Southern California is famous for more than just Hollywood stars and bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways. This area of the Golden State is also home to all of California’s deserts. Desert hiking opportunities are abundant near Los Angeles and many other SoCal metro areas, with broad stretches of amazing desert landscapes within easy reach. Each of the desert areas of California has a beauty all its own, making the California desert region a must-hike destination for desert lovers around the country. In this post, we’ll put the spotlight on our favorite Southern California desert hikes and the seven best trails that take you into these special places. Time to lace up those hiking boots; there’s some amazing desert hiking in store!
California plays host to three major desert systems: the Mojave Desert, Colorado Desert, and the Great Basin Desert.
The Mojave Desert
The Mojave Desert sits beneath the Tehachapi Mountains in the northwest with the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain ranges to the south. This massive desert complex extends eastward all the way to the state’s border with Arizona and Nevada. Formed in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevadas, the Mojave Desert is home to fascinating desert landscapes and unique plant species like the ironwood and blue Palo Verde.
The Colorado Desert
Far from Colorado, the Colorado Desert forms the extreme southeastern tip of California, nestled between the Colorado River and coastal ranges. It’s actually an extension of the Mojave Desert system, but it’s distinct enough to have bagged its own naming rights. This low-lying region is home to the iconic creosote bush and the Salton Sea, a brackish lake formed over a salt-covered sink that was flooded in the early 1900s when diversion controls on the Colorado River failed.
The Great Basin Desert
Due east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Great Basin Desert stretches all the way to the border with Nevada. This desert hosts a wide range of geographic features, including low salt basins, dry sagebrush-filled valleys, gorgeous pinyon-juniper forests, and towering mountains. The Great Basin is also home to many genetically unique and isolated plant and animal species.
California National Parks
The California desert region hosts two national parks: Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. Both are well-known, easy to reach, and provide numerous desert hiking opportunities near Los Angeles and many of Southern California’s other major population centers.
Death Valley National Park
About a four-and-a-half-hour drive from LA, Death Valley National Park holds the title of being the lowest, hottest, and driest national park in the country. But don’t let that discourage you! Death Valley offers some of the most surreal, otherworldly desert hiking opportunities anywhere. Salt flats that stretch on forever, rocks that appear to move on their own, and massive flushes of wildflowers after rare rain storms are all on offer for those willing to venture out into this California desert.
Joshua Tree National Park
Erem team hiking at Joshua Tree National Park
Just a hair over two hours from LA, Joshua Tree National Park is much more accessible to those who value ample comforts after a long day of desert hiking. Close to the resort town of TwentyNine Palms, Joshua Tree takes its name from the yucca plant of the same name. It’s a place filled with fantastic rock formations, unique plants and animals, and miles and miles of well-marked trails.
Check out our list of top places to stay near Joshua Tree National Park.
7 Southern California Desert Hikes You’ll Love
Southern California’s desert hiking is some of the finest in the country for those who crave the unique beauty and serenity of arid landscapes. Here’s a collection of some of our favorite trails.
1. Amboy Crater Trail
Amboy Crater Trail. Photo credit @ramblinroad_tk.
- Distance: 3.5 miles out-and-back
- Location: Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark
What makes this one special: The Amboy Crater Trail is full of epic desert views, seasonal wildflowers, and a unique hike across a basalt lava field to a 300-foot-tall cinder cone.
2. Badwater Basin Trail
Badwater Basin. Photo credit @robertbrown1105
- Distance: 1.5-2 miles out-and-back
- Location: Death Valley National Park
What makes this one special: At 282 feet below sea level, you’ll love lacing up your boots and hiking one of America’s lowest places. Incredible expanses of salt flats await. Hike the full distance to get the best views of the unique salt formations called salt polygons.
3. Mosaic Trail
Mosaic Trail. Photo credit @dreamketchers.
- Distance: 4 miles out-and-back
- Location: Death Valley National Park
What makes this one special: Weave your way through nature’s handiwork as you hike into a gorgeous sandstone canyon. Keep your eyes peeled for the beautiful but shy desert collared lizard that calls this area home.
4. Indio Hills Trail
Indio Hills Trail. Photo credit @lance.gerber.
- Distance: 5 miles out-and-back
- Location: Palm Springs, CA
What makes this one special: Located close to Palm Springs, the Indio Hills Trail is a hidden gem that takes you through sinuous canyons and up some moderate switchbacks before rewarding you with long-distance views of the Coachella Valley and surrounding mountains.
5. Kelso Dunes Trail
Kelso Dunes. Photo credit @achipforyou.
- Distance: 3 miles out-and-back
- Location: Mojave National Preserve
What makes this one special: The Kelso Dunes Trail is an epic climb up 600-foot-tall sand dunes in Mojave National Preserve. Over thousands of years, winds have been at work piling sand here from the nearby Mojave River sink.
6. Barber Peak Trail
- Distance: 6 mile loop
- Location: Mojave National Preserve
What makes this one special: Immerse yourself in the splendor of long-distance desert vistas and close-up views of an amazing assortment of desert fauna, including Joshua trees, prickly pairs, and more. The Barber Peak Trail passes by some truly incredible rock formations that are favorites with rock climbers.
7. Panorama Loop Trail
Panorama Loop Trail. Photo credit @jadeflwr_serenity.
- Distance: 6.6 mile loop
- Location: Joshua Tree National Park
What makes this one special: Work your way up a 1,000-foot elevation gain as you journey up a mountain ridge. Your reward? Incredible views of distant mountains, dense stands of Joshua tree forests, and pinyon-juniper woodlands.
All Great Desert Hikes Begin With Good Preparation
We may be biased, but it’s a simple fact that desert hikes are the best hikes. But even the most beautiful hikes in arid regions can quickly turn into painful and downright dangerous experiences for the unprepared. That’s why planning ahead for the right gear is so important. Check out our planning resources to ensure you’re ready to hit the trail safely on your next journey into the desert.
- Ultimate Desert Hiking Gear List
- 7 Best Electrolyte Powders and Hydration Supplements
- 6 Best Backpacks for Desert Hiking
- 5 of the Best Hydration Packs For Hiking
- 7 Best Hiking Socks for Hot Summer Hikes
- 13 Tips for Hiking in the Desert
The Desert Is Calling.
Stillness. Beauty. Peace. Desert hiking is a great way to experience all of these. At Erem, when we’re not in the shop, we’re in the desert, exploring the special places that inspire us to craft desert hiking boots to help fellow adventurers do the same. We design and manufacture desert hiking boots for optimal performance in some of the planet’s most unforgiving landscapes.
Erem hiking and backpacking boots are crafted using full-grain leather uppers and are loose-lined with moisture-wicking, 100% TENCEL™ Lyocell to regulate foot temperature and naturally prevent odor. Every pair we make is produced to our Biocircular standard, using only materials with proven paths back to nature. When they’ve hiked their final trail, Erem footwear can completely biodegrade. But goodbyes aren’t always easy, and that’s why we created our Reboot program. Just send your worn hiking boots back to us, and we’ll restore them to a good-as-new condition, new laces and all.
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