Much like the town itself, the drive to Palm Springs, Calif., should be a romantic mid-mod daydream, punctuated by Mad Men-era nostalgia and a welcome sense of isolation that’s harder to come by than ever. It is anything but those things if you suffer the interstate route (I-15/I-215/I-10), which is precisely why you should entertain your inner road-tripping undergrad and eschew Eisenhower’s fast-paced highways for something more adventurous.
For expediency, you’ll take I-15 for about 50 miles south, but once you exit at Nipton Road, everything—the view, the road, your mood—changes as you enter the Mojave National Preserve. Weekend Harley riders often rumble this way when looping to Searchlight, but you’ll ditch most of them at Ivanpah Road, a few miles before Nipton. This two-lane blacktop is narrow, twisty, undulating and worn thin. And lonely—there’s nary a gas station nor fast food for miles. Carry water and a paper map. You’ve been warned.
Now is a good time to roll back the Fiat’s ragtop and let in the desert air. Almost immediately, you will be surrounded by an ever-thickening Joshua Tree forest, their prickly arms reaching up and out like so many cowboys and aliens. About two-thirds of the way across the preserve, you’ll come upon the otherworldly, jutting peaks of the Providence Mountains and the historic 1920s Kelso Depot, both on your left. Stop here; the restored depot serves as the Mojave National Preserve Visitors Center, where you’ll encounter others (often Europeans invariably fascinated with the American desert) who share your adventurous spirit. There’s a welcome camaraderie you rarely encounter in off-ramp culture.
Then comes a long stretch of road-trip ahead, so settle in and enjoy. At one point, you’ll pass under Interstate 40 (marking your exit from the Mojave National Preserve), buzz by Amboy (which has a reputation as not very road-tripper friendly) and pass through some of the most amazing salt flats you’ll ever see. Just as the moonscape begins to creep you out, you’ll downshift and start climbing again, and vegetation mercifully appears. Soon, you’ll be in the pretty, high-desert towns of Yucca and Joshua Tree—artsy enclaves that are worth a pit stop.
Now tune the Fiat’s satellite radio to the Rat Pack station; the oasis of Palm Springs is just a brief interstate ride away. Thankfully, you’ll be on I-10 just long enough to remind you why you went the back way.
The Trip: Las Vegas to Palm Springs, Calif., via the Mojave National Preserve.
The Way: Take I-15 south 50 miles to Nipton Road. Turn left and drive 3.6 miles. Go right on Ivanpah, and drive 3.2 miles to Morning Star Mine Road. Go right. In 14.8 miles, bear right onto Cima Road, and then left on Kelso Cima Road. (If you made any 90-degree-or-greater turns here, you did it wrong.) Drive 19 miles, then left on Kelbaker Road. Drive 34 miles, then right on the National Trails Highway. Six miles later, you reach Amboy. Drive a mile to Amboy Road. Go left. Drive 40 miles, then left on Godwin Road. Drive 2 miles, then right on CA-62 for 49 miles. The remainder is on I-10. The whole trip is less than four hours.
The Wheels: 2012 Fiat 500c. Fiat ended its 29-year U.S. hiatus with this stylish runabout. The 500c (“cabriolet”) sports an almost identical power-to-weight ratio as the original hot hatch, the 1983 VW GTi, and is just as fun to row through its five gears. Rough back-road patches are amplified by the Fiat’s short wheelbase, but when you are scoring nearly 40 mpg, can crank up the Bose-powered satellite radio and roll back the vintage-style ragtop with a push of a button (up to 60 mph), it hardly matters.
Pit stops: The Mojave National Preserve Visitors Center is in the restored 1924 railroad depot at Kelso; definitely worth a stop for history, lavatories and snacks. Hitch up at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown (53688 Pioneertown Road), a Tex-Mex relic from Hollywood’s effort to build a permanent Western film set. The Crossroads Café in Joshua Tree (61715 29 Palms Highway) is a tasty, vegetarian-friendly brunch spot.
While you’re at it: Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley are evolving as bohemian desert enclaves, with a creative, free-spirited frontier feel about them. Galleries, (vegetarian) cafés, (biker) bars and coffeehouses complement the unique Joshua Tree Inn and the Rock & Glass House vacation rental.
Tip: The California Highway Patrol is active out here, and the posted limit is 55 mph most of the way.