Escape to the Desert: Where to Stay in Joshua Tree
Camping in the wilderness isn’t the only way to discover the perks of desert living. Avoid unplanned encounters with coyotes (we’re only half-joking) and remain relatively dust-free by setting up base in one of these nearby towns instead.
Joshua Tree National Park has over 500 campsites to stay in. That’s all well and good; trust us, we’re the last people to dissuade intrepid explorers from venturing out into the High Desert of California to explore everything from rock formations to wildlife, but let’s face it, the rugged lifestyle isn’t for everyone…especially those who favour Plum Guide homes. If the possibility of finding a scorpion under your pillow doesn’t exactly scream ‘fun’ to you, ditch the camping gear and hunker down in one of the park’s neighbouring hamlets. You’ll discover artistic communities, antique emporiums and maybe even get to live the cowboy lifestyle (horse not necessarily included).
We know what you’re like; the first place you’re likely to look when it comes to choosing where to stay in Joshua Tree National Park will inevitably be the small community sharing its name. You wouldn’t be wrong to consider it an option, as although the park is arguably the High Desert’s crowning jewel, this town more than holds its own as a highlight of the region.
While a big main draw is always going to be the National Park’s visitor centre, it’s the quirkier establishments - such as the the World Famous Crochet Museum (yes, genuinely), Furstworld art gallery and the Joshua Tree retreat (where you can go to experience a healing sound bath, if that’s your thing) that people stay for. There’s also a surprising amount of hearty (and healthy) cuisine on offer, along with a few great cafes. If there’s one thing you should try here, though, it’s a date smoothie; unbeknownst to many, the nearby Coachella Valley is widely considered to be the ‘date capital of the world’. Here’s us thinking it was only famous for hosting that extravagant (read: over-priced) music festival.
And if you’re only here for hiking and exploring, we’ll cut to the chase - highlights of the park’s northernmost region, such as the Hidden Valley Nature trail, Barker Dam, Cap Rock and the Ryan ranch ruins are no more than half-an hour’s drive away from town. What more could you wish for?
The desert continues to be at your doorstep at Twentynine Palms, situated a little further along California State Route 62. The intersecting Utah Trail road feeds directly into the park, allowing for easy access to various landmarks including the iconic Arch Rock and the Cholla Cactus Garden Trail (heed our warning: wear long sleeves and trousers for this one, you don’t want to get yourself into a prickly situation).
If you’re up for a spot of stargazing, the nearby Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center is the perfect place for this - especially in June, when the annual Night Sky Festival is usually held. The centre has activities for when the weather conditions needed for observing the galaxy are less than optimal; the orrery or the Meditation Garden might be better ports of call if you’re more of an early bird than night owl.
While the town itself is definitely what you’d describe as sleepy, numerous dining options make it one of the best areas to stay near Joshua Tree. It’s not just littered with diner-style joints; one spot you absolutely can’t miss is Kitchen in the Desert - the Caribbean-inspired menu here is nothing short of heavenly. You’ll also find a few art galleries to peruse at your leisure if you’d rather swap the hiking boots and cacti for a bit of intellectual stimulation. There’s even a casino where you can gamble alongside fellow high rollers if you’re feeling lucky. (Ok, it’s not Vegas, but it’ll do.) But perhaps the most underrated attraction here is Smith’s Ranch, Twentynine Palms’ very own cash-only drive-in theater. You can’t get more nostalgic than that in the middle of the desert.
Antique-lovers and thrift-shoppers will be in their element in Yucca Valley, making it a great option when considering where to stay in Joshua Tree. We don’t use the term 'treasure trove' lightly, but if you’re looking for that one statement piece for your wardrobe or a particularly whimsical piece of furniture, you’ll be more than satisfied with what lies within the dozen or so vintage stores in the area. We just hope you came prepared luggage-wise…
Like Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, this little hamlet borders the national park; the nearest entrance leads to Black Rock Canyon Trail and Warren Peak Trail (the place to go for sunset, if you’re wondering). It’s also garnered a reputation as a hub for creatives carving out a space for themselves in the local arts scene. Aside from the cluster of galleries lining the main street, the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum is worth dropping by if you’re looking to discover some incredible folk art.
For something a little different (or if you’re feeling particularly devout all of a sudden) you can head uptown to wander around the collection of stark-white sculptures in the Desert Christ Park, first erected in 1951 as part of Reverend Eddie Garver’s mission to promote world peace. Depending on the time of day you visit, they can look more than a little eerie, but the park offers great views over the valley and the nearby Flamingo Heights community. It’s here you’ll want to head for dinner; sleek restaurant La Copine reinvents American classics that’ll give you the calorie boost you need after a long hiking session.
Ok, disclaimer - this one’s more of an extra ‘bonus’ spot on our list of where to stay in Joshua tree; Pioneertown is definitely not for everyone. In any case, if you’re travelling with kids, are a die-hard Western fan, you’d be remiss to visit San Bernardino County’s southernmost tip without making a stopover at this time-capsule town. Originally founded as a live-in Wild West experience in the mid-40s by Hollywood greats, the hamlet once served as a set for many a Western film and series. Kitschiness aside (we wonder what our home critics would make of the popular Pioneertown Motel), there’s no denying that the town offers up a distinctly ‘different’ experience and that it’s as close to being thrown into a John Wayne flick as you’re ever going to get.
Home to a jail, a saloon, a post office and a quirky little general store, among other things, Pioneertown’s particular highlights include the Wild West theatre (you’re doing this for the kids, remember) and Pappy & Harriet’s live music bar. The latter’s reputation is quite prolific; the likes of Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and Leon Russell have graced its stage. If you
eventually inevitably grow tired of seeing mock gunfights and Stetsons everywhere (don’t say we didn’t warn you) hit one of the four hiking trails that crisscross the Pioneertown Mountain preserve; we recommend the Pipes Canyon trail - or the Sawtooth Loop Trail if you’re up for a bit of a challenge.