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Joshua Tree area offers hiking, eats, saloons, hot springs

Sun., May 6, 2012

Pioneertown, north of Yucca Valley, includes the Pioneertown Motel (seen here) and the restaurant and bar, Pappy & Harriet’s.
Pioneertown, north of Yucca Valley, includes the Pioneertown Motel (seen here) and the restaurant and bar, Pappy & Harriet’s.

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – 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 toward 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. They come for the bands at Pappy & Harriet’s, for the steaming pools of lithium-rich water at Desert Hot Springs or for a sound bath (to be explained soon) at the Integratron in Landers.

Here are a few micro-itineraries for Joshua Tree and environs:

Big rocks, bigger sky

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 quickly. 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 offered by the Desert Institute (; its recent offerings have included geology and plein air poetry. Wherever you go, bring water.

Pappy & Harriet’s

Pioneertown, 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 & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace (53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown), a roadhouse with live music that has become a desert institution.

Pappy’s gently blends desert-rat locals with escaped city slickers and lures performers you would never expect in the middle of nowhere. The Pioneertown Motel is next door. If you’re OK to drive back to Joshua Tree, there’s the 10-room Joshua Tree Inn (61259 Twentynine Palms Highway), where you can have Room 8 (the Gram Parsons death room) for $109. It has a pool and a shrine to Parsons.

The Integratron

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, playing music or climbing the ladder to the upper chamber, curling up on a blanket and listening for half an hour to someone coaxing eerie, powerfully resonant sounds from a series of quartz bowls.

“I call it kindergarten nap time of the third kind,” co-owner Joanne Karl says. But the sign outside says “sound bath.” To bathe alone is $80, by reservation. But two weekends a 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.

The pueblo and the spas

First, you’ll see the head – a 40-foot Indian head with a feather, carved from a Sequoia redwood log by artist Peter Toth in 1978. Then you’ll notice the rest of Cabot’s Pueblo Museum (67616 E. Desert View Ave., Desert Hot Springs), a four-level, 35-room mansion built in ersatz Hopi style by Cabot Yerxa, one of the pioneering eccentrics of Desert Hot Springs. To get a good look inside, sign up for the hourlong tour and learn how Yerxa built the home from recycled materials between 1941 and his death in 1965.

Then it’s time for cocooning in a little spa hotel, of which there are several. The seven-room Sagewater Spa (built in 1954, redone in 2001) gives you midcentury minimalism. El Morocco Inn & Spa (66810 Fourth St., Desert Hot Springs) is a 2005 revival project with 10 rooms, many veils, three round beds and sparkling TripAdvisor ratings for its service. The six-room Hacienda Hot Springs Inn (12885 Eliseo Road, Desert Hot Springs) delivers an Old California feel, including an outdoor kitchen, enormous common table and plenty of books and desert memorabilia. None of these places is good for children or outdoor cellphone chats.

Soaked for a pittance

You’re done with the national park, your muscles are sore and your wallet is thin. And so, for just $7 on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday – or $5 on most weekdays – you can buy a day pass at the Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel (10805 Palm Drive, Desert Hot Springs). There, you meander among eight spring-fed pools, each a different temperature. (On Tuesdays, the price drops to $3.)

The spa menu is long, and families are welcome. You can rent a poolside room for the day (9 a.m.-4 p.m.) for $45 or spend a night for a little more than $100. To go with your cheap soak, grab some hearty, affordable Mexican food a few blocks away at Casa Blanca Restaurant (66370 Pierson Blvd., Desert Hot Springs).

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