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In creating its Grammy-award winning, smash album Joshua Tree in 1987, Irish rock band U2 was partly inspired by great American landscapes like the nearly 800,000 acre National Park for which the album was eventually named. As thousands of fans snatch up tickets for the 30th anniversary tour kicking off May 12 in Vancouver and wrapping July 1 in Cleveland (seats are selling like hotcakes, but you can still snatch them up right here on CheapTickets), we decided to take a second look at the California desert that so inspired this classic rock album.

The high desert surrounding Joshua Tree National Park is a dusty, sun-scorched wonderland filled with innumerable treasures scattered across some half dozen ragtag towns and communities populated with drifters, dreamers and off-the-grid types. Whereas Palm Springs (about an hour away) used to be the natural starting point for high desert explorations, these days savvy travelers are skipping that sun-drenched mecca in favor of lodgings closer to the action. Here is your ultimate guide to Joshua Tree National Park and the High Desert.

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La Copine

Photo courtesy of @liselrenee

Wondering where Hollywood types go for a meal en route to Joshua Tree? The answer is La Copine, an absurdly good brunch cafe that opened in 2014 and has become the talk of the town—as in Los Angeles—thanks to the couple who ditched the city in favor of expansive vistas and starry nights. La Copine (French for girlfriend) looks like an eatery cut out of the West Village and rewoven into the desert landscape. Everything is completely amazing, but definitely order the beignets and the B-E-C breakfast sandwich.



Flickr CC: Christopher Michel 

A quick survey of Landers, California reveals little more than dirt roads and ranch-style homes (near to Landers is Giant Rock, believed to be the largest free-standing boulder in the world). But a closer inspection of the land reveals a giant white bubble known as the Integratron, an all wooden, acoustically perfect mushroom structure resembling a UFO. It was constructed in the ’50s by ufologist George Van Tassel (and partly financed by Howard Hughes). These days visitors can book meditative “sound baths.” Book in advance; closed in January.


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Photo courtesy of the Pioneertown Motel

What looks like an old mining town that was gutted, rehabbed and turned into a tourist attraction probably wishes it had a history that interesting. Pioneertown was actually built by Hollywood legends, including Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, in 1946 as a movie stand in for a Wild West town. These days it’s back in fashion in a big way thanks to the Pioneertown Motel, a desert crashpad and hangout whose buzz of late has been deafening. Artists have turned several of the old storefronts into galleries and definitely don’t miss Pappy & Harriet’s, a honkytonk-like tavern and local fixture with booze served in mason jars alongside decent food. Paul McCartney once played a concert here.

Desert Hot Springs

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Photo courtesy of the Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel

Tucked between Palm Springs, Joshua Tree and the Morongo Native American Reservation is this mineral spa town which boomed midcentury and whose many spa resorts still attract visitors to this day. There are some fancy digs in town to be sure, but our favorite is the kitschy cool Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel. Howard Johnson’s-like in appearance, we are nevertheless gaga for its multiple pools heated to varying temps and for the fact that you can swing through for a few hours using a visitor’s day pass.

Joshua Tree National Park

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Where to begin? Joshua Tree National Park is a sparse desert wonderland that’s larger than the state of Rhode Island and whose natural bounty is without limits. We’ve climbed its giant boulders, trotted alongside wild coyotes and marveled at its spiky namesake trees and still we’re never bored here. Some attractions, like the Lost Horse Mine, require a four-mile hike, but lower hanging fruit like the breathtaking Cholla Cactus Garden is a must see as are drive-by attractions like creepy Skull Rock and the Hall of Horrors.

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Noah Purifoy Foundation

Noah Purifoy Foundation.jpg

Flickr CC: Rosa Menkman

A strong believer in the found object as work of art and also of art as a pathway to social change, Alabama-bred and Los Angeles-based artist Noah Purifoy ditched the city late in life in favor of a ten-acre desert canvas upon which he constructed many large scale works of art made of household objects. Purifoy passed away in 2004, but his desert homestead is open to the public and a fascinating place to spend an hour wandering around. The welcome sign is among our favorites, but so is the massive toilet sculpture (you’ll know it when you see it).

Hi-Desert Nature Museum

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Flickr CC: Caitlyn Willows

We consider Joshua Tree National Park to be the ultimate nature museum, but if it’s further explorations you seek, this is a fine place to start. This kid-friendly museum includes natural history dioramas, a gem and mineral collection, a miniature zoo, Native American artifacts, and a fossil collection. It also examines the impact of Western settlers in the area including a collection of mining tools, Howard Pierce pottery, a Victoria-era collection of miniature paintings on ivory and so much more.

Desert Christ Park

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Flickr CC: Manda

Why the desert is a mecca for art oddities we’ll never know, but this sprawling park space on the fringes of Yucca Valley showcases an array of steel reinforced concrete sculptures depicting various scenes in the life of Jesus, including blessing children, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, the tomb of Christ and his ascension. Note: The park is free and open to the public but also butts up against nearby Evangelical Free Church so be respectful of policies regarding access and viewing.


Tagged: California, Food & drink

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