The Ultimate Coachella Road Trip
Your Instagram will thank you.
It’s true – come April, an hour and forty-five minutes east of Los Angeles in the Californian desert, sleepy Palm Springs becomes synonymous with the “hipster mecca” that is Coachella Music and Arts Festival. With clear blue skies and golden sunshine on the daily regardless of season, it’s no wonder the festival calls the desert resort city its annual home, and for native Los Angelenos, their go-to weekend getaway destination.
If there’s one thing that SoCal locals love, it’s the desert. A spontaneous decision to jump in the car and cruise down the Interstate (for those in the know, the 10 is the traditional route), never ever results in a bad time. The drive alone is beautiful; snow covered mountains line the horizon, while sun soaks your skin as you pass miles and miles of roadside cacti. Part of the charm is the vastness of the land – you can wander for hours and not come across another human if you wish, which is an impossible ask in the hustle of the LA ‘burbs. The other part is the impeccable weather and visually stunning landscapes. But mostly, it’s the cool stuff that you can find out there among the Joshua Trees.
If you’re lucky to be able to stay over one of the Coachella weekends, take the time to stop at these landmarks along the way, and don’t be afraid to venture further into the Coachella Valley past your Palm Springs drop pin to the get the maximum desert experience.
You’ve been driving for over an hour, so it’s snack time. Take the exit towards Malki Road and find yourself at a Mexican heaven, otherwise known as a taco stand. Crazy Coyote Tacos is a standalone hut in the middle of nowhere that offers homemade tortillas and a range of salsas with an authenticity that cannot be beat. Head further down the road and come across Hadley’s, a local fruit orchard that makes the best banana-date shake known to man. Hand-picked dates from the orchard nearby have become a staple for generations of travellers through the area, so much so that the milkshake is claimed as world famous and it’s the perfect icy treat in the high heat.
If you stop in this area, you will find yourself in Cabazon, a town that hosts two gigantic dinosaurs named Dinny and Mr. Rex.
The dinosaur sculptures, which weigh in at 100 and 150 tonnes respectively, were built in the ’60s and have become icons in Californian roadside culture. For oversized novelty item lovers, this is a landmark not to be missed; not only for the obvious Instagram opportunity, but movie buffs may also recognise the Cabazon Dinosaurs for their cameo in the 1985 Tim Burton film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It will definitely earn you a few notable double taps for the onward journey.
You’re already out there on the open road, so why not make the most of it? Detour left off the I-10 towards Pioneertown on CA-Route 62 in the Yucca Valley, and you will stumble across one of the coolest biker bars in the Mojave. Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is a thriving roadhouse nestled within a deserted ghost town two hours outside of LA, founded in1946 by sons of pioneers. In its hey-day, Hollywood investors built it up as an elaborate set to shoot western films, and between 1946 and 1955 over 50 films and TV shows were filmed there. Following the death of the western, the cantina facade that once stood became a hard knock biker bar, and by the ‘80s, was transformed into a saloon style drinking hole that has since provided the stage for everyone from local folk musicians to Hanni El Khatib, Rufus Wainwright, Peaches, Robert Plant and the Arctic Monkeys.
You’ve Reached Your Destination
Arriving into the centre of Palm Springs, you’re immediately appeased with palm lined streets, manicured lawns of pastel homes and modernist architecture straight out of Mad Men. Complete with a high population of convertible Cadillac owners, the highly stylised nature of the city wouldn’t be complete without a cactus garden. Another relic of the art deco ’30s, the Moorten Botanical Garden on South Palm Canyon Drive plays host to the “world’s first” Cactarium, a conservatory of every single species of succulent you could image. If desert plants ain’t your thing, the garden also houses a variety of crystals, rocks, ancient fossils and pioneer relics.
By this time, the sun is getting low (around 7pm in the summer) and you’re ready for a casual pool hang with cocktail in hand. Head no further than just around the corner to The Ace Hotel and Swim Club, one of the most chic hotels on the radar of any one Coachella-goer.
Equipped with pool, spa, steam room, sauna and ’60s retro diner (aptly named King’s Highway), the resort’s backdrop of mountains and high-rise palms against the “luxe campside” feel of its décor is the perfect place to wind down by the fire. In the summer, be serenaded by cool Cali-chillwave bands playing live poolside, or a smooth r’n’b DJ set as you frolic or tan. Or you can just sit in your room with your very own vinyl collection.
If that vibe is too mellow, The Saguaro, a youthful resort down East Palm Canyon Drive is more than likely throwing a raging pool party in collaboration with tastemakers and influencers from international music, fashion and art scenes. (Opening Ceremony had their Coachella party there last year with guests like Blood Orange and FKA Twigs.) The vibrant technicolor walls against the muted neutrals of the desert make for one of the Coachella Valley’s best poolside party positions of the season, and yes, more gratuitous Instagram opps. But get in early – during each Coachella weekend, RSVPs are required to access the pool unless you are a hotel guest, so do your research beforehand to guarantee entry.
The festival has sadly come to an end and you may have reached a peak for partying you’ve never quite neared before. Luckily for you, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley have a few more experiences in store before you head back to LA. Roughly 30 minutes from the festival site you will find Indian Canyon, a nature reserve with 30 kilometres of trails surrounded by indigenous plant life, rocky valleys and clusters of shady palm trees perfect for post-festival meditation, exploring or hiking. If it’s just to soak up last minute Vitamin D or stumble across a waterfall (drought permitting), the canyon is truly a desert oasis – and it’s no mirage.
If it’s an awakening of the spiritual kind you’re after, drive an hour and a half further into the Mojave to Niland, Imperial County and come across Salvation Mountain. Nothing more than a man-made mound of clay, the site was founded on a mission to spread the message that “God Is Love”.
Believer or non-believer, the tribute to God is a sight for sore eyes with layers of wonky, colourful paint, a forged yellow brick road and decorated caves to wander in while the sun sets. Salvation Mountain has recently gotten more exposure due to its appearance in Into The Wild, however local guides assure us that if you stay awhile, the magic really happens at night. Locals emerge from their live-in campers nearby and they know how to get down.
Or perhaps you could wander to the nearby Slab City Hot Springs after sunset, a spot recognisable only by a bunky ladder and blue/grey concrete cylinders. The water is so hot it’s almost unbearable at high noon, but in the chill of the desert night, it’s the best way to soothe those tired festival bones.
(Lead and all other images: Tegan Butler & Andrew Noel)