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To the casual observer, the Southern California desert might seem like a desolate expanse under an unrelenting sun. Its splendor is subtle, though; its beauty unfolds over time. If it looks as though nothing but insects could survive here, look again: You're bound to see a roadrunner or a tiny gecko dart across your path. Close your eyes and listen for the cry of a hawk or an owl. Check the ground for coyote or bobcat tracks. Notice the sparkle of fish in the streams running through palm oases. Check the road signs, which warn of desert tortoise crossings (the tortoise being one of many endangered species found only here, where it's protected by the federal government in a wildlife sanctuary). Visit in spring, when the ground throughout the Lancaster area is carpeted with the brilliant golds and oranges of the poppy, California's state flower.

If the beauty you seek is that of personal renewal, you're likely to find that, too -- if not in the shadow of purple-tinged mountains and otherworldly rock formations, then in a chaise longue beside a sparkling, impossibly blue swimming pool. Destinations here range from gloriously untouched national parks to luxurious resorts -- united by the fact that it's a rare day when the sun doesn't shine.