California’s Mohave Desert wasn’t just a remote retreat; it was the kickoff to seven months of global travel for our family. Along with the arid environment and expansive views came all of our emotional baggage – the slow adjustment to life without 9-to-5 jobs (and steady income), nearby family and friends, and the transition to full-time parenting and 24/7 general togetherness.
If you’d asked me prior to our departure which destination I was looking forward to most, it was this one. For no greater reason than the fact that it meant we’d actually done it: left our jobs, packed up our children, boarded a plane, rented a car, stepped inside our first vacation rental and locked the door behind us.
And did the desert ever serve its purpose. Slowly, we unwound our spiraling minds and relaxed our tense shoulders. It felt special and sacred. And otherworldly.
The best part is that you don’t need to be launching an out-of-your-comfort-zone journey to appreciate the magic that the desert has to offer. The golden sunrises above dusty dunes, the mountains made of clay-colored boulders, the velvety blanket of starry skies each night. It’s beautiful, and for as remote as it feels, there’s also plenty of ways to fill your days (should you wish) if you position yourself strategically.
Our vacation rental was located about 15 minutes north of the highway that stretches between the towns of Joshua Tree and Twenty-Nine Palms. The primary perks of this location is a) that it was an easy 2.5-hour drive from the Los Angeles airport and b) that it was relatively inexpensive. It was also adorable and comfortable, if not a bit worn and creaky from those harsh desert winds.
We set up camp in the three-bedroom abode, stocked the refrigerator at the local Stater Bros. grocery, adjusted the hot tub temperature and explored the grounds. The home didn’t have Wifi or televisions, which felt a little bit magical at times but downright frustrating at other times. It was ideal for our purpose, in theory. And while you could happily lounge in the lovely isolation of this place, there’s too much within close proximity to overlook, namely the gorgeous Joshua Tree National Park.
Here’s how we spent our time:
Joshua Tree National Park
A palette of warm tones sweeps across the park, which stretches over vast desert expanse and boulder mountains. It’s dotted throughout with its namesake Joshua Trees, twisted arms and all, which Trevor geniusly described as a visual blend of a cactus, palm tree and maple tree. But prettier than the trees perhaps, are the rock formations that feel downright otherworldly. You can spend days hiking and climbing here, but we opted to pop in and out of the park daily, taking advantage of short trails and lookouts when we had the chance.
- Arch and Heart Rock: Just shy of 1.5 miles, this popular trail takes you off the main road to a rock arch that you can scramble up and further off, to a heart-shaped rock standing on its tip. An easy, flat trail with great photo opps.
- Skull Rock: Just like it sounds, a big old skull-shaped rock that’s right off the side of the main park road. Simply park and explore. Head to the other side of the road to find a rock tunnel that Mack ran through over and over, and over.
- Barker Dam: A winding one-mile loop that snakes along a sometimes full dam and through flat desert vistas. Requires a bit of rock navigation but also features petroglyphs.
- Keys View: Breathtaking views over the valley and San Adreas Fault, which happen to be totally spectacular at sunset. Wear loads of layers; it’s windy up there.
Joshua Tree, the Town
A blink-and-you-might-miss-it town that’s worth a stop to explore. You can park near the corner of Highway 62 and Park Blvd., and check out:
- World Famous Crochet Museum: The tiniest and most endearing “museum” you’ll ever see
- Coyote Corner Gift Shop: A tiny gift shop packed to the brim with small and sweet curiosities
- Joshua Tree Coffee Company: A popular stop for brews and bagged coffee beans (though they’ll grind it for you if needed!)
- The Station: You’ll see the tall cowboy statue first. Follow it for cold drinks, cute tees and vintage kids ride-ons.
On Saturdays, head into the Farmers Market to pick up fresh fruit, meats, baked goods and kombucha.
An old western movie set that, while occasionally used for films, has actual shops and restaurants and is open to the public. I read that it was particularly kid friendly and also that it was best to stop on the weekend mornings, when you were likely to see more open storefronts. We headed over on Saturday and walked the grounds, popped into shops and grabbed a quick lunch at The Red Dog Saloon.
Just outside of town, you’ll find Yucca Valley, the closest “big town” to Joshua Tree. Bypass the big box stores and scope out the small plazas for charming shops and cafes; find indulgent and incredible pastries at the Jelly Donut, but get there before they sell out for the day.
Dip Into Wellness
If you’re seeking reconnection with yourself, the desert seems to be a natural place to do it. During our stay, I began the slow process of practicing yoga again and started with a Hatha Flow and Soundbath class at Cedar and Sage Wellness Studio in Yucca Valley (highly recommend). Trevor hiked solo. And along the route, I spied several intriguing spaces, including the rock labyrinth at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center that are geared toward spirituality and wellness.
About an hour’s drive away, you can’t head this way without a day trip into Palm Springs. You can simply drive through the city and neighborhoods, soaking up the mid-century design aesthetic, but it’s worthwhile to plan for lunch (and date shakes), if not an afternoon lounging by a pool with a drink in hand. The shopping is great, there are a handful of great spa options, and you’ll find tons of adorable accommodations. Or, if you’re day tripping with kids in tow, you can visit the zoo, or simply hit up the playground after walking town like we did.
Quick Tip: If you’re considering a trip, you might want to check out Joshua Tree Autocamp, a collection of high design Airstream trailers and amenities located just outside of town. Also worth a look is the Hi Desert Dwellings vacation rental collection, which manages the home that we rented as well as several other appealing options.