Travel Thursday: Joshua Tree and the California Desert Will Give You Life
For the nature-lover in you, here’s a travel destination that will get you outdoors, re-energized, and leave you in a dream state wanting to go back. You won’t believe what a visit to the Mojave or Colorado deserts in California can do for clarity and relaxation. If you’re not a fan of the outdoors, you may just fall in love because if you love museums and architecture, you’ll find it in the natural and raw beauty all around you.
I took a trip with some friends to explore some of the greatest places to visit when traveling through the Mojave and Colorado Desert. As a native Californian, I made it a point to get to know my own backyard more often and now I can’t get enough. So after trolling Instagram for months, we decided to get our stuff together and experience what it’s like to be gay and fabulous in the outdoors--since we all work so damn much and never get any California sun! We were also searching for some much needed spiritual restoration so what better place to do this than in the great outdoors.
During our trip, we camped for a couple of nights and rented a house for the rest so that we could get the full experience. If you’re cool with seedy roadside motels the likes of a horror movie, by all means, but you won’t find a Ritz Carlton anywhere near here, girls. If you’re not camping, or glamping, I suggest seeking out an Airbnb or misterb&b that will meet your needs. It’s the desert, so you should be able to find some great places that provide full use and even allow for large groups if you’re making it a boys’ trip.
Here are some places you won’t want to miss on your journey through some of California’s beautiful deserts.
Joshua Tree National Forest is a surreal landscape of large boulders and formations adorned by acres and acres of Cholla Cactus and Yucca brevifolia AKA the Joshua Tree. As you drive into Joshua Tree area you begin to see evidence that the typical California landscape you might be familiar with is quickly melting into a magical terrain.
Joshua Tree is known for their hiking, rock climbing, and spectacular views of the night sky when all you can hear is the coyotes. People venture from hundreds to thousands of miles away to get to know the majestic boulders and native flora as they camp in the wilderness. At some of the highest levels of the hiking trails, you can see views of the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, the Salton Sea (I’ll come back to this), and the Santa Rosa Mountains. If you’re looking to experience Joshua Tree under the stars, like we did for a couple of nights, you can visit the campgrounds section of their website for optimal times for camping and to make a reservation. I highly recommend making a reservation!
While in Joshua Tree, you have to visit Skull Rock! It is one of the highlights of the national park. Visitors walk up to a large boulder that has been affected by eroded granite due to centuries of rain. This effect created two large hollowed-out eye sockets that make the rock look like a skull. It makes for great Instagram shots if you’re into that! But beware of the crowds of people who are just doing it for the gram. Skull Rock is located along the main east-west park road and can be accessed from the Jumbo Rocks Campground across from the amphitheater.
Whether you are staying a few days or visiting for the day, Joshua Tree will definitely make you feel alive again. It’s like nothing I have ever seen and the millions who visit every year would probably agree. It’s great to wake up early enough that you see the sunrise as the bird calls give you the strength to take that morning walk through wild flowers. With every outdoor experience, watch out for animals like snakes and coyotes, but in the case of Joshua Tree, you’ll probably be the only bear there.
Another destination while on our trip to through the California deserts was a spiritual awakening at the Integratron. This hot spot is located about 20 miles north of Joshua Tree. You may have seen this desert phenomenon on No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain or heard about it on podcasts like Throwing Shade, but nothing can prepare you for the Zen experience you will have when venturing to Landers, California in search of this unique structure.
The Integratron is a one-of-a-kind wood dome that is 38 feet high and 55 feet in diameter. It was designed by George Van Tassel based on the design of Moses’ Tabernacle and the writing of Nikola Tesla—and get this, he also got telepathic directions from extraterrestrials. Unfortunately, he died before the completion of the structure so now the dome serves as an electrostatic generator used for sound baths that rejuvenate and even mentally teleport.
First of all, if you want to go there, you HAVE to make a reservation. The Integratron is only available certain times out of the year, so you have to see when slots become available and snag them before there are none left. It’s THAT popular! When visiting the Integratron you really have to allow yourself to be immersed in the moment. Leave all baggage, pre-conceived notions, and inhibitions outside and step into what I felt was a mystical energy.
Once inside, visitors are asked to lay on bends on the floor facing upward as they practice breathing in preparation for meditation. Then a guide commences 25 minutes of playing quartz crystal bowls that transport you into the deepest parts of your mind. I was feeling colors, reds and purples, and couldn’t tell if I was awake or asleep…and I wasn’t even high.
The acoustics of the infrastructure in combination with the humming of the quartz bowls helps to realign your chakras and brings you to a very serene mental and spiritual state. Again, let your skepticism go and just be in the moment—your body and mind will thank you.
After your sound bath, there is hammock sanctuary where you can continue to relax and enjoy the calming desert breeze.
Pioneertown and Pappy & Harriet's
If you’re a film buff or you love old Hollywood history like me, Pioneertown will probably be the best known secret you’ve never heard of. In the 1940s, a group of Hollywood investors created Pioneertown as a Hollywood Old West set that was a premiere location for film and television during the 40s and 50s.
The site is located in Yucca Valley off of Route 62 which offers a very scenic drive that provides the classic California desert landscape as a backdrop. Now, Pioneertown remains a stretch of buildings that have been frozen in time, with facades of saloons, banks, jailhouses, hotels, bath houses, and churches transporting visitors to the Old West—you know, kind of like HBO’s West World sans human capturing robots.
Pioneertown offers small mom and pop shops with organic products and locally made goods like soaps, candles, and art work. The town offers a regularly scheduled gunfight that is the main attraction. If you’re venturing through the desert, you have to stop to check it out and get lost in time. Sexy Western cosplay optional.
If Pioneertown is on your itinerary, like it was for us, you will most likely also be looking to hit up Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. It’s literally one of the only restaurants and bars within miles, so if you’re looking to get your desert freak on, this will be the place to do it. Since 1982, P&H has pleasing visitors with their mesquite barbeque, monstrous burgers, and fully loaded drinks. Recycled license plates, beer bottles used as windows, and raw wood all make up the country chic aesthetic that attracts bikers, truckers, and families alike. P&H is also a great music venue that regularly offers shows that help set the desert mood. A trip to the desert would not be complete without a visit to Pappy & Harriet’s—we loved it so much we went back twice!
One place you must visit, at least once in your life, is Salvation Mountain. This journey is a little bit further out of the way if you’re making a trip to the desert, but if you’re up for the 1-2 hour drive past the sulfur smelling Salton Sea, you will reap the reward of Salvation Mountain, a larger-than-life desert folk art installation.
Located on the outskirts of Niland, California, Salvation Mountain is a destination for those who aren’t really sure what to expect. Artist Leonard Knight turned this hill into a tribute to God. From far, you can see the colors used by Knight as they blend-in around the large words “GOD IS LOVE” that serves as the focal point of the piece. Salvation Mountain is made of adobe, straw and tons of gallons of lead-free paint that is constantly being restored since Knight’s death in 2014.
Today, visitors from all over flock to Salvation Mountain to take-in the structure’s Dr. Seussian, bizarre essence. Salvationers can explore its several caves and discover every inch of the eccentric piece of art, even walk all the way to the top as long as they stay on the yellow brick road (path). It is a gathering place for people of all denominations. Even if you there is no spiritual bone in your body, Salvation Mountain will speak to you as the great piece of Americana and California hidden treasure that it is.
So there you have it! A quick weekend or long holiday weekend trip to the desert all wrapped up in a nice package. Bring lots of sunblock, food, and water—and even a cute outfit if you want to try to raise your Instagram numbers. Enjoy it!