A bright moon illuminates the sky above the desert in Joshua Tree National… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
It's a dry heat – a boulder-studded, wind-raked Mojave heat, in which rock stars lie low, artists think big, marines train, weird plants jut toward the sun like beseeching biblical figures, and climbers cling to granite walls like insects stuck to flypaper, except the climbers are way happier.
That's a notable thing about Joshua Tree National Park and the towns around it. While legions of Californians keep their faces to the beach, no matter the season, a certain stripe of traveler is powerless to resist the desert, especially in cooler months. They come for the wide-open spaces and quirky lodgings you see in the park-adjacent towns of Joshua Tree and 29 Palms. They come for the bands at Pappy & Harriet's, for the steaming pools of lithium-rich water at Desert Hot Springs or maybe for a sound bath (to be explained soon) at the Integratron in Landers.
Here are 11 micro-itineraries for Joshua Tree and environs, a sprawling area that begins about 110 miles east of Los Angeles City Hall, north of I-10. On another day we'll come back to the desert areas south of I-10, including Palm Springs and its Coachella Valley neighbors.
1. Big rocks, bigger sky
Joshua Tree National Park (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Joshua Tree National Park covers nearly 800,000 acres. No matter the time of year, you'll enjoy it most in the day's first and last hours of light, when the shadows get interesting and temperatures change fast. The Mojave and Colorado deserts collide here, and a few billion rocks demand climbing or observation. There are almost as many cartoonish Joshua trees, which are better admired than climbed.
From the park's west entrance (near the town of Joshua Tree), head to Hidden Valley, a haven for tent-camping, hiking, climbing and scrambling. There's a 1.1-mile looping nature trail to Barker Dam that's great for photography, (still water, stacked boulders) and the neighboring Gunsmoke area is beloved by boulderers. Not far from there is Cap Rock. Back in 1973, a few days after 26-year-old Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose in room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, his friend Phil Kaufman stole the body from authorities and brought it to Cap Rock for a DIY cremation. It didn't go well, and rangers continue to discourage this practice. For a healthier interaction with the landscape, try a class from the Desert Institute (www.joshuatree.org), whose recent offerings have included geology and plein air poetry. Wherever you go, bring water.
2. Downtown Joshua Tree
Pie for the People pizzeria (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Get your first meal at the Crossroads Café (61715 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree) where the bulletin board is liable to mention rock climbers' chalk bags for sale; mercenaries for hire; and any upcoming drum circles. (At least, it did in February.) For a date shake, walk down to Richochet (61705 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree). For gear or a guide, stop at Joshua Tree Outfitters (61707 Twenty-nine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree). There's also pottery shop, a couple of thrift stores and the Joshua Tree Saloon (61835 Twenty-nine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree), which plays a key role during the Joshua Tree Music Festival (May) and the Joshua Tree Roots Music Festival (October). Across the street, there's the Instant Karma Yoga Studio, the Mount Fuji General Store (a hipster boutique) and a pizzeria called Pie for the People pizza. If you like a lodging with a little style and don't need a pool, head for the five-room Spin & Margies Desert Hideaway (64491 29 Palms Highway, Joshua Tree). If you want even higher style (and have more money), there's the Mojave Sands Motel (62121 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree), where owner Blake Simpson has turned a roadside hole-in-the-wall into five room compound with vintage vinyl and a manual typewriter in every room. Though he only opened in 2011 and his bottom price is $200, Simpson hopes to add a pool and bump prices up before the year is over. (Bear in mind also that dozens of Joshua Tree properties are listed on vacation-rental sites like vrbo.com, with widely varying descriptions and prices.)
3. The egg in the boulders
Joshua Tree art. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
There's a growing art scene here, and not just within the walls of the Red Arrow Gallery and Joshua Tree Art Gallery on the main drag. Check out the artists of High Desert Test Sites (6470 Veterans Way, Joshua Tree), who make outdoor works that the desert will transform and reclaim. Like the galleries, the headquarters opens on weekends (Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m.- 3 p.m.) and one work is always accessible. It's along Twentynine Palms Highway 1 mile east of Park Drive, on the boulder-strewn slopes at the end of meandering, unpaved Neptune Road. Up close, you may see that "untitled" by Sarah Vanderlip is made of welded aluminum, but from a distance, it gleams like a silvery egg, possibly dropped by a titanium dinosaur.
4. Pappy & Harriet's