Upon leaving San Diego, you have a choice on how to get to Joshua Tree and/or Palm Springs. You can drive the shopping center lined highways (which are not overly enticing) or you can take a slight detour for a scenic drive. The latter includes a drive popular with San Diego locals up to Julian, a small quaint town known for apple pie. Seriously, they have four or five stores specializing in apple pie – which is admittedly not our favorite but this time was a big exception.
Our choice was Apple Alley. We arrived early so we spent some time exploring the Candy Mine at the Julian Drug Store and walking around the town. Once Apple Alley was open, we purchased four sandwiches, drinks, cinnamon ice cream and their famous Caramel Apple Pecan Pie. We packed the lunches and drove about five minutes into William Heise County Park and had lunch on the picnic tables in the valley surrounded by the mountains. Again, we don’t particularly like apple pie, but this pie tasted more like apple sauce than apple slices – which combined with caramel and cinnamon ice cream was the best we’d ever had. Afterwards, you can make a quick stop a few more miles north at the Julian Mining Company to purchase buckets of dirt where your children can learn to pan for small flakes of gold, garnets and other stones.
The drive into Palm Springs/Joshua Tree from this direction includes a winding road of hair pin turns as you descend back out of the mountains to the desert floor. But our destination is Joshua Tree so we made a quick stop just off the highway to get a photo with the VW Spider (link below). And then it is past the giant wind mills and a final steep drive up and over one last mountain range into Joshua Tree. At first glance, we wondered if we had made a mistake, as the initial highway into town is a bit barren and shop-laden with discount stores and chain restaurants including the first Sizzler we had seen in years – which was worthy of a photo from the car window. However, once you make your way deeper into Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, it is a very unique place to be.
For lodging we chose an Airbnb house (www.rancho-loco.com) which included twenty acres of land; a main house with one bedroom; another house with a loft and TV/Audio system and a pool in between. All accessed by driving a sand road for several blocks. I’m a little reluctant to post the house in case we ever wanted to go back but it was so great we wanted to share it. One note, the house is cooled by a large swamp cooler which can be loud but, for us, added to the desert experience. However, you can research a number of unique housing options to fit any budget in the area. Be sure to include Twentynine Palms, the neighboring town, in your search. And for us, a pool was a requirement as it gets very hot as you can imagine.
For those looking for something more 50’s and mod style, there are a number of houses as well in Palm Springs which fit the style of Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball when the town was in its hay day. But being out on a large piece of land with winds blowing across ninety degree heat will make your hair stand on end. In the evening, small showers often mean the sun is setting between the clouds, mountains and desert – which made the most beautiful sunset we had ever seen with purple, orange and blue. And shortly after sunset, bats would fly by every ten minutes or so dropping into the pool to get a drink of water and then flying off again into the dark. It is all very surreal. For dinner, we wanted to enjoy this evening so we ordered pizza from Pie for the People and tipped extra for the driver actually being able to find the house down the sand roads.
The next morning, you can drive over to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to ride up to the top of San Jacinto Mountain. This left us time to explore the top of the mountain on a quick two hour hike. We didn’t realize we’d be walking so far and in such dry conditions (even at the top of the mountain) so a quick thank you to the kind couple for taking our picture and giving us a spare bottle of water. For lunch, we made reservations ahead of time at the restaurant at the top of the mountain (Peaks) which was overpriced and okay, but the view is what you are buying so it is still worth a stop. And, if the tram and mountain are not for you, we have also heard great things about the Indian Canyons (a tropical oasis in the desert below) and then shopping or exploring Palm Springs.
For dinner that evening, we took a quick swim in the pool; changed our clothes; and then drove to Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown. Like its name, they have a show for the old west next door which did not particularly interest us. But Pappy and Harriet’s is quietly famous for being a hideaway for musicians, bikers and L.A. residents who want to get out of town for the weekend. It is kid friendly (until the band gets going later in the evening) and is a nice, eclectic atmosphere with good burgers.
Our last day began at the Crossroads Cafe which is a must stop. Hearty breakfasts like Mike’s Mess (eggs, bacon, potato, cheese, sour cream and green chiles mixed together) add to both the laid back decor and the locals who visit the cafe. It was then on to the park after a quick stop by the “Joshua Tree – Your trip starts here.” mural for a photo. We started on some of the lower trails which felt more like a casual walk through a garden than a hike so we opted to make the more strenuous climb up Ryan Mountain. If you do this hike, please do it very early in the day. It gets very, very hot quickly. And be sure to bring a lot of water. On our way down, we passed a number of military personnel from the nearby base on their day off who were struggling in the heat.
Afterwards was a stop by the Noah Purifoy Foundation. We made a slight mistake as I think you are supposed to arrange to visit ahead of time – but we knew we could be respectful of the nearby neighbors and explore this outdoor museum of art walking through the sculptures. I’d like to post some photos of his work, but want to be respectful of the artist so we will see if they grant us permission as I plan to ask. However, if you like contemporary art, this is a great way to appreciate Joshua Tree from the perspective of the artists who call it home.
Afterwards, we picked up something quick for dinner in town (KFC if I recall) as we wanted to get back to the house to swim; enjoy some drinks and watch the sunset and the bats drinking from the pool in the evening on our last night.
And for more details on surrounding areas see itineraries for Southern California and Ojai, Catalina or destination notes for San Diego, Newport Beach, Los Angeles, Ojai, Catalina Island and Disneyland.
Links – Joshua Tree
- VW Beetle Spider
- Julian Mining Company
- Park Website
- Twentynine Palms
- Pie for the People
- Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
- Indian Canyons
- Pappy and Harriet’s
- Crossroads Cafe
- Ryan Mountain
- Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum