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Joshua Tree National Park. Photo: Brian Vernor
Joshua Tree National Park. Photo: Brian Vernor

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Dust & glam: A two-sided desert jaunt

The ideal Southern Californian desert weekend adventure begins in the surreal lunar landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, and ends up poolside in Palm Springs. A trip for all senses.

For many Californians, the mere mention of the words “Joshua Tree” triggers a dreamy-eyed ­facial expression and the exclamation, “I so love it there,” and, “I so totally need to go back there soon.” Named after the science fiction-looking trees that inhabit it – which bring to mind the drawings of American cartoonist Dr. Seuss – the park is as cherished within popular culture and as a destination for more subcultural psychedelic experiences, as it is for its purely environmental and geological merits. Here, two distinct ecosystems – the Mojave and the Colorado Deserts – fuse and form something unique and utterly spellbinding. Families, khaki vest-clad natural scientists and yoga-loving post-hippies all ­belong to those who gather here. 

Photo: Brian Vernor

Luckily they have 800,000 acres of desert vastness to share, so it won’t be crowded – although some areas are more popular than others. One, is the delightful Barker Dam, the first destination planned for this trip, which follows a fairly popular narrative of one evening of dust and one of glam. First though, we get a hearty lunch in at the Crossroads Café in Joshua Tree ­Village, and stop to plan our route at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, convenient for those who enter the park through the West Entrance. The village caters to all the abovementioned visitor categories, offering everything from outdoor sports accessories shops and kale smoothie vendors, to street stands with healing crystals and vintage clothing in the Burning Man genre. 

‘The perfect spot to seek out a desert zen moment’

Over at the West Entrance, the fee is $25 per vehicle, valid for the next six days – longer than most plan to stay. The first impression on entering the sparse, mystical landscape is that Joshua Tree is a beautiful and peculiar sight in equal measures. Dry and dusty fields with what looks like a never-­ending stretch of Joshua trees line up. This wonderful, bizarre plant can take up to 60 years to mature and decades for its first jangly arm to grow. Knowing that they can live for over 500 years, while contemplating their asymmetrical, bumpy beauty, instills feelings of otherness and space. 

At the Barker Dam parking lot, the sun is relentless and car hoods could work as frying pans. While walking up the trail to the dam, one passes by a wall of petroglyphs, where a Californian family – father, mother and son – stares at the prehistoric carvings. “Are these real?,” the son asks, while his father has to be disappointingly honest in his answer and clarify, “Yes, but people have traced them with paint so they will be easier to see.” Joshua trees might often seem untouched, even alien sometimes. But this is America after all, where ­national parks do not necessarily mean true wilderness – more, a curated version of it.

Joshua Tree’s Barker Dam is ideal for those desert zen moments – or for some family hiking.

The now slightly dried-out Barker Dam seems a bit like a phantasm, and is an example of man making his mark here. It was constructed by early cattlemen in the year 1900 and looks like a scene from a Western, where the cowboy and the native man find common ground over the need to quench their thirst. Visitors sit in the shade of the man-like rock formations, drinking water or other unspecified liquids out of cans from their coolers, while watching the sun’s reflection in the water. It’s the perfect spot to seek out a desert zen moment, and it’s clear that people savor it.

The undebatable, and according to some, unbeatable, Old West kitsch factor of Pioneertown. Probably the only town ever to have started out as a film set.Photo: Brian Vernor

The real Hollywood Western scenery is yet to come though. After a couple of hours in the park and encounters with the local flora, and amateur level rock climbing, Pioneertown is up next – the main goal of the first 12 hours out here. Founded in 1946 by Hollywood ­Western-­era power players Dick Curtis and Roy Rogers as a live-in Old West film set, where actors lived between shoots, it has, over the past decade, been renovated several times, but remains intact. Mane Street – as it’s called – looks exactly like any main street in any Western you’ve ever seen on screen, and just as we arrive, a country band starts performing, without anyone else watching. Yet again, it’s a surreal sight – being serenaded by an old songstress on this empty Old West street. Add to that the light of Golden Hour, with a soft red glow embracing the saloons. But as the night unfolds, most visitors flock in one direction – Pappy & Harriet's. 

For music legends such as Paul McCartney to the most obscure indie artists imaginable, Pappy & Harriet’s is an experience not to be missed. Photo: Brian Vernor

This BBQ joint, swanky cocktail bar and scruffy old-time music venue is the heart of Pioneertown, and the main reason the community here has recovered from the fire that burned down more than 50 homes and 60,000 acres of land in 2006. Since it was transformed from a set to an actual bar, it has been reincarnated many times – from a gritty outlaw biker bar in the 1970s, to a slightly more family-friendly Tex-Mex and live music joint in the 80s, to what, over the past 10–15 years, has grown into a world famous hipster and music ­enthusiast destination, where legends such as Paul McCartney and more obscure bands frequently perform. The bikers have stayed though, so when the Scottish indie rock band Teenage Fanclub takes the stage this evening, the crowd is an eclectic mix of shy pop girls and boys, and old menacing-looking men in ponytails – all sweethearts though. 

What better way to view a sky full of stars than from your own tent in the desert? Photo: Brian Vernor

After the show, the aim is to drive back towards Joshua Tree until – in complete darkness – a suitable spot presents itself for overnight camping, outside the park. This is called “dispersed camping” and is allowed on specific parts of public land in the US, within 300 feet of roadways. Falling asleep in pitch black stillness and waking up to the majestic sight of the San Bernardino Mountains is cathartic. 

After breakfast, the GPS is aimed at the classic New Age spot The Integratron, a wooden dome built in 1959 where people pay to experience a “sound bath,” where sounds are produced from quartz bowls in an acoustically perfect sound chamber. Or at least that’s the claim made by the New Age guru-looking man who roams around the premises this morning. But instead of  bathing in sound, visitors can just choose to stroll around the curious, otherworldly building and take a nap in the hammocks.

Photo: Brian Vernon

After 24 hours of dust and desert hippie culture, most people on this weekend jaunt head eagerly for the second leg of the journey – the fabulous, vivacious Palm Springs, south of the park. It’s another type of oasis, but an urban one, characterized by vivid colors, chic boutiques, mid-century modern mini-resorts, LGBTQ culture and party-prone folks – locals and visitors alike. The Ace Hotel and Swim Club is the place where all roads seem to lead, both metaphorically and literally. The fast-expanding center of town here is packed with trendy jet-setter hotels, but if there is – for better or for worse – one hub in the city for all conceivable hip and current culture-correct wants and needs, it’s this. 

The seemingly never-ending lines of trees add to the “otherworldly” nature of the park. Photo: Brian Vernon

But before showering off the desert dust, putting on swimming trunks, covering yourself in sunscreen and ordering an obscure mixologist cocktail, you should stop by the site-specific installation Mirage by multimedia artist Doug Aitken, for one last flash of mind-bending desert art. This was the main attraction at this year’s Desert X, a biannual open air exhibit in Palm Springs and all over Coachella Valley. The exhibit is closed now, but this piece will remain here until winter. And, of all the unusual sights in the area, this might take the prize. To stroll through the rooms in this mirror glass ­villa, looking down at the mountains ­below, is truly a “trip” in every sense of the word. 

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