“Well you gassed her up/Behind the wheel/
with your arm around your sweetheart/
in your Oldsmobile/barreling down the boulevard/
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night.”
Joshua Tree National Park; from the West Entrance to the South Entrance
After all these years, a cruise through Joshua Tree National Park remains one of the best driving experiences of my life. I was driving Barbara’s ’92 BMW 325i convertible. She was sitting passenger and Roberto reclined across the rear seat. On a whim we entered the park at the West Entrance. Roberto gave Barbara a home-recorded cassette tape of Steely Dan to pop in the player. We dropped the top, turned up the volume, and set out. Some time around the end of the tape, we’d reached the South Entrance near Interstate 10. None of us had said a word in nearly 90 minutes. It’s hard to say whether it was the Joshua trees, the rock formations, the absence of other cars, the amazing curves of the road, the breathtaking vistas, or the company of good friends who don’t have to crack a single joke to have a great time, but it was the best drive. Ever.
Highway 74; from El Paseo to Temecula
Ascending and descending the Palms to Pines Highway over the Santa Rosa Mountains is a thrill in itself — no destination required. But one of the fun parts of committing an entire day to Highway 74 is side trips to Idyllwild, Temecula, and San Juan Capistrano. The route originally ran from the ocean through the Ortega Mountains to Lake Elsinore, then through Perris, Hemet, and Mountain Center, and descending to Palm Desert. Like a lot of the old blue highway systems, 74 has been broken up and incorporated into the interstate system (in this case, I-215), but enough remains to get glimpses of a bygone California. For a worthwhile pit stop on the return, go south from Lake Elsinore to Temecula, visit the many excellent wineries, and then take highways 79 and 371 back to Highway 74, pop back over the mountains, and Bob’s your uncle.
National Old Trails Highway (Route 66); Twentynine Palms to Amboy
This broken-up stretch of the old Route 66 that runs more or less parallel to Interstate 40 starts out east of Barstow and will take intrepid motorists through ghost towns and villages teetering on the edge of the grave such as Klondike, Siberia, Bagdad, and, perhaps the most famous California Route 66 relic, Amboy. The latter was founded in the 19th century as a railroad stop, but only achieved incorporated status in the 1930s when Route 66 put it on the map. Town owner Roy Crowl opened Roy’s Motel and Café, a must-visit for highway travelers. Though the gas station nearby is open, the café has sadly stopped serving food and is now a gift shop. The majority of the buildings are abandoned, though there are reports the motel has a few rooms for rent. If you don’t mind sharing the space with a few ghosts.
Palm Springs to Borrego Springs
Borrego Springs is the only town in California completely surrounded by a state park. It is also the only town in California completely surrounded by dinosaurs. The prehistoric critters and supersize bugs are the creation of metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda. It is a completely surreal experience to drive around in this flat desert expanse and come across a couple dinos duking it out. The drive really picks up once you pick up some tacos para llevar at Taqueria Allende in Coachella and munch them as you meander around the western flank of the Salton Sea. You really need an entire weekend to scout Borrego Springs. It’s the first community in the state to be an International Dark Sky Community, dedicated to preventing light pollution from interfering with some of the most intense, vivid, and extraordinary stargazing on earth.