get in, loser. we’re going to the desert.
Just like how east coasters might go to “the beach,” or midwesterners might escape to “the lake” for a weekend, Angelenos go to the desert. Which for the most part means you’re either going to Joshua Tree or Palm Springs because most of us don’t bother going any deeper. This post is about the former.
Joshua Tree is a National Park that sits right at the crux of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, marked by the unmistakeable presence of Joshua Trees, aka yucca trees, which make Dr. Seuss-like silhouettes against the desert landscape. The park covers over 1200 square miles (bigger than the state of Rhode Island) and encompasses two distinct ecosystems between the two deserts and elevations. Sure, there’s a reputation for the desert being a destination for hallucinogenic drug use, but the landscape doesn’t need much help to feel psychedelic.
The surrounding desert towns exude this weird hippie, free-spirited desert culture. There’s parts that feel like the old west, and parts that feel like a mini Burning Man, and then parts that feel a mild Echo Park-level hipster. But it all adds up to the perfect weekend getaway from the city.
So pack up your desert best and load up the car with a lot of water — we’re going to the desert.
The only real way to get here is by car. It’s about a 2 hour drive from downtown, 2.5 hours from the west side on a normal day (let’s say a typical weekend morning). Of course if you leave on, say, a Friday afternoon, that could easily go up to 4 hours with rush hour traffic.
Essentially, you just take the 10 and head east until you’re almost to Palm Springs, then you take the 62 up and into Joshua Tree. Most of the towns and houses and Airbnbs are along this road, as are the main entrances to the national park and camping areas.
once you’re there
You’ll need a pass to get into the park, which is $30 per vehicle (or $15 a person if entering on foot or bike). The passes are valid for 7 days.
There are four visitor centers, all with maps, bathrooms, souvenirs and park rangers available to answer any questions. You can also get your passes here.
The cellular service is patchy in the park, so don’t count on it. They do have free wifi in the visitor centers.
Unless you fully packed before heading over, it’s worth stopping by a grocery store off Highway 62 to load up on water and essentials. There’s a Vons, a couple Stater Bros, a giant Walmart and several dollar and discount stores nearby.
WHERE TO STAY
Most people opt to stay in a short term rental, whether that’s an Airbnb or some other local-owned house. There are typical standalone houses as well as other creative housing like airstreams and the occasional yurt. These are scattered in the area, but most are somewhere between Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms. Prices fluctuate throughout the year, but it’s generally in the $100-300 range for 2+ people. Of course there are also plenty of beautifully designed houses and influencer-attracting unique glamping accommodations that are pricier due to popularity.
There are also plenty of options for camping. Some are available for reservation through the park website, and some through Airbnb as well.
They do also have some hotels and motels, but again, most people go for rentals for more flexibility and space — after all, half the appeal of the trip is hanging out at the house.
when to go
Well, it is the desert, so you probably want to avoid peak summer (though, we’ve all been guilty of it in the past), but it’s open 24/7 year round and people do come year round. The best times are probably early spring (wild flower season) and late fall (be sure to pack for a significant temperature drop at night). Winters are nice too – but note that deserts do get pretty cold at night if you’re camping.
ah the desert aesthetic. it isn’t for everyone but if you see enough people on Instagram hanging out here… it grows on you.
Not that you need an agenda (you should embrace desert life and forgo any planning) but here are some things to do.
hike around the park (or do it for the gram, no one needs to know)
Of course the main attraction is the park itself, and there’s no one way about it. You kind of just drive in and then stop wherever you feel like along the way. Whether you’re bouldering or only climbing up rocks for pictures, no one needs to know. BUT there are some popular points of interest you shouldn’t miss.
Before you go in, stop by one of the visitor centers to pick up a map, get any important info, and get a vehicle pass.
catch sunset views at Keys View
Overlooking the Coachella Valley, this viewpoint is particularly popular around golden hour. Plan to get here about an hour before sunset to fully appreciate the colorful panorama over the mountains and valley.
embrace the quirky desert aesthetic at Art Queen
Desert art is definitely catered at a specific audience, but anyone can appreciate the novelty and there’s no better place to immerse yourself in it than a little collection of galleries and installations called Art Queen by local artist Shari Elf. Here, you’ll find the World Famous Crochet Museum, proudly displayed in a converted drive-thru photo stand. There’s also the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum and La Matadora Gallery and next door, Sun Alley Shops that continues the aesthetic with quirky boutiques.
Other art galleries to check out:
shop around the boutiques, apothecaries and vintage thrift shops
Sure you’re in the middle of nowhere but that doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of weird little specialty shops to spend an afternoon perusing. There’s some artisanal gift shops and souvenir shops, as well as several health foods stores and clothing boutiques that range from desert chic to somewhere off the deep end. There are also a lot of antique and thrift shops if you’re in the mood for digging for a gem. If you’re here on the weekend and love a good flea market, be sure to stop by .
Gifts & Souvenirs
venture out to the old west in Pioneertown
Pioneertown is exactly what it sounds like it is — basically and living and breathing Western movie set. About a 20 minute drive from Joshua Tree, this little town is a caricature of itself, leaning hard into the Wild West aesthetic, from a dusty wooden “Mane Street” that looks like it belongs on the backlot of Universal Studios to a venue literally called The Sound Stage, it more than delivers for those flocking to live their frontier dreams. Of course the most popular attraction is , a loud and rustic bar and grill that serves up barbecue and live music that guarantees a lively atmosphere every night.
summer picnicking tip: avoid the peak sun hours to find a shady table
& when you’re hungry, curate a pretty picnic or hit up a local spot
You might be on your own in terms of food if you’re planning on staying the full day within the boundaries of the park, but head back to the main street and town and there is plenty of options. Grab a morning coffee from the celebrated local cafe Joshua Tree Coffee Company or an afternoon pick me up at Natural Sisters Cafe. Get a homey diner-style meal at Crossroads Cafe or Country Kitchen or John’s Place or Larry’s & Milt Western Cafe. There are plenty of no-fuss stops for burgers or Mexican food or pizza too. And of course when all else fails, there is pretty much every fast food chain available in Yucca Valley.
Don’t feel like venturing out to Pioneertown but still want an Old West atmosphere? Go to Joshua Tree Saloon.
If you’re looking for more of a curated & cool atmosphere, venture over to La Copine for a minimalist New American haven that looks like it could have been born in Silver Lake. Or get Caribbean food at Kitchen in the Desert out in Twentynine Palms.
And if you are staying in the park and don’t feel like eating a granola bar on a hike or eating in your car, there are usually a bunch of picnic tables by the various campgrounds scattered throughout. Grab a sandwich from Frontier Cafe, some tacos from Kasa Market or whatever strikes your fancy at Yucca Valley Outpost for a no-planning picnic.
MORE PLACES TO EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY
Natural Sisters Cafe
Joshua Tree Coffee Company
Joshua Tree Saloon
Sam’s Indian Food & Pizza
The Rib Co
Mexican Street Tacos
Campbell Hill Bakery
Larry’s & Milt Western Cafe
2 Guys Pies Brick Oven Pizzeria
Las Palmas Mexican Cuisine
Algoberto’s Taco Shop
Kasa Market & Taco Shop