Joshua Tree National Park | Credit: Josef Woodard

We drove by night. And the darker and later, the better, we were told, when seeking stargazing unimpeded by civilization. So, up past our bedtime, we ventured outside of the township of Joshua Tree and up into the Joshua Tree National Park, a dimension all its own. As we passed the fleeting sight of ghostly antediluvian tree forms, it was more than apparent that we were not in the 805 anymore — or virtually anywhere else on the planet.

The planetary wonderment then turned both grounded and cosmic as we laid down in the Quail Springs parking lot and gazed at the unusually lucid night-sky canopy above. In Joshua Tree National Park by night, get thee to a parking lot.

The very uniqueness — of flora, surreal rock formations, and alien-ish ambience — has much to do with the magnetic pole of this legendary place, especially in the last few decades. Heading up to this special zone, a four-hour drive from Santa Barbara, isn’t just your standard desert pilgrimage, but a specific venture into off-the-radar nature.

Mojave Sands Motel | Credit: Josef Woodard

Once in the Joshua Tree zone, roughing it is one option, as camping is available in the park. Another option is to seek shelter in intriguing hidden treasures with creature comforts and structural/historical stories to tell. We scored on that front, settling into the Mojave Sands Motel in Joshua Tree the first night, and the restorative remote outpost of the Campbell House Inn on the edge of Twentynine Palms on the second night.

Mojave Sands is a real find of a place, a formerly funky motel transformed into a stylish mid-century modern style yet rustic five-suite spot on 29 Palms Highway but tucked into its own meditative ambience. The revamped spot, run in a friendly, hands-on way by the sociable, witty, Texan-raised Susan Burnett, is close to things that matter here. It’s a gateway to the Joshua Tree expanse and a 20-minute trek to Pioneertown, and is a comfortable hunker-down spot, with rusted metal theme and a desert-chic decor with outdoor shower and bathtub for hygiene under the stars in the larger suite. The interior of our suite came equipped with a Crosley turntable with a healthy selection of LPs: Sun Ra, Todd Rundgren, George Harrison, Merle Haggard — the tasty stuff.

After a good night’s sleep, we headed out to one of the easy but illuminating hikes in the park, around Barker Dam. Heading back to town, a required breakfast stop led us to JT Country Kitchen for an all-American omelet and a delectable Cambodian cuisine offering: stir-fry noodles “The Res Dakota,” a popular leftover from the previous owners’ menu.

JT Country Kitchen | Credit: Josef Woodard

Among the things I learned in the Joshua Tree Visitor Center is that prehistoric giant sloths ate Joshua Tree fruits and expanded the plant’s terrain by dispersing seeds. The origin of the “Joshua Tree” name (its correct botanical name is Yucca brevifolia) came courtesy of visiting 19th-century Mormons, who thought the plants looked like the biblical prophet Joshua guiding travelers westward. Westward expansion wasn’t such a pretty thing. Indigenous peoples here became victimized by smallpox with the introduction of settlers, their population reduced by 75 percent. It’s an old American story out west, including in Santa Barbara.

Culture exerts its own special pull as well from the movie-set town of Pioneertown — with the by-now mythic music spot Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace — heading south to the last-gas/last-gasp town of Twentynine Palms. For culture and music-heads of different generations, it’s hard to think of the area without cross-referencing Robert Plant’s cryptic, desert-waxing hit “29 Palms”; Gram Parsons’s passion for — and death in — the area; U2’s Eno-fied album; and such latter-day musicians on the scene as the Josh Homme/Queens of the Stone Age bunch.

Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace | Credit: Josef Woodard

For a ’40s throwback, consider the Andrews Sisters’ hit “The Lady from 29 Palms,” with its toothy lyric “She left 29 broken hearts / broken in 29 parts. / Now there are 29 fellas complainin’ to their moms / about the lady from 29 Palms.” (Its songwriter, Allie Wrubel, took a liking to the area and briefly owned the Campbell House compound. More on that later.)

We sauntered through Pioneertown, a proudly artificial product of Hollywood as a nearby surrogate to the Wild West — founded in 1946 by actor Dick Curtis and funded by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and others. We popped by to soak up some countryfied sounds on the porch of the Red Dog Saloon, well-populated by L.A. cowboys and hipsters, and some rugged locals. We had to stop at the mythic centerpiece of Pioneertown, Pappy & Harriet’s, though we only caught a brief sound check by the alt-metal band on tap that night. We dined on burgers (cow and non-cow) and beer. Did Sir Paul also do a burger before his infamous surprise gig here in 2016, in the middle of his Desert Trip — a k a “Geezerchella” — gigs? Not sure about the intel on that.

But celebrity interventions aren’t always welcome here. The receipt from the Country Kitchen read, “Climb rocks, not Joshua Trees,” a reference to Miley Cyrus’s bad-taste showbiz stunt of boasting about her tree-climbing on social media. Joshua Tree remains a sacred place for many, not a playground for the rich and fatuous who often land in this area.

The Campbell House Inn, now owned by another recommendable refuge, the 29 Palms Inn, offers a little oasis off the beaten path. Dating back to 1925, a humble homestead for desert health-seekers Elizabeth and William Campbell, turned into a large, stone-clad house with an array of cottages later added to the property. Strolling the grounds, savoring the cooling agency of laps in the all-important swimming pool, gazing at the resident family of great horned owls, and just lounging in our “Farmhouse” bungalow added up to a restorative experience within the travel experience.

Trivia note for music-heads: Songwriter Wrubel owned the property for a time after the Campbell era. Among his best-known songs are “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and the standard “Gone with the Wind.” You can find the sheet music for his cheeky hit “Lady from 29 Palms” perched on the white, out-of-tune piano in the large parlor room here, where a bigger-than-continental breakfast is served.

On the nature/culture divide front, as a final hurrah in the park, we wended our way at sunset to Cap Rock, passing and stopping at Skull Rock and feeling dizzily ensconced in the dream-worldly environment and unmistakable, mystic sense of place.

Cap Rock sits in its immortal glory, looking, from one angle, like a chubby-cheeked chap with a cap. Okay, yes, Cap Rock also happens to be the spot where some of Gram Parsons’s ashes were allegedly left, in the complex tale of his remains’ travels. But never mind that: In the waning, flattering light of a late April sunset, it appeared just as a chubby-cheeked chap with a cap, encircled by the gangly sentinels of Yucca brevifolia, standing tall and imbued with the stuff of immortality.

The Mojave Sands Motel ( rooms range from $135 to $185; Campbell House Inn ( rooms range from $205 to $235.

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