10 Things to Do in the Desert (Besides Joshua Tree)

Jane Pojawa

Climbed every medium-sized and larger boulder in Joshua Tree National Monument? There are still plenty of things to do in the area, even for the rocked-out visitor, and all of them are easy on the most maxxed wallet.

Claude Bell’s Dinosaurs – Everyone who has ever driven out the 10 freeway towards Palm Springs has wondered about those giant dinosaurs at Cabazon, now more famous for its casino. Knott’s Berry Farm sculptor and portrait artist Claude K. Bell (1897-1988) first constructed Dinny (Dine-ee), a 150-ton, larger than life-sized sculpture of an Apatosaurus to attract customers to his Wheel Inn Cafe, which opened in 1958.

Dinny was started in 1964 and created over eleven years out of spare material from the construction of nearby Interstate 10 at a cost of $300,000. In the early ’80s, he was joined by Mr. Rex, a 100-ton Tyrannosaurus. More than just sculptures, the dinosaurs are also functioning buildings.

Improbably, since 1996 they have been owned by a Christian group that uses them to “prove” the case for intelligent design. Still, regardless of your religious proclivities, the Cabazon dinosaurs are first-rate roadside attraction sculptures and a fitting legacy for Claude Bell’s unique genius. Strolling around and picnicking outside is free; admission to the facility is $5.

50800 Seminole Drive
Cabazon, CA 92230-2304
(951) 922-8700

Whitewater Trout Farm – Just a little further down the Interstate 10 is the old Whitewater Trout Farm now re-imagined as the Whitewater Preserve. It’s not just a guys-only fishing hole anymore either, it’s a biodiversity environment lab with hiking trails, a great picnic area and lots of activities – like bird-watching and ranger-led moonlight hikes. And then there are the trout: it turns out that every species of western trout is either threatened or endangered, and down to about 5 percent of their historic range.

The Whitewater Preserve is a great place to spend the day – the log cabin visitor center looks just like a hunting lodge, the ranger cabin is solar-powered. Get a cup of free fish food, feed the trout and enjoy the views of San Gorgornio and San Jacinto. Free!

9160 Whitewater Canyon Rd #549
Whitewater, CA 92282-2102
(760) 325-7222

Take Interstate 10 to Palm Avenue and head north to Desert Hot Springs. While you’re there, you might want to check out one of the many hot springs for which this town is so justifiably famous.

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum – So many of the desert’s monuments involve a motivated individual with unlimited concrete. Case in point: Cabot Yerxa (1883-1965) was known in his lifetime as “The Father of Desert Hot Springs.” Born in Sioux territory at his parent’s trading post, he was guest of Mexican president Porfirio Diaz at the Castillo de Chapultepec in the 1890’s, member of an Inuit household during the heady years of the Alaska gold rush, importer of Cuban cigars following the Spanish-American War, political appointee of Theodore Roosevelt, citrus baron, desert homesteader, discoverer of the aquifers that have made Desert Hot Springs a world-renowned health center, soldier in WWI (where he attained the rank of sergeant with the 345th Battalion Tank Corps), student at Academie Julien in 1920’s Paris, world traveler, city father, Impressionist painter, newspaper columnist, mystic and builder of Desert Hot Spring’s only museum – an epic monument that is an much a sculpture as it is a building.

When he finally “settled down” at the age of 60, it was to build his masterpiece, a sprawling 5,000 square foot, four-story structure inspired by Hopi pueblos and said to contain 35 completed rooms and 150 windows. This structure was primarily designed to be his “castle,” but Yerxa also intended it to house a trading post / art gallery and to function as an artist’s colony. It’s constructed from adobe bricks (fortified with concrete) and completely recycled materials. Cabot referred to this house as “the castle” or “Miracle Hill” in his personal dealings, and named it “Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo” for the public. He had a “trading post” and gave tours of his domicile to tourists out for a day trip. The story of Cabot’s pueblo might be considered to be as strange and wonderful as the story of Cabot himself. It is now a museum and is substantively unchanged from 1965; a slice of local history and desert lore. Seasonal hours vary. Admission to the grounds is free, there’s a very nice trading post/visitor’s center, and docent-guided tours are $10.

67616 Desert View Avenue
Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240-4114
(760) 329-7610

Taking Pierson Avenue west to Highway 62 (towards Joshua Tree) more adventures await.

Desert Christ Memorial Park– There is a sculpture of a saber tooth cat, Smilodon Fatalis, in Yucca Valley’s Triangle Park that is depicted a bit smaller than standard life size, but still looks like she could do some damage. These 450 lb killing machines were a more common sight in Yucca Valley 10,000 years ago. Her creator, Antone Martin (1887-1961), was a true desert eccentric with a mission and that mission was world peace.

So to this end, he created what was known in his lifetime as “Antone Martin Memorial Park” and is now called “The Desert Christ Memorial Park. It’s up the hill from Triangle Park on Mohawk Trail with a great view of the whole valley. As you may have guessed from the name, Christians will get more out of the Desert Christ experience than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean that non-Christians won’t get something from the visit. The park is comprised of about 50 figures constructed over a 10-year period arranged in tableaux that depict Christ’s ministry to regular, common people of both genders and all ages. Basically, one man with a message of peace and compassion. No miracles, no disturbing manger scene, no gruesome crucifixion.

The figures have a real heroic Greek look to them (think Hercules) and the “exile in the wilderness” part has a reclining Buddha feel. The story of Antone Martin is really quite compelling – self-educated, he had a number of jobs before becoming a design engineer for Douglas Aircraft. The park is coming back from years of abuse and neglect – the 1992 Landers quake broke off quite a few noses and hands, and vandalism remains a problem. The park is free to enjoy, although contributions of labor and funds are welcome.

The park is a really nice place to relax, pose for a photo op at The Last Supper, and take in the sweeping Desert Views.

From Interstate 10 take Highway 62 east to Yucca Valley. In Yucca Valley, turn left on Mohawk Trail, and then right on Sunnyslope Drive. The park will be on your left.
6929 Apache Trail,
Yucca Valley, CA 92284

Pioneertown is about 4 ยด miles from Yucca Valley on Pioneertown Road.

Pioneertown – Imagine a western movie set built in the 1940s. Now imagine that the actors never left. Like many things in California, Pioneertown was fake for so long it became real.

Pioneertown boasts a central street – Mane Street and a bowling alley. The Pioneertown Posse entertains with skits and gunfights every weekend through “the season,” and Pappy and Harriet’s is the best honky-tonk featuring the best music and the best Santa Maria barbeque for miles. Prices are moderate, but reservations are recommended. Occasionally there is a $10 cover charge for certain bands. Pictured left are the Mojave Hotshots at Pappy and Harriet’s. There is no charge to visit Pioneertown or to enjoy the family-friendly entertainment of the Pioneertown Posse.

Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace
Thursday-Sunday 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Monday 5 p.m.-12 a.m.
Closed Tuesday and Wednesday
53688 Pioneertown Road
Pioneertown, CA 92268
(760) 365-5956

Head north on Pioneertown Road until you get to Pipes Canyon Road. Pipes Canyon also has a lovely wildlife preserve and was the path Willie Boy, the controversial focus of the Last Western Manhunt, took on his desperate bid for freedom. Take Pipes Canyon Road to Highway 247 and turn left. Turn right on Reche Road, then left on Bellfield Boulevard.

The Integratron – From humble beginnings in Jefferson, Ohio, Van Tassel left a life of stability in the aerospace industry to raise his family in the desolate Mojave Desert.

An encounter with alien spacecraft near the world’s largest monolith, Giant Rock, propelled Van Tassel to national celebrity. His legacy? The Integratron: a device that, had it ever been completed, promised to recharge the cells of the human body to a state of youthful health.

The Integratron is a 38-foot high, 50-foot diameter, non-metallic structure designed by the engineer George Van Tassel as a rejuvenation and time machine. Both public and private events are scheduled throughout the year, but most weekends, public sound baths are available for $10, and the dome is open for self-guided tours for $5 on weekends when public soundbaths are available.

2477 Belfield Boulevard,
Landers, CA 92285
(760) 364-3126

While visiting the Integratron, a side trip to Gubler Orchids is in order. Right across the street, they have thousands of orchids and carnivorous plants growing year-round in their greenhouses. Gubler’s offers free personal tours Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (closed on Sundays and major holidays). For safety reasons, wear closed-toed shoes with non-slip soles – no flip-flops.

2200 Belfield Blvd
Landers, CA 92285-1821
1-800-GUBLERS (482-5377)

Take unpaved Giant Rock Road four miles from the back of the Integraton out to Giant Rock.

Giant Rock – is the world’s largest freestanding boulder. It covers 5,800 square of ground and is seven stories high. It is one of the Chemehuevi Indian’s most sacred sites, and truly ranks as one of the most impressive of California’s geological anomalies.

“Discovered” by German national Frank Critzer, a sometimes gold miner, he hollowed out a cabin in the sand underneath the boulder, then built several roads and an airstrip. He even offered an Easter Sunrise service for pilots flying in for the occasion. In 1942, Critzer died in an explosion while being investigated by Sherriff’s deputies over gasoline theft and alleged pro-Nazi sympathies. Soon after that, George Van Tassel, of Integratron fame, acquired the land and began holding his famous Interplanetary Spacecraft Conventions at the rock.

In 2000, vandals succeeded in breaking the rock revealing the white granite interior. Sadly, it has become a target for taggers and shooters instead of being celebrated for its unique place in geological and cultural history. Shown above, Barbara Harris the producer of RetroUFO. Free!

From Landers, take Highway 247 back to Highway 62 and turn north towards Joshua Tree.

The Joshua Tree Retreat Center – Once known as the Institute of Mentalphysics, the retreat center, in operation since 1941, was founded by Ding Le Mei, aka John Dingle, an Englishman who incorporated Chinese philosophical teachings with New Age Western thought. He attracted thousands of followers, many of whom subscribed to his mail-order self-improvement courses. Frank Lloyd Wright and his son, Lloyd Wright, the architects, designed several of the iconic buildings. The retreat is available for groups and offers a number of programs including yoga and life drawing.

Visitors are welcome, tours of the 408 acre facility, which includes vortexes and a labyrinth, are available for a donation – other charges vary per program. Spa treatments, Native American sweat lodges and various speakers are among the many diversions offered for those seeking spiritual guidance or just relaxation.

59700 29 Palms Hwy.,
Joshua Tree, CA 92252
(760) 365-8371

29 Palms Oasis of Murals – Since its inception in 1995, Action Council for 29 Palms has used murals to beautify the community of Twentynine Palms, and along the way, it has become a symbol of hope to other aging communities around the world. In fact, several times a year other small communities wanting to know how to establish a community mural program contact this organization. Each of the murals depicts an aspect of life in Twentynine Palms, whether that be a historical person or event, or the natural history of the area. Sometimes tours are available through the Schoolhouse Museum http://www.29palmshistorical.com/

But there’s no reason not to go exploring on your own. Here’s a map:

View 29 Palms Murals in a larger map

Twentynine Palms now has around 22 “official” murals and they add a mural every year or two. Happy hunting, while you enjoy the town.

29 Palms Inn – the lovely and historic 29 Palms Inn is a three-generation family-owned business since 1928. Some of the old adobe cabins are still available for overnight guests. The inn offers great food, a full bar, a relaxed, beautiful environment. Visitors may eat inside or out by the pool and a huge organic garden provides much of the food on the upscale menu. Prices are moderate and up; reasonable for the area. There is no charge to explore the historic Oasis of Mara, the garden or the old Chemehuevi burial ground a short distance beyond the oasis.

73950 Inn Ave.
29 Palms, CA 92277
(760) 367-3505

With so much to see and do in the Coachella Valley and Morongo Basin, visitors may return to the desert again and again to enjoy such seasonal entertainment as music and arts festivals or standbys like meditation retreats. Some events are family-friendly and some are geared more towards individuals who just need a break from the day-to-day. However you choose to enjoy Joshua Tree and the vicinity, you’ll never be bored.

View 10 things to do in the desert that aren’t Joshua Tree in a larger map