Trip to the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park & Pioneertown

I thought a perfect debut post for our blog would be our recent trip to the Mojave Desert in California, because it illustrates the way Walter and I typically travel – road trips, exploring national parks, and no sleep.

We had been planning this trip for a while. Walter really wanted to show me the California desert where he spent most of his days in the Marine Corps . He talked about taking me to Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree National Park, the Marine Corps base, and his Freemason mother lodge. It was a memory lane for him – even though most memories were associated with training in misery under the hot desert sun . When his Marine friends heard that he was taking me there, they all seemed perplexed and half-disgusted and asked, “WHY?! That place sucks!”

But for a rookie like me who had never seen a desert, I was really excited. I couldn’t wait to explore Joshua Tree, where all the supposedly Mexican scenes in movies were filmed, the cowboy history in the wild west, and unlocking a whole new part of America I had never seen. Although I don’t care much for pop culture, it’s inevitable not to picture the setting for the song Hotel California, Luke Skywalker’s home in Tatooine, and the Charles Manson murders.

We finally got a chance to make the trip during Walter’s spring break while I took a day off work. So we got three days to make it from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and back!

Trip Outline

3/5 PHL –> LAX

3/6 LA –> Joshua Tree

3/7 Twentynine Palms, Pioneertown, Joshua Tree National Park –> back to LA

3/8 Spent some time in LA, then fly back from LAX –> PHL

Here is the map of the places we went to during this trip. We drove to Joshua Tree from LA, spent a night there, and stopped at 29 Palms, Pioneertown, and Joshua Tree National Park the second day. They’re all along route 62, and Yucca Valley is the biggest town and center point.

Making Our Way to the Mojave Desert

Cars covered in snow in Philadelphia
How we found the parking in our apartment complex on the morning of our trip.

The opening for our trip was simply disastrous. A snowstorm stroke Philly on our departure day, so our scheduled flight was cancelled. We were put on a later flight but we had no way to get to the airport. The train was delayed, cabs couldn’t meet the demand, so eventually we drove ourselves through the snowstorm to the airport. I was scared at first and almost didn’t want to make the trip, but watching Walter drive through the heavy snow with ease and seeing other cars and taxis struggling, I realized this was probably the safest way to get there. I would rather trust my life with my performance driving trained boyfriend than some cab drivers who don’t know what they were doing.

Growing up in Taiwan I never had to put up with snow.  Boston was cold but I could walk to most destinations if I had to. It really wasn’t until I moved to Philly that I started to appreciate warm weather. Not just because I hate the cold, but mostly because time is such an important asset to me. I can’t bare the thought of spending so much time digging the car out of the snow and deicing the windshield just to be stuck in traffic. Granted that it’s a valuable experience and I want to improve my driving skills, alas I am not about to spend the rest of my life dealing with snow. My plan has always been to get the experience, and leave.

Car covered during snowstrom in Philadelphia
Our trusted steed, a 528i rear wheel drive station wagon where we sleep in the back most of our road trips.

We got to the airport only to find out that it was too late to check in to our rescheduled flight, so we had to wait for the next flight. By the time we arrived in Los Angeles, we were six hours behind our schedule. We took a nap at Walter’s home in LA, spent some time with his family and dog, and started to get ready for our drive to Joshua Tree.

We were expecting a pleasant drive with a beautiful sunset hitting the Mojave Desert and Joshua Trees and the two of us alone leaving the world behind. However, the drive turned out to be a struggle…the traffic was horrible! Walter kept saying that for the four years he drove between the Marine Corps base and LA, he had never encountered such bad traffic. Later we found out that the traffic was typical for a Friday afternoon when people from the greater Los Angeles area all flock to the desert towns for the weekend. Walter had just always driven the opposite direction – going back to LA on Fridays and returning to the base on Sundays.

Traffic on interstate 10 to Palm Springs, CA
The I-10 Eastbound leads to resort town Palm Springs, CA, and the lesser known desert towns like 29 Palms.

A three hour drive became four hours and we had missed the desert sunset. Traffic cleared up as we exited Interstate 10 and entered Route 62. Driving eastward on Route 62 you will pass by Yucca Valley, the biggest town in the area with larger chain restaurants and shops on the sides. We stopped by the Walmart in Yucca Valley to buy some sandals for Walter and continued our journey towards Joshua Tree. Compared to Yucca Valley, the neighboring town of Joshua  Tree has a small town feel with local businesses scattered along Route 62. We watched the large chain restaurants turn into independent shops and boutiques as we drove through Route 62, and stopped for some delicious Thai food.

The last shade of the nautical twilight had faded away when we finally got to Joshua Tree, but luckily what greeted us was a full desert moon – a huge, golden yellow moon that had just risen from the horizon. Living in a city you could seldom see a moon rising from the horizon. As I was mesmerized by the beautiful moon and my mind wandering about the astronomical achievements the human race had reached, our GPS suddenly shouted “turn right to the unpaved road!” We almost missed it so Walter made a sharp turn, and all of a sudden we found ourselves off-roading in the desert sand.

Dark desert road in Joshua Tree, CA
Unpaved desert roads lead to mail boxes and people’s homes!

Without the car headlights the roads were completely dark. Being in a desert for the first time, I was amazed by what I saw – sand, some plants, and nothing else. There were a couple homes scattered in the area which is even more fascinating to me because this desert doesn’t seem very habitable at all.  I have traveled to some pretty remote places such as Montana, Central Pennsylvania, Norway and country side Switzerland and saw how people lived there, but America never ceases to surprise me with its diversity. It’s rare to find a country with such a  wide spectrum of diversity on culture, climate, and landscape.

Mojave Desert shrub and moon
Cellphone cameras didn’t do justice to the beautiful desert moon unobstructed by buildings or light pollution.

After making a couple turns doubting whether the GPS reception was still functioning, we arrived at our camp site, the Bonita Domes. It was a rather rare instance where we booked a room for the night. Usually we just sleep in the car if it’s a short trip. But this time Walter went on airbnb and booked a “pod” here for us to stay the night because he had driven by these dome looking architectures several times and had always wondered what they were.

These domes were a little hard to describe. They reminded me of Mongolian tents but looked like they were made from clay. They certainly look out of this world – like Luke Skywalker’s home on Tatooine. The owner Lisa was there waiting for us and she generously showed us the area and checked us in. She showed us our room which was a pod independent from her home. She explained that the domes were made from a mix of soil and cement. She built everything on her own because she wanted a home that was as sustainable, simple, and earthy as possible.

Bonita Domes - Luke Skywalker's home
The Skywalkers let us stay the night in the desert.

We were the only guests staying there that night, so despite being exhausted from the travelling, we loved having the place for ourselves and couldn’t help but to explore the area. The Bonita Domes were sitting on a hill above the main raods, so we could see the night scene of downtown Joshua Tree along with a beautiful starry night.

Stars and Joshua Tree night scene
A gazebo bar and kitchen overlook Joshua Tree, CA from the Bonita Domes camp site. A beautiful bonfire pit lies next to it.

We tried capturing the pods under the stars. With the beautiful stars, the desert breeze, and the sound of howling coyotes, this felt like an ideal camping trip.

Bonita Domes
A bit of blur accentuates the stars at night…but it was difficult to get the right exposure .

In the morning we took better pictures of the pods. The upper part of the wooden door flips down so you can stick your head out. The pod was pretty small so the two of us and our luggage pretty much filled up the whole space.

Setting up camera
Me setting up the camera and tripod.

Bonita Domes - pod

Bonita Domes Pod Inside
All packed up and reluctantly ready to leave our comfy pod

The area looked different in the morning. I was surprised to see what I thought were dirt piles behind our pod were actually some brutal looking mountains. I was lazy and chose not to shower, so I went on exploring the desert landscape for the first time while Walter took a shower.

Walter and pods
Walter in his old combat uniform blouse and boots getting ready to leave the Bonita Domes.

The shower room, toilet, and kitchen area were shared but everything was clean. There was even a bonfire area with firewood and blankets.

Bonita Domes shower
The whole campsite was adorned with earthly statues and such. A mermaid sits outside the Bonita Domes shower structure.
Joshua Tree morning
The gazebo bar during the day time. We didn’t have the time to stick around and cook breakfast.

I went off to take pictures of these hell-looking mountains. Walter said they had to sleep on similar ones during their training in the Marine Corps! The sun was really bright but luckily it wasn’t hot in March. We were pounding water all day but in the end we didn’t even sweat much. Walter said it was a pity that I didn’t get the full desert experience of sweating and dehydrating under the brutal sun.

Joshua Tree rocky mountains
The hills from hell.

Eva and rock mountains in Joshua Tree, CA

Desert road in Joshua Tree, CA
The unpaved desert roads are easy to drive in and invite you to spend more time exploring the desert.
Cactus in Joshua Tree, CA
Early spring in the desert is very lively – shrubs that will become tumble weeds have green on them!

Down the Memory Lane – Twentynine Palms

After packing up and getting some breakfast, our adventure in the desert finally began! We started by heading towards the Marine Corps Base area in Twentynine Palms. I had heard so much about this place in Walter’s conversations with his Marines and I was excited to finally visit. Walter pointed out the restaurants they used to dine in, his tattoo parlor, the back roads he used to take, along with the anecdotes that came with them as we drove down the huge open roads with two rows of palm trees on the sides. It felt so weird thinking that he had lived such a different life before we met.

Twentynine Palms, CA Welcome signs
The Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGGC) in 29 Palms holds the 7th regiment. At any given time any of their battalions could be receiving a welcome from a weary combat deployment.
Twentynine Palms, CA Welcome signs 2
Walter and I at the city entrance.

Coming from Joshua Tree, we made a left onto Adobe Road from Route 62 and the Marine Corps base lies at the end of it. The 10-minute drive on Adobe Road wasn’t particularly scenic, but I really appreciate the straight, open roads and the beautiful blue sky. That’s something you don’t get everyday in the east coast.

We can’t enter the base without an active duty military ID, but on our way back Walter showed me the back-roads he used to take to avoid traffic. Instead of getting right back on Route 62, we took Indian Trail from Adobe Road and made a left on Lear Avenue to reach Route 62 again. Compared to the highway, the back roads were less busy and spread out, so you could really feel the vastness of the desert land.

Backroads to Twentynine Palms CA
Desolate desert roads are prone to floods during the couple days of rain they get.

We took a time-lapse video of our drive from Twentynine Palms all the way through our journey in Joshua Tree National Park. I will post it once I finish editing. The Cali weather was so perfect that the pictures didn’t need much post-production.

Visiting the American Frontier- Pioneertown

Huge cactus in Pioneertown
You can only imagine how the Lewis-Clark expedition had to draw cactus for the first time ever to show civilization back in the east.

Pioneertown was built in the 40s as a film setting for Hollywood so it’s more than anything just a tourist attraction. However, I really enjoyed the scenic drive from Yucca Valley to Pioneertown and learning more about the Wild West history and seeing how the towns looked like.

Pioneer Road - beautiful drive
A decrepit yet charming road from Rt. 62 leads you through scenic rocky hills to arrive at Pioneertown.

We drove from 29 Palms west on Route 62 and got on the Pioneertown Road from Yucca Valley. The five mile drive on the winding Pioneertown Road was absolutely beautiful. The hills on the sides were piled up with rocks and scattered with thin vegetation. You really got to appreciate life here because the Mojave Desert experiences extreme weather changes throughout the year. Not only does it endure both the brutal sun in summer and snowstorms during winter, but it is also prone to wildfires in the dry season and flash floods in the rainy season. I love it whenever I see life thriving in extreme environments because it reminds me of the determination to survive that is also within us.

The landscape was so fascinating that we stopped a couple times to climb around the mountain rocks and take pictures.

Rock mountains on Pioneer Road
During spring time, the bright green vegetation looks lovely juxtaposed to the sandy rocks.
Walter and rock mountains on Pioneer Road.
This tree stood out amid the rocks.
The tree of death on pioneer road
Walter said it’s a rare sight to see so much green in the desert.

Pioneer road & rock mountains

The first impression I had on Pioneertown was the smell and sound of horses. The sound of horses and human chatter became clearer as we crossed over the fence on to Mane Street. The setting of the old west town and cowboys riding their horses around puts you immediately back in the 1800s. I felt like we should have dressed up for it!

Pioneertown Old West town
An old west general store with an Oregon Trail looking wagon in the alley.
Pioneertown big cactus
This cactus was at least 20 feet high!
American cowboys in Pioneertown
Real life cowboys enjoying a stroll in their steeds.

I’ve always thought that if I could choose when to be alive, I would want to live in the 16, 17th century to explore the new world continents or the 22nd century to explore the galaxy. But being a pioneer in the Old West pushing westward of the country exploring previously undiscovered lands would be an exciting time to live in, too. In fact, I have always found American history very interesting because it is a nation founded very recently by settlers. It is the adventure-seeking genes and a culture that encourages curiosity that makes Americans more willing to take risks, fight for their beliefs, and pursue freedom. Coming from an Asian society where unison is valued over individual freedom, I really appreciate these American values.

Our stop at Pioneertown was brief but I love how it brought me closer to Old West history by showing me what a town back then looked like.

Town jail in Pioneertown, CA
Since Walter is such a trouble maker, I thought it would be a good idea to put him in the town jail and let the sheriff decide what to do with him!

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park road
The well-maintained roads of Joshua Tree National Park are lined with the strange looking Joshua trees.

Our last stop in the Mojave Desert was Joshua Tree National Park. This is what I had been expecting the most because I love visiting national parks and we always try to find new ones to visit when we travel. Walter had been here a couple times already. Growing up in LA and being stationed in 29 Palms, to him Joshua Tree National Park was his backyard. He told me stories of him and his Marine buddy exploring the park and going in the abandoned mines that were pitch black. They could only see for a second when the camera flashlight lit up as they took pictures and eventually they had to turn back in fear of running out of oxygen. After hearing about his bad-ass stories, I couldn’t wait to explore Joshua Tree National Park!

Joshua Tree National Park used to be a National Monument, only gaining National Park status in the 90s, the locals still refer to it as “The Monument.” It has three main entrances, Walter used to take the North Entrance because he would drive from his base in 29 Palms, but this time we took the West Entrance closer to Joshua Tree because we had just toured Pioneertown.

We went there on a Saturday so the park was packed with visitors. I watched a 30-minute documentary at the park visitor center while Walter waited in line to pay the entrance and get advice from the park rangers (with his Active Duty Military ID he never had to pay). The documentary gave an introduction of the National Park and talked about the delicate ecosystem. Joshua Tree National Park is actually composed of two deserts – the Mojave Desert in the west and the Colorado Desert in the east. They are divided by the 3000 feet mark above sea level and have very different ecosystems.

The Mojave “high” desert is 3000 feet above sea level and is typically identified by the presence of Joshua Trees. At first I didn’t know what was so delicate about these awkward-looking Joshua Trees because they had been everywhere since we got to the desert area, but the documentary went on to explain how they would only flower after a winter freeze and even if they flower, there is only one kind of moth in the world that could spread their pollen. The symbiotic relationship between the Yucca moth and Joshua Tree is really delicate and vulnerable to climate change.

Well, that explains why Joshua Trees are protected and I certainly appreciate them more. I noticed that once we were inside the park, the Joshua Trees were significantly bigger than the ones in town. We stopped by a really big one and took pictures.

Huge Joshua Tree at Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Trees can grow over 40 ft. tall! Acres upon acres of the National Park are covered with them, but this is one of the biggest we saw on the main road.

For this trip we set up a few attractions we wanted to visit such as Keys View, Barker Dam, Hidden Valley, etc. but from our experiences we realized that what happens in between destinations are usually better. Like the one time we found wild blackberries while driving down country side North Carolina or the time we tried to get to a river in Mammoth Cave National Park and ended up sliding down the mud getting all dirty. So when we travel, we usually make spontaneous stops whenever we see something interesting.

The next place we stopped was one of those. As we drove down the roads in the park, we stopped by a pile of rock mountains (which were everywhere in the park) and thought we should climb to the top and see the view from there. I thought the formation of these piled rocks was really interesting, too. They were basically the result of volcanic activity and as the rocks kept pushing up, they interacted with groundwater resulting in rounded edges. The surface soil eventually eroded leaving the bare rocks we see today.

Pile of rocks in Joshua Tree National Park
Ready to tackle this thing!

The pile of rocks we climbed consisted of smaller rocks and they had a nice grip, so we were able to climb them without  any rock climbing equipment (not that I know how to use it anyways). I saw many people with professional rock climbing gear climbing bigger rocks in other parts of the park.

Climbing rocks at Joshua Tree National Park
Our Marine Corps issued boots gripped perfectly on the sediment rocks. These were given to me by Walter’s Marine brother.

Walter climbing rocks at Joshua Tree National Park

It was fun climbing around and making our way through the cracks and holes in between the rocks. It was not my first time climbing around in national parks but I still got nervous and my legs would shiver when I had to jump through bigger gaps. I found that every time I travel to the wilderness, I always need some time to awaken the other side of me. Exploring new places in the wild always seems a little scary at first but once I take the first leap, it immediately turns into “woohoo! I almost forgot how awesome this is!” The tip is that you can’t think about it too much because it is all in your head. Amazingly, I always feel more confident about myself every time I go on adventures in the wilderness.

Not many people understand how physical activity can fuel mental strength. I think nothing builds confidence faster than conquering something you really fear – cliff jumping, sky diving, anything. Life is full of unexpected challenges and no one can be experienced in everything. So what is more important is having the confidence of knowing that you’ll be able to handle any challenge that comes your way. While experience is something people can always gain, true confidence can only be achieved through challenging oneself.

In between rocks and cracks in Joshua Tree National Park
Getting some shade in between the rocks.
Walter climbing rocks
Here you can see the rough surface of these rocks. They’re easy to climb as anything can find grip on them.
Walter pushing huge rock
You can’t go exploring around without bringing some water with you, we both stuck a bottle in our rugged “man-pants.” He’ll need all the water he can get to push that rock on top of me!

Eva climbing rocks at Joshua Tree National Park

We finally made our way up the rocks and the view was beautiful!

View of Joshua Tree National Park from high up
Endless Joshua Trees fill up every square meter of the National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park landscape

To me, climbing these rocks was the highlight of our trip because the view is so much more rewarding when you actually worked and sweat for it.

The remaining of the post will be a series of pictures we took at different parts of the park.

Keys View

This is a photogenic point at an elevation of 5000 feet where you can overlook the beautiful mountains and deserts.

Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park
San Jacinto Mountains beyond the National Park
Eva at Keys View, Joshua Tree, CA
The view is as breath-taking as the view from Cadillac Mt. in Acadia National park across the country in Maine.

Walter throwing a rock at Joshua Tree Keys View

Barker Dam

This historical dam was built in the 1900s to hold water for farming and mining use. This popular trail was filled with visitors, so we ran through the one-mile trail and finished everything in 20 minutes.

Barker Dam, Joshua Tree National Park
The life source for early pioneers
Barker Dam at Joshua Tree, CA
You can see the different water levels from the past left their marks on the rocks.
Walter and Barker Dam
Barker Dam is a rugged man-made wall that has survived nature’s forces.

The rocks looked beautiful when the afternoon sunlight hit and we climbed more rocks around the Barker Dam trail area!

Barker Dam nature trail sunset

Joshua Tree National Park rock climbing
The trail to Barker dam is tailored for civilian traffic and families, but you can’t miss on the opportunity to detour for some quick exploration!

Cholla Cactus Garden

The Cholla Cactus Garden was the last place we stopped by before losing sunlight. We spent too much time climbing rocks so we had to rush here to catch the sunset, as key attractions are several miles from each other on one-lane roads. The sunset hitting the cacti was beautiful. There is nothing more romantic than watching sunset in a desert filled with tall cacti. I was amazed by the cacti surrounding me that were my height. I can only imagine how beautiful it would be when they flower.

Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park
The Cholla Cactus Garden is hugged by a mountain ridge all around, creating a unique ambiance during sun set.

Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park

Cholla Cactus Garden during sunset
There’s something about seeing so many of these guys fill the area, words cannot describe the sunset staining the surrounding mountains.
Human height cacti at Cholla Cactus Garden
This is one trail we wouldn’t deviate from

Walking among cacti at Cholla Cactus Garden

As the sun was setting we prepared ourselves for our journey back. We both didn’t want to end our trip yet and Walter suggested we drive to Death Valley National Park three hours north of the Mojave. We had almost 24 hours before our flight back to Philly so theoretically we could have done it, but we decided it was better to spend time with the family. Plus, Death Valley National Park is on my top list of national parks to visit, so I really want to have the time to enjoy it. With Walter’s family in LA, I know there are plenty of opportunities in the future where we can make it to Death Valley.

We exited Joshua Tree National Park from the North Exit in Twentynine Palms and before we drove back to LA, we made a quick stop at the Palms Restaurant in 29 Palms. Walter wanted to show me this funky bar that he had visited once. This local bar was a little hidden, heading towards the base on Adobe road, turn right on Amboy road and head east until the sign. The drive there was really dark and felt like the opening of the Eagles song “Hotel California,” but we would never have missed the bright “Palms Restaurant” sign as it was pretty much the only lit structure in the area.

The Palms Restaurant at 29 Palms, CA
On a dark desert highway, cool wind on my hair…up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light, it led to The Palms Restaurant!

I looked up this restaurant before coming and people describe it as a David Lynch movie. Even through the drive here was a little creepy, the bar was surprisingly lively inside. The indoor telephone booth, homemade t-shirts, and desert decor gave character to this little joint. We both got a drink and enjoyed the last moments of our Mojave Desert trip.

As we walked out of the restaurant, we were mesmerized by what we saw – the dark, night sky was sprinkled with the brightest stars we’ve seen since this trip. We tried capturing the starry night by lighting up the palm tree with our phone flashlight. I usually get headaches when I start thinking about the vast universe and exoplanets that could sustain life, but with the desert breeze caressing my face and the beer I just had pumping in my veins, I didn’t dwell on it too much and decided to let this beautiful starry night be the perfect finale for our trip.

Palm tree and starry night at Twentynine Palms, CA
Orion’s Belt stands out from countless stars – really, you can count the ones the city, but not here.

We returned to snow-covered Philadelphia at 6 am in the morning on Monday, right in time for me to get to work. Not many people understand the way we travel and why it seems like we’re always travelling. We don’t have more time than other people, but we grasp every second we have and make it count. Having to work when you just returned from a trip sucks, but I would trade the travel experience over sleep over and over again. I am really happy that we made the Cali trip and learned so much about the Mojave Desert and its history, ecosystem, and the lifestyle there.

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