The Joshua Tree National Park area can be enjoyed as a day trip as it’s 2.5 hours from San Diego and Los Angeles. However, most visitors opt to stay longer, for they soon discover a short visit is not enough. There are many lookout points, and we can guarantee you will take out your camera constantly because distinctive rock formations — such as Skull Rock, which has intrigued visitors for years — are abundant. However, there are so many other Joshua Tree area attractions visitors miss.
Fortunately, I live in Palm Springs, 30 miles from the high desert. I want to share some things I repeatedly visit that are not within the confines of the park. Turn off Highway 10 onto Highway 62, and you are on the way to the area called the Joshua Tree Gateway Communities. You soon will discover there are several cities in the high desert, each with a distinct personality. The road is winding, so the driver must keep his eyes on the road, but a lucky passenger may see mountain sheep roaming on the craggy mountain.
Pro Tip: Even we seasoned desert visitors take a trip to Joshua Tree very seriously. Pack twice as much water as you think you might need for each person. Wear a hat and apply sunscreen. While there are fun restaurants to explore in the area, be advised it is best to take a picnic for one of your meals, for you may find yourself getting hungry and far away from a restaurant.
1. Purchase Cacti And Yard Art
Just as you get to the spot where the road straightens out, you enter the town of Morongo Valley. On your right is a large sign, “Cactus Mart Dig Your Own.” Yes, you can walk into the Cactus Mart greenhouse, decide which succulent or cactus you want in miniature, dig it out of its seedling cup, and take it home with you.
Before you make your selection, I suggest you explore the property. Magical, colorful, whimsical art creatures by local artists are scattered throughout the grounds. Unusual-shaped pots in every shade of red, blue, and green you can imagine are waiting to find a place in your yard. Large desert-loving plants grace the art-filled back lot and are for sale. The greenhouses are filled with succulents and cacti of various sizes and varieties and are available for purchase.
The gift shop is full of unusual gift ideas. Don’t miss the back room filled with original paintings and prints by local artists. Frankly, pulling myself out of there without purchasing something is always challenging.
Pro Tip: Schedule your trip in the spring, and you will see many of the cacti in bloom. If you are planning a wedding and want unusual flowers for your wedding party, their expert florists can design and ship bouquets.
2. Live On The Wild Side: Visit Giant Rock
A visit to Giant Rock near Landers is not for the faint of heart, but if you want to see something spectacular in the desert, the drive is more than worth it. The path to it is a 3-mile drive over hilly washboard-like dirt roads. This journey requires four-wheel drive, for one is never sure if the dirt road has been graded through this remote area of the desert.
What will you see? Giant Rock is believed to be the largest free-standing boulder in the world, reaching seven stories high. The Native Americans consider it a sacred area. Breaking with that belief, George Van Tassel, who built the Integratron nearby, welcomed UFO believers to the site in the 1950s.
A confession, when I walked on the other side of the rock, there was a vast area covered with small scrub brush plants and nothing more on the horizon. As Van Tassel claimed, this would be an excellent place to land a flying saucer.
Pro Tip: Stay left whenever you reach a fork in the road. The mountain should always be on your left.
3. Relax With Sound At The Integratron
Much has been written about the building and the history of the Integratron. Yet, what will your experience be? Why have I gone back three times and will go back again?
When you pull into the parking area’s yard, art-filled walls welcome you. A short walk into the courtyard to the check-in area is graced with hammocks, art, and chairs made of old surfboards. Once you are checked in, notice the quiet, except for a few chirping birds.
At your allotted time, walk into the lower level, take off your shoes, and ascend a narrow ladder to the great dome entirely made of wood. Select your place to lie down on the prearranged mats. There is a brief introduction, then you close your eyes and listen to the singing of 20 crystal quarts bowls played by the practitioner. After 35 minutes, chamber music is played for the rest of the hour-long experience.
What does it feel like? It is impossible to describe, for all three times have been entirely different for me, though I will say it feels like the sound reaches the marrow of my bones. Once it is over, you descend the stairs, find your quiet spot (mine is always a hammock), and let yourself be.
Pro Tip: This is not for everyone, but reservations are in great demand, so you must plan if you want to enjoy this experience. The dome, where the sound baths take place, is not handicap accessible, but the grounds are beautiful, and someone unable to ascend the stairs can certainly enjoy the grounds.
4. Explore Greenhouses At Gubler Orchids
Who would have ever thought there could be an orchid farm in the desert? Yet, near the town of Landers, Gubler Orchids has enormous greenhouses. Descents of Swiss orchid growers discovered that providing the humidity control environment while capturing the desert sun helps raise a high sugar in the leaves. Pure groundwater nourishes the plants to become hardy varieties. Thus, these exotic, healthy plants are desirable for Southern California retailers.
It is not uncommon to see the parking lot empty because many visitors do not discover this fascinating stop. As you open the door, you walk into their showroom with beautiful orchids gracing the various levels of their exhibit space. Colors, sizes, and varieties beckon you to take a closer look. It is the perfect location to take Instagram photos to make your followers believe you are in Hawaii instead of the desert.
Ask them if they will tour you through the greenhouse when you arrive. Staff may be in the middle of something, but trust me, you will have no problem waiting, for there is so much to see, including the section where carnivorous plants are grown for future shipments.
Pro Tip: Gubler Orchids is only open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tours are $5 per person, and non-slip shoes must be worn. Groups of more than 10 are requested to call and schedule. When you visit about five months before a holiday, most plants will be blooming, for it is just before the orchids are shipped to retailers.
5. Art And Artists Flourishing In The High Desert
If you want to see the superb art produced in the Joshua Tree Gateway Communities, schedule a stop at the 29 Palm Art Gallery, operated by the 29 Palms Artists Guild, 55 years old and counting. The Guild has found its permanent home in Oasis of Mara in an adobe house built in 1936, near the North Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park.
Pro Tip: Meet local artists and locals at one of their first Saturday openings, always scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. September through June.
The 29 Palms Creative Center and Gallery is a working studio/gallery concept just down the street from 29 Palm Art Gallery. Not only can you walk through the complex, but you can also pick up a paintbrush and create on a canvas or paint a ceramic mold. If you are a closet artist, here’s the place to come out in the open. Walk-ins are welcomed, but reservations are needed for classes and special events.
6. The Joshua Tree Cultural Center Serves A Multitude Of Functions
Joshua Tree National Park Visitors Center has a new home in the Joshua Tree Cultural Center. A multi-partnership came together to construct the building on what is now known as Freedom Plaza.
This multi-purposed complex opened in May 2022. If you want to learn more about the national park and the area’s history, you will want to head to the bookstore. An exhibit presently shares tribal stories, focusing on the history and the lives of the 15 different tribes in the area.
An attached outdoor stage is the perfect venue for concerts under the brilliant star-studded desert sky, while the gymnasium and multi-purpose room are sure to be used often as community gathering places and public events.
7. End Your Day At An Outdoor Theater
A nostalgic opportunity is alive and well at Smith’s Ranch Outdoor Drive-In, one of America’s longest-running outdoor theaters. Opened in 1954, this theater still can welcome 330 cars Thursday through Sunday at sunset. Put on your comfy clothes and grab your favorite people to see first-run movies in 29 Palms. What’s a movie without popcorn? They thought of that, too. The concession stand has all your favorite movie treats.
Pro Tip: Admission is $5 per person, and children under 3 are free. Cash only.
Even after approximately 15 trips to the Joshua Tree Gateway Communities, I still discover new aspects of this diverse area. Yes, there is development as people are purchasing land and building new homes, and retail stores are popping up. However, there is an innate understanding that this immense and beautiful environment is a treasure and must be protected for future generations.