visiting joshua tree
Gram Parsons photo by Jim McCrary

After midnight on the morning of September 21st, 1973, a Cadillac hearse pulled off Twentynine Palms Highway, snaking its way up to a desolate pile of boulders known as Cap Rock. Two drunk men wearing rhinestone jackets and cowboy hats stumbled out, opened the back, and dragged a wooden casket down on to the moonlit sand. After a few moments communing with the corpse, one of the men began pouring gallon jugs of gasoline over the body—five in all—then stepped back and lit a match.

A passing park ranger noticed flames in the darkness and cruised over to investigate. With soft desert wind fanning the embers, the tableau he beheld stands as one of the strangest in the history of music: the charred remains of country-rock legend Gram Parsons, framed by blackened ash, identified only by a yellow metal ring emblazoned with a red stone, lying where the bones of his left hand used to be.

The bizarre story of Gram Parsons’ desert funeral (he had asked to be cremated at Joshua Tree) is just one of the legends that linger in the eerie, seductive wilderness of Joshua Tree, California. For centuries local Navajo attested to the existence of yee naagloshii, “he who walks on all fours,” also known as skinwalkers: medicine men corrupted by power who disguise themselves as animals, casting curses on those they cross. The Mojave version of Bigfoot: Yucca Man, a hairy, red-eyed, eight-foot humanoid is said to stalk the desert at night, raiding campsites and stinking like a dumpster. The mysterious “Iron Door Cave,” is claimed to be a desert dungeon hiding mining explosives, stolen gold, or a hideously deformed child.

Clearly, something about this land lends itself to otherworldly notions. Named after the stark Yucca brevifolias (which Mormon settlers called Joshua trees because their raised branches reminded them of a man praying to the sky, echoing the biblical story of Joshua) the region has bewitched generations of artists, drifters, speculators and tourists with its open horizons, surreal shadows, and psychedelic night skies.

Savvy Southern Californians have long known that the best part of Los Angeles is leaving it, but few Angeleno-adjacent destinations exude as alluring an aura as the alien deserts of Joshua Tree. There’s a magnetism to its emptiness that’s more easily felt than explained.

Joshua Tree isn’t a place one goes to do things, but a place to simply be.

visiting joshua tree

All that’s changing, of course. The explosion of Airbnb has accelerated the influx of visitors and micro-vacationing couples, seeding a steady flowering of new businesses, cafes and Instagram-ready boutiques along the dusty strip of Twentynine Palms Highway that cuts through town. The desert is still the draw but its ancillary amenities are gradually catching up with the times. You can have your out-of-body exhilaration as well as nice sheets.

Where you stay is everything while visiting Joshua Tree, since you need shelter from the scorch, scorpions and ruggedly beautiful waterless expanse. Not to worry: nearly half the homes are for rent so you can easily find a tastefully curated wild west abode any night of the week. Two of the most memorable are the Moonlight Mesa Hacienda and Tile House.

MOONLIGHT MESA | airbnb.com/rooms/13926866

TILE HOUSE | airbnb.com/rooms/1114991

JOSHUA TREE INN | joshuatreeinn.com

INTEGRATRON | integratron.com

GUBLER ORCHID GREENHOUSE | gublers.com

SKY VILLAGE SWAP MEET & CRYSTAL CAVE | skyvillageswapmeet.com

CROCHET MUSEUM | sharielf.com/museum.html

LA COPINE | lacopinekitchen.com

KITCHEN IN THE DESERT | kitcheninthedesert.com

The former is a groovy 10 acre desert retreat at the base of a small mountain abutting government land, with no immediate neighbors, designed entirely in ochres, oranges, and paisley-patterned wallpaper—a 1970s décor fantasy elevated to time-travel extremes. Even the TV is housed in a heavy wooden frame like a new episode of M*A*S*H is about to air. Tile House is the 20-year creation of photographer and artist Perry Hoffman, embellished with fluid multi-hued mosaics of ceramic fragments, found objects, and colored glass. The grounds are landscaped with painted and rusted curiosities scavenged from his travels and projects, providing an appropriately visionary backdrop for stargazing by the pit fire listening to thirsty coyotes.

For those drawn to more traditional lodging, the Joshua Tree Inn offers a range of historic options, including Room 8 where cosmic cowboy Gram Parsons famously died ($152 per night) as well “Donovan’s Suite,” where the “Mellow Yellow” troubadour frequently shacked with his muse ($206.)

During daylight hours not spent hiking in a sun hat across majestic arid plains or making the famous trek to 29 Palms Oasis (there are more than 29, actually) check out a range of curiosities. One of the most legendary is the Integratron, in nearby Landers, California. Self-described as “a uniquely resonant tabernacle and energy machine sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex in the magical Mojave Desert,” the building is the brainchild of the late aircraft mechanic-turned-UFO-ologist George Van Tassel, who constructed the space based on, among other things, the writings of Nikola Tesla and “telepathic directions from extraterrestrials.” Forty bucks gets you an hour-long sound bath of quartz crystal bowls, intended to induce relaxation and “waves of peace.” Needless to say, it’s a deeply chill scene. 

Afterwards wander across the street and down one block to the Gubler Orchids greenhouse, a vast tropical oasis of floral rainbows, orchids and carnivorous plants run by a third generation Swiss family dynasty dating back to 1918. Tours start every 30 minutes. Only one rule: no sandals.

Back in the heart of town the Crochet Museum merits mention, both for the eclecticism of its contents and its kookily claustrophobic container: a converted Fotomat drive-thru kiosk. Founder Share Elf is an archetypal Southern California multi-hyphenate—singer-songwriter-fashion designer-life coach-raw food chef and “maker of art from trash”—whose collection of toiler paper covered poodles gradually accrued to such size 10 years ago she was compelled to open a public display space. The museum has been widely featured on eccentric travel surveys and boasts regular visitors from all over the globe. Fully free and conveniently next door to the Joshua Tree Saloon for a post-viewing beer.

visiting joshua tree
Bobb Carr Photo by Samir S. Patel/Atlas Obscura

If you want to mingle with true locals, however, cruise through the Sky Village Swap Meet open every weekend from dawn to two PM. Dubbed “the down-home people place,” it’s a fun, sun-bleached sea of stalls and folding tables full of junk, gems and mysterious desert refuse. Owner Bob Carr’s interests extend beyond the mercantile marketplace, though—in 2004 he began a creation called The Crystal Cave, fashioned from turquoise, amethyst, rose quartz, sea shells, crystals, glass, mirrors, paint and porcelain. It’s a miniature enclosed terrarium viewed through small circular windows, and oddly fascinating.

At some point you’ll get hungry. La Copine is pretty widely agreed upon as the best in the desert, though it’s closed all of July and August to dodge the peak heat. Dishes like melon gazpacho, avocado ceviche and a fancy BLT loaded with ramp jus, pea sprouts and pickles are as tasty as they are totally incongruous amidst such a barren landscape. Kitchen In The Desert draws on the owners’ Trinidadian family recipes. Housed in a historic property built in 1947, and decorated with vintage mining equipment and murals, the restaurant serves a jumbled array of island-esque oasis food, from jerk chicken and shrimp and polenta to street corn, smoked cauliflower and fried Oreos. 

visiting joshua tree

But the most popular haunt is Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown. Originally a “cantina” set for countless Hollywood westerns of the 1940s and 50s, in 1982 the space was converted into a festive family-oriented lunch and dinner spot known for Tex-Mex, barbecue and live music. These days it stays pretty packed with a melting pot of tourists, bikers and indie rockers, hosting several shows a week alongside a full bar and bustling menu of nachos, chili, Joshuburgers and beyond.

Leaving the place late on a weekend you can step out a bit into the darkness and see a smeared swath of the Milky Way trailing across into the horizon.

Where you ride next is up to you.

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