The SoCal Desert Ramble, Southern California

  • Distance

    497 Mi.

    (800 KM)
  • Days

    10

  • % Unpaved

    70%

  • % Singletrack

    3%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    7

  • % Rideable (time)

    98%

  • Total Ascent

    30,100'

    (9,174 M)
  • High Point

    7,600'

    (2,316 M)
For those seeking desert solitude tinged with a touch of the bizarre this winter, 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…
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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 in the South West.

Route Development

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. Anthophile 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!).

  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking California
  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking Southern California
  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking California
  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking California
  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking Southern California

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’.

  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking Southern California
  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking California
  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking California

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.

  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking Southern California
  • SoCal Desert Ramble, Bikepacking Southern California

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 days. Adjust your expected mileage accordingly.

  • Highlights

    camera

  • Must Know

    alert

  • Camping

    home

  • Food/H2O

    drop

  • Trail Notes

    signpost

  • Resources

    link

  • 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 – 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. Running tubeless tires is always a good idea.
  • 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…
  • 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.
  • 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

  1. Water in Ocotillo Wells at the RV park store across from the bar. Hours were limited so not reliable resupply.
  2. Full services in Borrego Springs
  3. Wifi and plugs at Christmas circle roundabout in center of town
  4. Good Mexican on Palm Canyon drive as well as grocery store on the left hand side
  5. Campsite up Coyote Canyon past citrus orchard.

Cayote Canyon to Salton City

  1. No water on route until Salton City
  2. Salton City AMPM store at gas station where route intersects CA-86 has limited food, wifi and a good Mexican restaurant. Huge breakfast burritos.
  3. Plenty of camping options just before getting into town

Salton City to Slab City

  1. +/-2 mi round trip detour into Westmorland for Date Shake and water resupply
  2. No water from Westmoorland until Sonny Bono Wildlife Center
  3. Small grocery store and water in Niland. Watch your stuff, a little sketchy. 
  4. No water or food services in Slab City
  5. Good camping on bluff behind Salvation Mountain

Slab City to pipeline road camping

  1. Morning spent seeing Slab City highlights (Salvation Mountain, The Range Stage, Library, and East of Jesus).
  2. Coachella Canal Road leaving Slab City could be impassable if wet
  3. 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.
  4. Resupply and water in Mecca.
  5. Probably should have pushed on directly to Coachella and resupplied here rather than stopping in Mecca as Coachella has more options.
  6. Camped on pipeline road on your right about 1.5 miles after passing over  I-10.
  7. Pipeline road camping to Jumbo Rocks campground
  8. No water along Berdoo Canyon Road until Jumbo Rocks campground.
  9. 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

  1. 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.
  2. Full services in Yucca Valley. Stopped at Walmart heading out of town before turning towards Pioneertown
  3. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown palace is a must stop including a swing through the old film set behind the palace.
  4. Camped approximately 1.25 miles up the road from the Palace. Turned down a dirt road on the right and dropped into a wash
  5. No water until Big Bear so water resupply before leaving Pioneertown.

Pioneer Town camping to Big Bear Lake

  1. Stayed at Big Bear Hostel for a couple of days, great spot.
  2. 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

Additional Resources

  • 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.

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Dr J

    Awesome pictures. Just by looking at them I feel like I’m traveling through wastelands in Fallout or Mad Max.

  • Paulo LaBerge

    Fantastic photo spread from your trek. Lots of interesting thing to see along the way! Question – what tent did you use?

  • Brian Kennelly

    When did you ride this? Trying to determine what timing would be most ideal for this route.

  • Henry Slocum

    Looks like a great route! I love that landscape.
    Not to be “that guy,” but as a backpacker as well as a bikepacker I’ve gotta say it: Bicycles are prohibited on the Pacific Crest Trail. I know it’s a short stretch, but it would be great to see y’all provide an alternate route. I met many people on the PCT who have a negative opinion of cyclists after mid-trail encounters. I’m not super familiar with the area, but I’m guessing there are nearby multi-use trails or roads that could provide a satisfying alternative. From my experience, this would go a long way towards reducing tensions between use groups and protect access to existing trails.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Don’t worry, I’ve checked. This is a very short, shared piece of trail that’s open to mountain bikers as well. At this point, the route follows the Stagecoach 400 route and race, so it’s 100 per cent legal. And there’s no easy alternatives.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Check out the trail notes for details. We rode it in late Feb, but last winter, conditions were very different than they usually are, with big, regular storms rolling in. As a result, the superbloom was a lot earlier. There’s a tonne of links related to this in the Resources section.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I added in a mesh liner for this trip… just to keep unwanted creepy crawlies at bay…

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks!

  • Based on OSM data, it never actually shares it… except for a few feet on an actual road. The Open Outdoors layer should be pretty accurate, I think.

  • Henry Slocum

    Cool! I was unaware, but super glad y’all clarified and did your research ahead of time! Ride on.

  • Cass Gilbert

    i thought I saw a sign on one of the singletrack turnoffs, so figured it traced it briefly. But it looks like you’re right.

  • ForestyForest

    What is the situation at Corrizo Gorge? I thought people were still riding it less than a month ago. Anyways it is something that needs to be developed into a real railtrail. Thanks for sharing the route, looks awesome!

  • Cass Gilbert

    I looked into it… checked… and double checked. It’s closed to public access and from I understand (and since we rode it last winter) there are now clear signs and gates in place to tell people. I got in touch with the San Diego Mountain Bike Association and also read this recently:
    https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2017/jul/19/roam-get-close-not-too-close-carrizo-gorge-trestle/

    Such a shame, it’s an incredible historical route with a fascinating back story. It’s the ultimate railtrail! I guess the issue is one of safety, given the state of the tunnels… and the costs to open it to the public without fear of litigation for the landowners. Its obvious they’ve done a lot of work on the trestles to make them safe to cross.

    It was a big part how I hoped this route would turn out, given how spectacular the views are!

  • Mat Waudby

    As ever fantastic! Top notch photos!
    I was wondering if you are still using the Fujifilm and whats your preferred method of bag setup for your camera gear? This could be something that I thing would be a worthwhile feature for the sight with various people carry set-up!
    Cheers
    Matty

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks!

    I think Logan has that planned in the pipeline!

    I did this ride a year ago, in fact, so I was using the Canon 5Dmk3 then. Nowadays, I’m using both the Canon and the Fuji XT-2, depending on my mood and how space I have! I love the Fuji but I have a much better lens selection for the Canon, which is why it still gets plenty of use.

  • Mark Troup

    This route makes my heart hurt. I love this area. I’d probably make one little detour though… going from SD to LA… before I hit Mecca I’d make that right onto Box Canyon Road. It leads right to the main road through J Tree and you could pick up the route on the other side of the park. That Mecca to Indio stretch is a drag.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks for your thoughts Mark. I did consider that option, because you’re quite right, that section is a drag. But… I really, really like the Geology Road Tour/Berdoo Canyon Road as an introduction to the park, rather than the more conventional paved entrance. It’s such an unexpected, unassuming way in… with more and more Joshua Trees appearing every mile you ride and very little traffic too. Also, it felt a bit of a shame to cross all but the whole park on a paved road.

    But I do agree with you. That segment is far from ideal. I just thought what comes next makes up for it…

    Definitely good food for thought!

  • Ali

    Looks like my route back to LA after the Baja divide has been sorted. Cheers guys! I was literally looking into routes to Joshua tree via slab city just yesterday!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Perfect! It will be a breeze after the Baja Divide (-:

  • Daniel Rankin

    Cool route. Piecing together a master route like this is inspiring. Have you had luck taking Plus tire bikes on the Amtrak line? The website mentions a max 2″ tire but I wasn’t sure if that was enforced.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Daniel.

    I’ve not had any issues with Amtrak so far. Brian and I later transported our bikes from LA to New Mexico – a fat bike and a plus bike – using the roll on/roll off service ($20 per bike) with no problems at all. I’ve also taken it on the coastal line from LA to San Diego (free). It doesn’t always technically fit into the wheel slots, but it’s never been an issue. I make sure I get there early, to ensure good vibes with the train personnel!

    Also – I mention it in the post, but there’s a bus service between Big Bear Lake and San Bernadino. Plus tires just ‘fit’, but you might need to deflate them a bit (depending on rim/tire combo) and bring a couple of extra, longer straps too to secure them in place – Voile straps are perfect. Again, get there early and be smiley (-;

    I have considered travelling more with 27.5in wheels and 2.8in tires, just to help a little with public transportation connections.

  • I didn’t plan to read this entire route description, but once again Cass, your verbal and visual narrative drew me in. What a beautiful route! I definitely need to make my way down to Southern California and do some Joshua Tree riding at some point in the next couple winters. Thanks for the beautiful verbal tapestry and visual narrative Cass – always inspiring.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks kindly Ben!

    Hopefully if you make it down there – and I hope you will – the reality won’t disappoint! It truly is a wonderful place to explore on a bicycle. And those starry nights…

  • dmorg

    Thanks, Cass. I’ve been wondering about a route between the two Divides that absolutely has to take in a nostalgic trip to JT (45 years climbing before going trohloff); now you’ve taken care of the JT-SD part :).
    BTW, Sage looks a awesomely determined young trail warrior!

  • Mat Waudby

    Sweet!

    Cheers for getting back to me!
    It’s always hard switching system and the subsequent lens changing that comes with it!
    I seem to constantly be obsessing over where to keep my camera and the subsequent size of it! I can’t wait to see the different methods!
    Keep it up! :)

  • Randal GoingHAM

    Hey Daniel! Just weighing in with my own experience–we did the Oregon Outback last summer and both directions (from Sacramento to Klamath Falls and from Portland to Sacramento) they gave me serious shit about my 3″ tires on the train. Almost torpedoed the trip!

    TBH, I didn’t even read the fine print, and no one at the train station said anything on the way there, but when the conductor reached to take my bike on in Sacramento, he told me it was too big. After some haggling, he let it slide, mumbling some vitriol at the station employees. On the way back, I played dumb and told them A) that I didn’t know about the rule and B) it wasn’t an issue on the way up. They asked me to show them my ticket stub from Sac to prove that I rode the train!

    One takeaway from this saga is that, very much unlike air travel, with Amtrak you’re dealing directly with a human being who has the liberty to respond to your pleading. Also, it seemed like the big issue was that they didn’t think they’d be able to hang the bike up on their hooks or whatever they use on the luggage cars, but if you tell them you’re comfortable with then leaning it up against the wall of the car, they’ll probably do it.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks! And he is!

    I’d be interested in hearing about what you come with for linking the Divide to Divide, as that was another project we were working on… I can share a gpx of what we have so far, when I put the bits together, and we can compare notes.

  • dmorg

    I haven’t really looked in to it apart from some casual investigations on Google Earth and OSM – and probably won’t do much until I’m a good way down the GD (September?). It’ll be a good excuse to hang out for a few days where there is good coffee and wifi. If you have a route, or part, together I’ll be happy to test ride bits of it. I won’t ‘quite’ be bikepacking, accompanied by a (Farfarer) trailer, a bit like a TT Mule, with a 20in. wheel but no suspension.

    Plan A is to tack a four-month leave of absence on to my regular summer vacation, giving me a somewhat leisurely 5-6 months to get from Calgary to La Paz. Plan B (aka Freedom66) is to retire in June. Plan B is looking better all the time :)

  • Ryan Walker

    Amazing photos. The old televisions, where exactly is that?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks! The TVs are one part of an outdoor art instillation in Slab City/East Jesus.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I love those trailers. I haven’t tried the more recent iterations, but I borrowed one several years ago and came away really impressed.

    If/when we finish knitting everything together, I’ll pass it onto you. Feedback would be great.

    Both sounds good… but Plan B sounds especially good to me.

  • Doug Nielsen

    Wow. Wow. Wow. This was killer!