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.

12 thoughts on “Crossing the Desert: Phoenix to Los Angeles

  1. Me and my family made the round trip a few weeks ago and it was the best scenic road trip ever. The mountains, the desert views, the casino in the mountains. I also wondered about the poles in the ground… and the windmill field is massive. The check point when you enter into California was interesting … Not sure if I would do it in the heat of the summer.

  2. Uncle is disabled & 91. I’m thinking of driving him from Los Angeles, CA. to PSP for the first time & stay over night, & then onward to Phoenix & Mesa, AZ. — also for the first time, to visit relatives. I loved your mountain roads reply above about guard rails, etc. but how can I break up the trip from PSP to Phoenix into increments or an overnighter because with uncle’s neuromuscular disease, he can’t sit longer than 2 hours at a time. Thanks for your suggestions.

    • There are a number of rest stops. Many of them were built during the Great Depression by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps.) Most have ramadas, or some sort of shade and sidewalks for walking. There are also small towns you can plan to stop in: Indio, Desert Center, Blythe, Quartzsite, Buckeye. Once you get to Phoenix, there are many places to explore. Have fun and pack a lunch to eat at one of the rest stops!

  3. That drive from LA to Phoenix (and back) is my absolute favorite thing to do. I’m very happy when others share the experience. Some people just think it’s a drive they want to be done with ASAP. It is a joy to me. Thanks for writing about it.

  4. I know this is an old article, but would you have tips for someone trying to do this trip on a motorcycle for the first time ? I can handle my motorcycle with reasonable confidence (have ~6000 miles under my belt since last October, and many more before that on a motorcycle back home.) but strong gusts always make me nervous. I do about 34 miles a day to commute to work, and on the rare occasion there are gusts, I am feel uncomfortable. I know from my earlier car drives through the route that near Blythe, it can get windy. Any suggestions ?

    • I-10 is a speedway, trucks going 90 mph often blow past me. That’s going to create big and sudden gusts. I’d suggest wearing a full-head helmet, gloves, jacket, heavy jeans and over-the-ankle boots. Get a windscreen that will allow the wind to blow over you, have engine guards with foot rests so you can stretch out your legs, and getting gas before you need it. There are a couple of long stretches without gas, so plan ahead. Check the weather at NOAH so you can see where the wind is coming through. Blythe to Indio you are in a series of mountain channels, and winds are unpredictable. I don’t know what kind of a bike you ride, but I always thought that my cruiser, low to the ground, helped with the wind. Good luck and keep an eye out for those trucks.

  5. I loved your description, but I have a question. I am not fond of mountain driving, and was wondering is the road from PHX to PSP scarry for someone not used to mountainsl I am particularly afraid of roads that are have no guard rails and have deep drop offs next to them.

    • As long as you stay on the 10, there are no steep mountain passes without guardrails. In fact, I don’t remember any narrow or steep drop offs at all. The road is wide with reasonable curves. Nothing hairpin. It should work fine. I would not take State 60 from Beaumont through Moreno Valley if I were you. I loved it, but it has switchbacks.

  6. Quinn, as a fellow Phoenician, I have made that drive many times…you describe it wonderfully. And I could kiss you…I have wondered for years about those pipes coming out of the mountains! Now I know! I can’t wait to tell my husband!


    –Thanks, Amber! It took me a bit to track down the aquaduct pipes. I love that drive. It’s peaceful and every time it’s different. –Q

  7. Oh, what an amazing journey! Would love to see all this.
    Are you travelling on your motors?

    WOW !! :))

    —It’s a great trip, but not one I think I want to make on the motorcycle. The road is pretty much straight, even up in the mountains there are just a few gentle curves. And there are wicked dust/wind storms that I would not like to experience on a bike. But the biggest reason is that there are not a lot of places to rest or go if you break down. It’s a big piece of wilderness. But beautiful, so beautiful. -Q

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