Maggie Grimason’s guide to Joshua Tree and other High Desert towns, a deeply weird region where art, energies, and aliens are as commonplace as tie-dye and scrub oak.
Field Report: Joshua Tree (and surrounding High Desert towns, California)
Elevation: 2,736 feet
Population: 7,581 (as of 2020)
Named for: The endemic Joshua Tree—which is actually a succulent, not a tree.
In this southerly stretch of the Mojave Desert, creosote bushes crouch in miles-long basins punctuated by the occasional twisted Joshua Tree. Stony, parched mountains rise on the periphery, remnants of an ancient seabed. And then, materializing as if out of nowhere like a mirage, low-slung buildings—mud-colored and pressed into the dusty terrain—pop up.
Joshua Tree’s commercial center—several strips of shops, a health food store, cafes, a few liquor stores, and the Joshua Tree Saloon—would flash by if the speed limit didn’t slow to forty miles per hour on Twentynine Palms Highway as it cuts through town. The city is edged by the national park, one of the nation’s most trafficked.
Taken as a whole, the region in the Morongo Basin including Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Landers, Pioneertown, Morongo Valley, and Wonder Valley is known as the High Desert—cities and towns roughly above 2,000 feet in elevation within San Bernardino County. These are my notes on my own exploration of the High Desert, and suggestions for yours.
Arts + Culture
A hair north of Joshua Tree National Park is A-Z West, the experiment/studio/”testing ground for living,” as artist Andrea Zittel puts it. Across eighty acres of desert, life—and how it is organized—plays out and is tested. There’s studio space for weaving, woodworking, and ceramics. There’s also an encampment that welcomes artists, writers, and thinkers of all stripes for residencies, large-scale outdoor artworks, and more, all ever-evolving. It is also Zittel’s private residence. Visiting A-Z West is possible only via one of their monthly tours, but it is well worth planning ahead for.
Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum
Noah Purifoy called his work “environmental sculptures,” many of which—mostly created on-site—are now on display as part of the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum. Purifoy worked in found objects and strongly believed in art’s place in social change. The sculptures were created in the last fifteen years of Purifoy’s life when he relocated to the desert from L.A. Free and open to the public from sunup to sundown, take yourself on a tour of this desert outpost, but be sure to leave yourself plenty of daylight to wander the expansive ten acres of assemblage.
Krblin Jihn Cabin
The Krblin Jihn Cabin seems to be exactly like any other abandoned house on the mesa—its plaster is flaking and bits mingle with sand, and words are scrawled on any walls still standing. But look closer and a narrative starts to take shape about a group of exiles homesteading in the Mojave. This cabin is part of artist Eames Demetrios’s global, three-dimensional parallel-universe storytelling project, Kcymaerxthaere, which tells the tale of the Wranglikan people. A few interpretative signs outline sacred geometries and the Wranglikan way of life, but otherwise the place and its history is obscure. While I went there on purpose, the cabin felt like an accidental discovery, a lonely, half-forgotten outpost telling a story fading into the past—which is, perhaps, the intended effect.
Glass Outhouse Art Gallery
On the far east side of Twentynine Palms, “about two miles from where you drop off the edge of the world,” as proprietor Laurel Seidl put it, is the Glass Outhouse Art Gallery. Is there a glass outhouse? Yes. Built with one-way mirrors and from its fully functional interior, you can look out at the Pinto Mountains and the lonely mesas that sit at their feet, watching other visitors stroll and Seidl’s dog, Taffy, trot behind. All with your pants down. In two main buildings, formerly barns where Seidl and her husband raised rabbits, are galleries that highlight both local and national work with dedicated wall space for young artists. At this particular time a twelve-year-old was showing manga-inspired pencil drawings. Seidl is a painter who, when she couldn’t find a gallery to show her work locally, decided to create her own. “They said a woman way out here couldn’t do it,” she told me. “I said, ‘watch me.’” The gallery also has a tiny chapel and miles of sculpture and whimsy. Count it as a must-see.
Sky Village Swap Meet
Across seven acres of folding tables piled high with wares and wooden cabanas where vintage fabrics flutter in the breeze, every walk of life mingles in a beautiful weekend convocation. “It’s my church,” as my friend Abbey describes it. Furniture, car parts, art objects, cowboy boots, and an assortment of appliances—basically anything you might need, even a stack of pancakes served up by the Sky Village Cafe—is here. All you have to do is show up and do a little searching, which, like every spiritual practice, is kind of the point.
Built with Venusian schematics telepathically delivered to him at nearby Giant Rock (one of the largest boulders in the world), George Van Tassel’s Integratron isn’t just a structure, it is a world unto itself, complete with its own strange gravity. Van Tassel was an engineer, ufologist, and associate of Howard Hughes who built a makeshift airport in the dry lakebed at Giant Rock, which eventually became the landing site for the alien visitors that shared the plans to the Integratron. The structure—a large white dome, built only with wood and glue, no nails—is now billed as an “acoustically perfect” space, where quartz singing bowls are amplified by intersecting ley lines underground. The Integratron was never fully realized and after Van Tassel’s death the plans for the structure disappeared, adding another mysterious element to the place. While you can visit the grounds during regular hours, book a sound bath in advance to see the interiors.
Between Landers and Pioneertown, La Copine (French for “girlfriend”) operates out of a lightly rehabbed former roadside diner and feels like a proper desert oasis. Simple, seasonal fare done well, served alongside creative cocktails (think lychee mixers, lots of bitters, sparkling wines), act as the main attraction. Sit outside and watch the crowd—everyone from climbing bros to New York City-type couples in matching monochrome and round glasses—or snag a table in the simple, laidback indoor space for a cozier time. I spent a sunny afternoon camped under the outdoor shade structures with small plates and good conversation, concluding with the best rice pudding of my life, pepitas sprinkled on top. A place for both respite and reinvigoration.
Pappy & Harriet’s
A High Desert institution, Pappy & Harriet’s is a hub for locals and visitors alike. Built into what was once the set for an old-timey saloon in motion pictures, it’s been the main place for food, drink, and music in the area since 1982. Name your favorite musician and they’ve likely played a set here. Check out their calendar and buy tickets for shows well in advance since they often sell out. Or just call ahead and make a reservation for lunch or dinner. Have a drink, dance. The place is legendary.
Joshua Tree Inn
Everywhere I visit, I’m looking for a good haunting. I was hard-pressed to discover a ghost tour or much by way of ghost stories in Joshua Tree, but what I did find was the lore of room eight at the elsewise unassuming Joshua Tree Inn. In 1973, this was the place where alt-country legend Gram Parsons, then twenty-six years old, succumbed to a miscalculated dose of drugs and alcohol. Radios blaring country in the middle of the night, inexplicable slamming doors, and the rattling of the mirror that hangs in the room—the very same one that decked the room during Parsons’s stay—are experiences travelers often walk away with. A lot more are struck by inspiration, as the hotel advertises: “bring your guitar.”
29 Palms Inn
Cute bungalows and adobe buildings, some in the ballpark of 100 years old, are arranged around the Oasis of Mara—a water source first settled by the Serrano, who planted the first palm trees in the area. The Inn, owned by the same family for five generations, not only provides travelers a place to rest, but also a two-acre farm to wander (where food for their restaurant is grown) and a tranquil pond that makes for an attractive stopover for many species of birds, which guides will help you identify on weekend tours. If you’re more of an indoor cat, the on-site 29 Palms Creative Center & Gallery offers an opportunity to make Mojave-inspired paintings, collage, ceramics, and more during daily workshops.
Everyone is either from L.A. or owns a bumper sticker that says “Go Back to L.A.” No hostility detected at surface-level, however.
Generally, I’d say whenever t-shirts and totes that read “Keep [Insert Your City Here] Weird” arrive in town, it’s already too late. However, despite at least one glaring mural with giant “Keep Mojave Weird” text, Joshua Tree and the High Desert are still weird. Unchangeably weird. No influx of money or people from L.A. seem able to change that.