Travel: A Date with the Desert

What does the Museum of History in Granite in Felicity, Calif., have to do with the Date Shake shop in Westmoreland, Salvation Mountain in Niland or the Sonny Bono Bird Refuge in Calipatria?

Well, if you start out early enough in the day from Palm Springs, you are capable of experiencing one of the most idiosyncratic road trips in Southern California—one that emanates sheer, delicious discovery. The lower desert of Southern California’s Imperial County, east of the Salton Sea, is around two hours, 30 minutes from Palm Springs and is a “mysterious mélange of vastly unrelated sites,” said my vintage friend from St. Paul, Minn., after having a creamy date shake at a roadside shop appropriately called Date Shake. It’s in an agricultural area known for locally cultivated honey and delicious dates from Medjool to Deglet Nour. Even before you finish that creamy date milkshake, consider the 15-minute (or so) drive to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, estimated to be 200 feet below sea level. This daunting area attracts 424 species of birds, and the largest number fly in between October and May. 

None of this desert drama would be complete without mentioning the International Banana Museum on the edge of the Salton Sea, where the chill of fresh banana milkshakes meets the iconic banana-inspired head dresses of Carmen Miranda, all curated by the top banana himself, owner Fred Garbutt. 

The iconic Museum of History in Granite in Felicity, Calif., on Interstate 8 where California meets Yuma, Ariz., a magnificent monument of our world’s multifaceted history, has to be seen to be believed. Jacques-Andre Istel, this outdoor museum’s creator, said of this stirring museum, “unprovided with original learning, uninformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write history in granite.” 

Triangular granite panels reveal quotations from Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi to Shakespeare and the Bible. A few miles from the town of Felicity (which has its own U.S. Post Office) driving on I-8 brings you to Yuma, where the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is a must-see. The prison was established in 1875, debuting to seven prisoners who actually built this rock solid reformatory. We arrived in time for a guided tour of this fascinating facility that was home to 3,069 prisoners during its 33 years of existence. If you recall the vintage movie, “3:10 to Yuma,” you know this notorious prison does not exactly have a pristine past! Returning to the desert on I-8 West, you’ll notice a bevy of billboards advertising dental offices in Algodones, Mexico, right before the official border crossing, which is before the exit to the Museum of History in Granite.

Recommended is a departure from Palm Springs area around 7 a.m., providing ample time to explore this vast area. As an aside, if you travel in February, remember the annual Carrot Festival in Holtville, which is off I-8 between El Centro and Felicity. Any time of year, keep in mind The Friends of the Desert Mountain, a nonprofit organization protecting and preserving 50,000 acres from the San Gorgonio Pass to the Salton Sea (desertmountains.org). It offers hikes and classes that add a new dimension to experiencing the desert year-round.

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