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California Getaway: Palm Springs / Joshua Tree

I vowed to make 2012 a year to fully embrace my endless wanderlust. I think I did a pretty decent job. Here, I’ll attempt to prove just that. I’ll be running down my top travel adventures of 2012 … slowly but surely. In no particular order, here’s Vol. II, a trek south and inland to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree Lean
Big’s Joshua Tree Lean

There’s something mystical yet menacing about the desert. Maybe it’s all that dry air sucking out all the bullshit. Bullshit can’t survive in the desert — the sun would rot it too quickly, or, on a chilly night, the wind would just carry it all the way to, well, a place like L.A.

*When in L.A. / Palm Springs / San Diego — Visit Temecula Wine Valley*

Maybe this sort of non-BS realness makes a place like the Mojave Desert especially eerie to us modern-day Internet dwellers. It forces us to rely on our own innate capacities and survival instincts (because once you reach the inner depths of Joshua Tree National Park, for example, that smartphone ain’t so smart anymore). And for that reason, Southern California’s Coachella Valley is a prime place to escape. And I’m not talking about to the music festival (been there. done that.) or the resorts or the spas or the outlet malls.

Desert Landscapes
Desert Landscapes

Our trip to Palm Springs began, like most people, in L.A. Our drive involved a stop at Flappy Jack’s Pancake House (get the banana nut or multi-grain flapjacks!) on the tip of Route 66. Fully carb-fueled, we weaved our way through windmill-lined lanes; these mesmerizing roadside attractions almost immediately spin your mind into a more relaxed state.

Windmills and a Lone Joshua
Windmills and a Lone Joshua

Joshua Tree was number one on our list. (We’d both already seen the Salton Sea. But if you haven’t been, it’s absolutely worth the somewhat out-of-the-way drive.) As we rolled into the national park, grabbed a map, and started navigating the thin, twisty roads it quickly became clear how deceptively huge this park is (ie. bring lots of water, and be sure your car is gassed up).

I can’t remember which routes we took, and I don’t think it even really matters. The whole park feels sacred — or maybe just haunted. It’s almost as if the air is thicker here, dense with countless spirits and secrets. We found places to pull-off. We hiked on bronzed, crumbling surfaces. We climbed smooth rocks that, from afar, transformed into skulls. We watched rock climbers overcome physical obstacles. We meditated to overcome mental obstacles.

Joshua Tree Adventures: Handstands, Skull Rock, Pricks!
Joshua Tree Adventures: Handstands, Skull Rock, Pricks!

But heading back into the city of Palm Springs, where celebrity is celebrated (Marilyn!) and money is garishly flashed (sports cars! plastic surgery!), we had to reprogram our minds back to American life as we now know it: fake, fickle, not so free. Nonetheless, we found a nice café for a healthy post-hiking dinner, Zini Café Mediterrano along Palm Canyon Drive  a great and reasonably priced spot for pizza, tapas, and sangria.

Palm Springs Celebrity & Art
Palm Springs Celebrity & Art

The next day, we viewed this striking juxtaposition between desert and decadence from 8,516 feet high — atop Chino Canyon, overlooking Coachella Valley, via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the “World’s Largest Rotating Tramcar.” Sure, the tram ride may seem a tad touristy, but it’s a fairly quick and painless 10-minute ride (at $24/adult) to reach exquisite views, comforting temps, and even a bar (grab a mimosa!).

It’s amazing this sort of chilled, lush wilderness sits atop a sizzling desert floor. The oxygen up here even feels smoother against the lungs; the earth is fresh, fertile, and soft to the touch. I half-expected Bambi to pop out from behind a pine tree. You could spend more than a few days up here, camping, hiking, exploring, relaxing. But even in such a breathtaking place, I still found myself constantly fixing my eyes downward. The desert still taunts, still thrills, still inspires me — even two miles up. Next time, that’s where you’ll find me.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway


Queens of the Stone Age, “Go With the Flow”
Wolfmother, “Dimension” (“I fell down in the desert, baby! Yeah!”)
Them Crooked Vultures, “Interlude with Ludes”
Divine Fits, “The Salton Sea”
Modest Mouse, “Tundra/Desert”
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, “Desert Song”
Other Lives, “Desert”
Ratatat, “Desert Eagle”
Kyuss, “Demon Cleaner”
Eagles of Death Metal, “Cherry Cola”
Ennio Morricone, “The Desert – Il Deserto”

*Also check out the best hiking and biking in Los Angeles!*

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