Californian road trip: Exploring Joshua Tree and Pioneertown
So we told you the desert was our thing, right?
Here we go, on the next step of Far Out’s new road trip series, entering the desert and sleeping in a god-damn shack. It’s everything we wanted from this adventure.
I said many times in our featured piece that the inspiration behind this Californian road trip was to find ourselves blundering into the vast and sandy abyss, wearing a cowboy hat and having nothing around us for miles – Joshua Tree was the success of this dream.
It would be easy to forge an ‘Ultimate Guide to Joshua Tree’ article here, but the feeling, the emotion and the ideas that the area evokes deserves more. I’m no photographer but visiting the National Park made me want to become one. I’m no musician but drinking beer in the Joshua Tree Saloon made me feel like I could become one. I’m no chef but the barbecue ribs I knocked together on the porch of our shack reminded me that I am, without doubt, a superb cook. What I’m trying to say, without the egomaniac comment at the end, is that Joshua Tree is an eternally inspiring environment.
Ideally, if heading to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs as we are, you need to take Route 62so that you’ll be able to drive through Yucca Valley and dip through Big Morongo Canyon Preserve while stopping off at every opportunity. We opted for Airbnb for our home (no snobbery here) and, to be frank, we nailed it. It was pretty scary heading down the dirt road in the car but the arrival was nothing short of spectacular.
For some reason when we arrived the weather decided to take a turn for the morbid. Fortunately, we managed to check out the local market which runs on a weekend and welcomes a bunch of local artists while the wind and clouds took over. That said, we still purchased the ‘Single Vehicle Entrance Fee’ at Joshua Tree National Park which cost us between $15-$25 but lasts seven days – it will be the best money you’ll spend, trust me.
So weirdly. the Joshua Tree National Park only actually became an official national park in 1994 when the Congress passed the ‘California Desert Protection Act’ – which makes you wonder what people were doing there beforehand?
Hiking around the ancient rocks is great fun. There’s different levels of effort required in some spots and you can easily pick your routes and some of the park’s oldest attractions are 1.7 billion years old. We’ve created a map below with some of the main places of interest.
Joshua Tree Home
A lot of people opt to take tents and set up camp in the national park itself which looks really fun but just wasn’t what we were in for on this trip. Instead, we rented a little cabin just outside the main Joshua Tree town that took us somewhat off the beaten track and down a sandy dirt road.
As you’ll notice, we got our cowboy hats:Looking back on our journey through California, it will be waking up in the morning to these views that really stand out.
Joshua Tree – although the thought of it is somewhat tainted by that damn U2 record – is an amazing place. You’ll want to spend at least two nights (probably more) here, there’s so much to see in the area – let alone the national park. Our place was really close to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum so be sure to check that out.
We’ve created another Google Maps with some of the best things in the area. Honourable mentions go to Integratron, Smiths Ranch Drive-In Theatre and Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace (more on Pioneertown, below).
Also, here’s a series of shots in the Airbnb we stayed in. The price was reasonable and works in a kind of honestly box system.
Being so far out into the wilderness there isn’t a lot people around. The keys worked on a padlock system and once we left we just locked it up with a code.
Joshua Tree Town
I touched on it earlier, but Joshua Tree is way more than just the national park and I don’t think the town itself gets enough credit. When we arrived we managed to catch the bustling market over the weekend and caught up with a few of the locals who run an art space in the town, those guys will chew your ear off for the better part of half an hour but it’s entertaining stuff and the way they work together is great.
They sell a whole bunch of different stuff, like this:
Obviously the Joshua Tree Saloon is a must. We went full tourist and ordered a couple of massive local beers, some giant steaks, played pool with the locals and tapped our boots to the band – I suggest you do the same. Around the area there’s a couple of great places to eat like Pie For The People!, Crossroads Cafe and Natural Sisters Cafe you should nip into for a coffee or bite to eat.
The area is great, it looks a bit like this:
So just up the road from Joshua Tree you’ll find Pioneertown; a town that started life as a working Old Western film set, built-in the 1940s for the purpose of motion picture. To make the ‘set’ more realistic, it became a real working town designed to provide a place for the actors to live while using their homes in the movie. More than 50 films and television shows were filmed here in the 1940s and ‘50s.
While you’re there you’ll need to check out Pappy & Harriet’s. If ever a saloon or bar was just meant to be in the location it found itself in then this was it. This place serves up good food, good beer and has played host to a lot of well-known people as the framed pictures of Paul McCartney proudly display. It’s quite surreal to walk around what is effectively a working ghost town before heading into Pappy & Harriet’s – a bustling saloon bar packed to the rafters. That said, it was good fun.
Giant Rock and Integratron
One thing I really loved about being in Joshua Tree for a few days was that it gave you an opportunity to set up base and then move on to explore the surrounding areas – which leads us nicely onto some spooky conspiracies.
‘Giant Rock’ is a large freestanding boulder in the Mojave Desert, believed to be the largest free-standing boulder in the world and, perhaps most importantly, the source of many UFO conspiracy stories. Native Americans consider the area to be sacred and one man, Frank Critzer, built a large single bedroom underneath the rock until he died in a self-detonated dynamite explosion in 1942. Since then, the area has become somewhat of a meeting spot for UFO chasers.
Driving there is great, being there is dreamlike:
While on the way to giant rock it’s worth checking out a thing called Integratron. It’s basically a is a large circular structure that was designed by Ufologist George Van Tassel who claims to have been contacted by extraterrestrials.
“This historical structure is a resonant tabernacle and energy machine sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex in the magical Mojave Desert,” the description will tell you before explaining that it was “designed to be an electrostatic generator for the purpose of rejuvenation and time travel.”
It’s now used by musicians, recording artists and yoga groups. You can book a slot in the sound bath who offer “an unforgettable sound experience for those who seek deep relaxation, rejuvenation, and introspection.”