Joshua Trees and Other Strange Desert Plants

From Death Valley, we headed south towards the next destination on our Tin Sheets in the Desert trip, Joshua Tree National Park. En route we traveled through huge expanses of, well, nothing but desert. We’ve been through different parts of the Mojave on previous trips and we knew there was a lot of desert, but until you’ve driven for multiple hours and through hundreds of miles of it, you really can’t wrap your head around its true scale. While driving though the empty expanses of desert, we were excited to find that our route took us through the small town of Amboy, about 60 miles northeast of Twentynine Palms, where we stayed while visiting Joshua Tree.

Why are we excited about a dusty town with ten buildings and four residents, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever seen this photo, then you know why. Route 66, the very road that inspired our creation and that we will be traveling the length of starting in less than four weeks, passes through Amboy. Roy’s is one of the most photographed remaining places on Route 66 and every time we pass through here, we can’t help but stop and take pictures. Should you find yourself in the middle of the Mojave, definitely take the time to swing through this once-hopping little stop. After trying not to be too excited about our upcoming Route 66 trip, we hit the road again and headed towards Twentynine Palms to check out Joshua trees and other strange desert plants.

What to Do: Drive to Keys View
In comparison to other national parks, Joshua Tree is relatively small in size, which makes it easier to see much of the park in a short amount of time. If climbing and hiking aren’t your thing, or it’s just too darn hot to be moving around (the average temperatures for July and August are 100º and 99º, respectively), hop into your nice air-conditioned car and make the 20-minute drive from Park Boulevard up to Keys View. The overlook itself isn’t dog-friendly, but it’s just a short, steep walk up the path to get incredible views so your furry friend can hang out in the car, if the weather is cool enough.

The drive itself is pretty, but the views are the real draw. We had a bit of hazy day from the less-than-great air quality that is more prevalent recently; however, if you have the opportunity to head up in the morning, we have read that the chances of a clear view are better. From the overlook, you have panoramic views that include Mount San Jacinto, which has a 10,000 foot elevation gain from valley floor to peak in just seven miles (one of the most significant in the contiguous U.S.), the mid-century modern mecca of Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley, the sad remains of the once hopping Salton Sea, and on a really clear day (which apparently doesn’t happen often), Signal Mountain in Mexico about 90 miles away. Regardless of the weather, it is well worth your time to take the drive up to Keys View.

What to See: Joshua Trees and Other Strange Desert Plants
Yucca brevifolia, more commonly known as a Joshua tree, is admittedly one of the stranger looking trees out there. Given its name by the Mormons who recalled a biblical story in which Joshua raised his hands to the sky in prayer, the species is native to the Southwestern U.S. and the trees are found almost entirely within the Mojave Desert. Driving through a forest of Joshua trees gives one the feeling of being on another planet; in fact, we kept waiting for one of those goofy 1960s masked creatures from Star Trek to jump out from behind the rocks. As the namesake of the park and definitively unique, be sure to set aside some time to drive the entire Park Boulevard loop and just stare in awe at these crazy trees.

If you head south through the park along Pinto Basin Road, where the Mojave Desert becomes the Colorado Desert, the Joshua trees cease and different other-worldly looking flora begins. Beyond the main part of the park, the wide-open spaces of the desert begin to return and before you know it, you find yourself in the Cholla Cactus Garden. As you can imagine, there are many species of cacti throughout the park, but a stop to see the cholla cactus, also known as teddy bear cactus because of its cuddliness (just kidding- although it looks fluffy and friendly, it’s actually covered in barbed spikes), is well worth the time. Heat tolerant up to 138º and often having its own temperature rise to nearly 60º more than the air temperatures, these are some tough little dudes. Travel a little further south and you’ll encounter the tall, spindly-looking Ocotillo plant. Not actually a cactus, the Ocotillo is native to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, but some have found their way into Southern California. There is small roadside stop with more information and a spot to take some photos of the Ocotillo Patch, and the Cholla Cactus Garden has a quarter-mile nature trail, which we didn’t unfortunately didn’t have a chance to explore. With both of these plants having such a small growing area, it’s well worth the time to make the drive on Pinto Basin Road. As an added bonus, this is the fastest way to get to Palm Springs and get your mid-century modern fix!

What to Eat: Glazed Donut from The Jelly Donut
Normally, we’d review any donut discoveries made in the Donut Digest, but we decided to share this one as it was a highlight of our stay in Twentynine Palms. Located just around the corner from our lodging on the main road through town, The Jelly Donut is housed in what we assume was a former service station (points for kitsch). Don’t let the sleepy appearance deter you (we weren’t even sure they were open), this is the real deal: family-owned, donuts made fresh daily, and just plain tasty. Walking into the shop was like stepping into the donut shops of our childhood, it was sparsely decorated with an old-school plastic menu, a glass case full of donuts, and pink boxes. Nothing says legit donut shop like pink boxes. As always, we purchased a selection of donuts and ultimately chose to review the traditional glazed.

After searching high and low for notes about this donut, we realized that at the time that we enjoyed this donut, the Donut Digest did not yet exist; that inspiration would come a few days later when we stopped in Flagstaff, Arizona. Without notes and a few months having passed, we can’t recall the specifics about flavor; but we both remember the amazingly fluffy texture and upon referencing our travel notes found “best glazed donut” (Jay) and “amazeballs” (Jen). Even without notes, we know that we were seriously impressed by this most simple of donuts and highly recommend making it a stop on any trip to Joshua Tree.

Where to Stay:
29 Palms Inn, Twentynine Palms, CA
Within sight of the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor’s Center and sitting atop the eastern end of the Oasis of Mara is the historic 29 Palms Inn. While the inn has only been serving travelers since 1928, the story of it begins over 9,000 years ago. The Oasis of Mara was originally settled by the Serrano, the indigenous people of California that lived in the Mojave Desert. According to legend, they chose the area and named it Mara, which meant place of “little rain and much grass”, at the suggestion of a medicine man, who also instructed them to plant a palm tree each time a boy was born. In the first year, they planted 29 trees and the Oasis of Mara, as we know it, was born.

Within the property’s 70 acres are some historic 1920s wood frame cabins, 1930s adobe bungalows, and a few larger guest houses, most of which are dog-friendly; as well as a year-round heated pool and restaurant. We stayed in one of the abode bungalows, the Forget-Me-Not. Not only did it maintain a historic feel from the small courtyard with two 1960s era chaise loungers, but the interior of the bungalow with its concrete block walls and vintage bathroom, also felt true to its era. One of the best features of the room was the actual wood burning fireplace. Supplied with stacks of wood and matches, there was no way we could resist building a fire each night. Other amenities included complementary snacks (juice, coffee, fruit, pastries) each morning, and the on-site restaurant which is available for lunch and dinner. One of the two nights that we stayed, we enjoyed dinner at the dog-friendly tables near the pool with its very mid-century era vibe. While nothing we ate was amazing, it was still good and we really enjoyed the poolside views with a few glasses of some local-ish wines. Everyone at the inn made us and Finley feel incredibly welcome, which combined with the proximity to the Joshua Tree park entrance and cool vintage vibe, make this a place that we would definitely stay at again!

Roadside Stop: Salvation Mountain and Slab City
Just north of Mexico, in Niland, California, sits a hill made of adobe, straw, car parts, tree stumps, and lots and lots of paint. Salvation Mountain was first created in 1984 by a local resident from nearby Slab City, Leonard Knight, as a way to share the message of “God is Love”. Sadly, the first mountain collapsed, but he rebuilt in 1989 (and built and built), eventually creating the mountain that exists today. Although he passed away in 2014, his labor of love lives on through the countless volunteers that maintain the artwork and the many visitors that donate paint to keep the project alive.

People and dogs on leash are welcome to explore the property and check out the different “buildings”, passageways, nooks, and crannies. A unique roadside attraction, Salvation Mountain is definitely worth a stop to admire someone’s vision to create a 50-foot high, 150-foot wide tribute to love. And also, because it’s kitschy as heck!

On the road, just beyond Salvation Mountain lies the entrance to Slab City. If you thought Salvation Mountain was “interesting”, the fun continues as you enter into what at first resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Upon closer inspection, you’ll realize that there are fantastically adorned RVs, trucks, trailers, cars, and tents. Taking its name from the concrete slabs of the abandoned Marine Corps barracks of Camp Dunlap upon which much of the city lies, Slab City has been a warm weather respite since 1965 for those from colder climates in the winter and full-time home to numerous squatters and others wishing to live off-the-grid year-round. Not just a place to park your trailer, it has the makings of a true community with a library, skate park, golf course (no grass, of course), and outdoor stage for music. With no running water, electricity, sewer, or trash pick-up, Slab City residents live simply with generators or solar panels and a single communal shower; and with no charge to stay, it has earned the title of “the last free place in America”.

If you feel like you stepped into the set for Mad Max, you’re not alone. We took a quick drive through town to get a feel for the area and imagined what it might be like to live off-the-grid. While definitely a roadside stop/drive-through worth adding to your list, we admit that we really like hot showers and the ability to binge on Westworld or Better Call Saul, so we probably won’t be making that move anytime soon.

Roadside Stop: The Salton Sea
In the middle of the Sonoran Desert, not far from the U.S.-Mexico border, lies the Salton Sea. Formed in the early 20th Century when the Colorado River escaped irrigation control constraints near Yuma, Arizona and flooded the area known as the Salton Sink, it grew to be over 400 square miles before levees were built to stanch the flow. The largest lake in California at the time, it became a popular destination for tourists and celebrities. At one time, the “Salton Riviera” was so popular that it attracted more visitors than the always-packed Yosemite National Park and was a serious rival to Palm Springs.

Traveling from Joshua Tree, we approached the sea from the north and headed down the eastern shore. After traveling through the town of Mecca and numerous vineyards and groves of date palms, our first stop was the “resort” town of Bombay Beach. Once a thriving resort community, it is now home to less than 300 residents, with portions of the original town now completely submerged or half-buried in mud. One of the lowest towns in the North America at 223 feet below sea level, residents can be seen driving around in golf carts, as the nearest gas station is 20 miles away, and/or hanging out at the Ski Inn, the only bar in town. We took a quick drive through town and made it as far as 5th Street, where we ran into some of the submerged part of town, before turning around and continuing our drive around the lake.

On the west side of the lake, Salton City was created in the 1950s by a real estate developer and the Holly Sugar Corporation. Sadly, due to its isolated location and the unexplained sudden withdrawal of its developer, it never really found success; and eventually rising sea levels, increased salinity, and pollution sealed its fate. Now, not much remains beyond some small neighborhoods, a few remaining businesses, and wide boulevards devoid of houses that run right up the sea. There are still some residents in Salton City, mostly in relatively modern-looking ranch homes clustered together. Beyond those small neighborhoods, the open roads head towards the sea before eventually stopping at a sign that is fittingly marked “End”. Just up the road in Salton Sea Beach, we drove into town and discovered what remained of the bustling waterfront area, which is now home to the empty shells of former businesses and houses, dead palm trees, and a substantial amount of graffiti. For the second time in as many days, we felt like we’d ended up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Even if abandoned buildings and the sad remnants of a once-hopping mid-century resort aren’t your thing, it’s still an interesting stop and a neat part of Southern California tourism history.