How to spend a perfect spring weekend in Joshua Tree — without the crowds

Illustration of a camera on a tripod overlaid on a photo of the night sky, the Milky Way and a tent.
The Milky Way was captured with a 25-second exposure at Joshua Tree National Park on June 21, 2020.
(Photo by Raul Roa / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Spring is a wildly popular time to visit Joshua Tree National Park, offering an idyllic window of mild weather sandwiched between the desert’s harsher seasons.

The National Park Service puts it bluntly: “Every weekend in the spring is … extremely congested.”

Popularity — and subsequent congestion — is an issue beyond the park as well. My colleague Christopher Reynolds recently wrote a story about the “full-blown boom” of travelers seeking unique vacation rentals (Anyone up for a $3,460-per-night stay in an “Invisible House”?), vintage-clothes shopping, time in nature and, of course, all those desert vibes.


In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find a few ways to veer ever so slightly off the beaten path during a visit to Joshua Tree. Instead of beelining it for Skull Rock, Arch Rock or another ultra-Instagram-friendly destination within the park, consider booking a wildlife class with the Desert Institute. And budget time to explore all of old-timey Pioneertown — not just the iconic Pappy & Harriet’s.

What are your favorite things to do in Joshua Tree? Let me know, and I may share them in a special edition of Escapes made up of reader recommendations coming soon.

Stacks of boulders are seen between the limbs of a Joshua tree.
Joshua Tree National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Learn something new — like how to photograph the night sky

At first glance, the area around Joshua Tree National Park can appear barren, apart from its zany trees and a few dry shrubs here and there. But once you scratch the surface, you’ll find the park is full of life — especially during the spring.

The Desert Institute offers a variety of field classes in the region designed to show visitors a side of Joshua Tree that lies right under their noses.

During a two-day field class planned for April 30 and May 1, visitors to the park can learn how to identify the birds of the Mojave Desert. (Fun fact: More than 240 bird species have been recorded in the park.) Kurt Leuschner, a professor at the College of the Desert, will explain how the birds survive and thrive in Joshua Tree National Park, pointing out rare species such as the prairie falcon and pinyon jay.

Additional classes focused on the reptiles, mammals and insects of Joshua Tree are planned in the next few months too.

More interested in drawing, painting and photography than flora and fauna? The Desert Institute is offering a variety of art classes in the park this spring. Take a look at the full schedule of field classes here.

The side of a building has artwork of a jackrabbit and the words "Welcome to Joshua Tree. Start your trip here."
A building along California 62 in Joshua Tree.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

See the world’s largest collection of hair dryers

Not especially into hiking the trails? In Joshua Tree, that’s no problem.

From Pioneertown to a museum dedicated to crocheting, the desert is full of manmade curiosities. Another quirky establishment worth deeper exploration is the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum, off California 62 in Joshua Tree.

Part salon, part shop, part museum of hair and beauty, the Beauty Bubble earned a spot on my colleague Lisa Boone’s roundup of the 27 coolest shops to bookmark for your next Joshua Tree trip.


The brainchild of longtime stylist Jeff Hafler, the Beauty Bubble is home to more than 3,000 pieces of hair and beauty memorabilia, curated by Hafler, who began collecting as a beauty school student in 1991. A cornerstone of the museum is “probably the world’s largest collection of hair dryers,” going back to 1908.

In addition to the museum, visitors can browse the crystals, accessories and other souvenirs available for sale. Need a haircut or coloring treatment while in town? Hafler and his team can do that too. Appointments must be made in advance.

If you can’t make it to the Beauty Bubble in person, it’s worth taking a spin through its website anyway. Don’t miss its theme song, which I’ve been humming ever since I heard it. (“Come on down to the Beauty Bubble, you must get there on the double / If you’re having beauty trouble, come to the Beauty Bubble.”)

Those hoping to immerse themselves further in the Beauty Bubble’s irresistible pep might consider attending a screening of “Inside the Beauty Bubble,” a recent documentary about Hafler and his creation.

Explore Pioneertown beyond Pappy & Harriet’s

Without a doubt, Pappy & Harriet’s is the most famous establishment in Pioneertown, “a tiny community that looks like it was plucked straight from a western,” Times food columnist Jenn Harris writes.

You’ve probably heard of its tri-tip and whiskey selection. Or its status as a music venue that has attracted huge-name talent including Lizzo, Lorde, Paul McCartney and Robert Plant. As Harris writes, “Pappy & Harriet’s is the place to eat if you’re visiting Joshua Tree (about 10 miles away) or the surrounding Yucca Valley.”

I recommend visiting Pappy & Harriet’s next time you’re in the desert, provided you can snag a seat. (For many, the wait is “part of the experience,” Harris says.) But just a few steps away from the beloved eatery are other Pioneertown treasures worth exploring.


The last time I was in Joshua Tree, I had a blast browsing for books and records at the Sound Stage, which functions as a bookshop when it’s not rented out for weddings or private parties. Shops such as the Pioneertown General Store and MazAmar Art Pottery are great for picking up clothing, art and other souvenirs.

On the third Tuesday of each month, the Pioneertown Drive-in Theater screens “vintage” movies (the next showing will be “Back to the Future Part II” on April 19). According to the event flier, “cowboy comfort food” will be served.

Three people sit around a large campfire at dusk. In the back is a modern-looking building with rounded exterior.
AutoCamp Joshua Tree opened in early 2022. It includes 47 Airstream trailers, luxuriously outfitted.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Stay the night in style at AutoCamp or a budget-friendly alternative

“Are you camping if you have a thermostat, a walk-in shower of your own and linens suitable for a four-star hotel?” Reynolds asked in a recent story. “That question may occur as you putter around the grounds of AutoCamp Joshua Tree, a luxury ‘camp’ with 47 Airstream trailers.”

Staying in a trailer out in the middle of the desert might sound like an inexpensive adventure, but at AutoCamp, accommodations start at $229 for a weeknight stay in April.

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“If you’ve got a few dollars and you’re drawn to the idea of a desert setting with simplified logistics, creature comforts and family-friendly features, this could be your place,” Reynolds writes.


AutoCamp isn’t the only Airstream game in town. Airbnb is full of listings you might consider:

A man and young boy kneel beside a small campfire. In the background are a concrete picnic table and boulders.
Cory McPherson and son Benjamin roast marshmallows in the Hidden Valley Campground at Joshua Tree National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • The U.S. park system seems to have a campsite shortage problem, but it’s actually a problem with reservations. Megan Michelson explains how coveted campsites are going to waste in Outside.
  • Planning a trip to Utah? “Bypass crowded Zion for Grand Staircase-Escalante,” advises Jen Rose Smith in the Washington Post.
  • Next time you fly through San Francisco International Airport, keep an eye out for a 28-pound Flemish Giant rabbit. Silas Valentino reports on the newest member of the airport’s “Wag Brigade” in SFGate.
  • In the mid-1890s, Annie Londonderry accepted a challenge to bicycle around the world in 15 months, despite learning to ride a bicycle just a few days before departing. Tom Ward details her record-setting journey in Atlas Obscura.
  • Do you ever get worried you left your stove on at home while traveling? Stacey Leasca offers a simple yet brilliant solution in Travel + Leisure.

🎸 Road song

Song: “Pink Pony Club” by Chappell Roan

Favorite line: “I’m having wicked dreams of leaving Tennessee. Oh, Santa Monica, I swear it’s calling me.”

Where to play it: Pioneertown Road