Travel

Find the Weird, Wild West in Joshua Tree

Your guide to SoCal's most eccentric desert town.

Unsplash/Steven Wright
Unsplash/Steven Wright
Unsplash/Steven Wright

There’s an artist community in Southern California’s High Desert that’s yet to be overrun with tourists and would-be influencers. There are no overcrowded chain restaurants, no orchestrated “Instagrammable moments,” no garish attractions screaming at you in neon, and really, no obvious attempt at tourism infrastructure-despite being 10 minutes from a national park.

This might not always be the case. But for now, Joshua Tree remains one of the last remaining vestiges of SoCal’s boho desert culture. Star-splattered skies, peaceful seclusion, and the Mojave Desert’s bizarro landscapes draws creative types from all over the country-especially Las Angeles, just a two hours away.

“I think it’s the last Wild West; there are still places where you can hike and drive and see no one for a very long time,” says photographer Rose Cefalu. “I think that, along with the beauty of the landscape and eternal skies, is a draw for free thinkers and artists. There is a thriving community here of artisans, craftspeople, and builders doing such great work.”

If you’re a fan of national parks, stargazing, weird contemporary art, and Old West vibes, Joshua Tree is truly a desert oasis. Here’s the 411 on things to do, places to eat, where to stay, and how to get weird when you’re in town.

Photo courtesy of Airbnb
Photo courtesy of Airbnb
Photo courtesy of Airbnb

Check into an otherworldly desert Airbnb

The Airbnb game in Joshua Tree is strong. The towns surrounding the national park (especially Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms) have become a hotbed of wildly photogenic accommodations in recent years as the community has grown with artists and design types.

Stays are about as eye-catching and out-there as you might expect. For example, you can stay in a UFO, or an oasis with a hot tub, or a farmhouse with over 100 Joshua trees on the property. Reservations fly like hot cakes around here, with properties booking up months-sometimes years-in advance. Book early, especially if you’re visiting during the park’s busy season (January through April).

Hit Joshua Tree National Park (duh)

Well, we obviously didn’t expect you to come all this way and not visit the park. Named for the special variety of yucca trees that blankets this 800,000 acre expanse, Joshua Tree is one of the most beloved national parks in the country. Spread across two desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, the park is full of dusty trails and geological oddities like colossal rock formations, desert wildflowers, and the endemic Joshua tree-an otherworldly playground for climbers, hikers, Instagrammers, rock nerds, and your friendly neighborhood hippie alike.

Promote peace, love, and good food

The only real giveaway that Joshua Tree is just minutes from a major national park is the growing line of tourists at the Old West-style Crossroads Café on weekend mornings. They serve hearty, rib-sticking classics; for something a bit lighter, around the corner there’s Natural Sisters Café, serving up organic and vegan comfort food. You can’t go wrong with the bar fare at Joshua Tree Saloon, and across the street, there’s local coffee roaster Joshua Tree Coffee Company and more no-frills, diner-style brunch at Country Kitchen.  

Down the road you’ll find Pie for the People, a craft New York-style pizzeria seemingly teleported to the desert from the East Coast. And in Yucca Valley, Frontier Café dishes out some damn fine BLTs and sammies. 

Also of note: La Copine for French-inspired California cuisine and Giant Rock Meeting Room for pizza with a patio. Wine & Rock Shop will cater to all your wine and beer needs (plus crystals and other delightful surprises). 

BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock
BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock
BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock

Wet your whistle at the local saloon

At first glance, Pioneertown seems more like a movie set than a real place. And that’s because it is! Built in the late 1940s as a full-scale backdrop for Old Westerns, today it’s home to places like the Pioneertown Motel, the Escape recording studio, and the legendary honky tonk Pappy & Harriet’s

Pappy & Harriet’s dishes up some serious barbecue, but it’s even better known as one of the most storied music venues in the country. You can catch huge national acts here, from Lizzo to Paul McCartney, especially during the Coachella Festival. But according to co-owner Robyn Celia, some of the most memorable nights take place on just a regular old weekend when small local acts pop in to play under the stars. Lines are long, but the desert gods smile upon the patient.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Joshua Tree Saloon, all decked out in weathered corrugated metal-a defining feature of many buildings along this stretch of desert highway-is another killer spot for live music, open mic nights, and karaoke (in non-COVID times). They’ve got a surprisingly wide food selection, but they’re best known for their burgers.

And for a more chilled-out evening, Sarah Combs, who runs the local Joshua Tree House, recommends Smith’s Ranch Drive-In in Twentynine Palms on the north side of the park. “We love going there on warm summer nights with a picnic to catch a movie with friends. Plus, it’s only $5!” 

Flickr/Los Paseos
Flickr/Los Paseos
Flickr/Los Paseos

Get weird with Joshua Tree’s art scene

This is an artists’ town, but there’s way more to it than well-decorated Airbnbs and vegan-friendly eateries. “There is a very active group of people, artists primarily, that have come here from the city to establish their own community and are invested in trying to keep it interesting and unique,” explains Brian Smirke.

So where can you catch the creative vibes firsthand? There’s the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, a free outdoor collection of large “found folk-art assemblages” (aka junk sculptures). The World Famous Crochet Museum, which is free and open 24/7, features a huge collection of crocheted animals in a former one-hour Fotomat booth. There is also the *deep breath* Scott Lloyd Doten ShangriLa Studio and Joshua Tree Drive-In Alien Invasion, a car museum-meets-art installation depicting a 1950s drive-in being invaded by aliens.

Keep an eye out for the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum, a collection of  vintage salon chairs, beauty products, and antique styling tools, all displayed in pastel trailers down a dirt road off of Twentynine Palms. Make an appointment first with the “hairstorian” owner-while you’re at it, you can get your hair done at the very real home salon.

Flickr/Eric Allix Rogers
Flickr/Eric Allix Rogers
Flickr/Eric Allix Rogers

Oh, and there’s Furstwurld by artist Bobby Furst, with even more found art installations (and spaceships) where they also hold concerts, film screenings, and parties. You can also go sound bathing at the Integratron-described as “a resonant tabernacle and energy machine sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex”-in nearby Landers. (It’s one of those things you’ve really have to see to believe.)

There’s plenty more art and oddness to be found around Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. Drive south a bit to Bombay Beach, a tiny washed up town that lies along the Salton Sea that’s littered with large-scale, abstract installations like The Bombay Beach Drive-In , which kinda looks like a post-apocalyptic drive-in movie theater. From there you can also visit Salvation Mountain and Slab City.

Spend your money on stuff you can’t find outside of Joshua Tree

On Saturday mornings, the Joshua Tree Certified Farmers’ Market sets up alongside the town’s “Turtle Island” and the absolutely iconic Murtle the Turtle sculpture. The market runs year-round and supports local farmers, artists, and sustainable farming practices. Inside the adjacent strip malls, you’ll find funky independent businesses like Instant Karma, a yoga studio that jives more with the town’s ’70s hippie vibe than anything remotely resembling the modern millennial “wellness” trend, and the Grateful Desert Herb Shoppe and EcoMarket, which, ditto.

The Yucca Valley writ large is an antiquer’s dream, with endless galleries and secondhand shops up and down the main drag. The End sells one-off vintage finds as well as work from local artisans, while the Coyote Corner gift shop near the national park is perfect for kitschy souvenirs. The Pioneertown General Store also has a carefully curated collection of ‘zines, textiles, and vintage goods-but, again, the most valuable souvenir here is probably a night well-spent at Pappy & Harriet’s.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Nicole Rupersburg is a contributor for Thrillist. 

Tiana Attride contributed to reporting for this article.

Travel

8 Suburbs Near Phoenix You Should Absolutely Visit

You could use a little space.

Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ

Phoenix is pretty great. There’s the burgeoning culinary scene, the diverse culture, the arts, of course, the sports, the great outdoors, and don’t forget about the more than 300 days of annual sunshine. We could really go on, and on, about how great this place is, but all of that greatness can blind you to all the excellence just outside it. The suburbs across The Valley are not to be missed. To encourage you to actually explore them, here’s what the best of ‘em have to offer.

Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism

Tempe

Notably, Tempe is recognized as home to one of the largest universities in the country, Arizona State. But this Phoenix suburb is so much more than a college town, although it does add to its undeniable magic. Downtown Tempe plays hosts to epic arts festivals, dragon boat races, marathons and triathlons, and dozens of other events that all take place a short-distance from Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile long perennial reservoir and urban park that attracts cylicts, rowers, and active types. Break a sweat with a hike to the top of A Mountain and take in a panoramic sunset view. Or, just belly-up to the bar at one of Tempe’s innumerable craft breweries. Both are solid choices. And both can get you acquainted with this laidback Phoenix suburb.

Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho

Scottsdale

Nearly half of Scottsdale’s land area is dedicated to open spaces and untamed desert. Outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, road cycling, horseback riding, and kayaking reign supreme here, and the city certainly leans toward an active, wellness-centered lifestyle. And while there’s no shortage of desert to explore, Scottsdale also claims some of the best spas in the world, award-winning restaurants, world-class golf courses, it’s the center stage for major events like luxury car auctions and sporting events, and it’s even got a bustling arts scene. This Phoenix suburb checks all of the boxes, really.

Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert

Gilbert

Not too long ago Gilbert was a sort of sleepy, far-away farm town. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Gilbert has grown exponentially, but its agricultural roots are still readily present in its personality and charm. Downtown Gilbert is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which have a local, farm-to-table approach, naturally. And then there’s Agritopia, a friendly neighborhood with its very own shared garden and community spaces that include Epicenter and BARNONE, where you can order a wood-fired pizza, a can of experimental natural wine, and camp out under a canopy of trees in the open-air. It’s practically a utopia.

Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography

Cave Creek

A gateway to Horseshoe and Bartlett Lakes, Cave Creek’s position on the outskirts of Tonto National Forest makes it a primo spot for outdoor activities like biking and hiking and adventure by way of air balloon or horseback. Modern cowboys and gals can mosey over to The Buffalo Chip Saloon where bull riding and swing dancing are just part of a typical day. Additionally, Cave Creek has its own botanical garden, raptor rescue, and a gallery packed with person-sized crystals. And it’s all yours to discover.

Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr

Mesa

Point your GPS east and you’ll arrive in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. Whether you’re after outdoor adventure, looking to explore the arts and culture scene, or searching for locally made ciders and craft beer, Mesa has it all. There’s a hip, growing downtown area lined with storefronts, restaurants, theaters, and tasting rooms. And if you’re game for a little outdoor recreation, Mesa is your jumping-off point to scenic Sonoran Desert trails including Usery Mountain Regional Park, Lost Dutchman State Park, and San Tan Regional Park. Mesa is also just a short distance from The Salt River where you can cruise by wild horses and native wildlife via paddle board and Saguaro Lake is just up the road.

Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills

Fountain Hills

At the center of this Phoenix suburb is an expansive urban park and monumental water fountain that tops out at 560-feet. The fountain in Fountain Hills is larger than the Washington Monument, and it’s three times as high as Old Faithful. Pack a picnic and spread out in the park for an afternoon where you can traverse the walkable paths, cycle around the waterway, or play a competitive bout of frisbee golf. If you swing more towards traditional golf, there’s a shortlist of premier golf courses to tee-off at. And like many of the Phoenix suburbs here, Fountain Hills is surrounded by wide-open desert and scenic vistas just waiting to be explored.

Camelback Ranch - Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale

Glendale

Arizona sports teams including the Coyotes and Cardinals have home turf advantage in Glendale. Over the years Glendale has hosted three Super Bowl bouts and will host another in 2023. But Glendale’s not just a sports mecca for fans of professional football and hockey. This Phoenix suburb is homebase to Camelback Ranch, a modern ballpark with all the amenities where the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field each season as part of Cactus League Spring Training. Take your time in Glendale into extra innings and visit Historic Old Town Glendale. Here you’ll encounter eclectic antique and vintage stores, restaurants, candy shops, and coffee houses.

Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery

Chandler 

Museums, urban parks, art galleries, and growing neighborhoods like Uptown Chandler and Downtown Chandler give this Phoenix suburb lots of appeal. Rows of palm trees line the Downtown area where you can start your day with a locally roasted coffee and organic breakfast bowl. Downtown Chandler regularly hosts community-focused events and it’s a popular hangout for craft beer drinkers. SanTan Brewery, Pedal Haus, and The Perch, with 40 beers on tap and tropical birds at every turn, all call this Phoenix suburb home.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based multimedia storyteller, photographer, and content creator. Her work has been featured in travel guides, national publications, and the social feeds of some stellar local restaurants. Follow her around Arizona, and beyond, on Instagram @hungryinphoenix.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.
icons/states/check

Please enter a valid email address