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Southern California Close-Ups: Joshua Tree National Park and Desert Hot Springs

Joshua Tree and environs offer camping, hiking, unusual sites (the famed Integratron), hotels, restaurants, watering holes and spas, where you can take a well-deserved soak.

March 25, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Pioneertown (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Pioneertown, up on a plateau about five miles north of Yucca Valley, was built in the 1940s as a TV and movie set. Some decades later, along came Pappy and Harriet's Pioneer Town Palace (53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown), a roadhouse with live music that has become a desert institution. Somehow, Pappy's gently blends desert-rat locals with escaped city slickers and lures performers you'd never expect in the middle of nowhere. The Pioneertown Motel is right next door. Or, If you're okay for the drive back to Joshua tree, there's the 10-room Joshua Tree Inn ( 61259 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree), where you can have room 8 (the Gram Parsons death room) for $109. It's got a pool and a shrine to Parsons.

5. The Integratron

The Integratron (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

You're either up for The Integratron (2477 Belfield, Blvd., Landers) or you're not. It stands about 20 minutes' drive north of Joshua Tree, a white wooden dome, 38 feet high and 55 feet in diameter, built in the 1950s, '60s and '70s by renegade aeronautical engineer George Van Tassel (who died in 1978). Van Tassel wanted to contact other worlds. In his absence, a trio of sisters has taken ownership and the building has a new life as a place for meditating, or playing music or just climbing the ladder to the upper chamber, curling up on a blanket and listening for half an hour to hear somebody coaxing eerie, powerfully resonant sounds from a series of quartz bowls. "I call it kindergarten nap time of the third kind," says co-owner Joanne Karl. But the sign outside says "sound bath." To bathe alone is $80, by reservation. But two weekends per month, you can join a public sound bath at noon for $15. The sound, bouncing off the rounded walls and trembling through the Douglas fir floorboards, is mesmerizing. Karl estimates that a third of her customers are musicians.

6. The 29 Palms Inn and the town's murals

Twentynine Palms (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

The city of 29 Palms stands at the northern entrance to the national park, its population of 30,000 dominated by the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, which readies marines for service overseas. Since the early 1990s, town boosters have bankrolled the painting of about two-dozen historic murals, so as you roll past all the barbershops in town (marine cuts a specialty), you'll notice a lot of history in living color. For another sort of color, the 29 Palms Inn (73950 Inn Ave., 29 Palms) is a prime haven. The family-run inn, whose rooms, bungalows and cabins are scattered over 70 acres near the park entrance, goes back to the 1920s. If you can swing it, rent Irene's Historic Adobe, which went up in the '30s and has a master bedroom, a bunkroom, kitchen, living room with fireplace and a big private courtyard.

7. Stony haven

Roughley Manor (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

In a territory dominated by stray boulders, why is it so surprising to find a house with stone walls? Maybe it's because Roughley Manor (74744 Joe Davis Dr., 29 Palms), which goes back to 1928, is three stories high and surrounded by equally tall trees. This is a good spot for families, its 25 acres set apart from the rest of town, the grounds including a pool, grassy areas, two suites in the main house and five cottages. While the J-tree hoteliers court the young and trendy, Roughley Manor's resident owners cater to scrapbooking groups. When your book's done, it's a short drive to Smith's Ranch Drive-In Movie Theatre (4584 Adobe Road, 29 Palms), which still screens movies on Thursday through Sunday nights.

8. Damp and shady at last

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

After you've zoomed down the hill from Joshua Tree but before you reach the windmill forest at the entrance to the Coachella Valley, you reach Big Morongo Canyon Preserve (11055 East Drive., Morongo Valley), where boardwalk trails trace paths past riparian brush and desert willows. More than 250 bird species have been recorded in the area. When you're done, hop across the highway for grub at Willie Boy's Saloon & Dance Hall (50048 29 Palms Highway, Morongo Valley).

9. When the time is right, Two Bunch Palms

Two Bunch Palms (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

If you saw Tim Robbins take a mud bath in "The Player" (1992), you've seen Two Bunch Palms (67425 Two Bunch Palms Trail, Desert Hot Springs). Set on 56 acres and shaded by palms and tamarisks, this 52-room resort goes back to the earliest days of Desert Hot Springs. It also has a new set of owners -- which is good, because many guests have complained for years about the property's deterioration. Fortunately, the makings of a great retreat are still here, beginning with the stonework and grotto area that is the heart of the resort. Once those new owners have renovated some rooms, get one near the grotto.

10. The pueblo and the spas

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