What: This psychedelic art installation in the Imperial Valley desert was created by local resident Leonard Knight. It’s a surreal-looking fantasy land of religious messages, frequented by hipsters, backpackers, and feral cats. Follow the yellow brick road to the top, or explore the equally quirky caves surrounding the mountain.
Where: Take the scenic State Route 78 east all the way to SR 111, then go north and follow signs toward Niland. Coming home, the I-8 freeway will be the fastest route back to San Diego. Or make it a weekend trip by heading north and spending a night in Palm Springs.
Eat: Your best bet is to bring your own lunch, picnic-style. Restaurants in this area are few and far between, but there is an In-N-Out Burger just south of where Route 86 crosses I-8.
What: Built in the 1940s, this small desert town was originally designed as a Western movie set. These days, it’s mostly abandoned but still well worth a visit. Stroll down Mane Street and take a picture in the town jail, buy some local handmade goods, and catch the weekly Old West reenactment by the Mane Street Stampede (Saturdays at 2:30 p.m., April through October).
Where: Pioneertown is located just 15 minutes from Joshua Tree. From Route 62, turn north on Pioneertown Road and drive for about 4 miles.
Eat: Despite its outlaw biker vibe, Pappy & Harriet’s (53688 Pioneertown Road) is a family-friendly restaurant and concert venue, and the obvious place to stop for some BBQ fresh off the outdoor grill.
Jacumba Hot Springs
What: During the 1920s, Jacumba Hotel, a once famous resort in this sleepy town just north of the Mexican border, has hosted some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The property was destroyed in a fire in 1983, but you can still see its remnants. Stop at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo (750 Depot Street) on the way for more sightseeing.
Where: It’s the journey, not the destination—or a little bit of both. Half the fun of this road trip is the scenic drive. From San Diego, take Old 94 east to Old Highway 80 and follow the signs for Campo and Jacumba.
Eat: Jacumba Hot Springs Spa & Resort (44500 Old Highway 80) serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a Southwestern twist. Wash off that car smell in one of the resort’s mineral water pools for an additional $25.