To experience the best of California's and Nevada's desert towns and landscape in a limited amount of time (such as a week), you could fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, then travel in a large S-shape, visiting Death Valley National Park and then driving through both Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park to get to Palm Springs. The more time you have, the more attractions you can add.
What to pack? In November, Las Vegas daytime highs hover in the 60s; in Palm Springs and Death Valley, they hover in the 70s. Nights drop to the 40s in all three places. But, above all, dress cool.
For general visitor information or to get an update on what's new on the Strip, check in with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (www.visitlasvegas.com or 877/847-4858).
The Attic. Fun vintage clothing, accessories, and furnishings. $1 admission fee entitles you to "lifetime entry"; closed Sun. 1018 S. Main St.; www.theatticlasvegas.com or 702/388-4088.
Fremont Street Experience. Located downtown, the promenade is an odd mix of old-school casinos, shops, souvenir stands, and state-of-the-art light-and-sound shows. But you do get to check out some vintage signs, including famed Vegas Vic, on Fremont St. between Main and N. Las Vegas Blvd. 702/678-5600.
The Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Seasonal plantings under 50-foot arched glass ceilings provide an oasis of nature on the Strip. Free. At the Bellagio (from $159; www.bellagio.com or 888/987-6667 for room reservations), 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
O by Cirque du Soleil. 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Wed-Sun (no performances Dec 5-20); $99 (no children under 5; reservations a must). At the Bellagio (see above); www.cirquedusoleil.com or 888/488-7111.
Tangerine Lounge & Nightclub. Indoor lounge, outdoor deck, DJ, and burlesque shows (10:45 p.m., 11:45 p.m., 12:45 a.m., and 1:45 a.m. Tue-Sat). Closed Sun-Mon; $10 cover for women, $20 cover for men. In Treasure Island (from $79; www.treasureisland.com or 800/944-7444 for room reservations), 3300 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/894-7111.
Venetian gondola rides. Purchase tickets at the Grand Canal Shoppes in the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. Drop by early to reserve a time. Spring for a private boat ($60 plus a tip); it's worth it. 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/414-1000.
Next: Where to eat
Fleur de Lys. $$$$ (prix fixe from $74 for three courses); dinner daily, reservations recommended. In Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/632-9400.
Jean-Philippe Pâtisserie. French-style treats as well as lunch offerings; 27-foot-tall fountain features three types of chocolate. $; lunch daily. In the Bellagio (see the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, left); 702/693-8788.
Sushi Roku. Excellent sushi and tempura and fun cocktails―try the sprightly Tokyo Cooler (fruit-infused vodka, lemon and lime juice, and Champagne). $$$$; lunch and dinner daily. In the Forum Shops at Caesars, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/733-7373.
The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. As with all the city's major resorts, it's a world unto itself, with enough dining, retail, and entertainment to keep you busy for a month. Canyon Ranch SpaClub at the Venetian (www.canyonranch.com or 877/220-2688) operates independently at the resort, with its own fees, reservation system, and cafe ($$; breakfast and lunch daily; 702/414-3633). Suites from $169. 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; www.venetian.com or 888/283-6423 for reservations, 702/414-1000 for information.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
For more extensive planning and information―and to check road conditions―visit the National Park Service website (www.nps.gov/deva) or contact the Furnace Creek Visitor Center & Museum (on State 190; 760/786-3200). Park entrance fee is $10 per vehicle; pick up an area map at visitor center.
Badwater Basin. The lowest point in North America, it was left with a layer of nearly pure-white salt when Lake Manly dried up 10,000 years ago. On Badwater Rd.,18 miles south of the Furnace Creek visitor center (see above).
Golden Canyon Trail. An easy-to-moderate 2.5-mile roundtrip trail that leads from Badwater Rd., just south of the Furnace Creek visitor center, up into the badlands, eventually arriving at Zabriskie Point if you have it in you. Otherwise, just head for a closer perch that affords a view of the valley at sunset.
Rhyolite Ghost Town. For a touch of local color, take a quick side trip off State 374 just east of Death Valley National Park and visit the ruins of a turn-of-the-century gold boomtown (it's on Bureau of Land Management property); don't miss the home built of bottles and mud. www.rhyolitesite.com
Devil's Golf Course. Hundreds of acres' worth of salt pinnacles left over from Death Valley's last lake―which dried up 2,000 years ago. On Badwater Rd., 10 miles south of the Furnace Creek visitor center (see above).
Mesquite Flat. Located just east of Stovepipe Wells Village in the northern end of the park, the 150-foot dunes are best visited in either early or late light. Just pull off State 190 and go for a half-mile amble up into the dunes.
Scotty's Castle. A mansion with a great story behind it, told during daily tours. It can get crowded, so come early; combine with a trip to nearby Ubehebe Crater. $11, $6 ages 6-15. Located just off State 267, in the north end of the park; 760/786-2392.
Ubehebe Crater. Estimated to be 3,000 years old, the 770-foot-deep hole was caused by an underground steam explosion. 8 miles west of Scotty's Castle (see above).
Lodging and Dining
Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort. A study in contrasts: The inn (from $250) is a high-end resort with many amenities and a dress code in its dining room ($$$$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily). The ranch (from $108) is motel-like and its price a bit more friendly toward families. There's also a cafe ($$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily), a saloon ($$; lunch and dinner daily), a steakhouse ($$$$; dinner daily), and a general store. On State 190; www.furnacecreekresort.com or 760/786-2345.
Next: Palm Springs
The Palm Springs Visitors Center (2901 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; www.palm-springs.org or 760/778-8418) is a good first stop for general information, as well as for buying a map of the stars' homes ($5).
Palm Springs Art Museum. A good collection of contemporary art, housed in an airy space. Closed Mon; $13, $5 ages 6-17. 101 Museum Dr.; www.psmuseum.org or 760/325-7186.
Two Bunch Palms Resort & Spa. Classic desert spa retreat; also offers dining and lodging (from $195). 67-425 Two Bunch Palms Trail, Desert Hot Springs; www.twobunchpalms.com, 800/472-4334, or 760/329-8791.
Riccio's. Classic Italian for 27 years. $$$; lunch Mon-Fri, dinner daily. 2155 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/325-2369.
Zin. Modern-style American bistro with windows opening to the downtown action. $$$; dinner daily. 198 S. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/322-6300.
Movie Colony Hotel. Designed by famed modernist architect Albert Frey in the '30s, the hotel still has star power. From $189. 726 N. Indian Canyon Dr.; www.moviecolonyhotel.com or 888/953-5700.
Orbit In. Lovingly midcentury modern, with a saltwater pool. There are two options: the Hideaway (with larger grounds; from $159) and the Oasis (from $179). 562 W. Arenas Rd.; www.orbitin.com or 760/323-3585.
Palm Springs is a capital of vintage and contemporary design retailers. Here are a few of our faves.
Galaxy 500. 1007 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/320-7776.
Modern Homes. 456 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/320-8422.
ModernWay. Closed Tue-Wed. 2755 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/320-5455.
Palm Springs Consignment. 497 N. Indian Canyon Dr.; 760/416-0704.
Trina Turk Boutique. 891 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/416-2856.