenty of free camping sites (Hole-in-the-Wall and Mid Hills are two good choices for having toilet facilities and staying open year-round). Most are on dirt trails once you turn off Kelbaker Road, and the experience is pretty primitive, but it's well worth the effort to catch a desert sunrise. (JS Tip: Make sure to stop at Nipton for supplies.)
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As you make your way out of Mojave and head towards Joshua Tree, leave time to stop off at some of the area's beloved roadside oddities. The World Famous Crochet Museum is exactly what it sounds like: a run-down photo-processing booth transformed into a quirky museum that honors the art of crochet. Another gem: Intergratron, a wooden dome built back in the 1950s where visitors can have their aura "tuned up" via a sound bath. Next, channel your inner artist at Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum. These dramatic, site-specific sculptures, built from recycled metal, wood, and other manmade scraps, transform with the light and are especially photogenic on sunny or dark and stormy days.
Your final destination of today's drive is, of course, Joshua Tree National Park. A longtime destination for LA artists and outcasts, hipsters now descend in droves, and for good reason. This otherworldly park—a breeding ground for odd rock formations, iconic Joshua trees, and all manners of cacti—lets you escape to Mars. There are first-come, first-serve campsites sprinkled throughout Joshua Tree for heavenly stargazing, or you can stay at the simple-yet-stylish Mojave Sands. The 1950s motel, situated on the edge of the park, has just five minimal, modern rooms, where everything is custom built. After settling in, flip through your room's curated selection of vinyl before posting up at the outdoor fireplace—it's going to be an early day tomorrow.
Especially during the summer, Joshua Tree is best seen during the earliest hours of the morning, before the inevitable desert heat has time to build. Skull Rock, whose two hollowed-out "eye sockets" were formed by erosion and rain, is a favorite point of interest; the Cholla Cactus Garden is another for its dense concentration of fuzzy-looking cholla cacti (resist the urge to touch them).
Have kids in the group (or just want to channel your own inner child)? Pioneertown, just outside the park, isn’t just a fantasy—it’s a real-life living community. See mock gunfights on Mane Street, then hit up Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace for finger-licking barbecue and dancing.
An hour east towards Yucca Valley and then south lands you in Palm Springs, a playground for LA's style setters in the heart of Coachella Valley. Start off your visit with a trip to the Moorten Botanical Garden, home to the world's first cactarium. This isn't your typical botanical conservatory—expect a wild, ramshackle greenhouse perfect for photo ops.
Then, check in to L’Horizon, one of the area's most stylish stays that's hosted the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable. It's not cheap, but you get what you pay for, including a gorgeous alfresco restaurant helmed by Chef Giacomo Pettinari (formerly of LA's Michelin-starred Valentino's), a serene pool lined with city socialites, and, in some bungalows, outdoor showers with views of the San Jacinto mountains.
If you've got energy to spare, cap off (or start off) the night at Bootlegger Tiki, an eight-minute drive up the road, where kitschy Polynesian décor (bamboo ceilings; pufferfish-shaped lights; provocative artwork) is sexy and playful and the handcrafted cocktails are strong and inventive.
After checking out of L'Horizon, head out onto I-10 E. You won't be a half-hour in before passing by the Cabazon Dinosaurs, giant concrete sculptures visible right from the interstate. (These quirky landmarks have made many a movie cameo, but you might know them best from Tim Burton's Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure). There's a $10 entry fee ($9 for kids), but it's worth it for the photo—and the chance to climb inside the T-Rex. Pop into the gift shop, built inside the belly of Dinny the Brontosaurus, for funky mementos.
From Cabazon, it's a straight shot to LA. But if you're not ready to leave the countryside just yet, we suggest spending some time in the San Bernardino National Forest. This monumental, 154,000-acre reserve was designated a National Forest more than a hundred years ago. Old-growth forests include a smattering of Jeffrey pine, ponderosa, and Pacific dogwoods, and there is an abundance of trails for all levels. Cougar Crest Trail is a favorite for its views of Big Bear Lake (and its surrounding mountains) and wildflowers that peak in early summer.