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Christmas amid cactuses: Try this holiday road trip through the California desert

A walkway bordered by palm trees covered in lights and life-size nutcrackers leads to the entrance of a building.
The main entrance to Riverside’s Mission Inn is awash in lights that cover the entire blockwide hotel.
(The Mission Inn)

By Rachel Schnalzer
Design and illustrations by Jade Cuevas

Good morning, fellow Escapists. There’s nothing quite like the holidays in Southern California: the kitschy and offbeat sight of colorful lights on a palm tree, the spectacle of surfing Santas, the Beach Boys’ Christmas tunes on repeat all month long.

In many ways, the delight of spending the holidays in the Golden State gets kicked into overdrive the farther east you venture. In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find inspiration for a road trip across California’s interior, from a historic Riverside hotel decked out in decorations to the sometimes-snowy trails of Mt. San Jacinto State Park.

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Where are you exploring this December? What are your favorite holiday activities in California? Let me know, so I can pass them along to fellow readers.

Enjoy holiday decor — amid lots of history — in Riverside

The Mission Inn’s Festival of Lights, covering an entire city block in downtown Riverside, is a no-brainer for anyone traveling to or from the California desert in search of some holiday cheer.

Times features writer Jeanette Marantos included the nearly 150-year-old inn and spa’s impressive decorations on her list of the 26 best holiday light displays in and around Los Angeles.

Enjoying the Mission Inn’s exterior lights is free, but for an enhanced experience, you can make a reservation to tour the property. The 75-minute walking tours, which detail the National Historic Landmark’s history, cost $25 for adults and $5 for children ages 11 and under.

While you’re in town, stop by the Main Street Pedestrian Mall near the Mission Inn for more Christmas lights.

Can’t get enough of the holiday season at the Mission Inn? Spend more time amid the glow by booking a stay. Rooms start at $379 during the holiday season, Marantos reports.

Also, Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds suggests visitors book dinner at the Mission Inn Restaurant, where main dishes range from $21-$54. “You may land at a patio table, surrounded by domes, towers, arches and buttresses, augmented for the season by angels, gnomes and polar bears, many of which move like the animatronic President Lincoln in Disneyland,” he writes in the winter edition of his 40 best California experiences list.

An illustration of the Mission Inn.
(Jess Miller / For The Times)

A wild holiday celebration in Palm Desert

The next Yuletide lights display on the agenda is 70 miles east on Interstate 10. On your way, keep your eyes open for the Cabazon Dinosaurs, decked out in Santa Claus outfits and red noses. If you have an extra day to spare, you might consider adding the beloved road trip destination to your itinerary.

At Living Desert Zoo and Gardens’ WildLights display, you’ll find a herd of life-size, glowing animal lanterns, model trains running on more than 3,300 feet of track and a million-plus colorful holiday lights.

Like the Mission Inn’s Festival of Lights, WildLights also earned a spot on Marantos’ list of the 26 best holiday light displays in and around Los Angeles.

If you go, make sure to snap a photo in the Palm Desert zoo’s tunnel of lights and explore the newly opened pathways available to guests. Though the holiday lights are the main event, visitors to WildLights may catch a glimpse of some animals, too.

WildLights is open to the public from 6-9 p.m. Dec. 10-11, 17-24 and 26-30. Admission costs $16 for adult nonmembers and $12 for children ages 3-12.

Life-size lantern figures of giraffes and a cheetah.
Illuminated creatures at WildLights at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.
(The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens)

Soar nearly 6,000 feet up Mt. San Jacinto

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which claims to offer the world’s largest rotating tram car, is a desert favorite — especially in the colder months.

“Where can you travel from California desert floor to a snowy mountaintop in 10 minutes? Only on this tram in winter,” writes Reynolds in his recent winter experiences roundup.

The rotating gondolas offer visitors a 360-degree view of Chino Canyon as they ascend 2.5 miles to Mountain Station, at a brisk 8,516 feet.

Bring an extra layer if you’re planning to explore Mt. San Jacinto State Park up top (which you should). It’s usually 30 to 40 degrees cooler than at Valley Station, Reynolds reports.

Plenty of hiking trails can be accessed from Mountain Station, as well as a few dining (and drinking) options for those who get hungry or wish to turn the experience into a date night. The Pines Café, a cafeteria, is open for lunch and dinner, while the Lookout Lounge serves beer, wine and cocktails until 8 p.m. Peaks is more upscale but open only for lunch right now, Reynolds writes.

Travelers, beware: If your heart is set on spotting snow at Mountain Station, make sure to check the weather before booking a ticket. Once enough snow has covered the ground, visitors to Mountain Station can rent cross-country skis and snowshoes at the Winter Adventure Center atop the mountain.

Parking costs $10, and tram rides cost $28.95 for adults.

Care to add a bit more Christmas magic to your weekend? Tram-riders can catch choirs from local high schools performing holiday tunes on the Pines Café stage at Mountain Station at 5 and 7 p.m. Dec. 10-12.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway gondola ascends to Mountain Station.
Since 1963, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway has connected the dry desert (altitude 2,643 feet) and the frequently snowy upper slopes of Mt. San Jacinto (8,516 feet) in a journey of 10 minutes.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

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Drive the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway to Idyllwild

At this point, you’ve experienced a lot of holiday cheer. You could turn around and take Interstate 10 back to L.A., content with a weekend well-spent amid holiday lights and Christmas carols.

Or you could spend an afternoon cruising the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway to Idyllwild, a cozy town cradled in the San Jacinto Mountains — also on Reynolds’ list of the 40 best winter California experiences.

Visitors can easily spend a weekend (or longer) in Idyllwild exploring its trails and downtown. If you’re crunched for time and hoping to maximize the town’s holiday vibes, make a beeline to the Candy Cupboard, which has been offering caramel apples, taffy, chocolate and more treats for the last 40 years.

If travelers encounter winter weather on the mountain and want to spend time playing in the snow, “the Idyllwild Nature Center (open Thursday through Sunday, about a mile northwest of town) is one place to start,” Reynolds reports.

While taking a swing around Idyllwild, keep your eyes peeled for a golden retriever named Max — he’s the mayor and may be downtown greeting constituents and travelers alike while you’re there.

A forest with mountains and a sunset in the background.
Dusk settles over the landscape as seen near the Black Mountain Lookout in Idyllwild.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

What I’m reading

  • Love visiting holiday light displays? Lots of places — from the Lucent sculpture in Chicago to the “Sea of Stars” in the Maldives — sparkle even outside the Christmas season. Jonathan Carey provides a list of 15 twinkling destinations in Atlas Obscura.
  • A “land grab” by the Skunk Train, a popular tourist attraction in Mendocino County, has ignited a fight with the city of Fort Bragg, Eric Ting reports in SFGate.
  • What happens when outdoor recreation starts to pull people onto tribal lands? “The Navajo Rangers program presents a microcosm of the concerns that arise,” writes Elizabeth Miller in the Colorado Sun.
  • “Lagos, there’s no place on earth like it,” says Yvonne Orji, one of the stars of HBO’s “Insecure,” in Condé Nast Traveler. She breaks down the “chaotic amazingness” of Nigeria’s largest city, as well as the importance of taking it easy while traveling.
  • What’s it like to spend a year “slow-traveling” in a van from Mexico up to Alaska? Scott McMurren profiles a couple’s journey across the West in the Anchorage Daily News.

📸 Photo of the week

Adam Thomson surfs while wearing a Santa Claus hat.
Adam Thomson, dressed as Santa Claus, enjoys surfing just north of the Newport Pier.
(Drew A. Kelley / For the Daily Pilot)

🎸 Road song

Song: “Cool Yule” by Louis Armstrong

Favorite lyric: “From Coney Island to the Sunset Strip / Somebody’s gonna make a happy trip tonight / While the moon is bright.”

Where to play it: Cruising North Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs

A Polaroid-style illustration of North Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)


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