Joshua Treet music festival
Joshua Tree Music Festival | Foster Snell
Joshua Tree Music Festival | Foster Snell

The Town of Joshua Tree Is the SoCal Hippie Haven of Your Dreams -- At Least for Now

What would you say if I told you there is a place in Southern California's high desert that is an arts community yet to be overrun with tourists and would-be influencers? A place that is perhaps one of the last remaining vestiges of SoCal desert boho/hippie culture, where there are no chain restaurants, no orchestrated "Instagrammable moments," no garish attractions screaming at you in neon for your tourist dollars, and really no immediately obvious attempt at tourism infrastructure despite being 10 minutes from a national park? 

Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? 

Well, in five or 10 years it probably will be but for now, Joshua Tree -- the town that butts up against the national park -- is still the SoCal hippie haven of your dreams, a place that no longer seems possible with the Coachellafication of everywhere else that surrounds it. It's truly an oasis. Here's how to best enjoy it… while you can.
MORE: Obviously you're going to the park too… here's how to do Joshua Tree National Park right

Great AirBnBs abound as Joshua Tree clings to its unique charm 

The motels located in the town of Joshua Tree are all ramshackle, no chic. Your best lodging option here is through Airbnb, which you may have opinions about, especially if the bulk of your Airbnb experiences have been in major cities like Los Angeles or New York where people charge $300 per night to stay on a damp futon in a neighborhood that even gentrification is scared to visit. 

But in Joshua Tree, Airbnb functions as its own Platonic ideal, with a GLUT of impeccably designed listings that could have easily been plucked straight from the pages of Dwell or, you know, Airbnb Magazine. And, actually, some of them indeed were.  

"I think it’s the last Wild West, or was the last Wild West."

Kathrin and Brian Smirke, who own three beautifully renovated properties in Joshua Tree that they rent out through Airbnb, first got involved in Joshua Tree six years ago when property was very inexpensive -- especially for two Los Angelenos who were already flipping houses in LA's Highland Park and were seeing how people were getting priced out of the city. 

"Joshua Tree is so close to LA; it's only a two-hour drive which makes it really attractive to people," said Kathrin. "A lot of people who were priced out of LA decided to buy something in the desert. A lot of artists who couldn't afford LA anymore moved to Joshua Tree full time, and that really led to a really creative arts community." 

Rose Cefalu is another Angeleno who has found artistic refuge in Joshua Tree. As a photographer herself, her two "Desert Rose" properties -- a main house and an attached but separate garage conversion -- are filled with her own "alternative process photography" (gum prints and cyanotypes that are also for sale), and are both decorated in a design aesthetic she calls  “MoBoWoo” (modern bohemian wood).

"There is a thriving art community here of artisans, craftspeople, and builders doing such great work," she said. "Joshua Tree has been a haven for musicians and artists. I think it’s the last Wild West, or was the last Wild West; there are still places where you can hike and drive and see no one for a very long time. I think that, along with the beauty of the landscape and eternal skies, is a draw for free thinkers and artists." 

As artists have moved in, new restaurants, design stores, and vintage shops have opened. There has also been an influx of Airbnb rentals that seem disproportionately design-minded, considering this is a town of just 7,000. 

When the Smirkes first renovated their Dome in the Desert six years ago, there weren't many Airbnb properties in Joshua Tree. They've since seen the town swell with tourism to the point that now, on busy weekends in peak season, it can be impossible to find a seat at popular places like the Joshua Tree Saloon. 

Still, Joshua Tree hasn't quite yet been pushed into Sedona or Santa Fe territory: once-quirky towns that have been so overrun with tourism that they no longer maintain the identity that once made them unique. And people who live in Joshua Tree are trying to make sure that it doesn't.

"There is a very active group of people, artists primarily, that have come here from the city to establish their own community that really are invested in trying to keep it interesting and unique," said Brian. "If they can stay the course, it's possible. There is a dedicated group of people getting involved in its expansion who want to see it maintain that interesting desert charm." 
MORE:Check out other weird, wonderful places you can road-trip to from LA

Where to eat and drink in Joshua Tree

The only real giveaways that Joshua Tree is just minutes from a major national park is the growing line of people waiting for a table at the Old West-style Crossroads Café on weekend mornings. The obviously out-of-towner crowd isn't nearly as obtrusive as in other tourist-heavy areas, but their presence is out of step with the town's otherwise artsy-desert-hippie vibe.

Across the street from Crossroads, another Old West-style building houses the local coffee roaster Joshua Tree Coffee Company. Next to that, a similarly Old West-looking building is home to Pie for the People, a craft New York-style pizzeria seemingly teleported to the desert. It would be easy to see this cluster of businesses and assume that soon the town will be all influencers and avocado toast, but these places are really the only evidence of anything that you might consider the byproduct of the last decade's worth of culinary trends and Instagram tourism. 

Crossroads Café serves hearty, rib-sticking comfort food as well as homemade vegan options and is staffed by folks who seem like maybe they just want to live somewhere where the cost of living is low and they're free to create and promote peace and love. Ditto the Natural Sisters Café, a healthy eatery serving organic, natural, and vegan comfort foods in an atmosphere of "kindness, focus, and love." 

The Joshua Tree Saloon, all decked out in weathered corrugated metal -- another defining feature of many buildings along this stretch of desert highway -- is THE spot in town for live music, open mic nights, and karaoke, and also serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's not the fried-food of a townie bar, either -- they're known for their burgers, but they've also got a large selection of items that includes grilled mahi-mahi tacos, flat-iron steaks, and a vegan-friendly signature salad.

The best places to spend your money on stuff you can't find outside of Joshua Tree

One of the few immediately obvious giveaways that this is indeed a tourist town is the Coyote Corner store located right on the corner of the road that leads into the park, and has the classic Western "false front" wood façade. A combination gift shop and general store, it sells everything from hand-made jewelry made by local artisans to camping supplies. It’s mostly cheesy, but in that fun way, and you can score some great locally made finds here, too.

On Saturday mornings, the Joshua Tree Certified Farmers' Market is set up in a stretch of strip mall parking lots that run alongside the town's "Turtle Island" and its iconic Murtle the Turtle sculpture. The weekly market runs year-round and supports local farmers and sustainable farming practices, as well as local artists and craftspeople. 

Inside the adjacent strip malls, you’ll find funky independent businesses like Instant Karma, a yoga studio that jives more with the town's '70s-vintage hippie boho vibe than anything remotely resembling the modern Millennial "wellness" trend, and the Grateful Desert Herb Shoppe and EcoMarket, which, ditto. 

And if you want to hang with the climbers in the park but need a little guidance, Cliffhanger Guides will get you out there climbing no matter your level of skill or experience.

Where to see HIGH desert art

It bears repeating that this is an artists’ town, and there’s much more to that than pretty Airbnb listings and vegan-friendly eateries. There’s a certain creative weirdness that permeates this corner of the barren California desert. Not far south of Joshua Tree you’ll find Salvation Mountain and Slab City; you can go sound bathing at Integration in nearby Landers; and in the spring, you can explore the whole Coachella Valley for the site-specific contemporary art installations that are part of Desert X

As for the town itself, it might not look like much, but there is more than meets the eye -- you just have to know where to look for it. 

There is the World Famous Crochet Museum, featuring a collection of crocheted animals in a former one-hour Fotomat booth. This museum is free and open 24/7. There's the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, a free outdoor collection of large “found folk-art assemblages” (AKA junk sculptures); and BoxoPROJECTS, a contemporary art exhibition space and artist residency program with related programming that also offers “guided cultural expeditions” through the weirdness of Joshua Tree. Keep an eye out for the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum, a historic artifact collection that includes vintage beauty products, old salon chairs, and antique styling tools displayed in pastel trailers in the owner’s backyard located down a dirt road off of Twentynine Palms. This collection is free to see but by appointment only, and you can also schedule a service inside the “hairstorian” owner’s very real home hair salon while you’re there.

There is also the Scott Lloyd Doten ShangriLa Studio and Joshua Tree Drive-In Alien invasion, a car museum-meets-art installation depicting a 1950s drive-in being invaded by aliens. The artist’s studio is also located here. Oh, and Furstwurld, by artist Bobby Furst, with even more crazy found art installations (and spaceships) where they also hold concerts, film screenings, parties, and other performance events. 

Art is weird.

There is even MORE weirdness throughout the rest of the High Desert and Coachella Valley. This is just what is located in the town of Joshua Tree, which covers just 37 square miles and has a population of fewer than 8,000 people. 

As for the rest of the town, well, there's a VFW hall right on the other side of Pie for the People, a few dated (again, all ramshackle, no chic) motels, and a bail bondsman (just in case): more signifiers of a hard way of small town living than a hotspot for influencers to flood. 

Just to the west of the town of Joshua Tree is Yucca Valley, and that's where the chains start to rear their ugly heads. But despite its proximity to the mellow-harshing grossness of homogenous corporate culture, Joshua Tree still stubbornly maintains its character as something special, unique, untainted, and most definitely weird.

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Nicole Rupersburg is a contributor for Thrillist.