yucca valley
Unsplash/Steven Wright

Find the Weird, Wild West in Joshua Tree

Your guide to SoCal’s most eccentric desert town.

"I think it’s the last Wild West; there are still places where you can hike and drive and see no one for a very long time.”

There’s an artist community in Southern California's High Desert that’s yet to be overrun with tourists and would-be influencers. There are no overcrowded chain restaurants, no orchestrated "Instagrammable moments," no garish attractions screaming at you in neon, and really, no obvious attempt at tourism infrastructure—despite being 10 minutes from a national park.

This might not always be the case. But for now, Joshua Tree remains one of the last remaining vestiges of SoCal’s boho desert culture. Star-splattered skies, peaceful seclusion, and the Mojave Desert’s bizarro landscapes draws creative types from all over the country—especially Las Angeles, just a two hours away.

"I think it’s the last Wild West; there are still places where you can hike and drive and see no one for a very long time,” says photographer Rose Cefalu. “I think that, along with the beauty of the landscape and eternal skies, is a draw for free thinkers and artists. There is a thriving community here of artisans, craftspeople, and builders doing such great work."

If you’re a fan of national parks, stargazing, weird contemporary art, and Old West vibes, Joshua Tree is truly a desert oasis. Here’s the 411 on things to do, places to eat, where to stay, and how to get weird when you’re in town.

Airbnb
Photo courtesy of Airbnb

Check into an otherworldly desert Airbnb

The Airbnb game in Joshua Tree is strong. The towns surrounding the national park (especially Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms) have become a hotbed of wildly photogenic accommodations in recent years as the community has grown with artists and design types.

Stays are about as eye-catching and out-there as you might expect. For example, you can stay in a UFO, or an oasis with a hot tub, or a farmhouse with over 100 Joshua trees on the property. Reservations fly like hot cakes around here, with properties booking up months—sometimes years—in advance. Book early, especially if you’re visiting during the park’s busy season (January through April).

Hit Joshua Tree National Park (duh)

Well, we obviously didn’t expect you to come all this way and not visit the park. Named for the special variety of yucca trees that blankets this 800,000 acre expanse, Joshua Tree is one of the most beloved national parks in the country. Spread across two desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, the park is full of dusty trails and geological oddities like colossal rock formations, desert wildflowers, and the endemic Joshua tree—an otherworldly playground for climbers, hikers, Instagrammers, rock nerds, and your friendly neighborhood hippie alike.

Promote peace, love, and good food

The only real giveaway that Joshua Tree is just minutes from a major national park is the growing line of tourists at the Old West-style Crossroads Café on weekend mornings. They serve hearty, rib-sticking classics; for something a bit lighter, around the corner there’s Natural Sisters Café, serving up organic and vegan comfort food. You can’t go wrong with the bar fare at Joshua Tree Saloon, and across the street, there’s local coffee roaster Joshua Tree Coffee Company and more no-frills, diner-style brunch at Country Kitchen.  

Down the road you’ll find Pie for the People, a craft New York-style pizzeria seemingly teleported to the desert from the East Coast. And in Yucca Valley, Frontier Café dishes out some damn fine BLTs and sammies. 

Also of note: La Copine for French-inspired California cuisine and Giant Rock Meeting Room for pizza with a patio. Wine & Rock Shop will cater to all your wine and beer needs (plus crystals and other delightful surprises). 

Pioneertown
BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock

Wet your whistle at the local saloon

At first glance, Pioneertown seems more like a movie set than a real place. And that’s because it is! Built in the late 1940s as a full-scale backdrop for Old Westerns, today it’s home to places like the Pioneertown Motel, the Escape recording studio, and the legendary honky tonk Pappy & Harriet’s

Pappy & Harriet’s dishes up some serious barbecue, but it’s even better known as one of the most storied music venues in the country. You can catch huge national acts here, from Lizzo to Paul McCartney, especially during the Coachella Festival. But according to co-owner Robyn Celia, some of the most memorable nights take place on just a regular old weekend when small local acts pop in to play under the stars. Lines are long, but the desert gods smile upon the patient.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Joshua Tree Saloon, all decked out in weathered corrugated metal—a defining feature of many buildings along this stretch of desert highway—is another killer spot for live music, open mic nights, and karaoke (in non-COVID times). They’ve got a surprisingly wide food selection, but they’re best known for their burgers.

And for a more chilled-out evening, Sarah Combs, who runs the local Joshua Tree House, recommends Smith's Ranch Drive-In in Twentynine Palms on the north side of the park. “We love going there on warm summer nights with a picnic to catch a movie with friends. Plus, it’s only $5!” 

Flickr/Los Paseos

Get weird with Joshua Tree’s art scene

This is an artists’ town, but there’s way more to it than well-decorated Airbnbs and vegan-friendly eateries. "There is a very active group of people, artists primarily, that have come here from the city to establish their own community and are invested in trying to keep it interesting and unique," explains Brian Smirke.

So where can you catch the creative vibes firsthand? There's the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, a free outdoor collection of large “found folk-art assemblages” (aka junk sculptures). The World Famous Crochet Museum, which is free and open 24/7, features a huge collection of crocheted animals in a former one-hour Fotomat booth. There is also the *deep breath* 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.

Keep an eye out for the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum, a collection of  vintage salon chairs, beauty products, and antique styling tools, all displayed in pastel trailers down a dirt road off of Twentynine Palms. Make an appointment first with the “hairstorian” owner—while you’re at it, you can get your hair done at the very real home salon.

Integratron
Flickr/Eric Allix Rogers

Oh, and there’s Furstwurld by artist Bobby Furst, with even more found art installations (and spaceships) where they also hold concerts, film screenings, and parties. You can also go sound bathing at the Integratron—described as “a resonant tabernacle and energy machine sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex”—in nearby Landers. (It’s one of those things you’ve really have to see to believe.)

There’s plenty more art and oddness to be found around Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. Drive south a bit to Bombay Beach, a tiny washed up town that lies along the Salton Sea that’s littered with large-scale, abstract installations like The Bombay Beach Drive-In , which kinda looks like a post-apocalyptic drive-in movie theater. From there you can also visit Salvation Mountain and Slab City.

Spend your money on stuff you can't find outside of Joshua Tree

On Saturday mornings, the Joshua Tree Certified Farmers' Market sets up alongside the town's "Turtle Island" and the absolutely iconic Murtle the Turtle sculpture. The market runs year-round and supports local farmers, artists, and sustainable farming practices. 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 hippie vibe than anything remotely resembling the modern millennial "wellness" trend, and the Grateful Desert Herb Shoppe and EcoMarket, which, ditto.

The Yucca Valley writ large is an antiquer’s dream, with endless galleries and secondhand shops up and down the main drag. The End sells one-off vintage finds as well as work from local artisans, while the Coyote Corner gift shop near the national park is perfect for kitschy souvenirs. The Pioneertown General Store also has a carefully curated collection of ‘zines, textiles, and vintage goods—but, again, the most valuable souvenir here is probably a night well-spent at Pappy & Harriet’s.

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Nicole Rupersburg is a contributor for Thrillist. 
Tiana Attride contributed to reporting for this article.