Outdoor World

Joshua Tree national park: music, myths and art in the desert

The Coachella festival, starting this week, showcases music in a dramatic landscape but in and around Joshua Tree the arts and culture shine all year round

Out in the desert, anything seemed possible. The stark, dry landscape felt like an illusion, a deception that belied the artistic endeavour and creativity around Joshua Tree and the other high desert communities of Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms and Pioneertown. I got the sense that maybe no idea could be too crazy, no scheme too out there.

My surroundings made it easy to feel this way: I was looking at the salvaged-material sculptures of Noah Purifoy at a 10-acre open-air gallery a few minutes drive from the town of Joshua Tree. The Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture is as mesmerising as its name. Amid the cactus and sagebrush, I saw old cathode-ray-tube TVs and VCRs piled against a jumble of scrap metal, and a welcome sign fashioned from tyres. A plot of white crosses hinted at darkness and mortality, while there was humour in bicycle parts and pieces of wood and metal united as unfathomable contraptions.

Sculpture at Noah Purifoys Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. Photograph: Robert Hull

Purifoy, who died in 2004, was one of a group of artists famous for 66 Signs of Neon, a travelling exhibition created after the Los Angeles Watts race riots of 1965. He came to Joshua Tree in 1989 to start this free gallery, open from sunrise to sundown. The sculptures, made of discarded and foraged materials, speak of an outsiders spirit and a can do ethos that seems to underpin creative life here: do your own thing, and see what happens.

Quick guide

Joshua Tree national park

Admission: $25 for a seven-day vehicle pass; walk-in entrance $12; annual pass $40; there are four free days a year

The park is always open and may be visited any time of year

The park has eight campsites (from $15 a night) and there are seven private sites nearby; booking is advised

28 hiking trails, including short walks, moderate and challenging trails

GPS coverage and phone signal is, at best, unreliable; use maps provided

Ensure your vehicle is fully fuelled before entry. Most campgrounds do not have water and there are no stores in the park

Be generous with sunscreen, wear a hat and keep hydrated: rangers recommend one gallon of water a day per person

Observe the speed limits and watch out for desert tortoises, a threatened species, and which often look like rocks in the road


Photograph: Stanislav Shmelev

Visitors mainly arrive at Joshua Tree and its national park from Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas, usually on short trips and camping breaks. I had come 140 miles east from LA, via Palm Springs, inspired by the artwork of U2s The Joshua Tree album, released in 1987, and the rocknroll myths surrounding the odd burial of singer Gram Parsons in 1973 and also by the ethereal beauty of the trees themselves. As much as I wanted to explore the park, I also wanted to experience the art, music and film culture that surrounds it.

Hidden Valley walking trail in Joshua Tree national park. Photograph: Robert Hull

I had roamed the park on my own before my Purifoy visit and it had worked its magic on me. I drove in through its west entrance (there are also entrances on it north and south sides), close to the town of Joshua Tree, and within minutes had parked up and gone scrambling over rocks at Quail Springs, while climbers plotted daring ascents of boulders. I took the hour-long hiking loop at Hidden Valley: a cattle rustling site in the 1870s, it is rich with Mojave yucca, pinyon pine and prickly pear cactus, and ends in a box canyon. I gazed at the huge granite of Skull Rock and saw just why it had the name. I was to get even more insight the following day, from George Land, community outreach ranger for the National Park Service.

Skull Rock in Joshua Tree national park. Photograph: Peter Unger/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

I drove from Purifoys sculptures as the setting sun started to bruise the sky and headed along Twentynine Palms Highway into Yucca Valley and the Pioneertown Motel (doubles from $180 room-only). It may not have the cool of Purifoys art but makes up for that with its film heritage. It was built for cowboy-movie legend Roy Rogers in 1946 to accommodate stars filming on the adjacent set, and rooms have a wild west feel, with rustic furniture, bright textiles and porch. I walked to Pioneertowns film set, Mane Street, passing its stores, bank, barn and hay bales and imagined the bustle during its heyday. Free shows every Saturday alternate between the Mane Street Stampede and Gunfighters for Hire.

Check-in office for the Pioneertown Motel. Photograph: Alamy

Next door to the motel is Pappy and Harriets, a restaurant and bar, that is also a 350-capacity music venue that Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and Arctic Monkeys have used for warm-up gigs and secret shows. I moseyed over for dinner and as I ate grilled salmon and sides of red rice and mac n cheese ($24) almost everything here is cooked on huge outdoor smokers I watched the house band. During a break, I chatted to their drummer about the local scene. He recommended the Joshua Tree saloon for more shows, while a friend suggested checking out Boring Deserts Facebook page for gig news. If anything, though, my Pappy and Harriets tale was more interesting second time around when I was to play its open-mic night (see below).

Four miles away in Yucca Valley, the Frontier Caf (breakfasts from $3, sandwiches and salads from $8) was an amalgam of desert life: a bit of everything, with a side order of free spirit. Outside, a barefoot singer was plucking his guitar; inside, painters talked to each other about an exhibition and tourists consulted maps. Local artists photos were on the cafe walls, and the place also hosts improv nights and gigs.

The Sunday night band on stage at Pappy and Harriets, Pioneertown. Photograph: Robert Hull

I met ranger George at the parks north entrance, in Twentynine Palms. Because I was a civilian we couldnt use a park service vehicle, so he suffered my driving on the 792,510-acre site that became a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. As we drove, George explained how the joshua trees arent actually trees but yucca plants, and how Mormon settlers century gave them their name in the mid-19th.

As we passed Cap Rock, a pilgrimage site for fans of Gram Parsons, and made for the mesmerising viewpoint over the San Andreas fault at Keys View, George pointed toward the horizon and at the contrast in landscape between the two deserts that meet in the park: the Mojave and the Colorado. The joshua trees only grow in the western (Mojave) half, thanks to its 900-metre-plus elevation.

Keys Ranch in Joshua Tree national park. Photograph: Robert Hull

The wisdom of rangers is available to all: the park arranges talks, artist-led presentations and storytelling sessions (jtlab.info), plus a night sky festival in November. There are also ranger-guided tours of Keys Ranch (adult $10, child $5), which for me was a highlight. George explained how its owners, Bill Keys and his wife Frances, managed to survive early-20th-century life in this unforgiving environment. The stories of their endurance and ingenuity were humbling.

The late-lunch crowd at the Natural Sisters Cafe in Joshua Tree town was just as mixed as at my breakfast pitstop and, like at the Frontier Caf and nearby Crossroads eatery, it has many vegetarian and vegan options: the tofu sandwich ($8.99) was almost as epic as the parks boulders. Afterwards, I strolled around the towns arty, independent stores and galleries, including Art Queen, the World Famous Crochet Museum, Space Cowboy books and Zannedelions boutique. But the standout was the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum. Cool and charismatic owner Jeff Hafler showed me around a space that still offers hairdos but is also Americana nirvana, packed with vintage, kooky and kitsch hairdressing products and advertising dating to the 1900s.

The Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum. Photograph: Robert Hull

Nerves about my impending open-mic performance were building but Id promised myself a stop at the Integratron, in Landers, 15 miles from Joshua Tree. This acoustically perfect dome was built by ufologist George Van Tassell in the late 1950s, who had grand plans for rejuvenation and time travel. Aliens gave him the design instructions, allegedly. It now has a holistic-health approach and offers sound baths as well as tours. It was a late addition to my itinerary, so I couldnt go in, though standing in the Mojave stillness looking at its 12-metre cupola was eerie enough.

On stage at Pappy and Harriets, I announced my songs as reflecting the special relationship: one song from the UK, the other from the US. Its fair to say they werent greeted with the delirium Id seen on clips of McCartneys show, but more important was the positive vibe and encouragement given to all performers. For me, it summed up a go for it desert attitude. Something that, unlike me, hit all the right notes.

The trip was provided by Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, with car hire by Enterprise. Flights were with Virgin Atlantic, which flies from Heathrow to Los Angeles from 448 return

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2018/apr/12/joshua-tree-national-park-art-music-california-coachella

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