Home » High Desert Dreaming In Southern California

High Desert Dreaming In Southern California

by Jason Heidemann
Joshua Tree National Park (Photo by Dragos Ness)

To be clear, a gay mecca it is not (yet anyway), but a homo hangout it has definitely become.

Joshua Tree National Park (Photo by Dragos Ness)

It’s a beautiful morning in the High Desert, the vast, prickly paradise in Southern California famous around the world for its abundance of Joshua trees, which dot the stark landscape like the resilient early frontier folk who once settled here.

A constant onslaught of winter storms has brought snowcapped mountains and scattered greenery to the area and the resulting scenery is extraordinarily vivid. It’s like I’m seeing the landscape through an old View Master.

I’ve just saddled up to the bar at Red Dog Saloon (53539 Mane St, Pioneertown. Tel: 760-228-9047. RedDogPioneertown.com) in Pioneertown where “Black Jack County Chain” by Justin Tubb is playing on the jukebox, his velvety voice bouncing off the tin ceiling and filling up the room. But I look around and realize, there’s no jukebox at all. At the bar’s end I see a skinny hipster with stringy blonde hair and thick black glasses scrunched over a turntable and armed with a stack of worn-around-the-edges vinyl record sleeves, each of them revealing the faces of America’s finest lovelorn country crooners.

Out the window I can see the storefronts of Pioneertown, the fictional village constructed in 1946 by Hollywood heavyweights like Dick Curtis and Roy Rogers to provide an easy filming location for the booming Western genre. Today, this phony frontier settlement has been gifted a second life by young entrepreneurs and artists, and the once derelict facades now house boutiques, art galleries, a bowling alley, legendary roadhouse Pappy & Harriet’s (53688 Pioneertown Rd, Pioneertown. Tel: 760-228-2222. PappyAndHarriets.com) and the charming Pioneertown Motel (5240 Curtis Rd, Pioneertown. Tel: 760-365-7001. Pioneertown-Motel.com) where I spent a June night in 2018 stargazing. (Who on earth, I wondered, would bare the punishing heat and stay up here in summer?). I used to think these little shops would never stay afloat, but these days the dirt strip is flooded with visitors.

Pioneertown Storefront (Photo by Jason A. Heidemann)

Pioneertown Storefront (Photo by Jason A. Heidemann)

The bartender at Red Dog is tanned with short, black hair and is a Joan Jett dead ringer. I’m disappointed when she pulls a chunky sweatshirt over her tank top, but I can’t blame her—it’s February and it gets cold up here in winter. The 11 A.M. lunch rush is about to begin and even though the town’s population is only 400 or so folks, the joint is packed. I order a Jarritos orange soda, a couple of tacos (the food here, I will soon discover, is outstanding) and settle in.

I’m not the only homo hanging out in these parts of late. The High Desert, the area of Southern California just north of Joshua Tree National Park, includes Yucca, Pioneertown, Twentynine Palms, Flamingo Heights, and other settlements too sparsely populated to name. It’s become a magnet of late for Angelenos thirsty for an off-grid lifestyle and an aura of cowboy cool, and many of the folks migrating this way are queer. Pre-pandemic I was perched on a bar stool at queer bar Akbar in LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood where I live and was insisting a friend check out the region before it became overrun with tourists while assuring them it had homo bono fides when a lesbian walked by us and proclaimed, “Every dyke I know is moving out there.”

Welcome to Joshua Tree (Photo by Jason Busa)

Welcome to Joshua Tree (Photo by Jason Busa)

To be clear, a gay mecca it is not (yet anyway), but a homo hangout it has definitely become. These days the area boasts numerous LGBTQ-owned businesses, a quirky queer-owned museum, and Joshua Tree Pride that happens in June. It doesn’t hurt that it’s less than an hour door-to-door from downtown Palm Springs, offering either an ideal day trip or desert add-on. But whereas Palm Springs is swimming pools, Eames chairs, and groovy, midcentury vibes, the High Desert is dusty back roads, starry skies, and tatted, cowboy cool. And queers are loving it.

My first stop after lunch is the town of Yucca, where the intersection of Twentynine Palms Highway and Pioneertown Road has become somewhat of a pedestrian-friendly hangout boasting a wine shop, organic grocery store, and several hip retailers. A focal point for any visitor should be LGBTQ-owned Frontier Café (55844 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Yucca Valley. Tel: 760-820-1360. CafeFrontier.com), a lively all-day coffee shop and hangout featuring a veggie-friendly menu of sandwiches and salads. The café is joined at the hip with Hoof and The Horn (55840 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Yucca Valley; Tel: 760-365-6100. HoofAndTheHorn.com), one of the OG boutique retailers in the area and a purveyor of chic home goods, Western wear, and apothecary products.

The best shop on the strip, however, is the Mojave Flea Trading Post (55727 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Yucca Valley. MojaveFlea.com), a 10,000-square-foot marketplace where local artisans peddle vintage treasures, homespun goods, and desert wear. (An outpost in Palm Springs is slightly queerer and edgier.)

Part of the charm of the High Desert is how undeveloped the region still is. Paved roads, for example, turn to gravel roads which turn to dirt trails, and this means that visitors traveling with a four-wheel drive vehicle are in for the occasional treat. Such is the case when visiting Giant Rock, the largest freestanding boulder in North America which is accessible only via a dirt road marked by undulating slopes, like a mini roller coaster with kid gloves on it. Stretching seven stories high, Giant Rock sits on a large plateau that has a vast, alien weirdness to it. If you’re lucky enough to be the only visitor, you may not hear a single sound. It’s amazing.

Giant Rock (Photo by Kristi Allain)

Giant Rock (Photo by Kristi Allain)

Stretching seven stories high, Giant Rock sits on a large plateau that has a vast, alien weirdness to it. If you’re lucky enough to be the only visitor, you may not hear a single sound. It’s amazing

About 10 minutes from Giant Rock sits the Integratron (2477 Belfield Blvd, Landers; Tel: 760-364-3126. Integratron.com), an acoustically sound wooden structure built by ufologist George Van Tassel in 1954. These days the family that own it hosts meditative sounds bath on the domed second floor. The crowd is a mixture of Lululemon-clad LA women with yoga mats tucked neatly under their arms and gay guys into New Age spirituality. The “bath” feels like a soothing massage; I fell fast asleep about 20 minutes into it.

After an Integratron detox, head straight to LGBTQ-owned lunchtime cafe La Copine (848 Old Woman Springs Rd, Yucca Valley. Tel: 760-289-8537. LaCopineKitchen.com). This airy, roadside joint was purchased in 2015 by chef Nikki Hill and partner Claire Wadsworth who decided to ditch Los Angeles for the country and now have bona fide High Desert hit on their hands (The New York Times profiled the place in 2019). The compulsively delicious food is locally sourced, but ethnically all over the map as in Southern-tinged grits and greens dotted with Calabrian chili and topped with a fried egg or the Francophile fave Galette Complète featuring French ham, gruyere cheese, apricot gastrique and pea shoots neatly folded into a buckwheat crepe. Despite its off-grid location, La Copine almost always boasts a wait time.

It isn’t the only lesbian-owned treasure in the area. About 10 minutes east of La Copine sits Hicksville Trailer Palace (2517 Foxy Flats Rd, Joshua Tree. Tel: 442-999-7273. HicksvillePalace.com), a collection of airstream trailers set around an outdoor swimming pool and featuring strewn-about vehicles like a faded truck with the words “Wiggles Weiner Wagon” painted on one side of it. Each trailer abode is completely unique and comes with names like Project Z and The Skipper, and each is furnished according to their assigned theme. The remote location means that in addition to a swimming pool, guests are accommodated with a plethora of adult games like cornhole, archery, and skeet shooting.

Other queer-owned lodging in the High Desert includes the chic bungalow retreat Homestead Modern (56351 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Yucca Valley. Tel: 760-299-5010. HomesteadModern.com) and glamping abode Castle House Estate (64278 E Broadway, Joshua Tree. Tel: 760-853-1636. TheCastleHouseEstate.com).

My next stop, which happens to not be far from Hicksville, is Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum (62975 Blair Ln, Joshua Tree. NoahPurifoy.com), a found art playground littered with sculptures and other oddities. The work of Black visual artist and sculptor Noah Purifoy (who co-founded the Watts Towers Art Center in Los Angeles and divided his time between LA and the High Desert before passing away in 2004), this open-air gallery feels like a fantasy junkyard where trash has been given a second life. It’s open to the public and free, but do stuff a few bucks in the donation box to help fund its mission.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum (Photo by Jason A Heidemann)

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum (Photo by Jason A Heidemann)

Around 3 P.M. I check into the Joshua Tree Inn (61259 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree. Tel: 760-366-1188. JoshuaTreeInn.com), the legendary roadside motel which sits just a few miles outside the park and was made famous after musician Gram Parsons died in one of its guestrooms in 1973. The motel is in great shape these days and includes about a dozen affordable guestrooms each boasting their own private patio. There’s also a swimming pool, firepit, and communal hangout area next to the lobby.

The intersection of Twentynine Palms Highway and Park Blvd in the town of Joshua Tree offers a second pedestrian-friendly hub in the region and by luck my afternoon visit coincides with the artisan-driven Joshua Tree Street Market (61877 Twentynine Palms Hwy. Joshua Tree. JoshuaTreeStreetMarket.com) which happens on the second Saturday of every month and features local vendors hawking handmade soaps, second-hand clothing, jewelry, and more.

The strip also includes the Shops at Zanny’s (61877 Twentynine Palms Hwy. Joshua Tree. Tel: 760-574-5267. ShopsAtZannys.com), a collection of seven local retailers; the World Famous Crochet Museum (61855 CA-62, Joshua Tree. Tel: 760-660-5672. ShariElf.com) housed inside a tiny backyard trailer the color of Kermit the Frog; and the intriguing Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum (61855 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree. Tel: 760-366-9000. BeautyBubble.net), the quirky queer brainchild of hairstylist, artist, and historian Jeff Hafler who started collecting hair and beauty artifacts and memorabilia at age 19 while attending salon school in Ohio and later moved to Los Angeles and eventually Joshua Tree where he set up shop and raised a child with his partner.

Beauty Bubble Salon And Museum (Photos by Jason A. Heidemann)

Beauty Bubble Salon And Museum (Photos by Jason A. Heidemann)

The salon is packed cheek by jowl with “hair-aphernalia” as Halfler likes to call his inventory (though I think he should refer to it as his “perm”-anent collection) and Hafler’s own sculptures. The subject of the documentary short Inside the Beauty Bubble, an upbeat and insouciant Hafler points me to the museum’s various rooms during my visit and of course reminds me to check out the gift shop.

Across the street, I enter LGBTQ-owned store The Station (61943 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree; 760-974-9050. TheStationJoshuaTree.com) to the tune of “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s. While queer crooner Fred Schneider sings of “boys in bikinis and girls on surfboards,” I idly browse the gift shop’s collection of t-shirts, wool blankets, hand-made pottery, and novelty items. I pick up three boxes of X-rated candy hearts to bring back to my bowling team in LA, and a set of erotic playing cards for a future game night with my gays.

The Station (Photo by Jason A Heidemann)

The Station (Photo by Jason A. Heidemann)

Later that day, I enter Joshua Tree National Park right at dusk, a quieter time of day to explore the park’s alien landscapes. Though first-time visitors should check out highlights like Skull Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden, and Arch Rock Nature Trail, these areas are often crawling with tourists, and I’ve been to the park so many times that these days my favorite way to find peace and harmony is to pull my car over in a random spot where there are no other people and simply start hiking.

That night, drinks on the town begin at The Tiny Pony Tavern (57205 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree; 442-205-0163. TheTinyPony.com). Though there is no full-time gay bar in the area, Tiny Pony, which serves a full dinner menu, is probably the gayest it gets in these parts. I don’t spot any queers in the crowd on this packed Saturday night, but LGBTQ vibes are definitely palpable inside this gun shop turned taproom. For starters, I enter to the country crooning of Dolly Parton and proceed to saddle up to the bar where the trans bartender takes my drink order. The crowd here is young (a good sign for gay friendliness), and Tiny Pony hosted a Pride event in 2022. Also, there’s an awful lot of kitten art hanging on the walls.

My favorite discovery on this High Desert hop is The Copper Room (57360 Aviation Dr, Yucca Valley. TheCopperRoom1957.com). A legendary supper club and Rat Pack hangout located at the Yucca Valley Airport (a single landing strip not currently accepting commercial aircraft), the Copper Room has been given a second life by the folks behind the Pioneertown Motel and Red Dog Saloon. It’s once again serving a full menu, and I make sure to stop by for a nightcap.

I rise and shine early for one farewell hike through Joshua Tree, and on my way out of town stop at Luna Bakery (55700 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Yucca Valley. Tel: 442-599-5444. LunaSourdough.com), a charming little café famous for its sourdough breads and sourdough pastries. I order a mushroom focaccia and it is excellent. I can’t wait to go back.

There are places in this world we all wish we’d had the chance to experience at just the right moment in history like NYC during all its post-Stonewall, Studio 54-infused late-‘70s glory, or Prague right after the Velvet Revolution. As I head back to LA all I can think of is that the High Desert is having its moment right now and in 10 years will be as busy and saturated as Tulum is today. Seriously, go there now.

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