I was skeptical about Joshua Tree; Did a day in the desert change my mind?

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“What’s so special about a Joshua tree?” I’ve asked myself this question more times than I can count. I’ve seen them before. A Joshua tree looks like a regular tree that’s fallen off a high-rise building. Its spindly arms look twisted and broken. It is top-heavy, with bristling, palm-like branches. I’ve read that this prickly oddity got its name from a group of Mormons traveling through the Mojave in the mid-19th century. The tree’s skyward-extending branches, coupled with its dagger-esque leaves, reminded them of an Old Testament story involving Joshua, a biblical figure who defeated the Amalekite army. I don’t know if this is true; no one’s really been able to prove it. But it’s a cool story nevertheless. 

In my four years of living in California, I’ve been told numerous times that Joshua trees are magical, and Joshua Tree park itself is a sight I can’t possibly miss. After all, this is a place that’s inspired generations of people who’ve traveled through it — artists, musicians and all sorts of dreamers have been coming here in droves, searching for that creative spark. Yeah, I was never convinced. What’s so special about Joshua trees? Well, that’s what I’m here to find out.

Before venturing into the park, Anton and I make a stop in Pioneertown, a historical town in the Morongo Basin region of San Bernardino’s High Desert. It’s one of the many small communities — along with Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms and more — that are clustered outside of the national park, places that draw creative types and curious travelers. Pioneertown specifically was first founded by actor Dick Curtis who wanted to create a living, breathing set that filmmakers could use for both work and play. 

When we first drive into town, it looks abandoned, a blur of heat and dust and a few run-down wooden shacks. But then, amongst the uncaring, windy landscape and a backdrop that feels from another time, there’s a parking lot full of cars. We park by Pappy & Harriets, a squat, red-brick building that looks about as hopping as a WeHo bar on a weekend. If you’ve been to Pioneertown before, then Pappy & Harriets needs no introduction. This middle-of-the-desert honky tonk slings some really great food, and on top of that, it also doubles as a music venue. And before you think, “Who would come out to the desert to catch a gig here?” l have to tell you that Pappy’s live music programme has drawn music icons the likes of Paul McCartney and Lorde. So, those fans — that’s who.

Inside, Pappy’s is everything you’d expect from a Wild West saloon. Think: rustic wood accents everywhere, walls decorated with antlers, framed newspaper clippings and band posters, and license plates. Our waitress takes our order quickly, talking in a quick, time-is-money kind of way. She’s covering our entire section seemingly by herself. Clearly, she’s got a lot on her plate, and we’ve got nothing, so we don’t mind the hurried nature of this conversation. We’ve been on the road for over three hours, and we’re hungry!

While we wait for our food, we indulge in a little practice this place practically begs you to do: people-watching. The cool thing about Pappy’s is its crowd. You’ll see couples with their newborns. You’ll see hipsters, bikers and hard-living locals. And then there are the cowboys, popping in for a bite — and to get a little misty, not drunk — on a Saturday afternoon. We see leather jackets and studs, and floppy, punkish black hair. We also see flannel shirts and shorts, lots of beards and lots of tattoos. Where else can you get this sort of mix of people, all under one ol’ wood-paneled roof? 

Though Pappy’s wins in the ambiance category, the food here deserves a shoutout, too. The kitchen cooks its meats on a mesquite barbecue in the back. Ribs, salmon, chicken and steak are all wonderful options. And the portions are generous, too. My salad comes piled high with steak, and Anton’s salmon dish is big enough for two. Order what you want, but don’t miss the place’s mac and cheese. Whatever you’ve had in the past and loved, well, this is superior. And the folks at Pappy’s ladle a big scoop of it, too. When we walk out of Pappy’s, we’re definitely not hungry anymore. 

In the head of a rock, there are two sockets, two airy caves filled with darkness. If you stand far enough, you’ll see the depression of the nose, formed over the years by accumulated rain that ate through the granite. Taking into account the roundness of this rock, together, they form a skull. This otherworldly boulder is appropriately named “Skull Rock,” and it’s a popular destination in Joshua Tree National Park. 

Here, you’ll find all sorts of visitors. Hikers with enormous backpacks. The occasional friend group with no real hiking plans. The photographers and their models. Everyone’s respectful of the fact that Skull Rock is for sharing. You get your moment near the boulder, and then, you move on. And you don’t need to be an avid hiker to reach it. It’s more accessible than anything you’d expect in the desert. You park by the side of the road, and it really is just there

Upon first glance of Skull Rock, I’m reminded of some vague Indiana Jones movie. I doubt there’s ever been a giant skull in the franchise (at least not one that I can remember), but this mysterious hollowed-out boulder definitely feels like something out of an adventure film. Like, if I were to mutter a few distinct words or tap on its surface a few times, the ancient granite would open up and lead me to a long-lost treasure. 

Just for that, Skull Rock is worth a visit. There’s a short trail there, too, and plenty of boulders to navigate if that’s what you’re there for. (The rocks have a strong grip, enough to rip skin off, if you’re not careful). For us, the spot is more of a short stop on our trip today. We’ve seen the skull, scrambled around, soaked in the views. It’s time to get back on the road — there’s just too much more to see. 

We hop back in the car and start driving through Joshua Tree’s preternatural terrain. As a kid, one of my favorite things to do at the beach was scoop up a handful of wet sand and let it flow through my fingers. I’d hold it over my sand castle, and watch the drips and blobs stack on top of each other. That’s what the mountains at Joshua Tree National Park look like. Infinitely tall stacks of round rocks, precariously piled together. The park might be called Joshua Tree, but the beauty here also lies in everything that surrounds them.

I feel as though I’m back in Death Valley, and just like Death Valley, there’s so much to do and even more to see. There’s Ryan Mountain, a 5,456-foot-high mountain that offers more advanced hikers a strenuous 3 mile, out-and-back ascent but rewards them with breathtaking views at its peak. There’s the Cholla Cactus Garden, where thousands of shrubby cacti blanket the desert floor. Another must-see is the Cottonwood Spring Oasis, a rare spring in the desert and a fine spot for bird-watching.

Our next stop is Hidden Valley. We’ve read that it’s a good place to explore as an introductory hike for first-timers. We meander into the parking lot, crawling past a photographer and a lighting crew and a family dressed to the nines. They wave at us, and we wave back, a little confused. After we’ve parked, we ascend on uneven stone steps and walk along the path between rock walls and into Hidden Valley. It’s a beautiful, short hike through a valley circled by otherworldly rock formations and boulders. There are signs along the path that tell you more about the area’s wildlife and plants. (Did you know that the Pinyon Pine is one of the most unique pines in the world because it only has one needle in a bunch? I didn’t!) 

It’s that time of day when everything fades into pink and blue pastels. And on the uglier side of things, mosquitoes awaken from their siesta for a dinner feast. The cool air blows against my bare legs. I’m wearing a down jacket, which Anton had made fun of me for earlier. “It’s chilly,” he says, and I shoot him my best I-told-you-so look. It is chilly, and there are mosquitoes, and it is getting dark, and we are in the desert after all, so maybe we should think about turning around. Joshua Tree isn’t going anywhere, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t come back. A little more prepared for a longer hike this time. 

It took forever for Angelenos to notice the beauty of Joshua Tree, reads the title of a 2016 Los Angeles Magazine article. Although Yosemite became a national park as early as 1890, it wasn’t until 1994 that Joshua Tree earned the same status. “Even as late as 1941, the permanent population of Joshua Tree town was just 49 folks with 22 buildings,” the article claims. Of course, now, the area draws millions of visitors a year. It took a day in the desert for me to see why. 

We’re driving along Park Boulevard, making our way out of Joshua Tree National Park and to Joshua Tree Saloon, which a friend recommended. As the sun eases out of the day, the Joshua trees turn black against the dying pink light, their black silhouettes resembling an ink painting. There’s no view starker than that of nature — or more breathtaking. And just when we think it couldn’t get any prettier, we notice a line of cars parked by the side of the road and people standing, pointing their phones and cameras in the same direction. 

“What’s going on?” Anton asks as I whip my head around and yell (more loudly that I should’ve), “Stop!” Anton pulls over quickly, and we hop out of the car. I almost can’t believe it: It’s the sun like I’ve never seen before — big, burning and so full of itself. The shivery, almost-faded glow of the sunset is scattered across the desert, illuminating everything but only just enough. Joshua Tree has, like many before me and many after, lured me in. It grabbed me by the collar and shook me into belief. 

So, what’s so special about Joshua Tree? Well, where do I begin?

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As an Los Angeles-based journalist and fashion writer, Mari Alexander highlights local and global talents through runway reviews, designer interviews, and trend reports.

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