Hidden Coachella Valley: An Explorer's Guide to - Atlas Obscura

An Explorer's Guide to
Hidden Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley and its environs boom in the spring, when tens of thousands of music lovers flock to catch their favorite artists perform in front of a dramatic, mountainous backdrop. But this region stays wonderfully weird all year long.

If the festival drew you to the area and you only have a day to explore, choose a direction: Either head north, toward Joshua Tree and Landers, or southeast to the Salton Sea and nearby oases for a blissful respite. If you can spare a couple of days, lucky you—go forth and see it all.

McCallum Pond is a dreamy place to spend a day. Kristina D.C. Hoeppner/CC BY-SA 2.0
Hikes With a View

1. Thousand Palms Oasis at the Coachella Valley Preserve

An easy way to appreciate the Colorado Desert's varied ecosystems is to spend an afternoon tromping around this preserve, which boasts more than 25 miles of trails that wind through all sorts of landscapes. Stroll past the riparian forest—which recalls a marsh—and the desert wash, home to smoke trees with branches that look like ash-gray plumes. If you're lucky enough to walk the Moon Country Trail during a superbloom, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of buttery yellow desert sunflowers.

But don’t miss the McCallum Trail. This two-mile loop takes you around a pond that's fed by water seeping up from a nearby fault line. Note the prevalence of California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera), a thirsty bunch that thrive in this unique landscape. (This oasis is also, unfortunately, ideal for red swamp crayfish, which have moved in and outcompeted the native desert pupfish, much to the dismay of the preserve’s naturalists.) The trails are well marked, but it’s easy to get lost in your thoughts here. Some of the paths have set hours, so check the website or visitors’ center for times so you don’t find yourself stranded.

29200 Thousand Palms Canyon Rd, Thousand Palms, CA 92276

Drink up! John Muggenborg
Creamy Confections

2. Date Shakes

The dry, warm climate makes the Coachella Valley an ideal place to grow date palms. That’s good news for you, because dates are the key ingredient in date shakes, and date shakes are delicious. This icy marriage of dates, milk (or vegan alternatives), and sometimes bananas and spices is especially refreshing on a day when you’re broiling beneath the desert sun, but it’s reliably tasty all year. Whenever you visit, there are tons of places to sip one. In downtown Palm Springs, Great Shakes evokes an old-school diner, and you'll find a tiny donut threaded on your straw. Thirsty visitors can also throw one back at Hadley Fruit Orchards and Shields Date Garden, where expansive grounds also feature ponds, fountains, and a few dozen Biblical sculptures.

160 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262

The swap meet is a hodgepodge of sculptures and wares. Akos Kokai/CC BY 2.0
Serendipitous Shopping

3. Sky Village Swap Meet

If the directions seem wrong, you’re going the right way. Turn in to a nondescript alley to get to the grounds of the Sky Village Swap Meet, the site of a former drive-in movie theater. When you arrive, you’ll be pleasantly disoriented. This swap, which is open on Saturdays and Sundays from morning to early afternoon, is a hybrid: part sculpture garden and part salvage wonderland. Stop in to pan for treasures, and be sure to arrive early if you want to grab a biscuit at the cafe.

Of all of Sky Village's interesting nooks, the most enchanting is Bob’s Crystal Cave. Decked out in gemstones, foam, tiny trees, a running stream, and plenty of paint, the cave evokes a big, fluorescent aquarium. It’s the handiwork of the late Bob Carr, along with Merete Vyff Slyngborg and Mette Woller, who helped Carr restore it to his original vision after he destroyed the first amid fears that the land would be seized by eminent domain. If the door is open, grab a seat on the bench. If it’s locked up, peek in through the porthole windows and marvel at Carr's labor of love.

7028 Theatre Rd, Yucca Valley, CA 92284

We weren't kidding—this thing is huge. Cultura Creative (RF)/Alamy
Geological Gem

4. Giant Rock

You might think you’ve reached this big boulder a couple of times before you really get there. Along the way, you’ll spend several minutes driving (slowly, please) down a rolling, sandy road. You’ll bounce past lots of fascinating geology, including piles of rocks that look like rough-cut geodes. Hey, that boulder looks pretty big! Or maybe it’s this one? Any confusion is understandable: This desert is freckled with big rocks. By the time you arrive at Giant Rock, though, there’s no more doubt. This particular boulder is absolutely enormous.

In fact, it's roughly seven stories tall—so big that humans nearly disappear next to it, and a man named Frank Critzer even once built a home underneath. Giant Rock is widely considered to be among the largest free-standing boulders in the world, and has captivated people for centuries. It was said to be significant to several Native American communities, and in the mid-20th century, UFO enthusiasts flocked to it. It’s powerful to be in the shadow of something so startlingly huge, and you may find yourself entranced, wanting to stay for as long as you can, without knowing exactly why.

Landers, CA 92285

Today, the wooden structure is a sonic retreat. Courtesy Integratron
Otherworldly Outpost

5. The Integratron

Today, this white dome hosts sound bath spa treatments, but it has a storied past and a vaguely extraterrestrial bent. It was the brainchild of George Van Tassel, who claimed that a ship from Venus touched down at Giant Rock in 1953, carrying a 700-year-old being named Solganda, who let him in on a secret: The human body could be juiced up, like a battery, to stave off aging. Van Tassel spent years meditating beneath Giant Rock, in the warren that his friend Frank Critzer had excavated, and then got to work building a nearby structure that he claimed could generate electrostatic energy. The current owners of the Integratron make no promises of alien encounters or immortality, but visitors can make a reservation to spend an hour reclining on striped mats, listening to sound coaxed out of quartz crystal bowls as history echoes around them.

2477 Belfield Blvd, Landers, CA 92285

Step on in and check out the view. Ryan Vaarsi/CC BY 2.0
Desert Digs

6. The Ruins of Ryan Ranch

A trip to Joshua Tree National Park is worth it just for a glimpse of its famed Seussian yucca plants, stacked boulders, and cholla cacti—but in addition to its natural treasures, the park has archaeological ones, too. For proof, stop by Ryan Ranch. Though it’s in the shadow of the steep Ryan Mountain, this trail is one of the park’s easiest hikes. The surface is nearly flat, which is fine: You’re not here to get your heart pumping. Your goal is to soak up the history hiding in plain sight.

Your destination is a set of adobe ruins that aren’t easily visible from the start of the trail. Follow it, and you’ll come right up to them, the most obvious relics of an estate built here at the end of the 19th century by J. D. Ryan, who operated the nearby Lost Horse Mine. Much of the six-room main house burned down in the 1970s, in an act of suspected arson. It still warrants a visit, if only to see how the creamy beige remains evoke the hues and humps of the rocks beyond them. If you stand in the “doorways,” it’s easy to imagine the astonishing view that the family woke up to more than a century ago.

Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

Shari Elf's cuddly collection is open to all. Samir S. Patel/Atlas Obscura
Mini Museum

7. A Collection of Crocheted Curios

As you leave Joshua Tree through the West Entrance, off of Highway 62, you’ll be in prime position to pull over and check out the teeny-tiny World Famous Crochet Museum. Inside a lime-green photo processing hut, you’ll find a collection of plush poodles, melons, mermaids, and more—all adoringly arranged by Shari Elf, who has been acquiring them since the 1990s. If you’re itching to get your hands on your own cozy souvenir, pop into the nearby shop, brimming with hats, tunics, and more.

61855 CA-62, Joshua Tree, CA 92252

The small shop is heavy on nostalgia. Samir S. Patel/Atlas Obscura
Hairy History

8. Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum

After the Crochet Museum, walk on over to this love letter to bouffants and the tools that make them soar. Painted bubblegum pink and various hues of blue and mint, the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum is crammed with curlers, old-school dryers, and much more. Stop in for a quick history of hair styling—or if your own ‘do needs a little freshening up, call ahead for an appointment.

61855 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, CA 92252

The assemblages at the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum bake in the sun. Samir S. Patel/Atlas Obscura
Salvaged Sculptures

9. Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum

The Alabama-born artist Noah Purifoy, who died in 2004, spent the final 15 years of his life arranging more than 100 of his sculptures and installations across several acres of desert. He worked almost exclusively with found objects, including salvaged, charred debris from the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Here, plywood, white bricks, and rusting parts almost blend in with the sand and scrubby plants. Exposed to wind, rain, and the straight-on sun, the sculptures change over time. No matter: Purifoy embraced entropy, and visitors have to do the same. Arrive with a curious mind, and you’ll reap plenty of rewards.

63030 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree, CA 92252

The salty shoreline looks beautifully alien. Sherman Yang/Unsplash
Watery Wonderland

10. Salton Sea Visitor Center

Come for the inland sea, stay for the wacky story about how it got there and the push to protect it. This mightily saline body of water—even saltier than the Pacific Ocean—was an engineering accident. In the rainy spring of 1905, the Colorado River rushed through the canal gates built to hold it back, flooding the Imperial Valley. This had happened several times in the past, but this time, it stuck. It took engineers roughly a year and a half to stem the flow, and in the meantime, water continued to pool at 227 feet below sea level. Today, the sea is fed by agricultural runoff. Some naturalists worry that if it continues getting saltier, many of the white pelicans and other birds that use it as a place to fuel up during migration may be out of luck.

Skip the eerie ruins of abandoned buildings chapped and flaking in the desert and check out the criminally underrated visitor center, where a pelican skull, with its long, sharp bill, is sure to leave you slack-jawed. If you’ve got a steel stomach, don't miss a slew of “Salton Sea Hush Puppies” near the window. (The charming name describes globs of waxy, insoluble fat formed when untold numbers of tilapia died at the same time in the briny water.) Then, make your way down to the beach. With each step, you’ll kick up sharp little backbones and barnacles that almost look tinted purple or dusty rose. Sit for awhile on the sun-battered picnic tables, surveying one of the prettiest infrastructure mishaps around.

100-255 State Park Rd, Mecca, CA 92254

Dos Palmas oasis is a wonderful place to wander. Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management/CC BY 2.0
Green Oasis

11. Dos Palmas and San Andreas Springs Palm Trees

Both San Andreas Springs and its neighbor, Dos Palmas, evoke secret gardens, filled with nothing but native California fan palms with fronds that fall down like shaggy skirts. When you arrive, park your car and wind your way down a tidy, sandy path. It will feel like you’re veering off in the wrong direction, but trust the twists and turns and you’ll land smack inside a grove of trees. There, you’ll be enveloped by fronds and the smell of damp dirt. In the precious, secluded solitude, it might feel like you’re breaking some rule—how could something so beautiful be so empty? It’s simply under the radar: This property is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, but open to visitors. Be sure to leave things as you found them, and don’t get in the way of the work.

Palmas Spring Rd, Mecca, CA 92254

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A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

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Artist Colette Miller's tribute to the City of Angels.

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The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

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An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

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View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

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