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Desert Companion

Epic Day Trips

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Hiking
Photograph courtesy of iStockphoto

Pack light, gas up and queue your playlist for these four epic, daylong Vegas escapes

 

Exhausted by Las Vegas life? It happens. Escaping the indignities of dusty wind, harrowing Project Neon commutes, and $20 martinis helps. Miraculously, the rejuvenation of the road trip is but one long day away. Aching to laze away on the beach? Score some quirky boutique finds? Conquer a mountain hike? Do it!

Epic day trips require strategy and some deliberate, attentive driving. Corral a Sunday funday (no holiday weekends!), a driving partner, a backpack (or beach bag) bursting with sunscreen and snacks, and a zen attitude that says, “The trip, the destination, they are one.” Trip on, friends.

Note: These trips are less than four hours each way. Check Google Maps or Waze before departure to ensure roads are clear of construction and accidents.


Beach, Booze, & Boutiques: The Laguna Run

Laguna Beach

Views of endless blue at Laguna Beach. Beach courtesy of the City of Laguna Beach.

At 276 miles, it’s the longest (and most tedious) drive of the bunch, but it’s worth it when you arrive at Laguna, an upscale beach town boasting an artsy vibe.

Support comes from

5:30 a.m. You’re on I-15 now, because in 60 minutes, it’ll be heavy with tourists heading home.

7:15 a.m. Road trips were once an adventure of odd roadside attractions. Welcome to the new Eddie World in Yermo! You have 10 minutes at this outsized superstore of snacks and fast food. Gas up, use the wonderful facilities, grab a bag of nuts, change drivers, and get back on the road.

8:45 a.m. Slip onto CA-91 toward “Beach Cities.” Smell the ocean yet?

8:55 a.m. Take exit 41B (CA-241). It’s a toll road (pay online or with the app), but totally worth it for the time saved, the relaxing drive, and the views. Frequent flyer? Open an account: thetollroads.com.

9:05 a.m. Exit at CA-133 and into Laguna Canyon. Open the windows (and the convertible, if you’re equipped). Cue up some reggae. Relaxation begins!

9:25 a.m. Where CA-133 meets the Pacific Coast Highway. To the front is Main Beach; to the right, Newport. Turn left to Cress Street, head inland a couple blocks.

9:53 a.m. Park and lock, without blocking anyone’s driveway. Slather on the sunscreen, even when there’s a marine layer.

10:00 a.m. Grab a Laguna Beach Independent (free!), and peruse it like a local over a latte at Cafe Heidelberg (heidelbergcafe.com). The chill vibes and sea breezes are transforming you. You fantasize about spending the day on a standup paddleboard.

10:30 a.m. You’ve never been on an SUP, so instead, you are first at the bar at The Rooftop at Casa Del Camino (lacasadelcamino.com), where sublime ocean views and a stacked Bloody Mary await. Selfie time!

Fish11 a.m. Perhaps you chose to linger over your latte. No worries; skip The Rooftop and stroll straight to  The Deck at Driftwood Kitchen  (driftwoodkitchen.com). This lovely hotel spot might remind you of home, if it wasn’t for the stairs leading to the sand. Score bar or table seating, but get there at opening regardless.

(Seafood, right, from The Deck at Driftwood Beach. Photo courtesy The Deck at Driftwood Beach.)

12:30 p.m. Look at that! You have an afternoon to spend on Cress Street Beach (you brought a towel, right?), or browsing the boutiques and galleries along the PCH. Don’t miss Sound Spectrum (soundspectrumlaguna.com), a record store established in 1967.

4 p.m. Time to leave if you don’t want to drive in the dark.

6 p.m. No, really, you should head home.

10 p.m. Stop at the classic Vegas joint, Bootlegger Bistro. You’re hungry, and it’s good to be home! Now, pay your tolls.

 

Don’t Desert the Desert: Palm Springs and Joshua Tree

It sounds absurd, escaping the desert by going to the desert. But from the moment that vast field of Joshua trees envelops your view to when you glide down Palm Canyon Drive like Sinatra, this trip will rejuvenate your juju, reminding you of the parts of desert living you love. Note: I travel through the Mojave National Preserve, via Amboy. You can split the day between the laid-back luxe of Palm Springs and the cowboy boho of Joshua Tree, or pick one.

6 a.m. Head south on I-15.

6:45 a.m. Escape the interstate rat race by exiting at Nipton Road. Turn left. Although you may not see another car for hours, turn on your headlights.

6:50 a.m. Turn right onto Ivanpah Road, into the desert. Savor the quickly shifting scenery, a forest of Joshua trees thickening on both sides.

7 a.m. Pay attention. This road has dips, curves, and desert tortoises.

7:30 a.m. The historic Kelso Depot, now the Mojave National Preserve Visitor Center, is on your left. Worth a look, if you get caught by a train.

7:55 a.m. Turn right onto Route 66 toward Amboy. Look to your left. Did you see that lion?

8 a.m. At Amboy, shoot an Instagram photo of Roy’s and switch drivers. Don’t buy gas unless you’re desperate.

9 a.m. Yucca Valley gas stop?

9:15 a.m. Jump on the I-10 briefly, then exit for Palm Springs.

9:30 a.m. Cue that Cocktail Nation playlist and cruise Palm Canyon Drive, soaking in the style. Ring-a-ding-ding!

Ace Hotel

Minimalist chic at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs. Photo courtesy of the Ace Hotel.

10 a.m. Roll up to the Ace Hotel  (acehotel.com/palmsprings), enter through the lobby, and slide out back to the Swim Club for a DJ-fed brunch by the pool.

10:10 a.m. Or, perhaps you favor disappearing into the gorgeous gardens of the Parker and its patio cafe, Norma’s (theparkerpalmsprings.com).

12 p.m. Decision time! Palm Springs is packed with museums, short hikes, MidCentury architecture, the Aerial Tramway, and the boutiques of Palm Canyon Drive.

12:45 p.m. Alternatively, return to the artsy outsider enclave of Joshua Tree. Park near the Joshua Tree Saloon (joshuatreesaloon.com), and stroll a few hundred yards in either direction for boho boutiques and vintage oddities (The Crochet Museum! The Beauty Museum!). The entrance to Joshua Tree National Park is nearby.

4:30 p.m. A few miles into the hills lies Pioneertown, home of the legendary  Pappy & Harriet’s  (pappyandharriets.com). This Western movie set turned roadhouse is a must-see and the place to be after 5. Great food, too.

Pioneertown palacePictured right: Pappy & Harriet’s roadhouse in Pioneertown.  Photo courtesy Pappy & Harriet's roadhouse.

6:45 p.m. Gas up and head back the way you came. It’ll be dark when passing through the Mojave Desert Preserve, and you’ve likely never seen so many stars.

9:45 p.m. Home, sweet desert!

 

Elevated Food, Brew, and Views: A Flagstaff adventure

Downtown Flagstaff

Downtown Flagstaff offers hidden gems in dining and drinking.

Despite mountainous surroundings, a  historic downtown,  and the campus of NAU, Flagstaff has mostly been a road-trip whistle-stop. Until recently, that is. Leveraging its proximity to the Grand Canyon with a growing desire for small-town authenticity (and the thirst for craft brews and foodie destinations), Flagstaff is gaining traction as a quirky standalone stop for a modern crop of outdoor enthusiasts and vagabonds. (Note: Flagstaff is one hour ahead of Las Vegas during Daylight Saving Time.)

6 a.m. Are you a quirky outdoor enthusiast or foodie vagabond? Get on US-95, now!

6:32 a.m. The Boulder City bottleneck is the slow section of the journey. Keep that foot light until you pass Hoover Dam.

7:25 a.m. Change freeways in Kingman, to I-40.

7:45 a.m. Exit at Blake Ranch Road for the Petro Stopping Center, an old-school truck stop. Washroom, Slim Jim, fuel up, swap drivers.

8 a.m. Along with the elevation change, comes wide, green ranch land. Barns! Cows! Sheep!

9:25 a.m. Begin your day-stay by staging your departure: Park in the Flagstaff city parking lot (free on Sunday) across from Pizzicletta.

9:34 a.m. Marvel that Flagstaff, a town of about 72,000, boasts three free alternative newspapers.

9:35 a.m. Step into Macy’s European Coffeehouse (macyscoffee.net), a vegetarian-friendly, organic cafe, opened in 1980. Pleasantly, more hippie than hipster.

10 a.m. Savor your coffee. Read. Relax. At nearly 7,000 feet in elevation, Flagstaff can go from sunshine to torrential downpour and back to blue skies in the course of one bagel. You prepared, right?

11 a.m. Head across the tracks to the Hotel Monte Vista (hotelmontevista.com). Here, a coffeehouse-bar entices locals on laptops at Rendezvous. Bypass the Bloody Mary for an Irish Cold Brew: Coffee, house-made heavy cream, and a shot of Jameson, over ice. Careful.

1 p.m. Stroll around downtown and discover local boutiques (from custom saddles to healing crystals), adventure outfitters, restaurants (Criollo, Tinderbox), bookstores, bakeries, and butcher shops. The NAU campus (1899) is walkable with some interesting buildings.

3 p.m. Beer o’clock? Hop to Mother Road, Flagstaff Brewing Company, or Hops on Birch. All stage occasional live music on their patios.

4:45 p.m. Head toward the car.

5 p.m. Caleb Schiff’s pizzeria Napoletana, Pizzicletta (pizzicletta.com), opens. It’s tiny, they don’t take reservations, and Caleb is almost always at the oven. Sit at the community table and make friends. Order a salad, then one wood-fired pie at a time. Don’t be embarrassed if you end up eating two.

6:30 p.m. On the mother road, again.

10:05 p.m. Back down to 2,001 feet. How’s that for decompression?

 

Such Great Heights: Zion and On and On

For ambitious daytrippers, Zion’s iconic Angel’s Landing, right, is a must-hike. For a relaxed stroll, take the paved Riverside Walk to the mouth of the Narrows. Photo courtesy of National Parks Service

It’s hard to believe that our shortest drive offers the most dramatic destination. Yet just 160 quick miles north lies Zion National Park, an indescribably beautiful pocket of towering Utah peaks and grassy meadows, with a river running through it.

5 a.m. Head north on I-15. It’s early, but you lose an hour in the time change, and you want to be on a trail before the crowds.

5:15 a.m. Traffic uses every fraction of the 80 mph limit. Stay right except to pass!

6:07 a.m. The bucolic ranching, gambling and golfing hamlet of Mesquite.

7:10 a.m. Three minutes later (or is it 63?) ... hello, Utah!

7:20 a.m. Enter the Virgin River Gorge. This narrow, twisty stretch is an incredible feat of engineering. It’s also gorge-ous. Sorry.

7:30 a.m. Exit the Gorge into a sliver of land we like to call “Speed-Trap-A-Zona.”

7:37 a.m. The picturesque town of St. George is more than halfway, but the drive slows from here, so switch seats.

7:52 a.m. Exit I-15 onto UT-9 East and 13 miles of fits and starts through “Hurri-kun.”

8:15 a.m. The final 20 miles are breathtaking, the scenery switching from towns to ranches to open land, before closing in again. You’ll shadow the Virgin River as you approach Springdale, which looks a lot like Mayberry, with cows in the front yard.

8:40 a.m. You’re early enough to score a spot in the main Zion lot. Pay your fee, get a map, pick your hike.

8:45 a.m. Board the canyon shuttle and listen for your stop. Feeling ambitious?
 Angel’s Landing  or Hidden Canyon. Less so? The river walk to the Narrows. Enjoy!

1 p.m. Post-hike, head down-canyon (via the shuttle, the road, or scrambling along the river) to the Zion Lodge (zionlodge.com) and its requisite souvenir shop and cafe. There’s also a beer garden and a grand lawn shaded by a massive tree. Kids are playing, hikers are stretching, and everyone is gobsmacked at the beauty around them. If you packed a picnic, it’s nosh time!

3 p.m. You could stay here all day, but no. Hop on the down-canyon shuttle for a quick stop at the Zion Human History Museum.

4 p.m. Back in Springdale, you’re feeling a little hungry. Deep Creek Coffee Company (deepcreekcoffee.com) is a familiar cafe. Crave something more substantial? Zion Pizza & Noodle (housed in an old church) and the Southwestern Bit & Spur are solid.

5:30 p.m. On the road again!

7 p.m. Home in time to nurse those muscles with a hot shower and Netflix. That time shift, though. Magic!

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