New England summers are a glory to behold, but this year I turned west and took a road trip that tracked the Pacific Coast from Los Angeles to Newport Beach, with an easterly jog into the desert.
I’m pleased to report that disregarding Southern California in the summer is a mistake. Even with the long tail of COVID trailing me along the cliffs and beaches of SoCal, and into the crazy heat of the Mojave, this was a vista-fueled, sun-rich, palm- (and Joshua tree-) bordered vacation. Southern California was more temperate than Boston, and the California Dream still exists (though so does the dark side of the Dream, evident in extreme levels of homelessness and economic disparity).
The beach in Santa Monica is wide; cyclists and in-line skaters cruise the boardwalk, gliding past casual diners digging their feet into the sand at Perry’s Cafe. A friend and I grabbed kale salads and matcha at Urth Caffe and walked toward Santa Monica Pier’s glittering Ferris wheel. With the sun above us and the Pacific to our side, it was easy to understand why my friend moved from New York six years ago, and why my cousin settled in Santa Monica decades earlier.
When you google “weird Los Angeles museums,” The Museum of Jurassic Technology pops up. Beyond the bright glare of a Culver City day, the museum is a dimly lit maze of peculiar and often beautiful exhibits — micromosaics made with butterfly wing scales, dioramas of folk remedies including a snack of dead mouse on toast to cure bed wetting. A room is dedicated to portraits of the Soviet space dogs. The top floor holds an airy, bright Moorish tea room where doves flutter, and in a land where image and mirage are the rule, this museum feels surprising, and as if it could exist nowhere else.
I had dinner with a college friend at AOC wine bar in West Hollywood (no relation to the congresswoman), where every small plate was a delight, the indoor courtyard felt far from busy LA outside, and it was no surprise that the ownership team has won multiple James Beard awards.
Driving through Beverly Hills, stopping for coffee at the Culver City studios, wandering into the sleek Venice storefront of MedMen weed dispensary on hip Abbot Kinney Boulevard and imagining all the dreams made and broken in the massive city of LA, reinforced Frank Lloyd Wright’s words: “Turn the world on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”
After LA I traveled an hour south to Rancho Palos Verdes, a quiet coastal city built on bluffs overlooking the wide Pacific. The views everywhere were expansive, back toward LA, down to the port in San Pedro, and out to Catalina. One of my oldest friends lives there, and we walked on sandy public trails to Terrenea, a luxury resort with 102 acres of bungalows, casitas, restaurants, and rolling gardens. As we sipped iced coffees on the terrace, it was clear that our Jersey childhoods were far, far behind us. Miles of public trails follow the bluffs down to long, rocky beaches, and we gazed across glittering water from one of the westernmost points of the continental United States. Every night the sunsets were astounding.
Then farther south, to Newport Beach. Another transplanted friend took me cycling on the 10.5-mile Newport Beach Back Bay Loop Trail, past protected estuaries, sandy bluffs, and rich bird-watching areas. We walked to Crystal Cove, drove her golf cart to Balboa Island, and took the tiny ferry to Balboa peninsula. We walked past blocks of resort-vibe shops and restaurants to watch her son and dozens of other young teens jump off the pier in an annual Junior Lifeguard tradition.
Yucca Valley was two hours to the east and 25 degrees hotter than the coast. After fortifying with a cactus Palmer and Green Dream sandwich at Frontier Cafe — and dropping some money at Acme 5 Lifestyle — I found Joshua Tree National Park’s ranger station. On the ranger’s desk is an unironic sign that reads, “Don’t Die Today.” My smug East Coast hiker plan was to drive through the park, stop to take photos of the surreal landscape, and hike a few short loop trails with lots of electrolytes. I downloaded a Just Ahead audio tour, which was like having a calm, informed friend along for the ride through the oven-hot, nearly-mystical landscape.
My smugness didn’t last. I pulled off for an easy 1.5-mile nature trail, and after two-thirds of a mile I realized that even with trail markers, there were no other people, the glare was intense, it was 104 degrees, sandy trails are hard to follow, there was no cell signal, and I was alone. Experienced desert hikers have wandered off in Joshua Tree to be found later as bones. I didn’t want to die that day; I turned around.
At 6 the next morning, I rode Nugget the horse into the park with Knob Hill Ranch, the only stable permitted to take riders into the national park. It was a spectacularly beautiful, rugged, quiet 2½ hours with the sun rising in front of us over dozens of Joshua Trees.
I spent the rest of that day in Palm Springs, taking a self-guided architectural tour, eating a giant German pancake at Elmer’s, enjoying a few hours poolside at Arrive hotel with a day pass, and riding 2.5 miles up Chino Canyon in the world’s largest rotating tram car to San Jacinto State Park where the temperature was many degrees cooler than the 116 in Palm Springs. The mountain trails were wooded, and the view from the tram highlighted just how bizarre Palm Springs is, stamped into the middle of a desert.
My desert nights were spent at Sagewater Spa, an eight-room, midcentury modern hotel in Desert Hot Springs where 105-degree mineral water fills the pool instead of chlorine. The waters are incredibly relaxing and sought after for healing, even if they’re barely cooler than the air.
Before I left Desert Hot Springs I visited Cabot Pueblo Museum (built by an early white settler out of salvaged materials), and the San Gorgonio Wind Park, the United States’ first commercial wind farm where a pricey drive-through tour holds special appeal for energy geeks.
I can admit when I’m wrong, and I was completely off-track thinking a Southern California road trip wouldn’t ever make my summer roster (though in the future I may avoid the desert in July). Pack a bag, head west instead of east, bring your sunblock, and enjoy.
Beth Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.