Joshua Tree, California (CNN) — Joshua Tree sits roughly two and a half hours east of Los Angeles by car, a majestic desert paradise of 792,510 acres of national park lands squished between the palm-tree lined boulevards of Palm Springs to the south and the eccentric, rugged town of Joshua Tree to the north.
The area's namesake is the Joshua tree, which isn't technically a tree, but a member of the agave family. The plant was first named by Mormon trekkers who said the outstretched limbs reminded them of Joshua reaching his hands to the sky in prayer.
It is easy to find anthropomorphic shapes in their crooked trunks and misshapen tufts, and driving through expanses of them can feel a bit like wandering into a Dr. Seuss forest.
The park is split into two distinct desert ecosystems. The western portion is occupied by the Mojave Desert, and that's where you'll find Joshua trees, teetering stacks of sand-colored boulders and the occasional rattlesnake. The Mojave is known as the high desert, with elevations above 3,000 feet.
In the eastern half of the park you'll find the Colorado Desert, a flatter ecosystem below 3,000 feet that is known for milder weather and blossoming vibrant wild flowers if you travel there in March and April.
The entire park is larger than Rhode Island, and you could fill up an entire week hiking every trail and climbing every rock. But these days a trip to Joshua Tree also means chasing art, music, food and the occasional sound bath (don't worry, we'll explain) through the neighboring towns of Yucca Valley, Pioneertown and Twentynine Palms.
Compared with Palm Springs, Joshua Tree and its environs evoke the brawny self-reliance of the Old West, and combined with the epic landscape, those qualities have attracted a new generation of artists and dreamers to the high desert.
As one local said, "Palm Springs is for tennis, golf and country clubs. If you like stargazing, hiking and music, come to Joshua Tree."
Whether you're here for an afternoon, a weekend or an entire week, here's our guide to how to explore this captivating desertscape.
In the park: Self-guided activities
The Cholla Cactus Garden
Courtesy Glauco Puig-Santana/NPS
The west entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, located just off of Highway 62 near "downtown" Joshua Tree, is the most popular gateway to the park, and with good reason. This part of the park is littered with 20-foot tall Joshua trees, massive boulders and enough photo opportunities to fill an afternoon.
When you turn off Highway 62, make a pit stop at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center to pick up maps, chat with park rangers about their favorite hikes, purchase a field guide on desert wildflowers or learn a few Joshua Tree tidbits. One fun fact: millions of years ago this parched desert landscape resembled a lush African savannah inhabited by camels, mammoths and giant land sloths.
If you prefer to enjoy nature from the comfort of your climate-controlled car, you can easily spend one to two hours driving the Park Boulevard loop, from the west entrance to the north gate in Twentynine Palms.
A good first stop is Hidden Valley, a low-key, one-mile walk through some of the most picturesque boulders in the area -- smooth, bulbous rocks that look as if a giant toddler has dropped his marbles on the desert floor.
From there you can keep driving to Keys View, where you'll get a 360 degree view of the valley floor, including the San Andreas Fault that runs through it.
Further along the Park Boulevard loop, you'll pass one of the park's most photographed boulders, Skull Rock. If you are willing to take a half-hour detour, you can dip south on Pinto Basin Road and follow signs for the Cholla Cactus Garden. It's a glorious place to be at sunset when the furry cacti glow in the golden light.
In the park: Guided activities and classes
Joshua Tree is a vertical playground perfect for climbers and boulderers.
Courtesy Glauco Puig-Santana/NPS
From October to May, the park's boulders are crawling with rock climbers from around the world, who flock to Joshua Tree's vertical playground. That's partly for the thousands of climbing routes and boulder challenges and partly for the mild winter temperatures and stunning scenery.
The park's website has a long list of approved guides, who offer visitors everything from half-day climbing sessions with a gourmet sack lunch to multi-day courses and seminars. If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, sign up for one of the Desert Institute's field classes. Programs include night sky photography workshops, wildflower wanderings and "How To" classes on surviving in a desert landscape. They tend to book up quickly, so be sure to book in advance.
A haven for artists and eccentrics
Spend five minutes in Joshua Tree and you'll find yourself reaching for your camera. Despite all its harshness, the desert landscape is intoxicatingly beautiful, and for decades artists have flocked here for inspirational vistas and quiet solitude.
Noah Purifoy's 10-acre outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture has become a site of pilgrimage for many area visitors interested in experiencing the late artist's larger-than-life installations of found objects.
Fans of contemporary art might also be interested in High Desert Test Sites, a non-profit co-founded by artist Andrea Zittel. She offers monthly tours of A-Z West (email firstname.lastname@example.org for information), the 70-acre site on the edge of Joshua Tree where she investigates alternative methods on how to live.
If it's indoor museums you seek, the best one in town is the pint-sized World Famous Crochet Museum, a lime-green, one-hour photo booth repurposed to house a collection of hundreds of crochet stuffed animals. It's free and open 24/7, so visitors can stop by anytime.
If you want to fully immerse yourself in Joshua Tree's quirky side, plan ahead and book a "Sound Bath" at the Integratron. Billed as "60 minute sonic healings," visitors recline in the dome shaped wooden room and are "bathed" in the smell of burning palo santo and the harmonic sounds of quartz crystal bowls. If it sounds far out, that's because it is.
The two-story, bright white dome was designed by a UFOlogist named George Van Tassel who claimed to receive his instructions via extraterrestrials from the planet Venus.
Partially funded by Howard Hughes, the two-story dome was built as a time machine. But decades after Van Tassel died, the Integratron was purchased by three sisters who declared the all-wood interior acoustically perfect and began hosting Sound Baths in the early 2000s.
Today you can choose between private or public Sound Baths. Spots book up months in advance, especially during March and April.
Integratron, 2477 Belfield Blvd, Landers, CA, 760-364-3126
Live music and a taste of the Wild West
Pappy + Harriet's in Pioneertown hosts concerts under the stars.
No trip to Joshua Tree is complete without a detour through Pioneertown. Developed by Roy Rogers as a Wild West film set in the 1940s, more than 50 Westerns were filmed here, from "The Cisco Kid" to Gene Autry's television show.
The Old West facades are fun to explore, but the main reason to visit this speck of a town is Pappy + Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, which is both the best restaurant for miles and a world-class music venue. Paul McCartney, Future Islands, Robert Plant and more have performed on this tiny saloon stage.
You can expect live music and excellent Santa Maria style barbecue every Thursday through Sunday. Monday is open mic night and dinner service only. Pappy & Harriet's is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Before you hit the hay, take a moment to look up. The night sky is one of Joshua Tree's most spectacular panoramas.
The National Park Service has plenty of tips for desert stargazers, like reminders to layer up and watch your step (the last thing you want is to tumble over a cactus in the dark).
If you want to take your sky gazing to the next level, you can stop by a star party at the Sky's the Limit Observatory and Nature Center near the Twentynine Palms entrance to the park.
Every Saturday night at 10 p.m., with the exception of weekends on or near the full moon, astronomers set up telescopes outside the observatory and invite the public to get up close and personal with the night sky.
Where to eat
If you're looking for a hearty meal, friendly service and a chance to get your bearings, stop by the bustling Crossroads Cafe in Joshua Tree for super-sized sandwiches and satisfying all-day breakfast plates.
On the same block you can grab provisions for a day hike at Joshua Tree Health Foods or stop in for a fresh pressed juice or smoothie at Natural Sisters Cafe.
On Saturdays, the Joshua Tree Certified Farmers Market pops up in the parking lot and farmers peddle local dates, citrus, honey and vegetables.
If a late lunch of baby kale and roasted beets or a pork belly banh mí sounds more up your alley, then head to La Copine, a desert-chic, afternoon-only restaurant on Old Woman Springs Road that has become a de rigueur stop for weekend hipsters traveling through town. Helmed by Claire Wadsworth and Nikki Hill, La Copine is the antidote to the greasy spoons nearby.
For Santa Maria tri-tip or a rib eye grilled over an outdoor mesquite fire, head straight to Pappy + Harriet's in Pioneertown. A long menu of burgers, dogs and Tex Mex is available for lunch and dinner Thursday through Sunday, and dinner only on Mondays. Dinner reservations are recommended on Friday and Saturday nights.
Crossroads Cafe, 61715 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree, CA 92252, 760-366-5414 La Copine, 848 Old Woman Springs Rd, Yucca Valley, CA 92284, 760-289-8537
Where to stay
After a long day of exploring, Pioneertown Motel is a welcoming place to rest.
Courtesy Ryan Lopez/Pioneertown Motel
Lodging in and around Joshua Tree reflects the eclectic personality of the town. At the Hicksville Trailer Palace, rooms range from an alien-themed trailer to a 20-foot Airstream kitted out with shag carpet and an electric fireplace.
The Pioneertown Motel is popular with the LA and San Diego crowds on weekends. Situated just behind Pappy + Harriet's, it is the perfect place to roll into bed after a rowdy night in Pioneertown's greatest bar. By design there are no phones or televisions, but no one seems to mind.
If it's relaxation you desire, Mojave Sands is the most zen-like hotel in the area, with three classic rooms and two suites, each with a full kitchen and one with an outdoor shower and bathtub.
If you're traveling with a group, or even as a couple, renting a house is one of the best options in Joshua Tree. Some of the more popular Airbnb listings are Wakanda Ranch and the High Desert House. Architecture fans will want to look into Pretty Vacant Properties (email email@example.com), two unique desert homes designed by architect Robert Stone. Mojave Sands, 62121 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree, CA 92252, (760) 550-8063
Getting to Joshua Tree
The closest airport to Joshua Tree is Palm Springs International Airport, but many travelers drive from nearby cities. The park is 140 miles from Los Angeles, 175 miles from San Diego, 215 miles from Las Vegas and 222 miles from Phoenix.
There are taxi services in Joshua Tree and the surrounding towns and a shuttle service inside the park, but renting a car is practically a necessity. Do not rely on GPS. Cell phone service in the park and in remote areas is spotty at best, so be sure to pick up a map and always travel with water and sun protection.