For the past two years, my Instagram feed has been bombarded with sunny photos of friends posing alongside majestic Joshua trees, massive rock formations, pretty cacti, winding single-road highways and Western-themed saloons. It’s proof that the current SoCal millennial staycation destination is the desert, specifically off Route 62 (a.k.a. Twentynine Palms Highway). A High Desert road trip is an easy two-hour drive from Orange County— if you depart at a strategic time to bypass the 91, of course—so go explore this wildly popular escape from the soul-sucking dregs of metropolitan life.
Just off Route 62 is a scenic 4-mile trek along Pioneertown Road, which winds past grand red-rock mountains and Joshua trees. On the horizon, a mock Old West town with frontier stables and saloons greets you. Pioneertown—founded in 1946 by a group of Hollywood investors such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry—is where more than 50 Westerns were filmed throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Now, the rustic yet slightly bizarre four blocks of town are home to peculiar locals selling souvenirs, hand-crafted saddles, dream catchers and New Age art to tourists who are likely drunk and stuffed from the barbecue feasts and stiff drinks just down Mane Street (pun intended) at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace (53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown, 760-365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com). With an intimate stage that has hosted everyone from Paul McCartney and Robert Plant to modern indie heavyweights Lorde, Mac Demarco, Arctic Monkeys and Queens of the Stone Age, it’s not only the best place to devour Santa Maria-style barbecue and ice-cold beers in the High Desert, but it’s an essential music venue, too.
A trip to Pioneertown also requires a stop at Desert Christ Park (56200 Sunnyslope Dr., Yucca Valley; www.desertchristpark.org). Dedicated on Easter Sunday in 1951, the park was the vision of Eddie Garver, known at the time as “Desert Parson,” and was built by artist/sculptor Frank Antone Martin. Whether or not you’re religious, the more than 40 giant, white, concrete statues portraying Jesus and scenes from the Bible perched on a mountain overlooking a punishing landscape is an impressive sight. Some of the statues have lost limbs to time, which adds a creepy, avant-garde appeal to the park’s already-weird aesthetic.
Route 62 also acts as a sort of multicity Main Street thanks to an abundance of hip cafés, bars, eateries, antique shops, bookstores, thrift/vintage shops and art galleries begging for touristy love. The ultimate flea market in Yucca Valley is the Sky Village Outdoor Marketplace (7028 Theatre Rd., Yucca Valley, 760-365-2104; www.skyvillageswapmeet.com). This quirky and grand establishment hosts 7 acres of art, beautiful gardens, great food and local vendors peddling rare treasures every weekend. Make sure to check out the Crystal Cave while you’re here, which offers an intimate space showcasing thousands of crystals arranged by hand while the gentle sounds of running water create a peaceful and serene setting for the soul.
The best karaoke bar in Joshua Tree is the Joshua Tree Saloon (61835 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree, 760-366-2250; www.thejoshuatreesaloon.com). Staying true to its name, it offers an 1880s vibe along with gluttonous burgers, steaks, barbecue ribs and ice-cold beers on tap. Shoot some pool or throw some darts as a crowd of locals and tourists take the stage to drunkenly showcase their vocal talents—or lack thereof.
Or go natural with The Natural Sisters Café (61695 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree, 760-366-3600; www.thenaturalsisterscafe.com). Its outdoor patio is a neat spot to sit down with freshly squeezed juices and smoothies, which pair well with its organic and vegan menu options, and take in the mellow bustle of Twentynine Palms Highway and the grand mountain ranges in the distance.
The ultimate destination, of course, is Joshua Tree National Park (74485 National Park Dr., Twentynine Palms; Instagram: @joshuatreenps). With nearly 800,000 acres, nine campgrounds and about 500 campsites, it hosts plenty of opportunities to go off the grid and put your camping or glamping skills to the test. After a day’s worth of hiking, jumbo rock climbing, oasis strolling, animal watching and other adventures, make sure to lie down and gaze at the starry night to fully experience the park’s signature beauty. Just last year, Joshua Tree National Park received more than 2.5 million visitors, a record amount—further proof that the High Desert is one of the [take your pick of heat clichés] destinations right now.