On a still night last October, roughly 12 miles from Joshua Tree National Park, there was a tiny glow in the vast, dark expanse of the Mojave Desert. A speck that, to the casual observer, gave little away about a night 300 people would never forget. That glow was Pappy & Harriet’s, a Wild West-style saloon on an otherwise silent highway, where Paul McCartney played a surprise set to an intimate crowd who were near-dumb in disbelief. It was, perhaps, the moment that showed Southern California’s High Desert had arrived.
The rough wilderness in and around Joshua Tree has long drawn artists and dreamers. During the 1970s, Jim Morrison and Keith Richards camped out among its stark scrub and bare boulders to ‘expand their minds’. It’s the place alt-country hero Gram Parsons sought UFOs, then overdosed aged 26 at the Joshua Tree Inn. More recently, the small desert communities bunched just outside the national park – Joshua Tree Village, Yucca Valley, Pioneertown, Landers, Flamingo Heights and Twentynine Palms – are affordable places to which creative types flock to make their mark; city quitters tired of the expense and chatter of LA or New York. Drive down the right dirt track and you might find boutiques curated by Hollywood costume designers, or a junkyard sculpture garden.
There wasn’t much happening in Pioneertown when New Yorker Linda Krantz first saw Pappy’s there. In the 1940s, Pioneertown was part Old West movie set, part actor’s retreat – the likes of John Barrymore, dad to Drew, lived in the Pioneertown Motel; Hollywood’s movers and shakers drank in its saloons. Krantz, a filmmaker, came to make a documentary and left charmed. Years later, she and business partner Robyn Celia bought it on a whim; a wine-fuelled night had brought a vision of folk icon Lucinda Williams playing the packed-out bar. Incredibly, the vision came true.
Since then, everyone from Arctic Monkeys to Robert Plant has rocked Pappy’s. It being the middle of the desert, there’s a mixed clientele. ‘The magical thing is you have Hell’s Angels, you have families, you have hipsters, and then you have a table of 20 who are all in their seventies and eighties,’ Robyn tells me. ‘And you’re like, “How did everybody get here?”‘
I myself get here after a two-hour drive east from LA, past endless vistas of brown mountains and bleached grass. Incongruous on the bare State 247 just north of Pappy’s stands La Copine, a cool, white oasis serving brunch. Inside, a tattooed waitress slings house-made muffins and beignets to well-dressed ladies and a young, variously pierced artsy bunch from Flamingo Heights. ‘LA felt too crowded,’ says La Copine’s owner Claire Wadsworth, a musician and teacher. She and her wife, chef Nikki Hill, bought the restaurant on a trip to outrun the post-wedding blues. They soon found the desert remains as much a refuge for outlaws as bohemians.
‘We handed over the money for this place in a brown paper bag,’ Claire says, ‘and the guy goes: “Nice doing business with you, girls. Now if I were you I would get myself a shotgun.” And then he gets in his car and peels off the driveway in a cloud of dust.’ What then? ‘We literally cried,’ she laughs, ‘like, “What did we just do?”‘ But the gamble paid off; I face a half-hour queue to get in.
When done brunching, the desert’s eclectic crew can be found in the Integratron, another six miles north on the 247 in Landers. A chalk-white dome rising out of the dirt, it was built by George Van Tassel, based on blueprints given to him by a space alien he claims he happened to meet in the Mojave in 1953. An aviation engineer who had worked for Howard Hughes, Van Tassel thought he was forging a time machine, but wound up building a sound spa of sorts.
Though it was never his intention, the Integratron is acoustically extraordinary, something sisters Joanne, Nancy and Patty Karl realised they could harness when they bought the building back in 2000. Today, it is booked solid months in advance for healing sound baths, performed by the sisters hitting giant quartz crystal singing bowls. ‘The bath acts like an antidote to the chaotic noise in our minds, bodies, and spirits,’ says Joanne. Along with my fellow bathers, I’m ushered inside and up a ladder; on the top level, we each grab a cushion and lie back on the wood floor. The noises that reverberate around us are aptly alien; while I’m not sure I’m cleansed, I do feel like I’m going to get beamed up.
The Mojave is too wild to be an idyll. Free spirits, rebels and rock stars share their sanctuary with cacti and rattlesnakes. ‘It’s a truthful, honest, beautiful place,’ reflects La Copine’s Claire, ‘but everything has spikes on it.’
Where to eat and drink around Joshua Tree
La Copine, Flamingo Heights
Brunch at La Copine is worth the long queue at the door. Nikki Hill’s menu is winningly diverse; traditional breakfast sandwiches (albeit with flourishes like sambal mayo) appear alongside more ethnic influences – roasted and pickled vegetables, za’atar-spiced garbanzos and tahini on open-faced lavash. Drinks are curated with just as much care: cold-brew coffee, turmeric tea, berry-lavender spritz. Be early – the list closes when wait times get long.
Address: 848 Old Woman Springs Road Phone: +1 760 289 8537
Price: About £30 for two
Joshua Tree Coffee Company, Joshua Tree Village
You’re richly rewarded for seeking out this tiny coffee bar and roastery. Owner Royce Robertson’s meticulous attention to detail – including an eco-friendly roasting machine – assures the best cup for miles around. A nitro cold brew is the go-to order on a sizzling desert day.
Address: 61738 Twentynine Palms Highway Phone: +1 760 974 4060
Frontier Cafe, Yucca Valley
A laid-back, living-room-like joint with open-mic nights, fresh-made sandwiches and salads and California wine, Frontier has only been open a little over a year, but is already a solid favourite with the Joshua Tree crowd.
Address: 55844 Twentynine Palms Highway Phone: +1 760 365 4100
Price: About £30 for two
29 Palms Inn, Twentynine Palms
The High Desert is loved for its dives, but if you’re craving a craft cocktail, head for the bar at 29 Palms Inn. The hotel tends its own organic garden, Faultline Farm, and whips up seasonal drinks mixed with own-grown ingredients.
Address: 73950 Inn Avenue Phone: +1 760 367 3505
Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace
This cute saloon’s incredible live music programme made it famous, but the food takes second billing, cooked on a mesquite barbecue out back. Tex-Mex, steak and ribs are done simple and done well, but beware the mac and cheese – one bowl of this gooey goodness just isn’t enough.
Address: 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown Phone: +1 760 365 5956
Price: About £40-50 for two
Natural Sisters Cafe, Joshua Tree Village
Anyone on a health kick – or searching for somewhere non-barbecue-centric – can get their vegan food and organic juice fix at this well-loved spot near the national park. If you’re planning a full day of hiking or boulder-scrambling, a vitamin-boosted smoothie might be best.
Address: 61695 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree Village Phone: +1 760 366 3600
Price: About £30 for two
The best hotels around Joshua Tree
Hicksville Trailer Palace, Joshua Tree
Less hotel, more hipster campsite, Hicksville was originally built as an artist retreat by LA writer-director Morgan Higby Night. Guests sleep in themed trailers – anything from a psychedelic Airstream to a freak-show caravan – and there’s a pool, hot tub, mini golf, archery range and more to entertain. The site is in a secret location, revealed after booking.
Phone: +1 310 584 1086
Price: Trailers from £70
Mojave Sands, Joshua Tree Village
Originally a 1950s motel, this five-room inn, heavy on reclaimed wood and metal, epitomises the naturalist-minimalist Joshua Tree vibe. Every room gets a private patio, record player and vinyl, while the communal firepits are an ideal place to enjoy a starry night sky.
Address: 62121 29 Palms Highway, Joshua Tree Village Phone: +1 760 550 8063
Price: Double rooms from about £95
Dome in the Desert, Joshua Tree
Instagram loves this quirky geodesic dome on its own two-and-a-half acres just west of the national park: domeinthedesert has more than 61,000 followers. Renovated by LA couple Brian and Kathrin Smirke (him, a musician; her, a stained-glass artist and founder of fashion label Gypsan), interiors are as enviable as the dome is isolated – there are no neighbours for half a mile. They also offer a ‘bohemian modern cabin’ in Joshua Tree Village.
Address: Full locations provided after booking
Price: Both dome and cabin from about £110 per night, sleeping up to four
Pioneertown Motel, Pioneertown
This single-storey inn is a living piece of Hollywood history, originally built in the late 1940s by stars including ‘King of the Cowboys’ Roy Rogers. Recently renovated by Matt and Mark French, two brothers from Portland, Oregon, the motel’s 20 airy rooms are all pared-back, Wild West chic (cowhide rugs, woven blankets). It stands in a sandy lot just off Pioneertown’s Mane Street, barely a minute’s walk from Pappy & Harriet’s.
Address: 5240 Curtis Road Phone: +1 760 365 7001
Price: Double rooms from about £126
Joshua Tree Inn, Joshua Tree Village
Famed as the place Gram Parsons spent his final hours, these simple lodgings give the authentic Joshua Tree experience: the namesake spiky trees surround the pool. All 11 ground-level rooms have a private patio and some are named after famous guests, like country legend Emmylou Harris.
Address: 61259 29 Palms Highway, Joshua Tree Village Phone: +1 760 366 1188
Website: j oshuatreeinn.com
Price: Double rooms from about £70
Run by Kime Buzzelli, a former costume designer on 90210, this is your one-stop shop for funky High Desert garb (embroidered kaftans, moonstone rings, crystal necklaces). A magical mix of vintage and designer, channelling psychedelic, glam, gypsy and folk.
Address: 55872 29 Palms Highway, Yucca Valley Phone: +1 760 418 5536
Locally-based ceramicist Brian Bosworth’s geometric designs, rendered in bright or neutral glazes, double nicely as art and utility. Fab for unique planters or statement coffee cups.
Address: 61705 Highway 62, Joshua Tree Village Phone: +1 760 821 3765
Hoof & The Horn
Another eclectic little boutique, catering to the 1970s boho aesthetic, with a generous splash of Old West and Americana. Pick up everything from cactus-shaped jewellery to Pocahontas sandals and summer dresses.
Address: 55840 29 Palms Highway, Yucca Valley Phone: +1 760 365 6100
TBG – Homegrown
Newport Beach native Veronica Lowe is basically the world’s coolest florist. Following high-profile accolades for inventive wedding arrangements with her floral design company The Bloomin Gypsy, Lowe has just opened this houseplant and home decor shop, spilling over with bohemian, leafy brilliance.
Address: 55825 29 Palms Highway, Yucca Valley Phone: +1 949 220 6998
Pioneertown General Store
Selling desert provisions for a desert lifestyle, the General Store pops up in a barn on Mane Street from Thursday to Monday. Provisions include handmade tinctures and salves, cooling sprays, campfire mugs, and other useful bits and bobs picked out by resident cool-girl-about-town Sarah Tabbush.
Address: 53635 Mane Street, Pioneertown
Best things to do in Joshua Tree
The Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art
Appearing mirage-like at the end of a dusty road, this 7.5 acres of junk sculptures is a trip. Artist Purifoy resists upkeep of his works, more interested in how they change with weathering and decay.
Address: 63030 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree
Krblin Jihn Kabin
Though it might look derelict and long-forgotten, this installation by Eames Demetrios has been carefully arranged to tell part of his “Kcymaerxthaere” story – a parallel universe of the artist’s imagining. Eames has installed around 100 “historic markers” about this otherland all over the world; this one tells the tale of an interpreter under house arrest.
Address: 5880 Border Avenue, Joshua Tree
There’s nothing quite like a sound bath in the Integratron. Preserve the relaxation at the “hammock village” in the adjoining desert garden – and book well ahead.
Address: 2477 Belfield Boulevard, Landers
Website: integratron.com Phone: +1 760 364 3126 Price: From about £25 per person for 1 hour
Smith’s Ranch Drive-In Theater
Don’t miss the chance to experience a proper, old-school drive-in movie – a steal here at $5 for two features. It’s an unforgettable experience under a desert sky, with naughty cinema snacks to boot (pizzas, hot dogs, nachos, pulled pork sandwiches). Cash only.
Address: 4584 Adobe Road, Twentynine Palms Phone: +1 760 367 7713
Cap Rock, Joshua Tree National Park
Hiking and climbing are the principal reasons people visit the raw landscape of the park. But if you’d rather a gentler trail – and a scrap of rock ‘n’ roll legend – head for Cap Rock. This is where Gram Parsons’ roadie illegally cremated him at the musician’s request; it’s also a top spot for photographing jumbled rock formations and the distinctive gnarled trees.
Address: 74485 National Park Drive
Website: nps.gov/jotr Price: Entrance about £19 per vehicle
Though it’s around an hour’s drive into the neighbouring Colorado Desert, it would be remiss to overlook folk artist Leonard Knight’s visionary sculpture: a 50ft, multicoloured, man-made mountain daubed in religious verses. Visitors can walk the ‘yellow-brick road’ to the top and explore a painted grotto.
Address: Beal Road, Niland, Colorado
Air New Zealand flies daily from London Heathrow to LA. Return flights from London Heathrow to LA start from £701 with Air New Zealand ( airnewzealand.co.uk). Air New Zealand is on sale for September; for the most up-to-date fares please visit airnewzealand.co.uk. For more information to help plan your California trip go to www.visitcalifornia.co.uk
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