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A Weekend Guide To The Desert (Beyond Coachella And Palm Springs)

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When it comes to the desert, Palm Springs and Coachella hog all the attention. But venture off the beaten path and you can have quite an adventure trekking through the California desert from Joshua Tree to the Salton Sea. You can get a sound bath near a spot reportedly visited by aliens, enjoy a vegan brunch where you least expect it, check out otherworldly outdoor found art sculptures and a folk art masterpiece. Here are some of our favorite things to do, see, eat and drink out in the desert.

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Get your sound bath on at the Integratron in Landers, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
INTEGRATRON, GIANT ROCK AND CRYSTAL HILL

The Integratron looks like an alien moon base you'd see in an old episode of Star Trek, so you know you're in for something interesting when you step inside. The white, dome-like structure sits in the middle of nowhere in Landers about 20 miles north of Joshua Tree National Park.

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It's a bohemian space where you can get sound baths or "sonic healing sessions" if you prefer. That means that you lay down on a blanket over a yoga mat in a completely wood-covered dome with top-notch acoustics, listening to someone play crystal bowls and recorded music. The people behind the Integratron have some interesting theories about the location of the dome. It sits on a "powerful geomagnetic vortex," and the dome is the "electrostatic generator for the purpose of rejuvenation and time travel," according to their website. The creator, the late George Van Tassel, believed the land was special because he had contact with the aliens from Venus there who told him how to build the Integratron. He spent nearly 20 years constructing it. You may or may not have a moment that transcends anything you've experienced in this world, but I can vouch that it is relaxing. Not unlike yoga, you can meditate and have your thoughts drift in and out. You might feel so relaxed that you'll pass out, but just make sure you don't snore. (That's a real buzzkill.)

Also, before and after your scheduled sound bath, you can chill in their relaxing outdoor garden that has music, comfy lawn chairs, hammocks and a water station. I even saw a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering around the plants there, which made it a little more magical.

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The hammocks in the Integratron garden (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
The Integratron hosts reservation-only pop-up sound baths where you can book a spot in advance on their website for $25/person on weekdays and $35/person on weekends and holidays. They also have no-reservation required sound baths one or two weekends per month for $20/person. For more information on schedules, check out their website here.

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Giant Rock in Landers, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
While you're out visiting the Integratron, stop by Giant Rock and Crystal Hill. They're attractions worth checking out while you're already out in Landers for a sound bath. To get to Giant Rock, drive about three miles northwest from the Integratron on an unpaved dirt road. (There aren't any signs or maps to get there, so feel free to ask someone at the Integratron on how to get there if you have questions.) Giant Rock is something you won't miss because it's a smooth, seven-story boulder that rests in your path. A large chunk of the rock broke off in 2000, and it still sits at the foot of the boulder.

While the desert land around Giant Rock is a hotspot for ATV and motorbike riders, it's also a place that has an interesting history that's laced with stories about UFOs. Followers of Integratron's George Van Tassel would congregate there for his birthdays for channeling sessions and his annual spacecraft conventions. Even after he died, his fans hosted a Retro UFO Convention with the Giant Rock as the main attraction.

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Crystal Hill in Landers, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
If you walk a bit past the giant rock and to the left, you'll find Crystal Hill, a mound that is covered in white stones.

Integratron is located at 2477 Belfield Blvd., Landers, CA, (760) 364-3126

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Outside Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, CA (Photo via Facebook)
PAPPY & HARRIET'S PIONEERTOWN PALACE

Pappy & Harriet's is a wonderful honkytonk bar and restaurant nestled in Pioneertown, not even six miles northwest from Yucca Valley. It's a great BBQ joint where you can get ribs and tri-tip for lunch or dinner. At night, it's a haven for concerts with some big name acts. Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear and Modest Mouse have graced the small stage at Pappy & Harriet's with their presence.

Pro-tip: If you have tickets to a show where a popular band is playing, you can make that a dinner-and-show event by making a dinner reservation a few weeks in advance (because tables book up quickly).

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Inside Pappy & Harriet's (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
Pioneertown has the look and feel of a frontier town complete with a saloon, stables and jails. The town/set was built in 1946 by Hollywood investors, and became a hotspot for filming westerns in the 1940s and 1950s. Pappy & Harriet's once was "an outlaw biker burrito bar" called The Cantina before it became what it is today. Bikers still frequent the saloon, but locals and hipsters show up, too.

Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace is located at 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956

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Outside Crossroads Cafe in Joshua Tree, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
CROSSROADS CAFE

Crossroads Cafe is the spot to get your brunch on while you're in Joshua Tree. It's on a relatively busy stretch of Twentynine Palms Highway, next to a bunch of other bars, restaurants, and kitschy antique and Southwest trinket shops. The cozy and laid-back diner is a vegetarian-friendly restaurant where the all the patrons seem to have tattoo sleeves and beards.

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Outside Polenta & Eggs dish at Crossroads Cafe in Joshua Tree, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
It's the type of place where you'll have no problem ordering a corned beef hash or eggs benedict, but also a soy-rizo scramble or breakfast egg sandwich with grilled seitan. This joint opens from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. daily, so you can grab a late-night meal—like a burger or fish tacos.

Crossroads Cafe is located at 61715 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, (760) 366-5414

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Joshua Tree Saloon in Joshua Tree, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
JOSHUA TREE SALOON GRILL & BAR

Josha Tree Saloon is a great dive bar where you can unwind. The no-frills bar is wall-to-wall covered with beer brand signs and framed beer artwork, and wooden picnic benches and booths. You can grab a burger or rib-eye streak there and pair it with a cold pint of beer. They often have live bands play, and karaoke on Wednesday and Friday nights. Their happy hour is a short but sweet: from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily you can get $2 well cocktails and domestic drafts.

Joshua Tree Saloon Grill & Bar is located at 61835 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, (760) 366-2250

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The patio of Pie for the People in Joshua Tree, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
PIE FOR THE PEOPLE

If you have a hankering for pizza while you're out in Joshua Tree, there's a cute New York-style pizzeria just steps away from Joshua Tree Saloon and Crossroads Cafe. Their shop reminds us of Echo Park's Two Boots with their creative pizza topping combos. They've got fun dish names like the "David Bowie," a white sauce pie with bacon, roasted pineapples, jalapenos, Guinness-caramelized onions, mozzarella and topped with plum sauce; and the "Barry White," another white pie with feta, pesto, mozzarella, fresh strawberries and roasted garlic. You can order pizzas by the whole pie or slice (which is pretty huge), and they even offer gluten-free and veggie options. And if you want to get some fresh air, they have a chill outdoor patio in the back with little lights strewn across a tree, which look pretty at night.

Pie for the People is located at 61740-B, 29 Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree, (760) 366-0400

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An art piece at Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum in Joshua Tree, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
NOAH PURIFOY OUTDOOR DESERT MUSEUM OF ASSEMBLAGE STRUCTURE

Seemingly out in the middle of nowhere in Joshua Tree is a sprawling outdoor desert museum made of found art from junked materials. You'll find trippy sculptures like bicycles atop of a teeter-totter on a wooden cabin-like structure to a stack of rusted fold-out chairs piled high and reaching up to the sky. There's lots of metal, and it's not uncommon to find robot sculptures around.

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'No Contest' artwork at Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum in Joshua Tree, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
Noah Purifoy, the late artist behind founding Watts Towers Arts Center in the 1960s, spent the last 15 years of his life creating art on 10 acres of this desert land. The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Structure is an art space open to the public daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is free to check out (though donations are encouraged). And just a heads up, there aren't any restrooms at this exhibit.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum Of Assemblage Structure is located at 63030 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree, (213)382-7516

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Joshua Tree National Park (Photo by Marc Evans via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

While you're in the desert, you might as well get a taste of mother nature at Joshua Tree National Park where you can hike, rock-climb, and camp. Note: It's better to go during the non-summer months because of the heat. You can also check out Joshua trees, birds like the roadrunner, and wildflowers (that bloom in higher elevations during the spring months of March and April, and sometimes even until June). It's also a sweet spot for stargazing since there's so little light pollution out in the desert. Covington Crest is a nice spot to look down on the Coachella Valley and the San Jacinto Mountains.

And fun little thing to note: legend has it that "Mormon pioneers considered the limbs of the Joshua trees to resemble the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land," according to Joshua Tree National Park's website.

To get into the park, you just need to pay $5 for an individual person, or $15 for the passengers of one car. The passes are valid for seven days.

Joshua Tree Visitor Center is located at 6554 Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree. For more info on the park visit this website.

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Sushi at Kimi Grill in Yucca Valley, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
KIMI GRILL

While it may feel a little sketchy to get sushi in the desert, I can attest that there is actually some decent sushi at Kimi Grill in Yucca Valley. It's a gem to find in the desert since there aren't that many restaurants in the area. And don't let the fact that it's located inside a Travelodge stop you—this huge restaurant is actually pretty happening and packed on weekend nights. They have a huge selection of interesting rolls with names like Night Fever Roll to Vampire Roll, and the sushi is beautifully arranged with real flowers adorning the plates. For the folks who don't feel like sushi, they also have bento boxes with dishes like chicken teriyaki and rice to keep you sated.

Kimi Grill is located at 7500 Camino Del Cielo Trl, Yucca Valley, (760) 369-1122

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The International Banana Museum (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
INTERNATIONAL BANANA MUSEUM

As you're heading southeast past Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, the International Banana Museum is one of those quirky stops you should make along the way. It's an endearing and appealing little museum/shop that houses over 20,000 banana-related items—from toys to trinkets.

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The banana stools at the International Banana Museum in Mecca, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
It costs $1 to get in, but admission is waived if you buy something. That includes ice cream sundaes, banana splits and banana-flavored sodas you can enjoy while you sit on their banana-decorated stools at the counter.

International Banana Museum is located at 98775 CA-111, Mecca, (619) 840-1429

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Salton Sea at sunset (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
SALTON SEA

Just a little over an hour drive southeast from Palm Springs to Mecca, you can get to the Salton Sea, a 45-mile-long and 20-mile-wide lake that just so happens to be the biggest lake in California. It's a gorgeous sight at sunrise and sunset, which makes way for some sweet Instagram snapshots.

The Salton Sea State Park and Visitor Center is a good starting point for your visit, where you can get info on its unique history, and get details on fishing, bird-watching, hiking and camping. It's a prime spot for bird watching, with more than 400 species of birds who visit the lake during their migratory patterns. It costs $5 for a day-use pass to get into the park.

The area also has a unique history and ecosystem, which makes this little lake in the desert worth a visit. The Salton Sea that we know today was re-formed after a 1905 El Niño rainstorm caused the Colorado River to rise and flood through canal gates. It flooded the Salton Basin, a previously dried-out lake bed that had been empty for 50 to 60 years, and continued to flow for two years before locals were able to stop it.

The Salton Sea was once was a hotspot for Hollywood stars back in the '50s and '60s—it was a vacation spot much like Palm Springs. But things have changed since, and it's now a lot more desolate. The problem with the Salton Sea is that the lake is shrinking, yet the salinity in the water is increasing. And when there are heat waves, oxygen levels in the water will drop, killing off fish in the masses. So, while it's still worth visiting, you might want to avoid going there on really hot days in the summer or you might be faced with a sulfuric stench from the rotting fish.

The problems with the Salton Sea, however, lends itself to seeing really crazy stuff. For example, as you're walking through what you think is sand, when you look down, you're really standing on a graveyard of pulverized fish bones that look like tiny seashells.

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The ruins at Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea (Photo by Daniella Zalcman via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
And then there's Bombay Beach—the southernmost stop at the Salton Sea—which basically looks like an eerie, post-apocalyptic community. Bombay Beach became deserted after folks were tired of dealing with rising waters flooding the town, and there are the ruins of old buildings, mobile homes and personal belongs scattered throughout the area.

Salton Sea State Recreation Area is located at 100-225 State Park Rd., Mecca, (760) 393-3059; Bombay Beach is located at 9500 Ave. E, Niland

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Slab City sign (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
SLAB CITY

Prepare to see things you've never seen before in the Mad Max-esque area called Slab City in Niland, CA. Slab City, a 640-acre swath of land that once served as training grounds for U.S. troops during World War II, is now an uncontrolled, abandoned land where snowbirds, folks off the grid, retirees and the homeless live now. You'll see RVs and tents throughout the area, especially during the cooler months. If you've seen the 2007 Sean Penn-directed film Into the Wild, you'll have seen lots of Slab City.

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Salvation Mountain in Slab City, CA (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
Salvation Mountain is one of the main attractions of Slab City. The late Leonard Knight, who lived in the community, built this three-story tall and over 100-feet wide "mountain" out of cement and old junk, and then painted it with vibrant colors. It's stunning against the backdrop of a barren desert, and you can't help but feel like you're inside of a real-life Dr. Seuss book. It's Knight's religious offering to God, and features painted scriptures, a cross, and messages of love. Painted cars with religious messages surround the hill, and there's an area covered in colorfully-painted branches that serves as an archway to what feels like an out-of-this-world place.

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The entrance to East Jesus in Slab City (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
Follow the main dirt and hang a left (or plug in 23 Sidewinder Rd., Niland into your GPS) and you'll see signs leading you to the East Jesus Sculpture Garden. It's a magical outdoor art space full of sculptures made of found junk—the kind of thing you might see at Burning Man. You'll see things like rusted cars decorated with skulls, futuristic mini-planes made out of chairs and keyboards, and a wall adorned with hundreds of blue and green glass bottles. There are people who live in the East Jesus community as well.

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The Range stage in Slab City (Photo courtesy of Liza Nedelman)
There's the Range, a small outdoor stage that offers entertainment and dancing in the community. The wooden stage is surrounded by mismatched chairs and old couches. There isn't an address you can plug into your GPS for this one, but if you drive through the area and see a bunch of RVs you know you're on the right track. You'll pass by an old, non-working security checkpoint that looks more like a highway toll booth saying "Welcome to Slab City" and the main gathering area will be on the road. However, feel free to ask the locals about how to get there as people are pretty friendly.

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Hot springs in Slab City (Photo courtesy of Liza Nedelman)
There are also hot springs in Slab City, which don't actually have a physical address, but you can ask the locals how to get there. Los Angeles Swimmin, a local blog, gives a detailed description on getting there.

Salvation Mountain is on Beal Rd. in Niland, CA; East Jesus Sculpture Garden is located at 23 Sidewinder Rd., Niland