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Travel The beauty, vastness and intrigue of the California dessert​

Travel

Dry spell

At times challenging, desolate and seemingly endless, the California desert casts its own kind of magic. Here, several decades seem to co-exist – and art is found in the most unlikely places

Josha Tree National Park is a great place for rock climbing, hiking and stargazing.

Josha Tree National Park is a great place for rock climbing, hiking and stargazing.

Robert Orr

As the sun began to burn off the morning mist, I stood in line at the Café Ma Rouge in Yucca Valley, Calif., waiting for my flat white with a double shot. It had been a long night and caffeine was required. (Remind me to tell you about my night in an airstream trailer in the high desert.)

The elderly gentleman in front of me in line turned and gave me a polite once-over. "You are definitely not a desert girl," he said.

"How can you tell?"

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"Well, first clue is that sweater draped fashionably around your shoulders," he said, with a not-so-discreet snort. "Then there's the bare arms and legs. No desert dweller walks around with bare skin showing. And you're not wearing a hat."

He, on the other hand, was definitely a desert dweller. Leathery skin, hollow cheeks, sapphire blue eyes. He sported a white droopy mustache, black cowboy hat, carefully pressed long-sleeved denim shirt and tidy khakis. When he grinned, the skin on his cheeks folded like dry paper. The breakfast line was long and slow, and he was looking for conversational company. By the time we got our coffee and moved to a table on the shady patio, we were pals.

He'd lived out on the desert for most of his life, mostly off the grid and all by himself since his wife had died four years ago. He worked outside in the morning and early evening, and napped during the heat of the midday. Opinionated, eccentric and charming – he epitomized the California desert for me.

The California desert is vast, intimidating and endlessly intriguing. Much like the old timer I'd met in line that morning. As I journeyed through this often challenging territory, I was struck by its layers. This is a part of the country that holds preserved pockets of time, like crystals in a geode. You can ponder the power of primordial nature, in the mountains and craters of the national parks. Out on the desert, visitors can savour the days of the Wild West, the exuberance of the 1920s and the poverty of the dust bowl years. In Palm Springs, you can sample the heady sophistication of mid-century modernity, and everywhere there are vestiges of the hippie dippyness of the 1960s. Depending on where you touch down, you'll find a different face of American history. Here are a mere five pictures of the desert, discovered on a recent meandering safari, to help you curate a visit.

Pioneertown in Yucca Valley once served as a backdrop for Hollywood westerns: Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Gene Autry made movies here.

Pioneertown in Yucca Valley once served as a backdrop for Hollywood westerns: Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Gene Autry made movies here.

BARBARA RAMSAY ORR

Classic Old West

Pioneertown was built in Yucca Valley in the 1940s as a backdrop for filming movies set in the Old West. Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Gene Autry – they all came out to Pioneertown, stayed in the purpose-built motel and filmed in the desert each day. Now that spot, about a 15-minute drive from Joshua Tree National Park and 40-minutes from Palm Springs, is preserved. It's also famous, not for its cowboy movie stars, but for music and the rustic culinary excellence of Pappy & Harriet's Pioneer Palace. Guests tuck in to ribs and steaks and barbecue, and this classic Western fare is excellent. Even Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations TV series made a point of stopping at the legendary Pappy & Harriet's Palace restaurant. But after dinner, it's time for music.

Billboard Magazine named Pappy & Harriet's one of the Top 10 Hidden Gems in the Country. The club attracts artists and musicians from all over the world, including Robert Plant, Rufus Wainright, Daniel Lanois, Vampire Weekend and Feist. Behind Pappy's, the main street of the movie set is still there, with shops now occupying the saloon and the dry goods store.

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Bed down: The Pioneertown motel, where the movie stars used to bunk between takes, has been updated and is a beloved place to curl up for the night after a concert. There are 17 rooms, done in desert-lodge style, simple and rustic, with sometimes dodgy WiFi and no TV. It's a popular site for weddings and photo shoots. Rooms from $230; pioneertown-motel.com

Geological Wonders

The desert is endlessly fascinating, perhaps because it is so easy to imagine what the surface of the world must have looked like when it was still shifting and melting.

Just four kilometres southwest of historic U.S. Route 66, near the town of Amboy in San Bernardino County, is the Amboy Crater – an extinct conical volcano crater, found in the middle of a lava field. It's a good walk to the crater, and hardy hikers can climb to the top. facebook.com/blmcalifornia; Instagram mypubliclands

Joshua Tree National Park encompasses two ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado deserts, and is under an hour's drive from Palm Springs. The mountains, vistas and huge variety of flora, including the eponymous Joshua Tree, make it attractive for hiking and rock climbing. The absence of light pollution makes it an ideal place for stargazing, too. Rock formations, such as Skull Rock and Cap Rock are must-sees. nps.gov/jotr

National park Death Valley is fiercely and frighteningly beautiful.

National park Death Valley is fiercely and frighteningly beautiful.

Robert Orr

Death Valley, another national park, is fiercely and frighteningly beautiful. It's about two hours drive from Las Vegas, and four hours from Palm Springs if you take the route through the Mojave National Preserve. The valley is a graben, the term for a sunken fragment of the Earth's crust. But in these extreme desert conditions don't go exploring without taking necessary precautions. Keep covered, carry lots of water, slather on the sunblock and make sure your cellphone is well charged. On the day I hiked down from Zabriskie Point the temperature was 38 C. There are several trails that wind between smooth folds of terra cotta coloured rock. It's bare, sun-baked and impressively primeval. Badwater Basin at the bottom of the valley is the lowest point in North America. A recent heavy rainfall had left blinding white pools of dissolved salts, surrounded by chaotic shapes where newly formed crystals had oozed up between cracks in the mud. Death Valley has been the backdrop for several movies, including parts of the 1977 Star Wars. (Remember when R2-D2 was captured by the Jawas? Death Valley!) nps.gov/deva

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Rest a while: If you are visiting Death Valley, you'll find resorts to overnight inside the park. The Inn At Furnace Creek is a historic, luxury property (and golf course) that overlooks the valley and was built around an oasis. (Rooms from $519; furnacecreekresort.com) Or try Furnace Inn Ranch (rooms from $209), part of the same organization, but down in the valley offering a less formal and more family-style atmosphere. There is also an interesting Borax Museum here, as well as another more modest motel and four different restaurants.

Lazy Desert Airstream Trailer Park offers rooms with a view.

Lazy Desert Airstream Trailer Park offers rooms with a view.

BARBARA RAMSAY ORR

Hippie Heaven

The desert seems to collect eccentrics and oddballs. Many are fleeing the commercialism and chaos of cities such as Los Angeles, while others see it as a place to go completely off the grid and live life on their own terms.

Roy's Motel and Café on old Route 66 near Amboy, Calif., is worth a stop, if only to photograph the place. It's a fine example of mid-century modern Googie architecture, built in the 1940s and recently refurbished. The diner feels as if it has been wrapped in plastic for decades, and the tall neon sign, so familiar from appearances in movies and commercials, can be seen from miles away. The little motel cottages are being used for art installations, including one by a Swiss artist titled Recycle Me, about drinking your own urine – a water conservation message.

Crash pad: Just near Landers, Calif., and a short drive from Joshua Tree National Park is the Lazy Desert Airstream Trailer Park. Way out in the desert, all six trailers, with names like Lava and Tiki, have been restored and decorated in a funky rock/hippie style. The brainchild of Kate Pierson, a member to the B-52s, the vintage Airstreams are the perfect Love Shack for couples who like a little adventure. (With poor planning, we arrived at Kate's Lazy Desert in the pitch dark, after some white-knuckle driving on sand trails that often threatened to disappear.) The trailers are refurbished vintage, not new. Nothing but desert surrounds you and the closest café is nine kilometres away. There is, however, complete silence, an amazing sunset and even better sunrise. Trailers from $230 a night; lazymeadow.com

Refuel: With only instant coffee available in the trailer, I drove out to Café Ma Rouge in nearby Yucca Valley. It's a superb coffee bar with freshly made croissants, sandwiches and homemade specials. marouge.net

Murals at TwentyNine Palms take cues from the light and colours of the desert.

Murals at TwentyNine Palms take cues from the light and colours of the desert.

Robert Orr

Arts and Culture

The clear light and glowing colours of the desert have always attracted the artsy, and so it's easy to find galleries, festivals and artistsin the area.

Drink in the desert art aesthetic at TwentyNine Palms, a town built around an oasis. In 1994, the town began commissioning artists to create murals on the local buildings to attract visitors (town officials were inspired by a similar initiative in Chemainus, B.C.). A map of the 25 artworks is available from the Visitors Centre. visit29.org

Turn off TwentyNine Palms highway and head out to find the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum. Many of Purifoy's installation works are in major museums, including the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art, but these pieces are designed to show the effects of time and weather on the art. noahpurifoy.com

Overnight oasis: The 29 Palms Inn is built around the original Oasis of Mara, and offers desert style adobe bungalows and cabins. Don't be surprised to see some familiar Hollywood faces around the pool who have fled Los Angeles for the uninterrupted quiet of this historic resort. The Restaurant at the 29 Palms Inn is full of local original art and offers poolside diningand a menu that features local produce, much of it from the resort's own gardens. Rooms from $100 (U.S.); 29palmsinn.com

In Palm Springs, mid-century modernism and swimming pools abound, such as at the Saguaro Hotel.

In Palm Springs, mid-century modernism and swimming pools abound, such as at the Saguaro Hotel.

BARBARA RAMSAY ORR

Mid-century sophistication

Palm Springs feels like a permanent exhibition of the best of mid-century architecture. The heart of the city is full of houses designed by the best in the field – Richard Neutra, William Krisel, Albert Frey, John Lautner – and commissioned by stars – Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Leonardo DiCaprio, Liberace and Barbra Streisand (who owns two).

Tour the movie stars' homes with Windmill Tours (windmilltours.com), where you can drive through the leafy streets with a knowledgeable driver in an open Jeep, or do your own tour with a self driving map of the Most Notable Buildings in the City produced by the Palm Springs Modern Committee (psmodcom.com). Or come for Palm Springs Modernism Week, Feb. 11 to 21, to celebrate the city's design aesthetic and architecture in films, lectures and home tours. For fabulous views of Greater Palm Springs and the whole valley, ride up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of San Josinto, where there are hiking trails, and a restaurant. Canadian author Lori Lansens set her latest novel, The Mountain Story, here.

Sleepover: The Saguaro Palm Springs is a colourful upscale makeover of a mid-century motel, with a chill pool and a restaurant manned by Iron Chef star Jose Garces. It becomes a hyper cool central gathering place during Coachella. Rooms from $160; thesaguaro.com

Where to Eat: You are spoiled for choice in Palm Springs, but one good option is Eight4Nine, with its crisp white interior and minimalist decor. Try the ahi poke or the lobster carbonara, and sophisticated s'mores for dessert: homemade marshmallows with graham cracker crumbs and a mini dark-chocolate fondue pot. eight4nine.com

The writer received reduced rates and meals as a guest of Visit Greater Palm Springs.

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