SoCal road trip itinerary: Los Angeles to San Diego via the desert
Jay Gentile

Southern California Road Trip Itinerary: Los Angeles to San Diego (Through the Desert) in One Week

Sure, you could just drive Interstate 5 south for 120 miles from LA to San Diego. But what fun would that be? 

For a true taste of Southern California culture and adventure, take the long way east and south, through the Coachella Valley desert to bask in a wild, free-spirit ethos uncovered nowhere else in America. From the hippie music vibes of Joshua Tree and the nude resorts of Palm Springs to the off-the-grid artist enclave of Slab City and an under-the-radar state park brimming with giant metal animal sculptures, here’s how to travel across Southern California right.

SoCal road trip itinerary: Days 1–2: Los Angeles
Jay Gentile
Days 1–2: Los Angeles

Bypass tourist-clogged Universal Studios and the Hollywood Walk of Fame in favor of some of the many under-the-radar delights that await visitors to diverse Los Angeles. The essential thing you’ll want to do is head to one of the city’s many gorgeous beaches: Venice Beach is offbeat and arts-heavy while Manhattan Beach, closer to the airport, is slightly more buttoned-up. Get a birds-eye view of sunset over the Pacific at Hotel Erwin’s rooftop cocktail bar in Venice or race turtles at Brennan’s Irish pub in Marina del Rey before making your way to the rest of the city.

West Hollywood sports a lively, diverse post-collegiate party scene and laughs galore at the famous Comedy Store—the same buidling used to be Ciro's, the exclusive nightspot favored by Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and countless other stars of Hollywood's golden era. Meanwhile, in neighborhoods like Silver Lake and Los Feliz, northwest of downtown, you'll find neighborhood-friendly dive bars like Ye Rustic Inn (people love its chicken wings) and trendy, romantic restaurants including Mirate. Bask in the California sunshine with a drive north up the coast to Point Dume State Beach in Malibu, stopping along the way to relax in the hippie ‘60s vibes of peaceful mountainside communities like Laurel Canyon and Topanga. Pass the evening California-style with entertainment at outdoor venues like the Rooftop Cinema Club (in Downtown Los Angeles), the outdoor Greek Theatre (in Los Feliz) or the natural amphitheater of the Hollywood Bowl (in the hills north of Hollywood; the southern view from the Hollywood Bowl Overlook is pictured above).

SoCal road trip itinerary: Day 3: Pioneertown / Joshua Tree
Jay Gentile
Day 3: Pioneertown / Joshua Tree

Drive east on I-10 to reach an oasis of rock and roll in the middle of the desert. Our next stop is Pappy + Harriet’s, a road house-style joint that’s part of a former Western movie set called Pioneertown. Many evenings, there’s live music on an intimate indoor stage (pictured above; and as proof that this place is more important that you might guess from appearances, Paul McCartney once did a surprise gig here) plus another large outdoor venue packed with friendly vibes and smiling patrons dressed in colorful desert fashions. Get there early, especially on weekends and holidays, if you want to enjoy some of Pappy’s fine BBQ, and you do. 

You could sleep in an Airstream at AutoCamp Joshua Tree (yes, it is air-conditioned) before heading into the otherworldly Mad Max-style Joshua Tree National Park the next day (although, if that day is a weekend, be prepared for long car lines, especially at the western entrance.) From Thursday to Sunday, you can take a stress-relieving “sound bath” (reservations required) for some unique spiritual desert healing at the UFO-resembling, wooden dome Integratron, built in the 1950s to supposedly harness geomagnetic forces for human health benefits.

SoCal road trip itinerary: Day 4: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley
Jay Gentile
Day 4: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley

In a sign of the spirit of social freedom that drenches every corner of the sprawling Coachella Valley, the leisure-oriented town of Palm Springs is home to not one, not two, but 11—yes, 11, and that’s a conservative count—nudist resorts, including the swingers-friendly Sea Mountain Inn, which comes complete with its own 24-hour nude dance floor (naturally). Meanwhile, those looking for a more modest place to hang their hat should seek out the endlessly cute and romantic Paloma Resort in neighboring Cathedral City.

Yet some of the most interesting experiences here are to be found off the grid. About 85 miles east of Palm Springs off CA-111, free spirits have painted the landscape itself in the post-apocalyptic squatters’ community of Slab City, home of the 30-acre, Burning Man-esque outdoor art installation East Jesus. A massive mountain of trash and adobe brick welcomes visitors at the brightly colored folk art landmark Salvation Mountain (pictured above), a psychedelic-styled artist’s tribute to God littered with Bible quotes and roamed by friendly cats. Try to comprehend what you’ve just experienced over a drink and bar food at locals-friendly dive bar Ski Inn, in the barren yet eerily enchanting cement-block hamlet of Bombay Beach, beside the slowly dying Salton Sea—an inland lake created by accident more in 1905 that has been withering away ever since.

Day 5: Borrego Springs / Anza Borrego Desert

The adventure continues a 70-mile drive west on CA-78 in the criminally underrated Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one of America’s largest state parks, where you might just stumble upon a series of massive bronze animal sculptures scattered around the desert—look for more than 130 gargantuan metal animals by artist Ricardo Brecada scattered around more than 1,500 acres of empty desert.

The working class community of Borrego Springs (pictured above in the spring wildflower season), with a permanent population that's less than 3,000, is also home to the surprisingly posh La Casa del Zorro Resort, where you would be wise to make one of their roomy “casitas” your own.

SoCal road trip itinerary: Days 6–7: San Diego
Jay Gentile
Days 6–7: San Diego

Finally it’s time to end your excursion, via CA-78 and CA-79 west, in oft-overlooked San Diego, a modern and thoroughly beautiful city whose energy revolves around its gorgeous beaches. From the hippie vibes of Ocean Beach to the lively nightlife of Pacific Beach, this is a city that knows how to integrate its laid-back sand-between-your-toes spirit into all areas of life. Catch a ferry to the seafront area of Coronado and explore the pristine beaches before heading off to the windswept hiking trails of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (pictured above) to marvel at jaw-dropping cliffside vistas overlooking the ocean.

After a mandatory beach sunset (the tiramisu martini is a popular drink of choice among locals at Flamingo Deck, by the water), raise some tiki cocktails, a San Diego specialty, at The Grass Skirt or Bali Hai, which has terrific views of the city. You’re going to want to spend most of your time in San Diego outside enjoying the best weather in America. Clearly, everyone else you see does.