The SoCal Desert Ramble, Southern California
497 Mi.(800 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
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 South West.
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. 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 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 ‘superbloom’. 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 that’s followed 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 once a Hollywood ‘Wild West’ film set and is now a regular venue for bands, both local and international, hosted at Pappi 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 (7642ft, 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. 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 has been (ask locally and carry extra water to allow for slow going 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 too. The timing is based on 50 mile days, for which you’ll need early starts in the winter, given the short daylight hours.
- Amazing variety… coastal cities, low desert, high desert, art, an inland sea, and even a ski resort.
- Enjoy starry desert nights in Anza Borrego State Park and see strange beast lurking in Borrego Wells.
- Experience a desert in bloom if you time your visit right! (see additional resources)
- Slab City and Salvation Mountain… a haven for counter-culturalists and off-the-grid desert dwellers.
- Learn about the bizarre history of the Salton Sea, California’s Riviera gone horribly wrong.
- Enter Joshua Tree National Park through its rugged backdoor.
- Grab a beer at Pappy and Harriet’s famous Palace and catch some great music.
- Enjoy the dirt climb from Pioneer Town to Big Bear Lake… it’s as good as they get!
- Best bike: fat tires aren’t necessary for this ride by any means – and will make the extended pavement sections slow going. Plus tires are likely the best option, but 2.4s will be ok too, though you’ll have extra work in store for you if the washes are especially soft and sandy. Anything less than that, expect to bounce around in places and push through the sandy stints (though you’ll make up time on the road and gravel sections). Running tubeless tires is always a good idea.
- Carry extra oil; if the arroyos and dry and powdery, you may need it!
- When to ride: This route can be ridden from fall to early spring, depending on the year’s temperatures. Note that it reaches over 2000m in elevation at Big Bear Lake. After storms activity, the forest road above Pioneer Town may well be under snow for a few days. Storms can also affect the high pass over the PCT. Forget summer, it’s a scorcher and you’ll need to tow a trailer full of water… See Trail Notes for some alternative gpx files to Riverside (where you can connect with the coast via a bike path of public transit) if the snow rules out the climb to Big Bear Lake.
- The desert gets cold at night; temperates can drop below freezing in the winter and Joshua Tree National Park can be very windy. Don’t skimp on your layers.
- Travel Logistics: San Diego is easily reached by Amtrak from Los Angeles etc… There is a frequent and bike-friendly Metrolink service between San Bernadino and Union Station, LA. If you need to save a day, there is also a Mountain Transit bus to the Amtrak station ($10, takes two bikes, plus tires need to be deflated a little, arrive early, bring extra straps for big tires).
- There are two extended pavement stretches along potentially busy roads – between Salton City and Westmorland, and the western tip of the Salton Sea and Coachella. Although there’s a good shoulder, we’d advise bringing ‘daytime-use’ lights or, if faced with a headwind, hitching a lift to skip them.
- The route can be ridden from north to south as well, though note that this will involve climbing through both washes, which, depending on the conditions, has the potential to make your life a lot harder. Link it into the Baja Divide and use it as a shakedown tour! San Diego is well stocked with bike shops if you need to make any changes before crossing the border…
- Have extra time in Big Bear Lake? There’s a tonne of great trails in the area – ask at the Big Bear Hostel or pick up a map at Bear Valley Bikes.
- There’s plenty of bike shops in San Diego. Bear Valley Bikes at Big Bear Lake fully stocked, year-round shop, with plenty of local singletrack knowledge. In Joshua Tree, there’s the Joshua Tree Bike Shop; Jima the owner is a keen bikepacker.
- If you have more time to spare, allow a half day to explore Slab City and its various art installations, and just soak up its vibe. And give yourself an extra day in Joshua Tree to hike, or explore more of its dirt roads with Logan’s Dirt Roads of Joshua Tree route.
- Camping is rarely an issue, given the amount of extent of the Anza Borrego State Park (free dispersed camping) and the regular swathes of National Forest.
- For affordable lodging in Big Bear Lake, the Big Bear Lake Hostel is highly recommended; very friendly, clean, large kitchen, and comfortable dorms/rooms. Be sure to book.
- Joshua Tree National Park website has a list of all the campsites ($15) in the park. For the most part, you should be fine turning up and finding a spot, unless it’s a national holiday when it tends to be jam-packed.
- Check the POIs on the map for reliable water and food points; they are fairly well spread out, so carrying food and H20 isn’t a major issue.
- Note that Slab City has no water. Pick up H20 from the water machine outside the grocery store in Niland before.
- This is the desert, so always carry 4-6 litres of water on your bike, depending on the weather, and fill up when you can. Check with locals (eg at the Agua Caliente Store and in Borrego Wells) on the condition of the two arroyos (Canyon Sin Nombre and Salido Wash). If especially sandy and hot, carry more water to allow for slower riding.
These are Brian’s trail notes from our ride, ridden at the end of February 2017. Note that they begin at the head of Canyon Sin Nombre, as we entered the Anza Borrego State Park from the Carrizo Gorge, rather than along the Stagecoach 400 route (2 days). And note that these notes end in Big Bear Lake, from where we continued on to L.A. via the Baldy Bruiser route (4 days). Allow an extra day from Big Bear Lake to San Bernadino.
Canyon Sin Nombre to Coyote Canyon
- Water in Ocotillo Wells at the RV park store across from the bar. Hours were limited so not reliable resupply.
- Full services in Borrego Springs
- Wifi and plugs at Christmas circle roundabout in center of town
- Good Mexican on Palm Canyon drive as well as grocery store on the left hand side
- Campsite up Coyote Canyon past citrus orchard.
Cayote Canyon to Salton City
- No water on route until Salton City
- Salton City AMPM store at gas station where route intersects CA-86 has limited food, wifi and a good Mexican restaurant. Huge breakfast burritos.
- Plenty of camping options just before getting into town
Salton City to Slab City
- +/-2 mi round trip detour into Westmorland for Date Shake and water resupply
- No water from Westmoorland until Sonny Bono Wildlife Center
- Small grocery store and water in Niland. Watch your stuff, a little sketchy.
- No water or food services in Slab City
- Good camping on bluff behind Salvation Mountain
Slab City to pipeline road camping
- Morning spent seeing Slab City highlights (Salvation Mountain, The Range Stage, Library, and East of Jesus).
- Coachella Canal Road leaving Slab City could be impassable if wet
- Stopped at first RV park we passed for water. Other possible water point is the Fountain of Youth Campground up the road. However, it was gated so we did not enter.
- Resupply and water in Mecca.
- Probably should have pushed on directly to Coachella and resupplied here rather than stopping in Mecca as Coachella has more options.
- Camped on pipeline road on your right about 1.5 miles after passing over I-10.
- Pipeline road camping to Jumbo Rocks campground
- No water along Berdoo Canyon Road until Jumbo Rocks campground.
- Camped at Jumbo Rocks campground, no need for reservations outside holidays but first come first serve. 15$ (best to have exact change)
Jumbo Rocks Campground to Pioneer Town camping
- Full services in Joshua Tree. Worth visiting: Visitor center on Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree Coffee Co on 29 Palm Highway just down the street to the left from the Visitor center, behind the trading post.
- Full services in Yucca Valley. Stopped at Walmart heading out of town before turning towards Pioneertown
- Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown palace is a must stop including a swing through the old film set behind the palace.
- Camped approximately 1.25 miles up the road from the Palace. Turned down a dirt road on the right and dropped into a wash
- No water until Big Bear so water resupply before leaving Pioneertown.
Pioneer Town camping to Big Bear Lake
- Stayed at Big Bear Hostel for a couple of days, great spot.
- Big Bear places of interest: Tea and coffee café (good wifi), Big Bear Bikes is a fully stocked shop, Teddy Bear Café in the Village is good for breakfast
Alternative route: Joshua Tree to Riverside
If there’s been a storm up a Big Bear Lake, chances are the forest road leading to it will be under snow for a few days afterwards.
If you need to bypass Big Bear Lake, here’s some gpx files that will lead you via an unconventional route to Riverside, from where you can catch a train to LA, or ride a bike path to the coast. Note that these gpx files should all be legal, but we haven’t had a chance to double check them since riding them. Please let us know if you try them out.
- This route joins up with the 4-day Baldy Bruiser, which will take you all the way to Los Angeles.
- To time your trip with the desert bloom (and for general wildflower updates) see this info-packed website.
- Investigate the weather at the Anza Borrego State Park weather station, updated every 10 minutes.
- And check the Anza Borrego State Park website for local road conditions.
- Stagecoach 400 bikepacking route – load this into your GPS for alternates.
- For a fascinating synopsis of the Salton Sea’s peculiar history, listen to this podcast, by 99% Invisible, and see images at Messy Nessy.
- New to the desert? For tips on what to bring and how to pack, check out our Guide to Desert Bikepacking.