“… And the desert has strange art. The art is outside! And there are cacti all around!” It is a sunny February day, a sharp desert wind blows and I’m sitting on a rusty fold up chair watching my five-year-old ‘perform’ on a star-spangled stage in an outdoor exhibit made of recycled items by artist and SoCal eccentric Noah Purifoy.
We’re in the heart of the Yucca Valley, checking out the strange yet magical Purifoy creations. There’s a 15-foot long train track assembled from pipes and roof shingles, topped with a ‘train’ made of beer kegs, bicycle tires and toilet water tanks. Nearby is a child-sized igloo constructed with sticks and corrugated iron. Purifoy’s 10-acre outdoor art museum contains installations made of anything and everything: from toilet bowls to tires to disembowelled television sets.
Welcome to the wild, wacky side of Southern California, where the polished, perfectly photogenic backdrops of Los Angeles and Palm Springs feel a world away. Dubbed the California Hi-desert, a string of small, offbeat attractions border the northern climes of Joshua Tree National Park. From Yucca Valley in the West to Joshua Tree Village in the centre to 29 Palms in the East, the hi-desert region houses adventures for many travellers and their minis: whether you’re a nature-loving hiker, an art-admiring wanderer or a rock’n’roll fan.
Hike like a (Junior) Ranger
Joshua Tree National Park is a natural spot to start your Hi-Desert adventures. Full of plants and animals that look like their straight out of Horton Hears a Who or Where the Wild Things Are, the national park is as picturesque as it is fun with a variety of hikes, walks and family-focused programs geared toward all ages.
I’d highly recommend heading to the Oasis Visitor Centre in 29 Palms to nab a copy of ‘The Guide’, a free tabloid-style newspaper complete with map, hike descriptions and words of warning. The bonus: the Oasis Visitor centre has ample parking and friendly staff to give advice. Seeing my kiddo, the hosts offered us a Junior Ranger booklet, a free activity book we could fill up during our three days of exploring. To start our Junior Ranger adventures we chose to go on an interpretive hike with Ranger Kylie the next morning at 9:30 a.m. sharp on the Discovery Trail near Skull Rock. Wearing wind pants and with backpacks full of snacks and water, we set off on our one-kilometre hike (#prepared). During our 1.5 hour meander, we learned about pencil Cholla cacti, Mojave Yuccas and the ubiquitous Joshua Trees. There were four kids on the hike total including mine and they listened to every syllable escaping Ranger Kylie’s mouth as she described the desert flora and fauna. Throughout the next few days, we filled out the Junior Ranger guidebook.
Once all sections of the Junior Ranger Guidebook are filled out by your kid, a ranger signs the guidebook and both repeat a pledge vowing to protect the park for all to enjoy. Then the newly minted Junior Ranger gets a badge, which my child wore for the remainder of our trip. Our favourite kid-friendly hikes in Joshua Tree included: Barker Dam (1.8km), Hidden Valley (1.6km) and Cholla Cactus Garden (0.4km).
Hi-desert hiking with a twist: Hiking with Goats. Located at the Yogi Goats Farm in the Pioneertown, owner Emmanuel takes groups out about five days a week with his Nubian goats to explore the desert. Each hike is about 2-3 hours long and Emmanuel supplies both tea and water, not to mention a herd of frisky, friendly goats.
Rock’n’Roll meets Wild West
Located in the hilly reaches of Yucca Valley, Pioneertown is a former western movie set that features faded false fronts and a real John Wayne atmosphere. Originally a 32,000-acre plot of land and 1880s-style Western town built in the late 1940s, Pioneertown was home to about 50 Western movie shoots in the 1950s and 1960s.
These days, Pioneer Town is an unincorporated community known for its famous BBQ and live music joint Pappy and Harriet’s. Featuring pub grub, Santa Maria barbecue and a smattering of Cal-Mex dishes, Pappy & Harriet’s is a worth the stop for the whole fam-jam. There are smaller tables for just your little family and big communal ones for sharing and meeting new people. When we went for our live music-infused dinner on a busy Sunday night, there was a line up out the door and a local cover band up at 8:00 p.m. playing everything from Dire Straits to Bruce Springsteen covers.
Guest musicians like Robert Plant and Lucinda Williams have been known to drop in. Here’s the rub: most shows at Pappy & Harriet’s are all ages but they start at 8:00 p.m. I’d suggest pushing dinner a bit late if you can and not going after a day of hiking as we did. Though my little one was stoked for his ‘rock’n’roll dinner’ in Pioneertown, he was wiped by the time band came on.
More Hi-desert eats: Indie eats are everywhere in Joshua Tree Village. Try out The Natural Sisters cafe for all things vegan and delicious or the Joshua Tree Saloon, another small-town live music venue full of friendly conversations and juicy burgers. In the Yucca Valley be sure to stop by the Giant Rock Meeting Room & Coffee House, an airy, plant and art filled oasis in Flamingo Heights.
Embrace Space: a far out vacation rental
While there are a number of big-chain hotels in the Joshua Tree area, we decided to stay at a wayside Airbnb located in the heart of Flamingo Heights, north part of Yucca Valley. Owned by a Los Angeles couple who splits their time between the desert and tinseltown, the Starship Landing: Aurora was a rollicking fun stay not only because of it’s mid-century modern-come-disco-a-go-go decor but also for it’s heaps of inside and outside fun.
The Aurora had a hammock circle, UFO-themed croquet course, a hot tub and not one but two disco balls. Travelling as a family can be expensive and eating out can be tiring, that’s why it was so fun to call the Aurora home for three days and two nights while we explored the Joshua Tree area. The hosts thought of many details with everything from rainwater style showers to a projector with an Apple TV to simple breakfast supplies like instant oatmeal, coffee and tea. My son’s favourite feature at the Aurora – the gigantic yellow bean bag chair and disco balls. Mine: the dining room fit for a meal with the vacationing cast of Mad Men. Groove is in the heart, baby!
Another Hi-desert sleep: Nestled near the Oasis gate of Joshua Tree National Park is the 29 Palms Inn. Complete with an art gallery, pool and adobe cabins, the 29 Palms is a historic family friendly and a mere 10 minute drive to the park entrance.
I visited the Joshua Tree area before becoming a parent back in 2012 with one of my best friends. We hiked, drank cold beer and explored strange and awesome vintage shops. I have to say that I was a bit nervous travelling there this year with my little family. I asked myself… Would it be the same? Is it really just a hipster area full of adult-only fun? Would my son be bored with my cacti obsession? The answer: a resounding ‘No!’
The hikes were rewarding. The UFO croquet was hilarious. Our cacti species identification skills are now off the charts.
Watching my son race around the Purifoy exhibit, exclaiming, “Mom, come look at this, this is so cool!” I have to admit, I wholeheartedly agreed.