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Want a desert experience that’s not Joshua Tree? Here are three

A sign on a Southwest-style building reads "Amargosa Opera House." Above is an illustrated sun and clouds.
The Amargosa Opera House is in Death Valley Junction, Calif.
(Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

This is not a newsletter about Joshua Tree.

That’s not to say the trendy desert town isn’t worth visiting — it absolutely is! In fact, it was the focus of a previous edition of Escapes about six months ago.

But The Times has also covered its skyrocketing popularity and the unpleasant side of all the attention. “We don’t want it to become Tulum,” one Joshua Tree tourist told my colleague Christopher Reynolds earlier this year, referring to the Mexican beach town overwhelmed by upscale tourists.

So, as we enter my favorite time of year for desert journeys, I thought I’d share a few slightly more off-the-beaten-path destinations across the Mojave.

What’s so special about the desert in November? The weather, for one. The fall can offer pristine hiking conditions; over the weekend, highs hovered around 70 degrees. And autumn tends to be a bit less crowded than the spring, when wildflowers begin their annual show.

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Last time I wrote about the desert, I received a bunch of great recommendations from readers. Please keep them coming! Email me anytime with your travel suggestions, feedback and anything else you’d like to share.

Discover an ornate opera house near Death Valley National Park

People inside an elaborately decorated building. An audience is painted on the walls; the ceiling looks like a blue sky.
The interior of the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, Calif., is seen in January 2020.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

You never know what you might find hidden in the California desert.

You might find a secluded oasis, a swing set eerily swaying in a rancid-smelling sea or a larger-than-life metal sculpture of a serpent, hissing into the abyss.

And then there’s the Amargosa Opera House, on a lonely stretch of California 127 in Death Valley Junction.

“My life split in two at this junction,” Marta Becket, a New York dancer and painter-turned-savior of the historic building, told my colleague Diana Marcum in 1999. “I looked at the stage and knew it was my future. I knew I’d perform here for the rest of my life.”

After discovering the abandoned hotel and social hall in the late 1960s, Becket set about revitalizing the forgotten place. In addition to adorning its walls and ceiling with paintings of a captive Renaissance-style audience watched over by a phalanx of cherubs, she breathed new life into the 14 hotel rooms, decorating them with murals of ballerinas, peacocks, clowns and other fanciful imagery.

Today, the Amargosa Opera House continues to honor the woman who gave it a second life, more than five years after her death. Tours are held every day of the year at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., though the schedule is subject to change. Tickets cost $15 for adults and $5 for children.

Visitors can see the opera house in action on weekends from October through May when it hosts various shows and performances including spoken word, opera, acoustic music and theater. Call the box office to learn more at (760) 852-4441.

Hike around an age-old crater

A man stands at the edge of a crater in the desert.
A hiker stands at the edge of Amboy Crater at Mojave Trails National Monument.
(Matt Pawlik / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

At first glimpse, Amboy Crater looks like the result of a meteorite smashing into the Mojave Desert earth.

The reality is only slightly less awe-inspiring.

It’s not a product of the stars; rather, the crater is an extinct volcano that last erupted some 10,000 years ago. Reaching 250 feet high and 1,500 feet wide, the crater — made of cinders and ash — is part of Mojave Trails National Monument.

Travelers today can trek around Amboy Crater, located in one of the youngest volcanic fields in the nation.

“The hike traverses a lava field where jagged igneous rock contrasts with seasonal blooms such as desert sand verbena, sunflowers and fivespot,” writes Matt Pawlik, Times contributor and former author of The Wild newsletter.

“After a steep ascent to the rim by way of the western slope, you’re rewarded with expansive views of the Mojave preserve to the north as well as the Bullion and Bristol mountain ranges to the west and east, respectively.”

Autumn — not too hot and not too cold — is a great time to hike in the Southern California desert. Check out this list of the 14 best desert hikes in the region for more inspiration.

Explore California’s stretch of Route 66

An empty stretch of desert road with the words "Route 66" painted on the blacktop
A stretch of historic Route 66 in the Mojave Desert about an hour north of Joshua Tree National Park.
(Tyrone Beason / Los Angeles Times)

Amboy Crater is just off Route 66, possibly the most famous road in the United States. There are also a number of other attractions to see along California’s stretch of the Mother Road.

Although a leisurely drive along the full Route 66 may take two weeks or longer, tackling the California portion can be done comfortably over the course of a few days.

Begin where the storied road ends — the Santa Monica Pier — and head east. Here are just a few of the stops to visit along the way:

  • The California Route 66 Museum and Route 66 Mother Road Museum: Made up of 4,500 square feet of Route 66-focused exhibition space and photo opportunities, the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville is a no-brainer for anyone who wants to know more about the legendary road. The learning continues 32 miles up the road at the Route 66 Mother Road Museum in Barstow.
  • Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch: In many ways, it looks exactly like you’d expect it to — a sprawling collection of green, blue, brown and clear bottles, artistically assembled into towering sculptures. Often mentioned as a Route 66 highlight, the colorful ranch is the brainchild of artist Elmer Long, who died in 2019. It can be found between the California Route 66 Museum and Route 66 Mother Road Museum at 24266 National Trails Highway in Oro Grande, Calif. .
  • Calico Ghost Town: Are you brave enough to spend the night in a ghost town? Find out by reserving a cabin, bunkhouse or campsite at the allegedly haunted Calico Ghost Town Regional Park, a seven-mile detour off Route 66 in Yermo, Calif.

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Early-opening alert

 A snowplow against a backdrop of jagged mountain peaks and a wooden sign that reads "Mammoth Mountain."
A snowplow sculpts a ridge atop Mammoth Mountain’s summit in October 2021.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Attention, snow seekers: Mammoth Mountain is now open for skiing and snowboarding. Its six-days-earlier-than-planned opening was prompted by 6 inches of early November snow, Chris Reynolds reported last week.

After receiving 4 to 6 feet of snow this week, a representative from Mammoth Mountain said the resort would be “expanding terrain significantly for the weekend.”

One last thing

Starting early on your holiday shopping list? Or just feel like treating yourself to something new?

Then be sure to check out Reynolds’ roundup of the most useful gifts for travelers.

I was immediately tempted by the understated alternative to chunky U-shaped travel pillows and — ever pushing the limits of my backpack — the compressible water bottle on his list.

🎸Road song

"Beach House,” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Play it as you search for a spot in the Malibu Country Mart parking lot.

Check out previous issues of Escapes, or to view this article in your browser click here.


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