Crossing the Desert: Phoenix to Los Angeles

The biggest surprise about driving across the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts is the mountains. The drive is flat in parts, but you are either driving past mountains or into mountain ranges. With a speed limit of 75 mph, it’s easy to miss the scenery.

Leaving Phoenix, you drive out of the Valley of the Sun–the mountain bowl that surrounds the city and suburbs. As you drive into the Sonoran desert, you see Saguaro cacti–in fact, that’s how you know when you are in the Sonoran Desert. Once you cross into the Mojave, in California, you will see Joshua Trees. The odd, ancient trees look like a cross between an angry rosemary bush and the Cookie Monster. Joshua Trees are found only in the Mojave.

I create maps of my trips. Not carefully drawn to scale, but as a visual reminder of the sites I loved.

It’s smart to get gas when your tank is half empty. While there are gas stations on the entire route, some of them are 50 miles apart, so it’s a good idea to keep your eye on the gas guage.

You leave Arizona and cross into California between Quartzsite and Blythe. Quartzsite is on the Arizona side, and when I made the drive today, the gas was more than a dollar cheaper on the Arizona side. The towns are less than 20 miles apart, so if you are driving from California, it may well be worth the wait to tank up on the cheaper side.

Crossing from Arizona to California, I passed a sign that said, “State Prison,” then shortly thereafter, another one that said, “Do not pick up hitchhikers,” and a third, just beyond the warning that said, “Rest stop, 1/4 mile.” While I was wondering about the logic of putting a rest stop so close to a prison, I realized that the stop, Wiley’s Well, had been there long before the prison, and had served horses, mules, trains and humans as a watering stop for centuries.

In the middle of the desert, West of Blythe, you see, on the North side of the Interstate (10) an interesting structure tucked into the Hayfield Mountains. Three pipes jump down the foothills and disappear into a long building. They are the result of a failed reservoir, built in the 1930s. The reservoir was built on porous ground and wouldn’t hold water. The pipes were added to provide Los Angeles with an emergency supply from the Colorado River in dry seasons. It’s now part of the aquaduct that will eventually cause a struggle over control of the water in the Colorado River.

A more modern capture of nature startles you as your climb into the San Bernadino Mountains in Palm Springs. Hundreds of white wind turbines hum on either side of the road. I have no idea how many there are, but if you told me it was 300, I’d believe it. They are huge and

amazing, turning in the mountain winds, providing electricity for Los Angeles and the surrounding areas.

The trip, which most people expect to be flat and dull is anything but. A photographer’s and painter’s dream, the shadows and clouds, sand and mountains make you catch your breath time and time again.

The trip takes 5 to 6 hours, and is worth every mile. Don’t miss a side trip to the Salton Sea, a saline lake caused by a bursting dam on the Colorado River, which flooded an entire town and railroad yard. The water was contained by huge blocks dropped into the narrow straights surrounding the water, forming a lake.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. She owns QuinnCreative, and gives workshops and seminars on writing, presentations, and journal writing.