If the recently-released remake of “The Magnificent Seven” says anything about our culture, it’s that we’re still enamored of the pull of the Wild West, the glamour of cowboys and prospectors and the unexplored possibility of the desert and mountains of the American frontier. Joshua Tree, California, and the surrounding High Desert area offer visitors access to the breathtaking beauty, the lurking danger, and the cultural creativity we have come to associate with the mythology and history of our country’s westward expansion.
Everything out in the desert is at quite a distance from everything else, which cultivates a sense of privacy and isolation, as well as being the perfect landscape for those of us who prefer a worthwhile drive between destinations. Just don’t forget to refuel early and often – gasoline and water aren’t resources you want to run low on in these parts.
From downtown Joshua Tree, travel west on Twentynine Palms Highway, turning north on Sunburst Avenue (one of the few stoplights in town). Follow Sunburst north until the pavement ends, and turn east onto Golden Street, then north onto Border Avenue. About 6 miles north, the pavement takes a hard left and turns into Reche Road. Follow Reche west into Landers, another 6 miles. You’ll pass the Landers post office to the south, just after which you’ll take a right to head north on Belfield Boulevard (it’s the first paved road past the post office).
Approximately one mile to the north you will find The Integratron, which is the kind of thing that doesn’t seem like it could actually exist outside of a science fiction thriller. Creator George Van Tassel claimed he built the domed structure based on a marriage between the ideas of Nikola Tesla and extraterrestrial beings who shared information about life-extending scientific principles. While the building probably won’t deliver on the originally intended benefits, you can schedule a “sound bath” for an intense meditation experience.
Belfield Boulevard ends just north of the Integratron, so follow the paved road to the west (Linn Road). A few miles west, Linn Road ends at California 247, also called Old Woman Springs Road. Turn right to head northerly on California 247. Depending on when you’re visiting, and whether you’re well equipped for off-roading, you can take a quick jaunt north off California 247 into the Johnson Valley area and see some 4-wheel drive racing at the King of the Hammers. I’d strongly suggest GPS if you’re going; to misquote Doc Brown, “Where we’re going, there are no roads.”
Continue on California 247 west for approximately 20 miles, enjoying the views of San Bernadino National Forest and San Gorgonio Mountain to the southwest. Take a left turn at Camp Rock Road, and 5 miles south you will intersect with California 18. If you take a right and travel northwest for one mile, and turn right on Fairlane Drive, you’ll find the Wolf Mountain Sanctuary. At $25, a one-hour tour of a volunteer-managed property might seem expensive, but I counter: meet and pet rescue wolves. ‘Nuff said. (Reservations strongly suggested.)
Travelling south on California 18, enter the San Bernadino National Forest, twisting towards Big Bear Lake. The Big Bear Solar Observatory is located on the northern lakefront. Public tours are offered two Thursdays a month, by reservation only. On the south side of the lake you’ll find the Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain, the only place in Southern California where you can ride a bobsled track; there are waterslides, go-karts, and mini-golf for the kids, too.
Following California 18 around the southern edge of Big Bear Lake, and into some beautiful elevated views, you’ll pass the old Cliffhanger Restaurant; it’s no longer in operation, but offers incredible views of the forest and down into the city of San Bernadino.
From California 18, continue onto California 138 West, then follow signs for Interstate 15 North into Victorville. Take the exit for D-Street/California 18, then turn right onto D-Street to visit the California Route 66 Museum and immerse yourself in the storied history of the Mother Road.
Head southeast on California 18 (which again turns into Old Woman Springs Road) through and out of Victorville. After approximately 60 miles, turn right onto Pipes Canyon Road, then another 6 miles down take a left onto Pioneertown Road. After a long day seeing the sights, catch a meal and a show at Pappy + Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. I cannot recommend this magical place highly enough. The food is fantastic – nearly everything comes off an outdoor mesquite fired grill. The vibe is chill – you’ll find the same community of locals gathering night after night. The music is unbeatable – while you might see a big time star like Ben Harper, Robert Plant or Shooter Jennings take the stage, this is a fantastic spot for discovering California bands that are out on the road just ahead of making a splash. (Reservations for dinner strongly suggested.)
After you’ve eaten your fill and danced your heart out under the stars, to get back to Joshua Tree, you’ll continue southeast on Pioneertown Road, linking up with California 62 East, and take a left to find your way back to wherever your bedroll, or bedroom, might be.
Spin & Margie’s Desert Hideaway in Joshua Tree
Spin & Margie’s is small – just four suites and one stand-alone cabin – and feels more like an artists’ colony than a hotel. With the in-room kitchens, shared courtyards, and bright personality-filled rentals, really fits the definition of a “home away from home.”
America’s Best Value Inn Oasis of Eden in Yucca Valley
Don’t let the national budget brand ownership deter you from checking out the Oasis of Eden. The hotel is anything but banal, with 14 outlandishly outfitted theme rooms. Of course, we recommend the 50s Suite, where, after a relaxing post-drive soak in the large in-room spa, you’ll sleep in a bed framed out from a ’59 Cadillac.
Pioneertown Motel in Pioneertown
Don’t bother watching classic Westerns, here’s your chance to star in one. Pioneertown was built in the 1940s as a film and television set, a place where actors could live “on location” during shooting. Rooms are rustic but not austere, and the property is uniquely picturesque. I promise that there is nothing else like waking up in the real (or realistic) Old West.
Camping in Joshua Tree National Park in Joshua Tree
Unless the plans to inhabit Mars that Elon Musk presented earlier this week come rapidly to fruition, very few of us are likely to travel to other planets, but you can feel like an astronaut sleeping out under another world’s stars when camping in this incredible national park. If you’re not ready for roughing it, check out Hipcamp, where you can book any number of glamping experiences – the site’s like AirBnb for outdoorsy types.
Crossroads Café in Joshua Tree
Breakfast, sandwiches, tacos, coffee from the Joshua Tree Coffee Company, wi-fi, craft beer on draft, lots of organic and healthy options: this place would be at home in any hippie college town. Save room for dessert.
Natural Sisters Café in Joshua Tree
In the heat of the desert, I prefer to eat lighter. Natural Sisters’ all-vegetarian and vegan menu has a wide selection of meals that give me the energy to explore all day; there’s only counter service here, so grab a wrap and smoothie and hit the road.
The Restaurant at the 29 Palms Inn in Twentynine Palms
It’s easy to forget how close to the Pacific you really are in the California desert. The seafood at this hidden secret will remind you. With delightfully retro poolside seating and ingredients sourced from an onsite organic garden, I can imagine a more socially-conscientious Don Draper sneaking away for a romantic dinner here.
You’ll want to experience as much of the area on foot as in your car as possible. There are vistas and verticals that you can’t get to by wheeled vehicle. If you’re looking for adventure but need to get equipped, visit Nomad Ventures in downtown Joshua Tree to rent bouldering shoes, then go climb some rocks!
Drive and hike Joshua Tree National Park
There’s a 30 mile loop to drive from one park entrance to another, and myriad opportunities to get out and hike between. Trails range from easy to difficult, so be sure you’ve got the right gear and have mapped out your routes well. A stop at the Visitor’s Center to get recommendations for your visit and experience level is probably a good place to start; pick up a guidebook about flora and fauna so you can identify the endangered desert tortoises that make the region their home.
Hike the Amboy Crater outside of Amboy
An extinct volcanic crater rises out of a lava field, and you can hike the entire 250 feet to the top. Conquer a volcano. If you don’t understand how cool this is without my telling you more, you’ll never understand how cool this is. The Crater is a National Natural Landmark, and you can see all of the volcanic debris you learned about in third grade geology and never put to any practical use.
Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art in Joshua Tree
Redefine “outsider art” on almost 10 acres of the desert floor. Explore Purifoy’s large-scale sculpture work, created mainly from junked materials, and experience the ways the elements have added an additional artistic layer to these singular works.