California’s deserts — the Mojave, Death Valley, Owens Valley, etc. — are strange and beautiful, and form a large part of the state; they’re also surprisingly accessible, as long as you use some common sense and take a few precautions.
Don’t be intimidated by the idea of driving through the great California deserts. Compared to driving through the typical Australian, African, or Asian deserts, touring the deserts here by car is usually safe, convenient, and enjoyable, and you’ll see some of the best parts of California, including the Mojave desert, Death Valley, Panamint Valley, the beautiful Mono Lake, and the Owens Valley (at least).
Maybe a third of California is desert, but it’s not necessarily the sort of desert many visitors expect: most of the deserts in California are mountainous, and covered in sage brush and scrub (or Joshua trees), and except for a few spectacular locations like the Eureka Dunes, they’re not the endless sand dunes of the Sahara that some people tend to think of when they hear the word “desert”. Parts of the Californian deserts are even covered in snow in winter, which seems to surprise a lot of visitors.
California’s deserts offer much more than just driving: there’s also hiking, camping, or even just lazing about at a nice hotel or resort (see the Mojave Treks site for some offbeat ideas for places to visit in just the Mojave alone). There are dozens of options from State and National Park campsites, through cheap motels, to expensive resorts; and plenty of package tours cover the whole spectrum from stay-in-the-bus sightseeing to guided off-road four wheel drive convoys. But way off the beaten track, the deserts here are still wild and dangerous, and while most tourists won’t need to worry about that, there are still some rules and common sense things you should consider.
Since most of California’s deserts are crossed by freeways or major highways, a lot of desert driving can be done on good roads with gas, food, water, and accommodation available at convenient locations. Unless you’re really going down obscure back roads or completely off-road, most roads will be paved or fairly good condition gravel; many of the most popular routes across the deserts are actually freeways or highways. Gas stations are usually within easy reach of wherever you are (but gas will usually be more expensive here than in urban and suburban areas). Most of the larger truck stops and small settlements along the highways and freeways will have some sort of cafes and cheap motels as well.
Except during winter, the Californian deserts get really hot, with daily temperatures in the 45 degrees celsius range (I’ve experienced temperatures in Death Valley that were above 50C), and with very low humidity. Death Valley is the hottest place on earth (and one of the driest), and much of the rest of the Mojave is also exceptionally hot. Europeans and Britons by and large will not have much experience with this, so try to remember to protect both yourself and your car:
- If you’re not used to high temperatures, don’t drive through the desert in summer. Do something else — go on a winetasting tour of the Napa valley, or go to the beach, or do something a little less likely to give yourself heat stroke. If you have to cross the desert in the summer, stick to the freeways and try to get an air-conditioned car.
- Always carry enough water for you and your passengers to survive in the desert if your car breaks down. If you’re going away from the main roads and tracks, plan on needing three days’ water for each person; otherwise one day is probably sufficient. The amount of water each person uses per day depends on the surrounding temperature and humidity; in the middle of summer I always carry at least a gallon (4 litres) for each person per day; during the rest of the year it’s probably about half that.
- Carry additional water for your car’s radiator. California’s deserts are usually mountainous, and your car may have to rise from near sea level to over 8,000′ within a few tens of miles. This can really stress the cooling system on older cars, so be prepared to take it easy and watch the radiator temperature and coolant levels. Some highways and roads have water tanks at strategic places next to the road for this, but don’t count on it.
- Your car should be in good condition, reliable, and physically fairly robust. You don’t need any special sort of car in the desert unless you’re going off-road or along some of the worst tracks away from civilization, but you do want to have a car that isn’t going to break down, and that has enough clearance and traction to cope with the smaller dirt roads if you’re leaving the freeways and highways. Don’t attempt to leave the freeways or major highways and roads with a stretch limo, a large RV, or a low-rider, for example.
- Try to have a car with air conditioning. Having said this, don’t overwork your car if it’s small or under-powered by using the air conditioning all the time — turn it off while going up steep or long hills, for example.
- When you’re off the freeways and major highways, fill up with gas and water whenever you can — don’t just assume the next gas station will be open or that the next settlement even has one. You can never have too much gas or water in the desert.
- California’s deserts actually get quite cold during the night; in winter the temperatures can go below freezing. Always carry enough clothing or blankets to keep warm in these conditions (you’d be surprised at the number of tourists who don’t realize this and who end up complaining about the cold nights even during summer!).
- If your car breaks down in the desert, stay with it. Don’t wander off away from the car unless it’s to get help from a clearly-visible call box on the road you’re on or an obviously-inhabited building within a few minute’s walk. Any further than this and you have a good chance of never being seen alive again (and if you have any doubts about how far away something is, don’t leave your car). Try to find some shade near the car, or try to stay in the shade of your car, and don’t waste energy and water with unnecessary movement or exertion. This advice holds for break-downs anywhere in the desert, whether on the side of a major freeway or off the beaten track. If you do leave your car, make sure it’s not in the way of other traffic, lock it, and leave a clearly-visible note under the windshield spelling out who you are, where you’re headed, and when you left. Do this whether you’re leaving because a passing traveler has just offered you a ride into the nearest town so you can call the AAA, or because you’ve just given up after a few hour’s waiting and have stupidly decided to walk the 60 miles back to Barstow on your own. The less well-traveled a particular route is the more likely it is that a passing vehicle will stop and offer assistance. The corollary to this is that if you come across a breakdown or accident in the middle of nowhere, you should be prepared to help as best you can.
- No matter what car you’re driving, learn how to change the tires and wheels on your own, and always ensure that the spare tire has the correct air pressure in it (and get an accurate pocket air pressure meter). If it’s a rental car, make sure it’s actually got a spare tire and wheel and associated tools, and you know how to use them. If you’re going deep into the back country and the car you’re driving has those anti-theft lock nuts or studs on the wheels, replace them with normal nuts or studs if you can — the only time I’ve ever been in serious trouble was (early on in my desert driving experiences) when one of my tires went flat and the little attachment to undo the anti-theft lock nuts failed miles from anywhere down a desert mining trail, and I was simply unable to get the wheel off the car with the “normal” tools (I got back to civilisation by using the instant repair stuff mentioned below combined with stopping literally every mile and pumping the slowly-deflating tire back up again with an electric pump; I did this for about thirty miles, some twenty of which were along a steep, narrow, deeply-rutted dirt track. It took forever). And remember, changing a wheel in the desert can be difficult if you’re surrounded by sand or unstable ground — bring strong flat wooden boards to put under the jack so it doesn’t sink into the sand (the boards don’t have to be especially big, but they do need to be strong enough that the jack won’t go through them, and wide enough that they don’t either sink or tilt in loose dirt or sand). Even better, if you’re going down a desert or mountain back road, learn how to repair (or at least temporarily patch) a flat tire well enough to get you back to a main road. Nothing’s going to repair a large gash or torn wall, of course, but smaller holes and leaks can be dealt with well enough to get you back on the road if your spare tire is also flat or already in use. Get an electric air pump that will plug into the 12 volt supply (the lighter socket, in most cases) and that can pump quickly enough to overcome slow leaks (smaller pumps are almost useless — get a small truck pump). Those flat repair / canned air things you can buy at car places are also actually fairly useful (if you’ve got enough of them), but not because of the air — the repair liquid / goo stuff does actually do some good in my experience by greatly slowing the air loss for smaller holes, but you also often need to keep stopping and pumping the tire back up every few miles with the electric pump because the goo isn’t entirely effective. The tire repair kits that come with the tools that let you put a flexible plug into holes are also really useful, but, again, only if you also have a reasonable pump, the hole is small, and you know how to use the repair kit.
- If you’re going off-road or into the real wilderness, consider renting a satellite phone. You may never need it, but the $50 you paid for it to be with you for a week may be the best investment you ever made — mobile phone coverage is non-existent off the main freeways and highways (and spotty even there) in the deserts, and if your car’s just broken down or you’ve had a serious accident in the middle of nowhere, the phone may save your life (I used to rent one for most desert trips, but then I’m not usually anywhere near places with reliable mobile phone coverage). Alternatively get something like the DeLorme inReach — this will also pay for itself if you ever get into any real trouble away from mobile phone coverage. Yes, I have one; it’s basically replaced the satellite phone for desert driving.
- Again, if you’re going to be going to obscure places you’ve never seen before and that are miles from the nearest busy road, get a GPS. I don’t mean one of those city navigator apps on your iPhone (although they’re helpful and I always have one somewhere in the car on longer trips), I mean a reliable hand-held unit that you can use not only to work out where you are and where to go, but that allows you to tell other people where you are (when you’re using the satellite phone to call in a breakdown, for example), and whose batteries don’t die after only a few hours of use. It must at least be able to give you full latitude and longitude readout, maintain a trail so you can backtrack, and you should keep it on you at all times when you’re away from the car. And don’t forget to mark the car’s position on the GPS before you walk away from the car for that nice little stroll up Mt. Ubehebe or to that abandoned lead mine you can see just across that dry river bed over there…
Unless you’re in a hurry, don’t blindly stick to the freeways — there are lots of good roads that parallel or take more scenic back-country routes away from the freeways. For example, Interstate 40 between Barstow and Kingman (Arizona) parallels the old Route 66 highway, an authentic American historical treasure. You’ll see a lot more driving along this part of the old Route 66 (now known as the “National Trails Highway”) than you would if you just go straight down I-40: you’ll be able to stop next to the road pretty much wherever you like, look at the scenery, take photos, or just walk around and explore the ghost towns and the natural landscape (there are volcanic craters, sand dunes, dry lake beds, etc. all within walking distance of the road).
Don’t be put off by the relative remoteness of the area and the apparent lack of traffic on some of these roads — most roads that are marked on an average California desert road map are well-enough traveled that if you do get into trouble, someone is likely to come along within an hour or two (the CHP, for example, patrols the old Route 66 at least once or twice a day).
On the other hand, don’t blindly take just any old route away from the freeways or highways. Unless you’re pretty sure the road is good (for example a reliable map of the area marks it suitable for the sort of car you’re driving), or you know you’ve got enough gas to turn around and come back from any point along the way if the road turns out to be too much for your car, don’t go down a side road or track without asking locals about it (and always take their advice with a grain of salt). Similarly, if you don’t know how to read a map or navigate using topographical information, don’t go off-road or away from the major marked roads. Always make sure you understand the map you’re using, that it’s up-to-date and accurate, and that you really are where you think you are when you’re using it. Again, a good in-car or hand-held GPS can be a real help here.
For an alternate view of the desert done over the past twenty or more years, check out my The Desert gallery on Hamish Reid Photography. And just to get the mythical California Tourist Bureau all in a tizzy, you can also see a long(ish) video I made a few years ago, “Drive-By: Desert” up on my YouTube channel (but due to weird copyright restrictions, it may not be visible in certain countries). Both the gallery and the video are experienced (or jaundiced) looks at some of the realities of the California desert, good and bad. Definitely not everyone’s cup of tea….