If you aren’t familiar with Joshua Tree, odds are you’ve heard of it, perhaps seen some amazing photos of giant boulder stacks or desert skylines on your friend’s Instagram. The name “Joshua Tree” is symbolic for a number of things: the Joshua Tree itself, a fast-growing, fibery yucca palm that populates the high desert in the American southwest; the town of Joshua Tree, a quiet and relatively unbothered community of artists, working families and retirees; and most famously, the jaw-dropping Joshua Tree National Park, California’s cherished desert oasis.
Whichever way you think of Joshua Tree, visiting for yourself is an unbelievable experience. For those seeking an escape away from the hustle and bustle of life in the city, its location is primed for quieting the mind and easing the soul. Tucked away in the desert and seemingly hundreds of miles from urban civilization, there is a level of peace that permeates the air. A few short turns off Highway 62 and it’s simply you vs. nature. It’s a place of ultimate solitude and vast wilderness, spread out over pristine ancient land, with a climate that ranges from paralyzing heat in the summertime to calm and chilly during the winter. It’s a wide-open no-man’s-land occupied by space, silence and stimulating views.
The intense beauty that exists within the isolation of Joshua Tree is beyond words. This indescribable feeling is captured best inside Joshua Tree National Park. Spend a few hours exploring its many trails and campgrounds and it’s easy to see why everyone from hippies to modern day rock climbers have developed a profound attachment to the landscape. Upon entry, you’re greeted by a never-ending sea of joshua trees, which are remarkably humanoid in shape and evocation. Their thick branches reach into the sky like unexalted arms that have endured a lifetime of suffering. It’s hard not to be taken by their presence (and sheer numbers — there must be millions) and I can only shake my head in disgust at the people who vandalized the park, cutting down many trees in the process, amid the recent government shutdown.
Dispersed around the park are enormous rock formations that form larger-than-life shapes against the horizon. They are as fun to climb on as they are breaktaking to look at, and there are dozens if not hundreds of individual boulders that have a unique appeal or specific historical significance. One of the most notable landmarks, “Skull Rock” sits along the main east-west park road, glaring at all who approach it through two gaping hollowed-out eye sockets. For being such a big, photo-friendly hunk of granite, stare at it long enough and it evokes an unsettling emptiness.
There is no escaping that the national park is a magical place. Aside from its apparently spiritual appearance, it’s also a heaven for geologists, botanists and astrologists. The Pinto Basin and Cholla Cactus Garden are rich with colorful plant life during certain times of year and at night, stars flood the sky. If you like to put life in perspective, seeing just how potent the solar system can appear from earth is a quick way to make yourself feel really small. With hardly any artificial illumination in the way, even an out-of-season evening produces a surreal amount of starlight. Whether you are a scientist or stoner, the sights are plentiful and awe-inducing.
Though not quite as stunning, the charming town of Joshua Tree is authentic in its own unique way. The vibe is down to earth and relaxed, and there seems to be a friendly crowd at whichever spot you walk in to. Dozens of locally owned restaurants and shops line the main highway. If you don’t show up to town dressed like a cosmic cowboy, you sure as hell may leave looking like one. Places like Hoof & the Horn are made to amplify your psychedelic ambitions — vintage tees and desert apparel, crates filled with obscure vinyl, weirdly cool antiques and collectibles you’re not sure belong in your apartment but want anyway. To visitors, it’s a vibe more than an actual lifestyle, but it’s every bit as inviting either way.
For foodies, the mix of diners and local favorites includes a number of tasty Mexican joints, the famed Joshua Tree Coffee Company and popular breakfast and lunch picks like Crossroads Cafe — whose menu includes everything from hearty truck driver staples to delicious vegan plates and counterculture dishes. For the mellowness found at most venues in town, you won’t find much of it at Pappy & Harriet’s, the famous honky tonk located in Pioneertown about 12 miles west of JT and the undisputed place to be for nightlife in the Mojave desert. The vibe is live and rowdy, the beer list is long and the steaks are cooked to order. A famed music venue for both local acts and indie artists from all over the world, it’s where tex-mex meets rock ‘n’ roll. It gets so crowded on weekends, if you’re out on the dance floor, it’s likely you’ll find yourself wedged in between the stage and a dinner table, as the restaurant functions at full steam for most of the night.
In addition to the shows at Pappy & Harriet’s, Joshua Tree has a rich artistic history and even hosts an annual music festival. JT’s ties to iconic musical figures run deep, as it has always been a popular retreat for movie stars and Hollywood libertines, no story or legend being greater than the death of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Parsons, who coined a style now referred to as “Cosmic American Music” (a fusion of multiple western genres, like rock, soul, country, gospel and blues), was greatly influential as both a songwriter and a country music connoisseur in the California rock scene during the late ’60s and early ’70s. A free spirit with an affinity for chasing the divine, he frequently made treks to JT with bandmates and other music buddies, including Keith Richards and many members of The Rolling Stones posse. Parsons made his final trip to Joshua Tree in fall of 1973, dying of a drug and alcohol overdose inside Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, a small, concealed motel that lies at the front end of town. To this day, the inn rents out the very room where GP ascended into the next life, accompanied by a memorial in the adjacent courtyard. This notion has become a key fixture in the lore of Joshua Tree’s community.
There are countless desert towns across the United States that can lay claim to fame for their one-of-a-kind remoteness and local culture. Many of them may indeed be unique, but few are quite like Joshua Tree. For starters, the national park is unlike any other nature preserve in the country. It evokes the feel of an apocalyptic wasteland as much as it does a serene earthly backdrop. It evokes eternal hopelessness in the same way it symbolizes infinite freedom. And beyond that, Joshua Tree is an undeniably spiritual place that taps into the surreal with its unbelievable scenery and undying beauty, unmoved and unparalleled by California’s many other essential outdoor destinations. Its uniqueness comes without effort or gimmicks. It’s the stuff that can’t be made up or manufactured, only manifested and then preserved. As the rest of the world turns, Joshua Tree is still. Still existing, still breathing. Still basking in the sun, staying alive.