Deserts possess a unique magic, but their serene beauty often masks inherent dangers. Yet, when you’re equipped for the ride with plenty of water, sun protection, and working high-quality maps, they can deliver unforgettable moto trips.
Deserts offer properly prepared riders astonishing vistas and amazing landscapes, with sunrises and sunsets bordering on the operatic. Here are four rides that explore desert destinations, each with a distinct character.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Renowned for its iconic flora and unusual rock formations, many Angelinos enjoy an escape to Joshua Tree for respite from the crush of life. Located about 140 miles east of Los Angeles, it feels an entire world apart.
The national park is made up of 794,000 acres and is accessed through three entrances: Yucca Valley in the west, Twentynine Palms in the north, and Cottonwood Springs in the south. The main visitor center is in the town of Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree National Park is spread over two deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran, both arid ecosystems.
The most famous sight in Joshua Tree are its giant branching yuccas growing amidst huge granite monoliths and rock piles that take the visitor back to prehistoric times. The series of narrow roads within the park wind in, around, and through the unusual rock formations and cacti.
The posted speeds are low and heavily enforced, but they make for easy sightseeing. There are designated campsites within the park boundaries that provide a stunning location for stargazing, with the night sky unpolluted by the haze of city lights.
Spring is a beautiful time to visit with the desert floor carpeted with wildflowers.
Joshua Tree is a mecca for hikers, bicyclists, horse riders, and rock climbers. Motorcyclists will enjoy traversing the Pinto Basin via Pinto Basin Rd into the eastern region of the park where various desert plants compete with the yuccas.
I personally recommend the Mojave Sands Hotel in the town of Joshua Tree. It’s a classic roadside ‘70s haunt with lots of concrete to ensure the rooms stay cool. The private parking area has a sturdy metal fence for added security.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
People often say there’s no place on Earth like the White Sands National Park—and they’re correct. White Sands is a wholly unique destination, comprising 275 square miles of desert in the Tularosa Basin.
It is a surreal landscape of glistening white gypsum that has been blown over the centuries to form white, undulating fields of dunes. The national park is stunning to drive into, and the narrow road is usually half covered in windblown sand.
Easing deeper into the park, there is a sense of being removed from the familiar world. Park your bike and walk out onto the soft sand, where the sound is muted down to nothing.
Find a secluded area in a deep indentation of the dunes or at the peak of one and soak in the natural strangeness of it all. If the weather favors you, you’ll be surrounded by the white gypsum sand with only a cloudless blue sky above.
There’s not much to recommend in terms of riding out here, save for one of those American oddities of an endless highway that stretches out into the distance. That said, the overwhelming emptiness of the New Mexico desert has a charm of its own.
For a touch of mystery and intrigue, the park is regularly closed due to missile testing at nearby White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base.
After being out in the deceptively draining elements of the desert, head into Cloudcroft 35 miles awau for a relaxing, luxury stay at the Lodge at Cloudcroft. The resort hotel offers uncanny sophistication for a desert inn and the building is reportedly haunted by ghosts from its storied past.
Painted Desert, Arizona
In the far reaches of northern Arizona’s high desert is a geologist’s paradise. River deposits dating back over 200 million years have left behind colorful flat top mesas and sculpted buttes in a beautiful palette of pastels known as the Painted Desert.
The badlands here extend 150 miles east from the eastern end of the Grand Canyon and culminate at the Petrified Forest National Park. The national parks have made exploring this desert wonderland easy.
Drop in at the Painted Desert Visitor Center which hosts interpretive exhibits before you ride out over the 28-mile road through the park, which sits in the northern section of the Navajo Nation. The Main Park Rd and Blue Mesa Rd have numerous viewpoints for spectacular vistas.
Local wildlife includes coyotes, jackrabbits, pronghorn, mule deer, and hawks. The seasonal rains coax blankets of wildflowers to bloom in the spring and summer.
Although Historic Route 66 once ran through the Painted Desert, that section of the famous highway is no longer in use. However, nearby Holbrook has plenty of Route 66 nostalgia, as well as restaurants and gas stations.
This is the desert, so the weather can be both beautiful and pleasant or harsh and extreme. Prepare accordingly.
Brad's Desert Inn, only 44 mile away in Holbrook, AZ, is a unique spot to rest your head after visiting Painted Desert. The eclectic inn features southwestern memorabilia in a cozy setting.
Alvord Desert, Oregon
When thinking of Oregon, you probably picture a densely fogged coastline, constant drizzle, and dreary overcast skies. But the southeastern part of the state holds an unusual treasure of mountains, hot springs, and Alvord Desert.
The Steen Mountains run for some 70 miles and rise up 5,000 feet in the west, acting as a backdrop to Alvord Desert. Thermal activity finds it way to the Earth’s surface in a string of hot springs, including Alvord Hot Springs, Mickey Hot Springs, and Borax Lake (which is not suitable for taking a dunk with water temperatures in excess of 180 degrees).
The ground here is dried and cracked, and the distant mountain peaks receive white caps in the winter.
Alvord Desert makes for a dramatic contrast to Oregon’s western coast.
In terms of motorcycle riding, Alvord Desert is more about what you’ll see as opposed to any serious lean angle. The Fields-Denio Rd borders the 10-mile long, dry Alvord Lake, which is a remnant of an ancient body of water that was one 200 feet deep.
Alvord Desert is in the most remote part of Oregon and amenities are sparse as a result. For a comfortable stay after your visit to the Alvord, check in at the Best Value Inn, about 100 miles north in Burns.