Time Out!: 5 Great USA Getaways

The Mojave, California

Jan 15, 2004
Outside Magazine
joshua tree national park

The surreally twisted joshua trees got their name from early Mormon pioneers, who heard the Book of Joshua when the saw the trees: "Thou shalt follow the way pointed for thee by the trees."    Photo: PhotoDisc

IF YOU THOUGHT PALM SPRINGS was nothing but a dense collection of geezers wearing polyester Sansabelts assembled in the desert to bitch about Medicare, well, you thought wrong. The variety of stark natural landscapes and deluxe material comforts—little more than a hundred miles from smog-ridden L.A.—make Palm Springs the ultimate base camp. Where else can you nail a 5.10 crux move in Joshua Tree National Park or hike the alpine trails on 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto, then hit any number of swanky hotel bars for cocktail hour and choose from 6,500 hotel rooms? If there's a downside to this schizo land of opportunity, it's that you'll have to pack two bags: one for all your gear... another for your dinner jacket and fancy shoes. Come winter, you can take advantage of a Southern California phenomenon: Within ten miles of downtown Palm Springs, the elevation jumps from 466 feet to over 10,000. Translation: You can spend the morning cross-country skiing and the afternoon lounging poolside in the sun.

From Palm Springs, it's a quick 26-mile drive north and east on California 62 to the first entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, the epicenter for the West Coast's winter rock-climbing season. Boulder the quartz monzonite piles around the Hidden Valley Campground and the Wonderland of Rocks, or try J-Tree classics like the elementary jamming up Right On (5.5) or the highly technical Iconoclast (5.13a).

Four miles west of downtown, the Ariel Tramway shoots up to the pines at 8,516 feet on the flanks of Mount San Jacinto. From there you've got a choice of 54 miles of hiking trails (no biking allowed) through the meadows and granite of Mount San Jacinto State Park, a connection to the Pacific Crest Trail, and in winter, nordic ski rentals and serene cross-country trails at the ski center. Snow permitting, you can make your way to the top of the 10,400-foot peak. And if you're lucky, you'll glimpse one of the mountain's bobcats.

Or explore rugged slot canyons in the Mecca Hills Wilderness, 30 miles east of Palm Springs. Two worth checking out are arid and beautiful Painted Canyon and an adjacent canyon with wooden ladders that makes a fine playground.

A ten-minute walk or a five-minute bike ride from the hotel is Johannes, a small, unpretentious restaurant, with walls painted a refreshing tangerine, that serves modern California fusion food. Try the curried crab with apples wrapped in cucumber or the seasonal vegetables with couscous sprinkled with truffle oil.

Palm Springs came of age in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the best place to immerse yourself in a retro Rat Pack martini mentality is the Orbit In. Built during the late forties and mid-fifties and restored in 2001, the one-story hotel is nestled at the foot of Mount San Jacinto and features rooms stocked with minibars, lava lamps, and vintage furniture by 1950s design icons such as Eames, Noguchi, and Bertoia. The Orbit In even loans out retro-cool Schwinn cruiser bicycles for exploring the city—the ultimate in sporty throwback fun.

Winter is prime rock-climbing season in Joshua Tree National Park (760-367-5500, www.nps.gov/jotr/), and the campsites with water and toilets ($10 a night) fill up fast. Uprising Outdoor Adventure Center (888-254-6266, www.uprising.com) has the nation’s largest outdoor climbing gym—a 55-foot-high, 8,500-square-foot behemoth under a shade canopy ($15 for a day pass). You’ll also find a full-service shop for climbers, hikers, and backpackers. Guided climbing trips to Joshua Tree start at $85. Tickets for the Ariel Tram (888-515-8726, www.pstramway.com) run $21 round-trip, and the tram’s Winter Adventure Center rents cross-country gear and snowshoes for $18 and $15 a day, respectively. Rooms at the Orbit In (877-996-7248, www.orbitin.com) run from a low of $169 during the summer to $269 per night in the winter high season. And reservations are recommended at Johannes (760-778-0017).

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