3KhAms0U 6 Our oasis in the desert
6 Our oasis in the desert
Our oasis in the desert

Palms to Pines — hope springs eternal

Car: Dodge Challenger

Drive: Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, California (68km)


There’s something about mountains and man, is there not?

To the bold and adventurous, mountains are to be climbed. For those that prefer a steering wheel in their hands, mountains are there to be driven. 

And if you’re in Palm Springs, California, it’s the mighty San Jacinto Range soaring some 3050m to be one of the tallest escarpments in North America, that beckons.

It’s a drive that takes you from sparse desert, cactus-peppered floor to wide-open, pine tree-studded fertile plain land. This is the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway.  

I guide our 2015 Dodge Challenger V6 rental past the fashion outlets and condos of Palm Desert and follow the arrow-straight SR74 into parched, rust-red foothills.

Road signs denoting ‘Sharp Curves and Steep Grades’ are a pointer to the climb – and fun – that awaits.

We’re now on the Robert Wilson Memorial Highway. 

Like Mulholland, the moniker ‘highway’ seems inappropriate for a road that, were it not so stepped into the mountains, could pass for a savvy-designed, well-maintained racing circuit.

It’s wide, smooth, nicely-cambered, lined with guard rail on the open side, blocked by rock face on the inside.

About a third of the way up, the surface changes from a hot-mix consistency and finish, to one slightly coarser and more consistent with a mountain road.  

Beyond the Coachella Valley Vista Point, the road continues to wind, but eventually uncoils and pine trees appear, initially sparse and stunted, before growing thick and towering.

The countryside ultimately transitions into relatively flat, open plain land studded with ranches and horse studs.

I pass by the glassy, blue waters of Lake Hemet and come to a crossroads at the tiny community of Mountain Center and a choice of where to go.

Left will take me on a continuation of Route 74, right leads to another leg of the Palms to Pines along Route 243.

Opting for the latter, I’m rewarded with a succession of tight curves about 8km out from my turn-around point, Idyllwild.

From there, I aim the Challenger’s long, white bonnet back towards Palm Springs.

Sometimes, returning the way from whence you came can be a bit repetitive, but not this drive. The views, from mountain high to desert low, are pretty damn amazing. 

While descending is never as rewarding as ascending, the turns and twists to a drive narrative such as this are what make it a good read.

1 Welcoming sign
Welcoming sign.


Hangin’ Cool in Palm Springs

Starting in the 1920 and reaching a peak in the 1950s-60s, Palm Springs has been a huge, blank canvas for creative architects on which to hang their visionary designs.

But we’re not here to merely observe and marvel, but immerse ourselves in Desert Modernism culture that is Palm Springs’ signature. The name of our accommodation, The Orbit In, is a giveaway to how deep said immersion is going to be.

Set in the historic Tennis Club area nestling into the base of the imposing San Jacinto mountains, The Orbit In morphed out of the Village Manor B’n’B (circa 1957).

The design features just nine large studio-style rooms, detailed and furnished faithfully to the period. 

Every day, coming on sunset, we’d gather with other guests at the central poolside Boomerang Bar.

We’d enjoy a complimentary happy hour and review the day, Orbitini cocktail in hand and broad smile on face — the ingredients secret, though sake (Japanese rice wine) has a big say.

There’s always plenty to recount. Such as? Joining a small tour led by a local, retired architect around the principal Desert Modernism districts, an experience as entertaining and enjoyable as it was illuminating. 

Our voyage of discovery proved way, way too extensive to detail here, but if I had to nominate just one example of mid-century expressive excellence it would be Kaufmann House.

Designed by Richard Neutra for department store tycoon Edgar J Kaufmann, the circa-1946 residence includes five bedrooms and five bathrooms organised in a cross shape with the living spaces at the centre. 

Another day, a visit to the Palm Springs Air Museum beckoned strongly. Named in 2014 as one of the top  aviation museums in the world by CNN Travel, 59 flyable and static aircraft are on display inside four climate-controlled hangars with more outside on the tarmac. 

Each hanger is dedicated to a particular theatre of war. We had the pleasure of being guided through ‘Miss Angela’, a mighty World War II B17 Flying Fortress by the extremely knowledgeable grand-daughter of one the wartime flying crew.   

A holiday destination has worked its magic when you reorganise your itinerary on the spot to stay a little longer.

Even when it meant that we had to switch hotel rooms within The Orbit In, just for that one more night.

And it hasn’t ended there. Years later, I find myself checking Palm Springs property websites. 

That’s right  – if I could, I’d live there. 


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