Got a road trip through the California desert coming up? Looking to spice up your 250-mile journey from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (and vice versa) beyond the typical McDonald’s run / bathroom break at Barstow, CA? Good, we’ve got you covered.
A straight shot drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (or Vegas to LA) should only take four hours, but with so many curiosities and quirky sights to discover along the way, you’ll do yourself a huge favor by allocating lots of time to stop frequently.
Filled with funky towns, even funkier art installations, and endless desert, California really doesn’t get any more “western” than this. Along your drive (which includes a little taste of the Historic Route 66), you’ll be confronted with wide-open desert wasteland, Joshua trees beckoning to be photographed, crazy desert art, as well as weird but cool sights such as the world’s largest thermometer, an old ghost town, and even a glass bottle forest. Despite the vast emptiness of the surrounding desert, this journey is far from boring.
In this post, I’ll reveal all the cool, artsy, and downright weird things you’ll see along the way, from kitschy roadside attractions to must-eat restaurants. Welcome to the funkiest California road trip there ever was, we’re glad you’re here.
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LOS ANGELES TO LAS VEGAS ROAD TRIP: ROUTE OPTIONS
If you’re driving both ways (departing and returning via car), I have a bonus for you! In this post, I’m going to provide two potential California desert road trip routes. One is a more straightforward drive, while the other takes a slight detour through the Mojave Desert. Though the second route may be longer (339 miles compared to 270 miles), it will open you up to a whole new world of road trip stops! This route meets back up with the main road to Vegas around Primm, so you’ll still get to check out the cool pit stops by the California/Nevada border.
The route you choose is optional (and likely depends on if you have the extra time to explore), but it could be really fun to take one route on the way to Las Vegas, and try the other route on the way home.
Route 1: Straightforward route via I-15
- Features quirky stops along Victorville, Yermo, and Baker
Route 2: Detour route via I-10
- Features Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and the Mojave Desert
LA TO VEGAS ROAD TRIP STOPS: OVERVIEW MAP
This map outlines all the road trip stops and sights mentioned in this post.
The blue markers represent Route 1, whereas the orange markers represent the detour stops as part of Route 2. As you can see, route 2 will eventually meet back up with Route 1 (around Primm, Nevada).
Feel free to save this map and refer back to it when you’re on your road trip vacation!
ROUTE 1: THE BEST LOS ANGELES TO LAS VEGAS ROAD TRIP STOPS
The stops listed below are assuming you start your trip from LA. If you’re starting in Vegas, no worries! Simply add them to your itinerary in reverse order.
If you’re starting out in LA, you better leave before rush hour hits (but wait, isn’t that traffic there 24/7?). Nothing worse than sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours, only to realize you’re barely on the other side of town! Once you enter the Inland Empire, you won’t have much further to drive, because we’re going to be making our first route 66 stop!
ORIGINAL MCDONALD’S MUSEUM
San Bernardino, California
What’s a road trip without a quirky museum filled to the brim with fast food memorabilia? This unlicensed collection of fast-food artifacts sits on the site of the first-ever McDonald’s restaurant. A stop at the Original McDonald’s Museum off of Route 66 will give you the opportunity to learn all about the history of the McDonald’s franchise. You’ll also see some really cool stuff in there, such as kid’s meal toys from decades ago and burger packaging from all over the world!
CALIFORNIA ROUTE 66 MUSEUM
There’s so much significant history tied to the Historic Route 66 Highway. If you’re interested in learning more about its history or if you’re interested in old-timey Americana culture (or getting some awesome photo ops), this is the place to go. The California Route 66 Museum is located in historic Old Town Victorville. There are three display rooms packed with Route 66 memorabilia as well as a gift shop that sells a variety of quirky goods, all set inside an old 50’s diner. The museum is free to visit but donations are accepted.
EMMA JEAN’S HOLLAND BURGER CAFE
Chances are, you might not be hungry yet. But in the off chances you are, we’ve got our first restaurant pit stop for you. Fancy an old fashioned burger at a classic trucker stop? Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Cafe is your spot. This place is a historic right of passage for all High Desert travelers! The portions are huge and the flavors are out of this world. As seen on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives! Need I say more?
ELMER’S BOTTLE TREE RANCH
Oro Grande, California
As you get further and further away from La La Land, you’ll start to notice the other side of California: away from all the glitz and glamour, you’ll notice a much more dusty, industrial, artsy vibe. This next stop epitomizes just that: Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch. Here, you’ll find thousands of glass bottles, typewriters, dolls, and broken car parts that make up a forest of tree-like sculptures. It’s a strange sight to see, but a sight to see indeed. If you’re interested in unique Route 66 roadside attractions, this one is worth stopping for. Entrance to Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch is free, but they do take donations.
Alright, we’ll admit, Barstow isn’t too interesting, but it is great for bathroom breaks, a re-up on snacks, and a quick leg stretch. Barstow marks the almost-midway point of your road trip. Because The Barstow Station is a major stop for tour buses, you’ll find that it’s one of the bigger towns along the way. It features an outlet mall, electric charging stations for electric cars, a McDonald’s made out of an old railroad station, a ton of other fast-food restaurants, and various gift shops.
There are also numerous accommodation options here. If you’re going to be stopping here for the night, do not miss the Skyline Drive-In Theater! It gets very dark out there, which makes it the perfect setting for an outdoor movie night!
CALICO GHOST TOWN
Not too far from Barstow, you’ll encounter your next exciting stop–Calico Ghost Town! Once filled with miners searching for silver, this town was eventually abandoned in the 1890s, rendering it a “ghost town.” It has since been restored to look as it did in the 1880s and has been turned into a fun roadside attraction. Calico Ghost Town recreates the California Silver Rush life with pioneer-style restaurants, shops, and sights. Expect to spend 1-2 hours here, walking around and perusing the gift shops.
This is by far one of my favorite stops along Historic Route 66, because I’m a sucker for western towns, California gold rush towns, and all things reenactment!
PEGGY SUE’S 50’S DINER
While in Yermo, stop by Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner for a real bite to eat. This charming diner serves your typical ’50s diner food, including grilled cheeses, burgers, sandwiches, pizza, and good old-fashioned ice cream. And yes, the inside is as cute and 50’s-vibe as it is on the outside. After you’ve finished eating, linger and explore for a bit… don’t miss the dinosaur area out back!
ALIEN FRESH JERKY
If you thought your trip reached its highest level of quirkiness, think again. Oh Baker, CA. What have you got in store for us? Let’s start with the alien jerky. I’m sure at this point you’re probably thinking, “um, where are we?”– I don’t blame you.
This stop is completely touristy, but let’s admit it, we all want to buy some for our friends/family back home. Check out the “Galaxy Peace Patrol” vehicle parked out front, then head inside to load up on all the beef (I mean, alien) jerky your heart desires. Before heading back into your car, get your fortune told by the one and only, all-knowing “Ali-n”.
This stop is super kitschy but super fun. Yum, alien!
WORLD’S TALLEST THERMOMETER
Baker is not only home to aliens and their jerky, but it is also home to the world’s largest thermometer. Behold, a 134-foot attraction that can be seen from miles away. It reads temperatures up to 134 degrees, which happens to be the record heat in nearby Death Valley back in 1913. A bit of backstory–this roadside attraction was put up in the early ’90s as a companion piece to the Bun Boy burger joint. The restaurant is gone now, but the thermometer is still there. If you want to support the efforts of keeping the thermometer standing, head to the gift shop near the base and buy a keychain to remember that one time you saw a humongous thermometer in California.
MAD GREEK CAFE
If you didn’t end up stopping at Peggy Sue’s your next chance to eat some good food is coming up! The Mad Greek will be your last pull-over before heading into Nevada.
Somehow, the Mad Greek Cafe has positioned itself as the most recognizable restaurant along the entire I-15. Every time I do this road trip with friends, someone always tells me how much they love Mad Greek as we pass by. The restaurant is open 24 hours and always busy. Get some gyro, but save room for sweets! The strawberry milkshake, apple pie sundae, and baklava milkshake come highly recommended. Now let’s be on our merry way–we’re coming for you, Nevada!
If you’re in no rush to reach Las Vegas, stop at Primm for a great variety of sights and activities. Here you’ll find a roller coaster, an outlet mall, as well as the lottery store.
THE DESPERADO ROLLER COASTER
The Desperado roller coaster located at Buffalo Bill’s Resort is a fun stop if you or your kids need a mid-road trip adrenaline rush. The ride lasts just under three minutes with a 225-foot drop, four G-force, and speeds of up to 90 miles per hour. The best part about this coaster? It actually passes through the casino! A ride is just $15 (so worth it).
BONNIE AND CLYDE’S DEATH CAR
From there, take a few steps over to Whiskey Pete’s Casino to lay your eyes on Bonnie and Clydes Death Car. (Bonnie and Clyde’s backstory: On May 23rd, 1934, they were killed by the police in a hail of bullets. This is the blood-splattered, bullet-ridden car!) This may be a weird one, but it has to make the list of the best things to do on the Los Angeles to Las Vegas drive.
THE LOTTO STORE
Fun fact for you–the lottery is not offered in the state of Nevada. So what do Nevadans do when they want a shot at the lotto jackpot? They venture over to the small town of Primm, pop into the Primm Valley Lotto Store (which officially sits on the California side of the state border), and grab themselves some lotto tickets! In the mood for scratchers, grab them here too.
If you’ve got some more time to spare and want to get your shopping on, check out the Prizm Outlets nearby.
THE PIONEER SALOON
Once a watering hole for local miners and prospectors in the early 1900s, the Pioneer Saloon still stands today, reminiscent of those resilient workers who inhabited this area long ago. Today, they serve up great BBQ and steaks, no-frills drinks, and even have a buy-your-own-whiskey-barrel program. If you’re a fan of old bars with rich histories, this spot is definitely worth checking out. Come experience the spirit of the Old West for yourself!
OFF-ROAD MOTORSPORTS HALL OF FAME
Next stop: Terrible’s Hotel & Casino for the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame! This free exhibit is a collection of really unique off-road vehicles spread out across the casino floor. As you explore, you’ll find vintage and contemporary buggies, motorcycles, and trophy trucks. To entice you even more, they sometimes rotate in/out famous cars from film and television, including a few from the Fast and the Furious franchise and a Batmobile from the ’60s!
SEVEN MAGIC MOUNTAINS
Las Vegas, Nevada
Seven Magic Mountains is a public installation of seven towers made up of painted, stacked boulders that stand more than 30 feet high. The art installation was created by Ugo Rondinone and commissioned by the Nevada Museum of Art. These colorful rock totems look so darn cool against the dusty barren desert landscape! This is a fun and free photo op–worth a quick pull off the road.
To get there, you’ll have to get off at one of two interstate exits– it is at least a 5-mile drive from either of them. (It’s not really a “pull off the highway” attraction; you have to care enough to go out of your way to see it.)
At this point, you’re only about 15 minutes from downtown Las Vegas! Woohoo!
RED ROCK CANYON
Las Vegas, Nevada
Whenever I travel out of town, I always try to find new nature spots to explore and hike. If you’re anything like me, I’ve got something fun for you nature lovers out there! Just as you are arriving in Las Vegas, take a slight detour to the out-of-this-world gorgeous Red Rock Canyon. This scenic 200,000-acre area is composed of red sandstone rock formations and is only a mere 17 miles west of the Strip.
Once you arrive at the Visitor Center, take the one-way 13-mile scenic drive. This drive boasts some seriously spectacular scenery. For just a $7 entry fee, you can get your fill of rock climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking!
Las Vegas, Nevada
Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas! At 5200 S. Las Vegas Boulevard, just south of the Mandalay Bay Resort, you’ll get the ultimate Vegas photo op–right in front of the iconic Las Vegas sign! If this is your final destination, enjoy your stay.
VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK
Though Valley of Fire State Park is about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, I’ve included it here just because it’s such an amazing park to visit (it’s hands down my favorite near-Vegas attraction). If you didn’t get a chance to visit Red Rock Canyon but have a little extra time to explore, definitely add Valley of Fire SP to your Las Vegas road trip itinerary. There are so many cool hikes to do there!
If you’re short on time, check out the easy 1.5-mile Fire Waves Trail. Got a bit more time and want to see the varied terrain? Tack on a few additional trails and make it a 3.3-mile loop hike on the Fire Wave, White Domes, and Seven Wonders Loop.
ROUTE 2 (DETOUR ROUTE): LOS ANGELES TO LAS VEGAS ROAD TRIP STOPS
If you choose to continue east on the I-10 instead of veering north on the I-15, you’ll eventually find yourself leaving the Inland Empire and entering the heart of Coachella Valley. From here, you’re in for a real treat. Get ready for tons of exploration, eating, and more quirky activities than you can handle.
Note: To fully explore these sights and towns below, you’ll need to spend one night, at least. I’d recommend two nights at minimum to even scratch the surface.
Palm Springs, California
Your drive eastbound will lands you in Palm Springs, California. Palm Springs is nothing if not unique. This desert city has had a long association with the rich and famous of Hollywood and continues to prove as a great escape from the hustle and bustle of more metropolitan cities such as Los Angeles. Its neighboring areas are equally as unique and quirky and are definitely worth paying a visit if you’re in the desert area. If you can manage to tear yourself away from sunbathing by the pool for a day or two, you’ll find a world of eccentric art, spectacular hiking trails, and unique architecture in the deserts of Southern California.
When I lived in LA, I absolutely love long, weekend trips to Palm Springs. There’s simply so much to see, do, and eat! If you’re looking to explore this artsy hipster town, check out my post on the coolest things to do in Palm Springs.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Ask anyone—there’s really no other place in the world like Joshua Tree National Park. I’m a huge fan of this national park as well as its quirky neighboring towns. My friends and I can go on for days about all the great landmarks and attractions this area has to offer! Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its unique terrain, covered with whimsical Joshua Trees as well as its massive boulder formations.
Wondering exactly what there is to do at Joshua Tree, other than photograph crazy-looking trees? Tons! So much so that I’ve dedicated a whole post on the best things to do in Joshua Tree NP (and its surrounding towns)! Don’t miss it.
Pioneertown, located a few minutes north of Yucca Valley, California is a darn good time and definitely worth a visit! Pioneertown is an entire old west mining town (from an old movie set) with historical buildings galore. You’ll also find some fun shops (don’t miss Soap & Goats), a Pioneertown Bowl, and even a saloon or two. Catch a mock gunfight on Mane Street (Saturdays only), then visit Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace for some finger-licking good barbecue, live music, and dancing.
Yucca Valley, California
After a day of exploration at Joshua Tree National Park, reserve a few hours to stop by the nearby town of Yucca Valley. I absolutely adore this little artsy town! It holds some of the area’s best and most beloved roadside oddities! Start at The World Famous Crochet Museum, an old photo-processing booth transformed into a mini-museum featuring the art of crochet. From there, peruse the nearby shops and galleries, including the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum.
Drive a few minutes to get to Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum where you’ll find weather-aged sculptures built from recycled materials and scraps, conveying a powerful message. And if you’re seeking a totally unique sound bath experience, head to The Integraton for 60 minutes of sound and relaxation (you may need to reserve a spot a few months in advance).
Mojave National Preserve
If you’re up for a longer stop along the route, the Mojave National Preserve is a must-see. Start your desert exploration by picking up maps and information, then work your way through the National Preserve’s highlights. The most popular spot here is Kelso Dunes, the second-largest and tallest dune system in California. These dunes cover 45 square miles and clock in at more than 600 feet tall! In the spring season, desert wildflowers create a sea of colorful sands. Come during sunset or sunrise, climb onto one of the highest dunes, and reward yourself with unforgettable panoramic views of the desert.
If you want to get in a hike before continuing onto Las Vegas, opt for the 1.5-mile Rings Loop Trail, which circles a massive mountain base and brings you into a slot canyon. The trail begins at the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center parking area.
From here, continue your drive northwards to Primm, NV. You’re almost to Vegas!
Head back to the Route 1 section of this post and pick up the itinerary from Primm, Nevada.
LA TO LAS VEGAS: ESSENTIAL ROAD TRIP PACKING LIST
Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without for your Route 66 LA to Las Vegas road trip:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road trip, but especially on California desert road trips. The desert is a hot, hot place. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Desert nights can get cold, and you never know when rain may come. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the fall or wintertime, you’re going to need layers in the desert, which tends to get windy in certain areas. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any desert destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from the beach to a car or need to dry your feet off. This one here is a great option.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike (or even after a walk outside on a scorching hot day) but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | Being able to find your way through the desert wilderness in darkness is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the funk roadside stops and eateries… the last thing you want is to be driving along with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads; painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.