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Exploring the Magic of the High Desert

Getting High is easy…..or at least getting “High-er” is easy. Above the “Low Desert” communities (from the Palm Springs to Indio) is the locally referenced “High Desert,” which includes Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Pioneetown, Joshua Tree, and 29 Palms.
North of interstate 10 and traveling along HWY 62, one passes the quintessential windmills and pectacular wide open vistas familiar to Coachella Valley residents. With desert Hot Springs to the right, HWY 62 winds mysteriously higher through a series of small towns, starting with Morongo alley at an elevation of 2,500 feet.

Morongo Valley is the doorway to one of the High desert’s best kept secrets: Big Morongo canyon preserve—a 31,000 acre jewel of geology, ecology, and cultural history. Contiguous with Joshua Tree national park’s western boundary, the Big Morongo canyon preserve has some of the oldest exposed rocks in California, dated at almost 2 billion years. At the entrance of the preserve, one is greeted by glorious cottonwood trees. deeper into the preserve at the main water source, equally magnificent willow trees thrive.

The beautiful sanctuary of Morongo Canyon Preserve is not necessarily what one would expect to find in “the desert.” Talk about breathing “fresh air” and going organic—bring your camera and spend some time in this surprisingly magical oasis. There are numerous trails to walk and hike, including a wheelchair accessible boardwalk through the marsh and riparian habitats containing more than 240 documented species of migrating and breeding birds.

According to professional botanist and former preserve Manager, Robin Kobaly (www.powerofplants.com): “Big Morongo provides rich mammal, reptile, and amphibian habitat, including desert mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, ring-tailed cats, bobcats, raccoons, coyotes, gopher snakes, rosy boas, side-blotched lizards, California tree frogs, and more. No matter what the season, a walk in Big Morongo Canyon Preserve always reconnects me to the primal beauty of our planet through the unique blend of scents, sounds, and sights.”

Back on HWY 62, the incline continues up the Yucca grade. Looking carefully right and left, one can see glimpses of small Joshua Trees dotting the rising landscape to the entrance of Yucca Valley at a base elevation of 3,300 feet. Upon entering the city of Yucca Valley, one gains appreciation of how prominent and large Joshua Trees can actually become, as many of them line the highway like giant sentinels.

Yucca Valley is home to a variety of unique antique stores like Vintage Marketplace, funky shops, innovative artists like Lenny Mazzo, and a Farmers’ Market every Wednesday in the Sear’s parking lot on HWY 62. a great source of “healthy fare,” including organic produce, can be found at Sue’s Health Food Store. Those with a sweet tooth can find delicious but healthy low sugar, high antioxidant, chocolate truffles that are temptingly displayed at the front of the store. Nearby, Ma rouge coffee Shop (in the dazzling red building) serves organic coffee and other goodies, including a popular “Gypsy Soup,” made with chunky vegetables and garbanzo beans.

Yucca Valley is conveniently accessible to historic Pioneertown. Just turn left off HWY 62 onto Pioneertown road, and follow the beautiful four miles designated California Scenic drive right into the old West. Built in 1946, the town began as a live in motion picture set. early westerns and television shows like The Cisco Kid and Judge Roy Bean were filmed there, along with Gene Autry’s TV show, which was frequently filmed at the six lane Pioneertown Bowling alley.

Along with “Mane Street,” featuring a saloon, bank, and livery stables, the old West stage is quite appropriately shared with the wildly eclectic pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown palace, a restaurant and music venue that reigns supreme in the High desert as a “must go” destination. Built within one of the original movie sets, pappy and Harriet’s regularly hosts both established and “ up and coming” music acts.

Guests can stay at the rustic Pioneertown Motel, behind pappy and Harriet’s, with access to Mane Street and old West shows by the Pioneertown Posse every Saturday at 2:30 p.m. from April to October.

Next up is Joshua Tree National Park where visitors can stop to watch the “Moon Rise.” Both the ride and the awe inspiring “Moon Rise” over an eerily quiet alien landscape of stellar rock formations and Joshua Trees are indeed notches for the archived account of life’s rich experiences and most certainly worth visiting.

A United States National Monument since 1936 and a National Park since 1994, Joshua Tree National Park is enormous, covering 790,636 acres—an area slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island.

A national treasure and an international destination for hikers, climbers, scramblers, and nature lovers, Joshua Tree National Park is named after its infamous Joshua Trees. Purportedly dubbed “Joshua Trees” by Mormon settlers in the mid-19th century after the Biblical Joshua opening his arms towards the sky in exultation, these “trees” (Yucca Brevifolia) are unique to the Mojave Desert, growing between elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Along with otherworldly rock formations and literal “forests” of Joshua Trees, the Park is also home to pinion pines, scrub oaks, and California junipers. The Park is open every day, all year, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Another Joshua Tree jewel is the world renowned Joshua Tree Retreat Center and Institute of Mentalphysics. Celebrating 83 years as a vital spiritual wellness destination, their mission is “to support the education and nourishment of the infinite human potential.” Covering almost 400 sacred acres with structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and son, Lloyd Wright, the JTRC (

Eating organically in the town of Joshua Tree can be done in style. Visitors can get stocked up at the Joshua Tree Health Foods Store, or they can dine in (or take-out) at The Natural Sisters Café, where great and energizing foods—such as creative smoothies, sumptuous salads, delicious gluten free treats, protein rich “rock climber” cookies, and their own organic kombucha come complete with a smiling happy staff, groovy art, and a funky, home-town feel.

Just six miles from the Park entrance, off of HWY 62, The Joshua Tree Inn is a “must-stay” adventure, capturing the personality of the town of Joshua Tree and offering one a “Cosmic American Experience” in Room 8, where Alt-country musician Gram Parsons spent his last hours.

Back on HWY 62, the next stop is 29 Palms, home of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. The town is loaded with gorgeous, painted murals, and it is the driest of the High Desert communities at only 4.57 inches of rain per year. It is also home to the extraordinarily beautiful Oasis of Mara and an all-time favorite tourist destination: The 29 Palms Inn.

In sharp contrast to the stark, dry landscape is the Oasis of Mara, part of Joshua Tree National Park. Its fringes can be experienced at the entrance to The 29 Palms Inn, a historic hotel and wonderful restaurant retreat with its own garden, which grows, as owner Jane Grubb Smith says, “Whatever we can.”

The 29 Palms Inn was built in 1928 on a California palm oasis, complete with the “Faultline Pond,” a water source surrounded by palm trees that invite water fowl to visit and stay. The 29 Palms Inn, with its great food, live music, and a marvelously diverse staff and clientele, is worth frequenting as often as possible.

Adventure awaits in the High Desert from Morongo Valley to Twenty-nine Palms, so don’t be shy get out and explore, stay over, eat great healthy food, shop for cool art, groove to music, discover the expansive beauty, breathe the clean dry air, see the magic of the moonrise, and star gaze to your heart’s content!

Driving along HWY 62, I was reminded of the start of my love affair with the “High Desert”: years ago I had the pleasure of riding white-knuckled on the back of a friend’s Harley, stopping in the small town of Joshua Tree at the still thriving Crossroads Café a delightfully Bohemian pit stop and watering hole for hikers, bikers, and High-Desert hipsters. I’m happy to say the High Desert remains just as inviting as it was in my youth.

Scott Cole now has a full on love affair going with the High Desert. His other passions can be experienced in his top-selling Discover Tai Chi DVDs or at his signature Wellness Weekends Worldwide.
Visit him at www.scottcole.com