An offbeat Valentine’s Day road trip through the desert

Hearts are drawn atop a photo of a two-lane highway.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists, and happy almost-Valentine’s Day. In this edition of Escapes, you won’t find spa treatments, candlelit dinners or any of the usual romantic fare (though these are lovely experiences for Valentine’s Day, or any occasion you feel like treating yourself!).

Instead, you’ll find a desert road trip that veers a little off the beaten path, at least for typical Valentine’s Day travel.

On this journey, you’ll be able to keep away from crowds, as the Omicron variant continues to spread. Be sure to wear a mask whenever you encounter others, and follow all social distancing guidelines.


Where do you enjoy traveling over Valentine’s Day weekend? Let me know, so I can pass your ideas along in a future edition of Escapes.

One more thing, before I jump to the road trip itinerary — as a budget traveler, I really appreciated the latest edition of The Times’ new Totally Worth It personal finance newsletter, which focuses specifically on saving up for big-ticket items (such as a vacation).

In this edition, my colleague Jessica Roy explains, step by step, how she saved up for a family trip to London a few years ago. Especially if you’re planning a pricey trip in 2022, it’s well worth a read (plus, signing up for the newsletter is free!).

Cider tasting in Julian

Wine tasting in Temecula is a tried-and-true Valentine’s Day activity in the Golden State, and for good reason. But I suggest driving a little farther south to Julian, a town tucked in the Cuyamaca Mountains known for its gold rush history, old-timey main drag and apple orchards.

Julian apples aren’t only used to make its famous pie. On an autumn trip a few years ago, my friend May and I — and her dog Bowie — stopped by Calico Cidery on a whim for a tasting.

We felt instantly comfortable in the no-frills bar area, a world away from fussier tasting experiences, where we sampled a tangy and refreshing flight of ciders. Before we knew it, it was golden hour — perhaps the most beautiful time to visit the ranch.

Calico’s ciders are made by a father-son duo: David Young, an oenologist and fruit science expert, and his dad, Conrad, who has grown apples in Julian for more than three decades. The Youngs use just two ingredients to make their cider: apples, grown on the ranch, and yeast.

The tasting room is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Calico isn’t the only cider game in town. If you’re interested in sampling more cider, consider visiting Julian Hard Cider and Storum Ranch Cider and Wine.

Illustration of an aerial view of eight apple halves.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

Stargaze in Borrego Springs

Stargazing is a timeless date activity, but it can be particularly difficult in light-polluted cities such Los Angeles, San Diego and beyond.

Fortunately, Julian and its neighbor 30 miles to the northeast, Borrego Springs, are world-class places to take in the wonders of our night sky. They’ve both been named dark-sky communities, the only two in California.

According to the International Dark-Sky Assn., a dark-sky community is a place that has demonstrated “exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of a quality outdoor lighting ordinance, dark-sky education and citizen support of dark skies.”

An example of Borrego Springs’ commitment to the cosmos in practice: Residents are encouraged to replace older porch lights with compact fluorescents or LED fixtures.

Not sure where to start your star-seeking adventure in Borrego Springs? The Borrego Springs Dark Sky Coalition lists some of the best stargazing locations here.

A word of caution: The full moon is fast approaching, so fainter stars may be difficult to spot. You may want to plan a return trip when the moon is less than half-full — or even join a Borrego Night Sky Tour, led by astronomer Dennis Mammana. Spots on the tours book up quickly, so make a reservation in advance.

Spending the night in Borrego Springs? There’s really just one place in the remote area that can “promise pampering,” and that’s “handsome, historic La Casa Del Zorro,” writes Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds in his roundup of 10 great California hotel and date ideas for Valentine’s Day.

In addition to luxuriating in the resort’s spa treatments, Reynolds recommends hiking the 3.25-mile Borrego Palm Canyon Trail in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and visiting Ricardo Breceda’s metal animal sculptures along Borrego Springs Road.

An illustration of twinkling stars atop a photo of a desert scape at night.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

Find love in the desert

Ancient Greek philosophers generally thought of “love” in three different ways: eros, agape and philia.

Although Valentine’s Day is typically associated with “eros” (passion, desire, etc.), and “philia” roughly refers to friendship, your next desert destination aligns more closely with the “agape” notion of love. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it’s “the sort of love God has for us persons, as well as our love for God and, by extension, of our love for each other.”

Regardless of your religious views (or lack thereof), it’s hard not to be impressed with the sheer scale and vibrancy of Salvation Mountain — a 50-foot-high hill of painted adobe emblazoned with the words “God is love” that sits in the middle of the desert near Slab City.

You might know it from countless Instagram posts, travel articles or its brief appearance — alongside creator Leonard Knight — in the 2007 movie “Into the Wild.”

Knight spent three decades creating the enormous piece of folk art before his death in 2014. “I think the whole world is loving me,” he says in the film, “and I want to have the wisdom to love them back.”

Take your time exploring the art’s nooks and crannies, the walls covered with flowers, trees, suns and more.

Salvation Mountain is open from dawn until dusk, and admission is free.

 An aerial view of tourists visiting Salvation Mountain
The giant piece of folk art that is Salvation Mountain lies in the desert near the unincorporated Imperial County community of Slab City.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Catch sunset at ‘the end of the world’

It’s hard to imagine an eerier place to spend Valentine’s Day, but Bombay Beach’s memorability is part of the appeal. When you catch a sunset at this former mainstream vacation destination, “the end of the world seems to have arrived already, leaving a ghostly collection of newly minted art, weather-beaten ruins and live-in trailers, tidy and otherwise,” writes Reynolds, who included the Salton Sea community on his list of the 40 best California experiences: Fall edition.

Seventy years after its heyday, Bombay Beach now attracts artists, who are responsible for quirky offerings such as the set of painted televisions and the plane standing on its nose, among other curiosities sprinkled around town. After taking in the art and shoreline during sunset, Reynolds recommends visitors “drive through town again … because several installations are lighted after dark.”

In addition to the Bombay Market and the Ski Inn — Bombay Beach’s only restaurant — there are a surprising number of Airbnb listings. Not sure you’d like to spend the night? You’re only an hour to Coachella Valley, with your pick of resorts and hotels ideal for Valentine’s Day weekend.

TVs are stacked on and around a small brightly painted building. Their screens are covered in bright, swirling colors.
An art installation made up of old TVs is seen in Bombay Beach in the early morning light on Sept. 7.
(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • Two women traveled to find themselves after experiencing trauma. Jessica Poitevien tells their stories in Travel and Leisure.
  • What’s it like to spend 24 hours straight on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, traveling from Seattle to L.A.? Jessie Yeung describes her experience aboard the iconic train route in CNN Travel.
  • “National park NFTs are officially a thing,” reports Mary Beth “Mouse” Skylis in Outside. Here’s the kicker: The NFTs rely on “one of the most popular blockchains and among the least environmentally friendly.”
  • A proposed 600-mile trail network would connect Truckee to Lassen. Gregory Thomas reports on what the Lost Sierra Route would look like in the San Francisco Chronicle.
  • It’s elephant seal breeding season at Año Nuevo State Park in Pescadero, Calif. Hugh Biggar covers the “noisy spectacle” in the Washington Post.
Illustration of a train along a coastline
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times

📸 Photo of the week

A couple sit on a gondola in the water. In back of them, a man in a striped shirt and wide-brimmed hat holds a long oar.
A couple takes a Valentine’s Day weekend gondola cruise around Naples Island in Long Beach on Feb. 13, 2021.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

🎸 Road song

Song:Valentine, Texas” off Mitski’s newest release, “Laurel Hell,” (do yourself a favor and listen to the whole album).

Favorite lyric: “Let’s drive out to where dust devils are made by dancing ghosts as they kick up clouds of sand.”

Where to play it: California 76 as you bypass Palomar Mountain.

An illustration has a photo of a hot air balloon and the words "Valentine, Texas."
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)