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Sightsee in San Diego, El Centro, and Blythe as you explore the Golden State's desert region. Hit Inland Empire cities like Indio and Palm Springs, and check out Beaumont, Hemet on I-10. Stop in Mountain Center and Idyllwild, then Santa Ysabel, Ramona, and back to SD.
Sightseeing in San Diego.
Take I-8 east to El Centro, the agricultural marketing center for California’s Imperial Valley. Some of the state’s largest corporate farms are in this lush valley, thanks to the Colorado River irrigation water. The state’s largest park, 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert, (760) 767-5311, is accessible out of Ocotillo.
South of I-8 past Ocotillo, is the Yuha Desert, (760) 337-4400, a favorite recreational site for off-highway vehicles. To the east of El Centro are the giant, drifting Imperial Sand Dunes, (760) 352-5842, that are also used by OHVs and companies shooting commercials.
Follow 86 north to Brawley and 111 to the Salton Sea, (760) 393-3052. The state’s largest lake was created accidentally in 1905 when a dike broke during construction of the All-American Canal for the Colorado River. The resulting flood lasted two years before water was diverted to its normal channel. With the area sitting 234 feet below sea level, the water naturally flowed into this desert sink forming the 36-mile-long and 15-mile-wide lake. Water sports, boating and fishing are enjoyed here, even though its saline content is higher than the ocean.
Return to 78 in Brawley and to Blythe, named after Thomas Blythe, the town’s developer, an Englishman who early on promoted desert irrigation. The Colorado River runs through the town, making it a great place for canoeing, fishing and rafting. An unusual attraction to visit north of town on a dirt road off US 95 are the mysterious Blythe Intaglios, centuries old figures carved in the earth by Native Americans.
Take I-10 west to Indio and Palm Springs. At Chiriaco Summit, visit the General Patton Memorial Museum, (760) 227-3483, with his memorabilia from WWII. At the junction of I-10 and 86 near Indio, are two Native American gaming casinos, Spotlight 29, (760) 775-5566 and Fantasy Springs, (760) 342-5000.
Explore the Joshua Tree National Park, an 850 square mile park with both a high (Mojave) and a low (Colorado) desert environment. From the Indio Best Western property, go about 23 miles east on I-10 to Cottonwood Springs Road and turn north for the visitor center and south entrance to the park. Admission is per car and you get current information on traveling the area. Interesting sights, great views and nature hikes are throughout the park.
Indio, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, and Palm Springs make up California’s major desert resort area. In Indio, the “Date Capitol of the World”, you can buy all varieties of dates and have them shipped anywhere. Indio Blvd. is Historic Route 66. Six of the planned 20 historic murals honoring Indio have been completed.
Check out Horse Shows In the Sun (HITS) at Indio Desert Horse Park, (760) 775-7731 or (760) 347-0676. For six weeks, the end of January to the middle of March, top international hunter/jumper horses and riders compete over a tough layout. At Palm Desert, visit the McCallum Theatre for the Performing Arts in the Bob Hope Cultural Center, (760) 340-ARTS. The Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention & Visitors Bureau, 69-930 Highway 111, Ste. 201, Rancho Mirage, CA, 92270, (800) 41-RELAX (73529) or (760) 770-9000, have an excellent visitor’s package they will gladly send you.
Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Highway 111 north from Palm Springs to Tramway Road, (760) 325-1391. Bus-size gondolas take you up to the 8,516-foot level in the San Jacinto Mountains in 14 minutes. The views are spectacular. From the mountain station, you can hike, snowshoe or cross-country ski (in season), or take a guided mule ride to the 10,804-foot summit. The area is part of Mount San Jacinto State Park and has a restaurant, souvenir and rental shops. Nearby Indian Canyons, end of S. Palm Canyon Drive, four miles south of Palm Springs, (760) 325-5673, fee, open September to July, is owned by the Agua Caliente band of the Native Cahuilla.
Three canyons, Andreas, Murray and Palm, shelter California’s largest groves of fan palms. They thrive here on the mountain snow run-off and offer marvelous scenery for hiking, horseback riding and picnicking. Palm Springs Desert Museum & Annenberg Theater, 101 Museum Drive, adjacent to Desert Fashion Plaza on North Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 325-7186, open mid-September to mid-June, fee, features an interesting combination of the cultural and natural history of the area, with western and contemporary art collections and a performing arts center. Palm Springs Air Museum, 746 Gene Autry Trail, (760) 778-6262, has the largest collection of legendary fighter planes used in WWII.
The Village Green Heritage Center, 221 South Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 323-8297, fee, includes three antique buildings that reflects the area’s history. In the 1884 McCallum Adobe are tools, clothes and books of the first non-native settlers. Miss Cornelia White’s House, built in 1894 from railroad ties, has Palm Springs’ first telephone. Ruddy’s General Store, (760) 327-2156, is a recreation from the 1930s with period showcases and products. Palm Desert’s Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, one mile south of 111 on Portola Avenue, open September to mid-June, (760) 346-5694, fee, exhibits plants and animals indigenous to the North America desert environs on a 1,200-acre plot that includes a reconstructed Cahuilla dwelling.
Golf and tennis reign supreme here, with more courses and courts open to the public than one could play in months. For detail information, get a copy of Palm Springs Life’s Desert Guide from the Visitors Bureau or the Best Western Inn at Palm Springs or Best Western Las Brisas Hotel. Your host is also an excellent source for dining recommendations, given the wide selection quality restaurants here. Tours of celebrity homes and country clubs are provided by Celebrity Tours, (760) 770-2700. Off-road desert and mountain adventures are available in “misted jeeps” through Desert Adventures, (760) 324-5337.
Take I-10 west to Beaumont. West of Palm Springs and north of I-10 is the field of energy-generating windmills. Call (760) 251-1997 for tours. Hadley’s Fruit Stand, Apache Trail/ Cabazon exit, has been called the “Tiffany’s of dried fruit” and worth a stop to taste the goodies.
At Beaumont take 79 south into San Jacinto Valley and Hemet, home of the Ramona Pageant – California’s official state pageant. Visit the Ramona Bowl Museum & Gift Shop at the Ramona Amphitheater, 27400 Ramona Bowl Road, (951) 658-3111, for history of the pageant and its story. The museum also features Native American artifacts.
Stop by the restored historic Hemet Santa Fe Depot downtown, or the Hetmet Museum. Make a walking tour of nearby historic San Jacinto, Riverside County’s “Oldest Founded City.” If your interests are golf, hang-gliding, hot air ballooning, boating or fishing, you can do it all from this serene valley.
Depart east on 74 and follow 273 to Idyllwild, the mile-high historic lumber town in the middle of the San Bernardino National Forest. It has become a well-known artistic community and home of the Idyllwild School of Music and Arts. Return to 74 and follow it south to 371, taking it west to 79.
Take 79 south to visit the Santa Ysabel Asistencia Mission, (760) 765-0810, built as an outpost of the San Diego De Alcalá Mission in 1818. Several wineries are nearby. On 79, Mt. Palomar Observatory sits on your right near the 6,126-foot peak of Palomar Mountain.
The weekend retreat mountain town of Julian is just down 78/79 from the mission. The town maintains its 19th century character as a gold mining site. Eagle Mining Company, (760) 765-0036, offers mine tours 1,000 feet underground. Many scenic back roads can be explored from here. Take 78 west through Ramona and pick up 67 south to I-8 and San Diego.