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Driving California's Steep and Scenic Pines to Palms Highway

December 21, 2011 at 5:34 PM | by | ()

Tis the season to head for sunnier, warmer climes. For many this means the Caribbean and Mexico while for others, they're keeping it closer to home in Palm Springs, CA. Since we know many who'll head to the desert on Virgin America's new route to Palm Springs, we're thinking it's time to let you in on a few of our own personal favorite PS secrets.

This story will be in the first-person because...I have a confession. Actually, two.

1: I watch too much of the BBC's Top Gear. Typically I just fast-forward through the interviews and in-studio car talk to get the meat of the program, where Jeremy, James and Richard are off driving exotic, winding roads and stopping to have mugs of tea at shady petrol stations.

2: I don't drive that much at all anymore. Living in NYC negates the need for a car, and though I'll occasionally Zipcar to help a friend move apartments, my behind-the-wheel dalliances are mostly limited to long weekends of rental car release.

For these two very important reasons, sometimes an excellent, leisurely drive figures at the front of my vacation. I have had two mindblowing drives this year. First, on the TT racecourse on the Isle of Man (read all about that here), and, second, on the Pines to Palms Highway from Orange Country to Palm Springs, California.

The Pines to Palm Highway is technically California State Route 74, a street that's been in place since the US first started the "State Route" thing. As you can probably guess, it's called the "Pines to Palms" because the scenery, going from west to east, gradually changes from pine forests to the desert, to the lush oasis and palm trees of the Coachella Valley. Only at the very beginning and very end will you drive flat, straight roads; the bulk of the journey is winding and switchbacked, steep climbs and descents through numerous mountain peaks and valleys. To put it plainly, it's a dynamic drive.

I chose to bid adieu to a long weekend in Palm Springs with a dramatic departure—driving the opposite way (Palms to Pines) so that I could wave goodbye to the city below me from the Coachella Valley Vista Point. If you're a safe and confident driver, I absolutely recommend it for at least a day-ride. Bored in Palm Springs? First, you're doing something wrong, but you should use the time to at least drive up to the outlook and then back down.

The wind up there...incredible. The temperature drop from only an hour ago back down in the valley...huge. There's a reason drivers stop only briefly for a snapshot and continue on. I got a bit of the shakes, while my teeth chattered and the brisk gusts tangled my loose hair over my face. Invigorating.

From Palm Springs I drove to Temecula, and on down to San Diego. The total time was around three hours, and I used my Google Map Directions on my iPhone for the entire thing. Next time I'm doing the road properly—from Pines to Palms—so that I can experience the moment everyone raves about—the moment when you're just driving along and you turn a corner and BOOM there's the entire valley down the hood of the car. And the descent begins.

[Photos: Cynthia Drescher for Jaunted]

Archived Comments:


doing it the other way is just, yeah. boom.