How have I lived in LA almost 8 years and not visited Joshua Tree, a mere 140 miles east of Los Angeles? After my recent outdoor LA Escapes, Joshua Tree was on my list. What better way to plan this excursion months ahead by booking a weekend in the desert for my birthday when the desert flowers are in bloom.
Since high school in a small town in Connecticut I had only known Joshua trees from U2’s album cover, and my recent run-in with them hiking in Red Rock Canyon. There was something about those twisted, spiky trees. The way they held their hands or branches up to the heavens that I found beautiful and intriguing. I couldn’t wait to run around them and get lost in a sea of Joshua trees.
Joshua Tree with its two distinct environments – the Mojave and the Colorado deserts – provides a home for hundreds of species. The changing landscape greets you at every turn. Joshua trees can be seen in the higher elevations of the Mojave, while creosote bushes, cholla cactuses, and ocotillo dominate the lower Colorado.
Joshua Tree is a lot bigger than I assumed, so I did more driving than I expected. The land area of Joshua Tree is slightly bigger than the state of Rhode Island. The first day after driving from LA we tried to see as much as possible before the sun set. We decided to see about four to five places all with short hikes, very assessable from the parking lots. The visitor center we entered from the west side had great guide maps and helped navigate our quasi-plan.
We passed many people rock climbing and camping near the hiking locations. Joshua Tree is perfect for leisurely nature walks, long strenuous hikes, and star gazing.
Joshua Tree Highlights in 3 days
AirBnb can create a more unique stay than a hotel and that is why depending on where I am going, AirBnB often presents a neat experience. An LA friend had made me aware of this amazing desert home called the Saguaro Hideaway. There is a main house and a guest house, and I chose the guest house with its stunning desert views for around $130 a night. The rustic simple décor did not detract from the outside landscape, so it was a joy to listen to the birds chirps and watch the bunnies bound each morning as the wind whipped through this five acre property of Joshua trees, Yucca, mature Saguaro cactus and Pine trees.
The National Park is close by, along with a few healthy food options in town. I enjoyed popping my head up in the mornings to watch the sunrise from bed – wow! Just be careful with your car on the bumpy dirt roads to this retreat. Although this was part of the allure, I was happy I could put my BMW on Sport Mode. It was a bit hard to find at night since it is quite remote and since it is not the big city, the only lights guiding your way are the stars.
We spent an unforgettable few hours in the desert at this museum in the middle of nowhere created by Noah Purifoy, one of America’s most profound assemblage sculptors. This vast array of sculpture made from old TV’s, old newspapers from the 70’s, and every possible scrap you could imagine on a large scale proves to me he had a lot of time to create such inspirational and thoughtful grand installations. This ten acre plot showcases 13 years of sculptures, like a labor of love that synthesized the concerns of Noah’s life. He worked til his death in 2004.
We arrived at the Desert Art Museum after off-roading on some seriously fun sandy, bumpy roads and it felt pretty wild to be out in the middle of nowhere passing tiny homes painted with For Sale signs. Outside the desert creations was a little box where we picked up a pamphlet to learn the names of many of Noah’s art pieces, which helped us make sense of his sculptures. As an art history major many moons ago, it was really fun to figure out what each assemblage may have represented to the artist and what message he wanted to try to convey.
Noah Purifoy was the founder of the Watts Towers Arts Center in the 1960’s. He was the founding member of the California Arts Council where he served for eleven years and helped design and administer the Artist of Communities, Schools, and Prisons programs. He is known for the ground breaking 66 Signs of Neon traveling exhibition he created with six other artists after the Watts Rebellion in LA in 1965. In 1989 Noah moved his practice from LA to Joshua Tree, where now this gift in the desert is left for you.
A $15 permit will give you access to the park for 3 days. The major highlights for my aggressive days of exploration included the following:
Cholla Cactus Garden – Be careful! They can shoot their spines at you, which made me want to go here even more. This was one of our last stops our first day and it was super surreal as the sun was setting while it was raining and rainbows popped up. The Pinto Basin in the distance looked like a massive ocean, while the mountains were behind us. It was an eerie and weird as we dashed around the yellow cacti in this canyon hoping they might shoot us if we moved too close, although we read it is quite painful and these ‘jumping cholla’ spines are hard to remove. I laughed so hard later when we found one before bed attached to a blanket and another daggering me in my shirt. The moody skies made a breathtaking perfect backdrop for this small walk, something I could never possibly have dreamed up.
Fortynine Palms Oasis – Who brings Dom Perignon in a backpack hiking? My friend does! A nice little birthday toast with real champagne flutes in the middle of a palm tree oasis was a nice way to ring in my birthday. This three mile roundtrip hike is gorgeous as you hike up and around massive rock boulders on a narrow path that leads you to a palm canopy with views perfect for resting, breathing in nature, or popping champagne. The trail descends steeply to the oasis located in a rocky canyon. Red Barrel cacti don this harsh arid rocky environment. Presumedly, Bighorn sheep can be seen. Bring water, and just don’t drink so much bubbly you can’t hike back.
Barker Dam – We hiked this one mile loop to see barely any water, but it was neat to see a dam that was built in 1900 to hold water for cattle and mining use. The landscape was not as shocking as the rest of the park. I’d skip this one if you are pressed for time.
Hidden Valley – This incredibly picturesque one-mile loop winds around massive boulders making your jaws drop on how on our Earth did something like this happen. Its grand scale of massive smooth rocks plopped in unusual configurations makes you feel like a tiny alien on another planet. I ran into people I know the second we arrived. Since it was Saturday, it was pretty busy. I was hoping there would be no one there. Once a cattle rustlers’ hideout, they would steal cattle, hideout here, and actually rebrand them in these rock hideouts.
Skull Rock – We pulled over and took some photos inside the skull’s nose and marveled at some other crazy rock formations.
Ryan Mountain – We drove here to the 5,458 foot summit to the lookout point with views of Queen, Lost Horse, and Pleasant valleys with the San Andreas Fault in the distance. It was so blustery I had to hold on so I didn’t blow off the mountain. Since it was freezing, we did not stay long.
Lost Horse Valley – From Ryan Mountain we ended up in Lost Horse Valley south of Hidden Valley with a vast layout of Joshua trees as far as the eye can see with huge granite outcroppings and boulder piles along the way. Along Keys View Road we pulled the car over in awe of Cap Rock, where there are rocks that DO look like caps tilted on someone’s head, but so grand you can’t comprehend how they are hanging on at such odd angles and not falling down to crush the minuscule viewers below.
Before Cap Rock we hiked around the flat now warm wild landscape, which we had all to ourselves. We came across the remnants of what looked like the foundation of an old home. The abundance of bright pink and yellow flowers from the Beavertail cactus lined our footpath as lizards flitted. I was hoping to see a desert tortoise or a kangaroo rat.
This casual rustic place was a perfect spot to enjoy a hearty dinner. I chose pea soup and fattening potato skins loaded with bacon and cheese while my friend dined on a steak the size of my stomach. There was an older couple performing live music on equipment from what looked like the 80’s, but they were incredibly talented. We wondered if they were retired Vegas talent. Outside was a beautiful intimate wedding cheers-ing reminding us that happy unions do exist, as we left content under the twinkling stars.
After checking into our desert oasis, we drove 20 minutes north to the middle of nowhere to Pioneertown, an old western town that was built as a movie set in the ‘40s. Sadly I missed the live music at 10 PM as we saddled up to the bar for a beer and some stellar people watching. This place was a mix of bikers, townies, gorgeously dressed BoHo chic Angelenos (most likely escaping to the desert), artist-types, and musicians. Apparently it is a huge honor to play at this music venue. If you want to eat, make reservations ahead of time since all of their meats and fish are cooked in an outdoor grill with mesquite wood. Everything is cooked to order. They have two seatings, but often are booked way in advance.
Next time I find myself lucky enough to be back in this desert oasis, I will book a sound bath at the Integratron since I was on their waiting list and never made it to this energy vortex where people come to rejuvenate. You lie down in a domed room while they “play” seven crystal bowls of various frequencies. This time for meditation I am told offers positive healing. Another goal would be to watch a sunset from Key’s View and hike the 7 miles to Lost Palms Oasis, the southern tip of Joshua Tree. Then I would head to this special place called Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center to view the night sky.
I fell in love with the desert. I left wanting more time here to collect my thoughts and meditate with nature, to wake up to the birds and bounding jackrabbits and go to sleep with the stars. There is something so enchanting about ‘That Desert Life.’
All photos courtesy of Melissa Curtin.