The real star of Southern California doesn’t direct movies or live in a mansion in Calabasas — it’s underground. The San Andreas Fault is the dominant feature of the geography, shaping canyons, mountain ranges and accidental inland seas. Its effects are oddly beautiful and easily visible at Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area. This 1,310-acre county park in the Mojave desert preserves a region of strange, angular rock formations caused by the relentless motion of the San Andreas and Punchbowl Faults and thousands of years of runoff from the San Gabriel Mountains. A 7.5-mile trail takes you from the visitor’s center to the Devil’s Chair — a fenced-off cliff with incredible views of the Punchbowl. On the return trip, you can head down into the Punchbowl itself for off-trail exploration or extend your hike to the heights of Pleasant View Ridge in the adjacent Angeles National Forest.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest desert state park in the country and has some of the best low desert terrain to match. Its 916 square miles hold hidden oases, slot canyons, desert peaks, and epic wildflower shows in the spring — but Ghost Mountain holds some of the region’s more interesting human history. This route can be done as a series of short trips from the primitive road or as a long and rewarding hike to the summit of Ghost Mountain, where desert writer Marshal South built and lived in a self-sufficient homestead for 17 years. The ruins of his house are still there. When you descend you can continue east, passing some Native American morteros and 1,000-year old pictographs before ending at the edge of an epic dry waterfall overlooking Smuggler Canyon.
Joshua Tree National Park straddles the transition zones between the low Colorado Desert and the higher Mojave and has fantastic desert hikes that highlight both of those regions. For a park “highlight reel” trail that’s also usually free of crowds, the Maze trail in the western part of the park is a great destination. This 6.5-mile loop makes its way through huge boulder fields, rippled badlands, and — of course — Joshua Tree groves. There are also mini-slot canyons and climbing routes along the way, as well as a view of the unique Window Rock formation.
Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch
If you’re thinking about deserts in California, you can’t neglect Death Valley National Park. One of the lowest, hottest, driest places on the planet has some spectacular hikes. This 6-mile loop through Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch begins on the easy, sometimes-crowded Golden Canyon Nature Walk, where you’ll trek through canyons carved through ancient lake beds by violent flash floods. After a mile, you’ll enter breathtaking badlands of painted desert, including Manly Beacon and the Red Cathedral before ending at the otherworldly vistas at Zabriskie Point. The return trip through Gower Gulch passes old mining operations and a dramatic dry waterfall before returning to the trailhead.