The Desert Dream You Need to Chase from Outside magazine elessard

Southern California is blessed with rolling hills, surreal desertscapes, and more varied terrain than any state has a right to. It’s also home to a tight-knit community of local mountain bikers who work year-round to keep the region’s trails in pristine condition. Put all the variables together and you have the ingredients for a perfect weekend on the bike.

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Treat yourself to three days of bliss in Southern California. Prototype shown. (Photo: Morahan Visuals)

For your first taste of the classics, head to Pasadena. Just north of town, El Prieto offers flowy riding through a lush canyon, complete with rock gardens, fast switchbacks, and perfectly sculpted berms. Do the trail on its own (about two miles total) or link up with neighboring trails for a six-mile loop. Cap off the day at nearby Tapia Canyon, another local gem. Just east of Santa Clarita, this patch of rolling scrubland is packed with fun, swoopy trails. Connect G-Out, Sidewinder, Dogtag, and Karl’s for a full-value tour; including approach trails, it clocks in at about nine miles total.

On day two, head to Joshua Tree National Park, where rugged 4×4 roads plunge deep into the desert. While the park itself offers few technical bike trails, these dirt roads are ideal for touring—and serve up near-constant views of golden granite cliffs and iconic Joshua Tree forest. Looking for more challenging trails? Just outside the park’s borders, you’ll find the Desert View Conservation Area, where miles of singletrack wind around desert scrub and prickly pear cactus gardens. (Note: Most vehicles can navigate the dirt roads here, but 4WD is recommended to access the deeper trailheads and more advanced riding.)

Getting There

To get to El Prieto Canyon, take CA-110 North from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena. Here, get on CA-710 and go north to Exit 22B. From here, take North Windsor Avenue to the Windsor Boulevard Bike Parking Area on your left (GPS coordinates: 34.192976, -118.168592).

When to Go

Thanks to SoCal’s mild temperatures and low rainfall, the local riding season lasts pretty much all year round. That said, summers can be hot and dry, which makes fall through spring a slightly better time to visit.

Head to Joshua Tree National Park, where rugged 4×4 roads plunge deep into the desert. Prototype shown. (Photo: Morahan Visuals)

Where to Stay

Why choose between a mountain bike trip and a beach vacation? Book a stay at The Holidays, a collection of retro seaside trailers in San Clemente, near Irvine’s plentiful trail riding. More of a mountain person? Book a swanky modern cabin at Getaway Big Bear, tucked into the woods just north of San Bernardino.

Pro Tips

Warm, dry, dusty conditions are the norm here. Take these precautions for hot-weather riding.

Schedule rides for early morning and early evening, especially on hot days.
Budget at least a gallon of water per person, and sip constantly throughout the day.
Wear sunglasses, and reapply sunscreen throughout the day.
Make sure you have the right vehicle to access dry or sandy trails. While many trailheads are accessible with 2WD, a 4WD vehicle will keep way more options open.

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the birthplaces of modern American rock climbing. (Photo: Morahan Visuals)

Next-Level Adventure


When the summer heat ticks toward triple digits, it’s time to hit the water. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from a local outfitter and head to the Salton Sea, a vast inland oasis within the Southern California desert. As you paddle along the shoreline, keep your eyes peeled for mule deer, cormorants, pelicans, and coyotes.


When your quads are too sore to tackle another descent, pack up your rope and harness and head to Joshua Tree National Park, one of the birthplaces of modern American rock climbing. Here, climbers tackle classic granite lines amid a surreal desert setting. While there are some bolted climbs to be found, this place is known for its traditional style of climbing; if you’re new to the sport, it’s best to book a local climbing guide.

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