We stayed in the Joshua Tree area for two months, the first month in a house in Yucca Valley, the larger town to the west, and a month in a small house a couple of blocks from the heart of the city of Joshua Tree proper. The two towns were only about 10 minutes apart but the culture between them seemed night and day. Whereas Yucca Valley could be any small to moderate sized Walmart town in the southwest with big trucks charging through intersections and fast food chains dotting the roadsides, Joshua Tree has a much more old world hippy vibe with the best of SoCals high weirdness. Hand painted signs, strange art, festive clothing, with a dapple of early 90’s headshop, a desert Burning Man vibe. In the high season it’s inundated with LA weekenders in expensive sports wear but the bones are good. And there seems to survive a sense of community which manifests in a modest farmer’s market, a healthfood scene, occasional street bands, and street art with a liberal bend. To be so small I thought the town was pretty great.
Walking around downtown.
Navigating the city of Joshua Tree is pretty straightforward. You could walk across the entire town in about 10 minutes. Compared to Yucca Valley or even 29 Palms, Joshua Tree is a pretty small town centered on the intersection of highway 62 and Park Blvd where you turn towards the park entrance visitor center. Most of the shops and restaurants are within a block or two of that intersection with the most density on the right before the turn.
The World Famous Crochet Museum and Art Queen Gallery
Directly in the heart of Joshua Tree at the main intersection of highway 62 and Park Blvd behind the iconic Joshua Tree Saloon you’ll find a magical little enclave of art assemblages and constructions that would feel more at home in Burning Man than a small desert town. Behind a small collection of galleries the space opens up into a fantasy space. Social groupings of chairs and tables share space with a steam-punk room on legs, a satellite dish flower with dozens of rubber penis stamen, and the world famous crochet museum (which is actually more true than most “world famous” kitsch). An old walkup photo-mat repurposed into maybe the smallest museum I’ve seen, filled to the brim with the crochet collection of Shari Elf, who along with the museum also runs the Art Queen Gallery in the same space. The unmanned space is open all the time and accepts donations if you so choose. It’s the kind of place that makes me happy and gives me hope.
Sky Village Swap Meet
Technically the Sky Village Swap Meet is in the middle of Yucca Valley, about 10 minutes west of Joshua Tree proper but there’s a magical nature to this place that feels much more suited to Joshua Tree than Yucca Valley. Built on what used to be Sky Drive-In Theater, Sky Village is the creation of the late owner Bob Carr and now run by his daughter Zena Carr, and hosts a weekend swap meet for locals to sell a variety of odds and ends, crafts, and food. I’ve been to parking lot flea markets filled with popup tents and blankets, but Sky Village is more reminiscent of the Oregon Country Fair or Burning Man with loads of magical constructions from small quirky buildings for vendors, unusual sculpture assemblages, and what I would best describe as environmental art. We browsed the tables and things for sale for sure, but to me the real treasure is the village itself in all of its quirky and obsessive detail. I was very taken by the spirit of this place and what must have been the spirit of Bob Carr. I am happy it escaped its destruction at the hands of the city of Yucca Valley through eminent domain in 2008. It is a tragedy that probably the best thing about Yucca Valley would be bulldozed to make room for more fast food nonsense or whatever commercial venture that was schemed to make a quick buck. But such is the soul of western progress.
Bob Carr’s Crystal Cave. This was closed when I was there but it’s an environmental piece built by Bob Carr filled with crystals and running water created as a meditation space.
Places to eat or get coffee
Joshua Tree is much smaller than Yucca Valley and only has a handful of places to eat but these places have much more character and good food to boot. As of today things are still a bit wonky from COVID but most places have outdoor seating and those that don’t offer takeout.
Joshua Tree Coffee
I’m not a daily coffee drinker but I do enjoy the occasional cappuccino and there’s really only one place to get a good one in town, Joshua Tree Coffee. It’s a small building surrounded by a gated courtyard flush with the hipster types that make a lifestyle out of good bean juice. Quirky environs, outdoor tables with chairs, friendly people. What’s not to love.
Joshua Tree Saloon
This is kind of the main happening place in town. It sits right at the main intersection and pretty hard to miss. Full-on roadhouse saloon décor done in the best possible way. A broad menu of expected favorites. And a good selection of beer and a full bar. During the pandemic they’ve expanded their back patio seating and have a full bar there with a bank of porta-potties so you never have to go inside. Gets busy so take that into account.
If you’re looking for a bit more granola of a feel or if the saloon is full, a block away is the Crossroads Cafe with a focus on breakfast but sandwiches and other fare as well. They have a half dozen tables outside for service and a takeaway business. Usually the inside space is a great hangout but was closed due to covid while I was in town last.
JT Country Kitchen
Across the street from Crossroads, the other good place to eat. Heavy focus on all day breakfast with other dinner options and even a few asian dishes later in the day (a throwback to the original owner who was asian).
Castanedas Mexican Food
This is a local chain Mexican joint that’s open 24 hours for your late night snacking needs. Probably not going to win any awards but Mexican food is hard to screw up. It’s drive-through only right now and our RV couldn’t fit so I didn’t actually eat here this time through but as I recall it’s fine.
This is a little more upscale hole-in-the-wall with sandwiches and a bit more gourmand snacks and drinks and also the second best place to get coffee, though honestly I’d wait for the other place. If you’re looking for brie and crackers, try here.
Natural Sisters Cafe
We honestly never got to eat here, just past the Dez in the little strip mall area, but there was always a line and seemed to be the place to get your vegan/veg/health food on.
Boo’s Organic Oven
A full bakery with lots of yummy treats. We ordered a banana cream pie here for my birthday and it was delicious. Stop by for bread or treats.
Local shops to check out.
In addition to food you might need some supplies for outdoor stuff, trinkets, art, a new tu-tu, maybe some booze, a painting of a coyote on a plate, hey who am I to judge. Here are a few of the more interesting places you’ll walk by or have certain things that you’ll need.
Coyote Corner to me is the lifeblood of this little town. It’s only a trailer sized shop across from the park visitor center but it’s crammed to the gills with fun and useful things. Imagine if an early 90’s head shop, a craft fair, a tourist shop, and a wilderness outfitter store all got crammed into a studio apartment with lovely people working and peppered with a high desert pioneer kitsch décor. Add to that great signage all along the road advertising showers and treats and a miniature pioneer town all its own. They were only allowing 6 people in at a time when I was there last so that created quite the line to get in. But don’t pass it by if it’s possible.
Ricochet Vintage Wears
Right on the main drag beside Crossroads, there’s always something fun hanging outside.
Honestly, not a lot of options for basic groceries or liquor in town. This is about it. Essentially just a little convenience store with some frozen food and a decent liquor selection. You won’t be finding that rare 12 year single malt, but they have all of the usual favorites.
You can find a decent selection of outdoor stuff at Coyote Corner but this is the dedicated store across the street. The main focus is on climbing gear but they have a whole room of outdoor clothing and lots of good stuff for hiking and camping.
Things to do nearby.
Aside from the Crochet Museum, there’s a pretty nifty sculpture park a few minutes from downtown that’s worth a look and a few places within a 20 minute drive that are pretty cool if you have the time.
Noah Purifoy Sculpture Park
9 min drive.
Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) was an LA African American artist that gained notoriety for his 1966 series 66 Signs of Neon constructed from burned storefronts and signs destroyed in the 1965 LA Watts riots, the largest riots in LA before the Rodney King riots in 1992 (both over police brutality). After a distinguished career he retired to a ranch just outside of Joshua Tree where he spent the last 15 years of his life building sculptures on site which has now been converted into a charity run sculpture park that accepts donations. The 10 acre ranch has a massive collection of found object sculptures in varying states surrounding the artist’s former trailer and living area (now closed and in disrepair). I honestly wasn’t expecting much. I’ve visited several sculpture parks on our roadside America trip full of outsider style metal art, but Noah’s work is both more sophisticated and conceptually complex. I would set aside a couple of hours to explore the work, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Desert Christ Park
12 min drive.
The Desert Christ Park was established by Reverend Eddie Garver in 1951 who was granted 5 acres by the federal government. He was introduced to (Frank) Antone Martin, a sculptor from Inglewood, CA, who had been denied permission to install his 10 foot 5 ton concrete statue of Christ on the rim of the Grand Canyon and was looking for a home for it. After installing this statue they collaborated on many more statues overlooking Yucca Valley. Eventually the church changed hands and most of the statues were moved to an adjacent park to make room for an ampitheater, where they now stand.
22 minutes drive.
Built by George Van Tassel (1910-1978), a former aeronautics engineer for Lockhead and test pilot for Howard Hughes, the Integratron, according to George, was given to him by aliens from Venus who visited him and took him aboard their spacecraft. The structure was built on a point of high electromagnetic activity and the device (still unfinished) was supposed to greatly extend human life. Apparently, he died under mysterious circumstances after which all of his research and prototypes were confiscated by the federal government.
“George Van Tassel began conducting weekly meditation sessions in 1953 in the rooms underneath Giant Rock which, he claimed, led to UFO contacts and finally to an actual encounter with extra-terrestrials when according to George, in August of that year, a saucer landed from the planet Venus, woke Van Tassel up and invited him onto the ship. There the aliens gave him a formula for a proprietary frequency for rejuvenating living cell tissues. In 1957 he began building a structure they called “The Integratron” to perform the rejuvenation. George described his creation this way, “The Integratron is a machine, a high-voltage electrostatic generator that would supply a broad range of frequencies to recharge the cell structure.” – From the website – https://www.integratron.com/history-about/
They were only doing private sessions for $500 while we were there but we took some pictures from the outside. They book up months in advance so plan ahead if you want to go.
20 min drive.
Pioneer town was founded in 1946 by a group of investors including Roy Rogers and Gene Autry to serve as both a fully functioning western town movie set and destination for tourists. I’m not sure what the town looked like in the 50s but today it’s roughly two blocks of miniature old west buildings housing tourist shops and a few treats. There’s a small town built around this area but it’s not looking too kept up these days. The main draw is the Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneer Palace which was supposedly a notorious biker bar hangout but today seems to be more of a tourist draw than a rough roadhouse. The line was around the building so we decided the wait wasn’t worth it. But I’m sure they have decent food and drinks. It’s a short scenic drive and though I didn’t think much was going on there, it was worth the effort.
Things to do but require a bit of a drive.
The Sultan Sea, Salvation Mountain, and Slab City are almost 2 hours away from Joshua Tree, east of Palm Springs. It’s a solid day trip but I really liked this drive and these sites so I recommend checking them out if you have a free day or will be down by Palm Springs. Salvation Mountain is an essential roadside attraction and if you’re looking for that, the dinosaurs used in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure are just a short drive west of Palm Springs in Cabazon.
1 hour 26 min drive.
The Sultan Sea is an enormous (15 x 35 miles) salt water lake that was created in 1905 initially by accident when the Colorado river was diverted into a dry salt flat by farmers. In the 50’s the area became a resort destination and created boom towns all along its shores. But the Sultan Sea is also described as one of the biggest ecological disasters of our time. Runoff from local farms heavily polluted the lake and the water began to steadily evaporate increasing it’s salinity. By the 80’s the water had become toxic and massive fish die offs polluted the shores with corpses. Dust clouds filled with toxic debris are whipped up and carried as far as LA. The communities that relied on tourism collapsed leaving only the more resilient in some rough looking towns. It’s desolate and ghostly.
Salvation Mountain and Slab City
2 hour drive (right at Salton Sea past Niland, CA)
Salvation Mountain has long been on my list of interesting places to see and I didn’t realize how close it was to Joshua Tree and Palm Springs. It’s a magnificent relic of hippy god-is-love 60’s cult high weirdness. Essentially a half mud, half hay-bail mountain, covered in dirt, then painted in bright latex, and beaming messages of hippy-Jesus love. In addition to the massive art piece there are relics of hippy cars and trucks painted with similar hippy-Jesus messages. Two large trucks converted to sort of campers with a bedroom and gated living area, a boat, some cars, all ancient looking with flat tires.
The structure was built by Leonard Knight (1931-2014) starting around 1984 at 53 after giving up on his decade long obsession with building the world’s largest hot air balloon that he hand sewed with “God is love” across the side. It collapsed in 1989 after which he rebuilt it much stronger using only clay and straw. It’s estimated that the mountain is covered in over 100,000 gallons of donated paint in at least 10 layers.
Just past Salvation Mountain you enter Slab City, an abandoned military base that has been claimed by offgrid squatters. It’s kind of like Mad Max meets Burning Man meets a hippy commune. Interesting art and structures and a rough sort of anarchist group that lives there. We just drove through conspicuously in our shiny rental car so I didn’t get many photos.