Southern California Desert Trip – Van & Bike Tour

vanlife desert trip in southern california

During late February, 2016, I traveled east from Los Angeles out into the deserts of Southern California with my friends Mike and Sophie (whom you might remember from my travels with them in Romania last summer). The plan was to spend just three short days together exploring Joshua Tree National Park, the Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain, Slab City, the Algodones San Dunes and the Anza-Borrego desert. Then, Mike and Sophie would leave me in Anza-Borrego and I’d cycle around the desert there for a few days before meeting up with my aunt and uncle, who would meet me in Borrego Springs and we’d drive back to their home in Coronado, California together at the end of the trip. That was the plan… and after I met up with Mike and Sophie at their home in Tujunga, California, I threw my loaded touring bicycle into the big blue camper-van they’re currently building up, and we drove east toward Joshua Tree.

SoCal Desert Couple

Our first stop in Joshua Tree was the Indian Cover campground, where large boulders leave a lasting impression on anyone who pays this special place a visit. Then we drove to Keys Point, which is the highest place in the National Park. From there, we were treated with a spectacular view of the valley below. As the sun began to set, we drove south through the park, stopping along the way to walk through the Cholla Cactus Garden. Then, just as the sun was about to go down, we made our way to a long-narrow strip of land just outside the Park’s southern entrance where we set up camp for the evening (along with several other desert dwellers who were camping for free outside the boundaries of the National Park).

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After setting up my tent, we cooked dinner on our camp stoves and then dove into the camper-van together, where we spent the rest of the evening playing Scrabble and listening to Sophie sing and play her guitar. It was Sophie’s birthday too, so I gave her a couple small gifts I had gotten her.

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The following day we packed up our campsite and then drove south to the Salton Sea. We stopped only once or twice on the edge of the lake to get out of the van and look around. Here, we found hundreds of dead fish littering the sea shore. The smell in the air was not a pleasant one!

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Then we drove just a short distance from the Salton Sea to the site of Salvation Mountain – a place I have seen several times in movies (such as Into The Wild), but never thought I’d actually visit for myself one day. The place was just as crazy and colorful as I thought it would be.

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What surprised me most about Slavation Mountain was not the crazy colors of the crazy religious sentiment scattered throughout the monument. What surprised me most was just how many people were there, looking at the place as tourists! I really didn’t expect that. I imagined the place to be far more remote than it actually is.

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After considerable time at Salvation Mountain, we drove just 1 mile down the road to the decommissioned and unregulated site known as “Slab City,” and it’s experimental art area known as “East Jesus.” The artwork, the outdoor bowling lane, the giant sea-saw, etc in East Jesus was probably my favorite part of this entire mini-SoCal vacation that we were on. The place was weird and wonderful all at the same time.

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After a visit the the Slab City library, the pet cemetery, the Range, and several other locations within Slab City, we continued down the road and drove east to the Algodones Sand Dunes, where we found hundreds of people zipping across the sand on dune buggies, ATVs and other motorized play-things. I got out of the van at this point and tried, for a moment, to fly my kite, but the wind died down just as soon as I got the kite in the air.

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Rather than spend the night surrounded by the noise and bustle of the ATV/Dune Buggy crowd, we drove east and found a small dirt road leading away from the main highway. About a half mile down the road, we pulled over and found a place to camp for the night. I set up my tent behind a small dune, while Mike and Sophie began making camp where their van was parked.

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As the sun began to set in camp, Mike and I began preparing our dinners on our two camp stoves. Mike was using a large, two burner propane stove and I was using a small alcohol stove that took forever to cook my meal.

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Once it got dark, Mike and I shot fireworks up into the air and played with the long-term exposures on our DSLR cameras.

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Then, like the night before, we climbed into the camper van and spent the evening playing a game of Scrabble. Like always, Sophie won. Mike came in second. And I came in third.

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The next morning we packed up our camp and drove west toward the city of Brawley, California, where we stopped for food, gas, and to try a local “date shake” (a milkshake made with dates).

I was a little fearful during the drive to Anza-Borrego because I knew that there would likely be a border patrol check point at some point along our drive. I wasn’t afraid of going through the checkpoint because we had illegal aliens in the back of the van though! I was afraid of going through the checkpoint because I was sitting in the back of the van without a seat-belt on. Luckily, there was a checkpoint that we had to drive through, but they didn’t stop us at the checkpoint, so we drove on through without any issues. Whew!

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The scenery really began to change as we grew closer to the Anza-Borrego Desert and the city of Borrego Springs. New plants began to litter the desert on both sides of the road, and as we got slower into town, we began to spot the numerous, large metal sculptures that are scattered throughout the Anza-Borrego desert.

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We stopped at several of the sculptures to get out of the van, look around and take photos, but our time together in Anza-Borrego was actually very short. After just a short while, Mike and Sophie dropped me off in the middle of the main traffic circle in the town of Borrego Springs and we said our goodbyes. Mike and Sophie then drove back to their home in the Los Angeles area and I spent the next three days cycling around the Anza-Borrego State Park areas on my bicycle.

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During my first day in Anza-Borrego, I loaded my bicycle up with plenty of water and then cycled west up a large mountain pass. I stopped to take a few photos along the way, but when I saw that the road just kept going up and there was likely no flat places to pitch my tent for the night, I turned back around, cycled back into Borrego Springs, and began looking for a place to camp somewhere closer to town.

Luckily, finding a place to camp in Anza-Borrego isn’t difficult. I ended up settling on a quiet patch of sand located just a short distance from the giant metal scorpion and the giant metal dragon that are so famous in the Anza-Borrego desert. Once my tent was set up, I went about cooking my dinner and shot a short video about the lightweight camp stove I use in situations such as this.

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The next day I spent cycling around the Anza-Borrego area. It was extremely hot, so I spent the morning in camp, the afternoon in Borrego Springs (relaxing in the shade and eating burritos from a local restaurant), and in the evening I took photos with some of the nearby metallic sculptures.

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Back in camp, I made dinner, short some more videos for the Bicycle Touring Pro YouTube channel, and then went to bed after listening to several hours of “The Revenant” on

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The next day I packed up my bicycle and cycled the short 3 miles into Borrego Springs, California. Once there, I made myself comfortable in the town’s central traffic circle/oasis. I read a book, listened to podcasts, and chatted with the young man below – his name is Sebastian and he’s from Leipzig, Germany. He was cycling on his own from Las Vegas, Nevada to San Diego, California.

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My aunt and uncle were three hours late when they finally pulled into Borrego Springs. After greeting them, I rode my bike just a short distance down the road to campsite #60, where I met with my aunt and uncle once again and we quickly went to work on setting up camp for the night.

Tom and Chris Jeter

Night fell quickly and we spent much of the evening inside my aunt and uncle’s camper-van, cooking dinner and talking about politics (my uncle’s favorite subject), the great outdoors, travel and a whole host of similar topics.

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I spent one more day in Anza-Borrego with my aunt and uncle. We went out to lunch together and then drove south to a campground on the State Park’s southern side, where we spent our second night together before eventually driving back to their home in Coronado, California.

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This was not the traditional type of bicycle tour that I usually do, where I’m on my own and cycling each and every day. I really only spent two days of the trip on my bicycle… and the rest of the time was spent riding along in the back of a camper-van. But it was a good adventure! It was a great escape from my life in the city. And I look forward to doing more mini-adventures like this (with my friends and family members) in the future.

One thought on “Southern California Desert Trip – Van & Bike Tour

  1. Herb Gartley says:

    Hi Darren,
    I ran across your site while investigating for a trip from Pennsylvania to California later this year.
    My name is Herb Gartley and i’ll be retiring in a few months.I enjoyed your video and wanted to say so.

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