Nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains in Mojave Desert and situated just above the vast Coachella Valley is the town of Yucca Valley, population ~25,000. At ~3,000′ elevation and lesser known than its neighbor, Joshua Tree, Yucca is also home to the westernmost portion of Joshua Tree National Park. We were brought to the area by the Navy, as Dom had a brief tour at the nearby Marine Base and in all honesty, we were prepared to hate it. In a few short months, however, the people, the desert, the mountains, and the variety of what Southern California had to offer won us over.

What was once an 1800s cow town and stop for many on the way to San Gorgonio Pass has now become increasingly popular, catering to both tourists and locals alike. Whether you find yourself calling this place home or are just passing through on the way to other adventures, trust us, there is more here than meets the eye… particularly if you are up for embracing the desert’s undeniable quirkiness.

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Hiking

Big Morongo Basin Preserve

Situated right at the eastern edge of Yucca Valley, the Big Morongo Basin Preserve is another place in the area which makes you take a step back and wonder how such ecological diversity could exist in such a small space. The preserve holds a source of perennial water bubbling up from the ground and acts as an important “truck stop” for wildlife (like big horn sheep, mule deer, and mountain lions) to move within the San Gorgonio wilderness.

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Driving up to the preserve, we were expecting a small protected patch of desert which, while beautiful, wasn’t particularly different than our own backyard. The life giving power of water, however, became immediately apparent with dense willows arching over a wooden walkway and an incredible density of birds, amphibians, and other animals taking advantage of the natural springs. It is very easy to drive by the small sign marking the space, so keep you eye out. Don’t let the modest sign fool you, this place is pretty incredible.

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Big Morongo Basin Preserve:

  • Hours: Daily, 0730 -1700
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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Black Rock Canyon

Located in the very Northwestern corner of Joshua Tree National Park, Black Rock Canyon is a lesser known, but absolutely beautiful portion of the national park which lies in Yucca Valley (in contrast to the main entrance in Joshua Tree). There is a great little campground with about 20 spots, and several great hiking trails. Be warned, however, that the area tops out at about 4,000 feet of elevation, so if you are coming from sea level you can start to feel the altitude – stay hydrated! We plan on having a fairly comprehensive hiking guide to Joshua National Park coming soon, so stay tuned!

Particularly useful for us (when Dom sometimes has to be reachable 24/7 via cell phone), this is one of the only areas of the National Park which has reliable cell phone service (the other being Indian Cove on the other end of the Park closer to Twentynine Palms). Warren Peak, in particular, is one of our favorite hikes as it provides exceptional views of the Morongo Basin, with Mount San Jacinto dominating one side, and the closer (and larger) Mount San Gorgonio on the other. The other hike we would highly recommend is Panorama Loop Trail (photo below), honestly you can’t go wrong with either of these hikes.

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Black Rock Canyon:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Suset
  • Admission: Free (main portion of National Park has entrance fee, but there is no ranger station for the black rock portion)
  • Parking: Free

Eats

Pappy and Harriet’s

Established in 1982, this “Pioneertown Palace” is technically in (you guessed it) Pioneertown, but it’s close enough to Yucca Valley to count. Equal parts live music venue, Wild West saloon, and barbecue restaurant. The place fits right into Pioneertown and is a popular (and delicious) spot to stop and get a bite. It’s an awesome place in which biker gangs are just as welcome as families with small children. Somehow it all works perfectly, as everyone is just happy to have a delicious meal in front of them while imagining what life would be like in the wild west.

Pappys and Harriets:

  • Hours:
    • Tuesday – Wednesday: Closed, Thursday: 1100 – 1300, Friday – Saturday: 1100 – 0200, Sunday: 11:30 – 0100, and Monday: 1500 – 0100
  • Parking: Free

Shopping

Wine and Rock Shop

Only in the desert could a store like this exist. Equal parts midcentury decor, booze, and peculiar souvenirs, the aptly named wine and rock shop is an unassuming building packed with cool stuff. Whether you are looking for a craft beer, a bottle of wine to enjoy in the national park, handmade pottery, an unusual book to read, or (of course) a rock/crystal, the wine and rock shop is a great little spot to stop and embrace the quirkiness of the desert.

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Wine and Rock Shop:

  • Hours: Everyday 1100 – 1900
  • Parking: Free

Activities

Hi Desert Nature Museum

Founded in 1964, the Hi Desert Nature Museum is a learning center that is focused on displaying and educating visitors about the harsh desert environment as well as the area’s cultural heritage and natural history. Originally, the museum was based in a small building in a park, however in ’73 it was relocated to its present building in the Yucca Valley Community Center Complex.

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If you are on your way to Joshua Tree National Park, make a stop and take a look around. Our kiddos love this museum for its fascinating exhibits as well as for the children’s play area which is filled with books, puzzles, toys, and even a (play) kitchen! You don’t really have to worry about rainy days around here, but it can certainly be a welcomed respite during the heat of the summer.

Hi Desert Nature Museum:

  • Hours: Wednesday – Saturday, 1000 – 1700
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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Desert Christ Park

Established in 1951 and overlooking the town of Yucca Valley on five acres is Desert Christ Park. The founder, Rev. Eddie Garver acquired the land from the government in 1950 and began making his vision of a Christian themed park a reality. Garver later crossed paths with Antone Martin, a sculptor, and the two decided to make the park home to a series of statues crafted out of steel-reinforced concrete.

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Martin had previously constructed a statue of Christ that was supposed to stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon, however when his request to place the statue in the spot was denied he decided to relocate his work of art to Garver’s land in Yucca Valley just before Easter of 1951. The place has an interesting history, as many apparently did not want it there and did their best to destroy it.

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Today the park (albeit somewhat dilapidated in some sections) is truly a work of love and makes a great way to spend an evening strolling, taking in the desert sky, and be reminded of our Lord’s presence.

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Desert Christ Park:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free (donations welcome)
  • Parking: Free

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Pioneer Town

Back in 1946, Dick Curtis an American Actor once known as the “meanest man in Hollywood” who had found success in Westerns decided a living (Western) movie set was needed in Southern California.  He found himself some Hollywood investors…17 of them to be exact, and Pioneertown was born! Big name folks like, Roy Rogers, Russell Hayden, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers (hmmm…wonder who the town is named after?) invested and the town sprang up in the heart of the Hi-Desert. One man’s big dreams suddenly became a reality.

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This idea of a “living” movie set was somewhat unique. A movie set where films and series could be filmed, but where there was also fun off set, too? Interesting. To date over 50 films/shows used the location and today the once film set makes an excellent place to walk around. Pop into one of the shops and enjoy work from local artists. Then after maybe grab a bite at the famous Pappy and Harriet’s?

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Pioneer Town:

  • Hours: Pioneertown’s Mane Street is open daily year-round. However, most of the action happens on the weekends. Plan on shops being open from mid-day(ish) to sunset.
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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