For those seeking desert solitude tinged with a touch of the bizarre, we present the SoCal Desert Ramble. Prepare to immerse yourself amongst desert blooms and starry nights, slither your way along sandy washes, linger in counter-culture hangouts, ponder salty, decayed holiday resorts gone wrong, and marvel at the Dr. Seussian splendour of the gangly, anthropomorphic Joshua Tree…
The SoCal Desert Ramble is just that: a distracted, indirect meander from the city of San Diego, on the Mexican border, to San Bernadino, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. But, rather than following the conventional coastal road, it stitches together a number of remote dirt tracks and washes, by way of the vast deserts of the Anza-Borrego State Park, the bizarre, inland Salton Sea, counter-culturist Slab City, otherworldly Joshua Tree National Park, hip and musical Pioneer Town, and the higher reaches of Big Bear Lake. From there, it can be connected to Los Angeles via a forest road descent to San Bernadino and its public transportation options. Or, for those with a few extra days to play with, it can be joined to the Baldy Bruiser bikepacking route, effectively taking you all the way from the heart of San Diego to the epicentre of Los Angeles via some of the most beautiful desert riding in the Southwest.
The original intention was to run this route through the Corrizo Gorge, following the historic Impossible Railroad and its succession of epic trestle bridges and timeworn tunnels. At the time, we weren’t aware that this trail wasn’t open to the public. Having since discovered that it’s officially closed to hikers and cyclists, we’ve rerouted the SoCal Desert Ramble to follow the awesome Stagecoach 400 to Anza-Borrego (with a small modification down Canyon Sin Nombre). At Westmorland, it also picks up a section of the extended Stagecoach 500 route around the Salton Sea, before leaving it to climb up into Joshua Tree National Park. Our thanks are due to Brendon Collier for laying out the Stagecoach 400/500, a wonderful loop out of Idyllwild. Additional thanks to Sarah Swallow for suggesting an excellent series of dirt roads between Big Bear Lake and San Bernadino, and of course thanks to Brian Mulder for helping fine-tune the route on the ground, as well as his company while riding it. If you have any improvements as to how some of the paved sections of this ride might be reduced, please get in touch so we can improve the SoCal Desert Ramble.
Following bike paths out of San Diego – an interesting city in itself, easily reached by Amtrak from LA – the SoCal Desert Ramble begins with one of the more significant climbs of the route. This propel riders through the Cleveland National Forest and over a high pass that crosses the Pacific Crest Trail on singletrack. The elevation is short lived, though, as the route quickly drops steeply back down again into the Anza-Borrego State Park, an area named after the 18th-century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and borrego, the Spanish word for bighorn sheep. It’s here that the desert solitaire experience begins in earnest. After a stint on a quiet paved road, the Ramble turns directly into the vast emptiness, towards the crumpled folds of the Colorado Desert of Southern California. Initially, it follows the enigmatic Canyon Sin Nombre (the Canyon with No Name), then it passes through Ocotillo Wells en route to Borrego Wells, before striking out across an open land that likely boasts more lanky, prickly ocotillo than human inhabitants. Anthophiles should keep their eyes peeled out for wildflowers and flowering cacti after rainfall, especially as spring approaches. If you’re lucky, you might even time your visit with a super bloom. But even if you miss such a colourful display within the muted tones of the desert, be sure to stop and enjoy the assortment of towering, weathered residents that speckle this part of the ride, one of which is featured on our route badge (tackle the route, and you’ll see what we’re talking about!).
Another arroyo lies ahead. Salido Wash, followed downstream, is a popular 4×4 route that leads riders straight to Salton City – the fabled holiday resort gone wrong – that’s situated along shores of the Salton Sea. Calling it a sea is something of a misnomer, despite its salty nature. It is, in fact, the largest lake in the state, and an accidental one at that. Once dubbed the Californian Riviera, the Salton Sea is now an ecological disaster, thanks to years of fertilizer runoff. In its 60s heyday, it heaved with tourists drawn to its once enticing waters. Now they lie abandoned and decayed, like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
More pavement miles are required, with an extended highway stint (thankfully, there’s a generous shoulder), so we’d recommend focusing on the immediate prize: a famous date shake at Westmorland. Then, riders redeem their monotone efforts by delving into a web of quiet levy roads and dirt tracks around the Salton Sea, an especially unorthodox and rarely travelled section of the route developed by Brendon Collier. From here, events take a turn for the bizarre. Welcome to Slab City, as featured in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the infamous counter-culture haven, known for its technicoloured Salvation Mountain, its outdoor art installations, the Range weekend music venue, and the various oddball characters who roam its dusty streets.
Continuing onwards around the Salton Sea, the Ramble hops onto pavement once more to close in on Coachella, before climbing ever upwards into Joshua Tree National Park. The rugged dirt road gradually becomes ever more populated with these gangly members of the yucca family, set to a vast and polished granite rockscape, a playground for spider-like climbers.
Then, one of the most scenic forest roads of the trip wends riders up to Big Bear Lake, via Pioneer Town. This quirky, photogenic settlement that was once a Hollywood Wild West film set and is now a regular venue for bands, both local and international, hosted at Pappy and Harriet’s jam-packed Palace. Keep an eye on the weather as the higher reaches of this road will likely be impassible after a heavy storm. And even if the the skies are clear, as they usually are, it’s probably worth finding accommodation in Big Bear (7,642ft / 2060m), given that it doubles as a ski resort. From there, enjoy the loss in elevation in the descent to the desert floor once more, catching the train from San Bernadino to Los Angeles. Or, better still, reach it by pedal power via the Baldy Bruiser.
Diffculty: We’ve awarded this route a 7 out of 10. With the right bike, there are few technical challenges, though the roads can be extremely rocky at times and very sandy in places – the latter dependent on how recent the last rain was (ask locally, and carry extra water to allow for slow progress). Depending on the year and when the road has been graded, expect corrugation around the Salton Sea, too. Be aware that there’s several easier, faster paved sections that will make up time. Logistics are fairly straightforward, with regular resupplies and reasonable water access available. The timing is based on 50-mile days, for which you’ll need early starts in the winter, given the short daylight hours.