My husband, Eddie, urged our son, Kai (a newly permitted driver), to veer into the turnout. Snow had begun to sift through the Douglas firs, obscuring the San Bernardino mountains in the distance. As coastal Californians, Eddie and I didn’t have much experience driving in snow. Inviting our 15-year-old (who’d only had one official driving lesson) to navigate a slippery one-lane road to Big Bear Lake in what was shaping up to be a snowstorm was not our idea of a solid parenting choice.

When Kai safely maneuvered into a gas station, his 11-year-old brother, Nikko, tumbled out of the car in shorts and a T-shirt, squealing, “I get to make snowballs.”

As if in response, snow began to fall in earnest. Eddie’s brows furrowed, and I felt him pining for the relaxing holiday I’d promised for our week-long road trip. Each member of our family had expressed a desire for different qualities of environment and scenery. My husband craved a soak in hot springs. Kai needed to practice driving, “ideally in a forest.” Nikko desperately wanted to throw a snowball. And I had requested some beach time.

It’s easy for California residents to overlook the Golden State’s abundant biodiversity. Within 150 miles from our San Diego home, we can hike through a desert landscape, swim with sea lions, have acai bowls in sun-splashed cafes, or snowshoe around deep-blue lakes in the San Bernardino mountains. As new residents in Southern California, I’d wondered if we could visit four climates in a compressed amount of time.  

We decided to find out.

Soaking Up Palm Springs

California had seen unprecedented rain, which was unfortunately predicted to continue throughout our road trip. We had to scrap our initial hopes of camping at natural hot springs. Instead, we scored a couple nights at the retro-hipster hotel Saguaro Palm Springs.

Palm Springs has a dry desert climate, though the weather can be downright cold and rainy in the winter months.

After a day of soaking in the heated pool and hot tub during intermittent rain and playing gin rummy in our room’s cheery rainbowed interiors, Kai got antsy to practice more driving. “Would Joshua Tree National Park work?” I asked.

The desert wilderness didn’t officially count as a forest, he argued, as he hopped into the driver’s seat with Eddie riding shotgun and me clutching the door handle next to Nikko in the back.

The wide-open desert roads might not have been the arbored delights of Kai’s driving reveries, but the sunlight moving across the rocky terrain as we drove the hour and a half to the park made my lower jaw drop in awe.

At the park’s Split Rock Trail, a fierce wind pressed us uphill, past monstrous boulders peppered with the park’s blossoming namesake trees. The boys ran ahead to an overlook and reached out their arms to welcome a light sprinkle that inspired a bright double rainbow over California’s arid landscape.

Back in Palm Springs in the hot tub, the stars twinkling overhead and the world feeling so vast and tangible, Nikko talked about how grateful he was for the chance to have a relationship with a place so remote. Kai argued that now that he was driving, so much of our state felt more accessible.

Photo taken at Joshua Tree National Park. A mountain range stretches out in the distance, fluffy white clouds are overhead, and just underneath the clouds is a colorful rainbow. In the foreground is a Joshua tree, grasses and brush.
Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California

Snowstorm in the Mountains

The next day, just after Eddie took the wheel and was slowly meandering up the snowy mountains, flashing lights halted us. The roads were closed. We could not drive farther that day, and maybe the next, due to the snowstorm.     

Since we’d checked off Nikko’s request to toss a snowball (flimsy as it was), Kais driving (though not yet through a forest) and Eddie’s soak, all we needed was some beach time for yours truly.

The storm wasn’t predicted to clear for a day or two, so we scrapped Big Bear, promising the boys we’d return, and motored to the Westin Carlsbad Resort & Spa. From our balcony that evening, we played cards and watched the storm migrate from the ocean to the eastern hills we’d just departed.       

To the Beach

Soon, the iconic SoCal sunshine returned, though up in the mountains the blizzard had worsened. Kai drove us to Carlsbad village for barbecue lunch at Park 101, an outdoor favorite with locals and tourists for saucy hunks of meat and macaroni and cheese you can’t help but feel guilty about loving so much.

Though the Pacific Ocean in Southern California is generally quite cold in early March, the kids played in the water, tossing sand balls instead of snow. The sun shone brightly with temperatures in the high 50s, which wasnt exactly warm, but it was more comfortable than the frigid nights in the desert.

Eddie and I cozied up on a blanket marveling at the geologic conditions that made it possible for these disparate ecosystems of our journey to exist in such proximity.

The sandstone cliffs of Southern California beaches were made of the same materials as the eastern desert and the mountainous peaks, which were all once underwater, like this beach. And though we didn’t get lucky enough to enjoy the mountains as we’d planned, we couldn’t help feeling grateful for the generous snowpack to feed our lakes and rivers.

The boys extracted themselves from the cold water only when their lips were purple. As we warmed up in the hotel’s oversized hot tub, Kai made it clear that he still wanted to drive in a forest. “Yeah, and I want to throw a better snowball,” Nikko added. With one night left, we debated about how to accomplish this.

“I know where to go,” Eddie said cryptically.

Shot of Idyllwild, California. Low-lying mountains are in the distance and in the foreground are evergreen trees and brush. The sky is a beautiful light blue and is speckled by clouds.
Idyllwild, California. Photo: Devin McGloin / Unsplash

Navigating Idyllwild’s Pine and Cedar Forest

The next morning, bright and sunny outside, Eddie navigated as Kai drove us northeast to an Alpine village so close to San Diego that we’d completely overlooked it. Perched in the San Jacinto Mountains’ pine and cedar forest, Idyllwild is known for mountain biking, hiking and rock climbing.

But we weren’t interested in any of that. This was Kai’s tree-hugged roadway. Snow still clung to the tree limbs like a Christmas village but hadn’t stuck to the ground much. Kai’s hands remained at 10 and 2, a smile spread across his face as he exhaled, “The forest is definitely my favorite place to drive.”

“Looks like next year, we’ll have to head up north then,” I said, already planning our next escape.