Twentynine Palms: Gateway to Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve

You’ve probably heard of Palm Springs, California—a midcentury design giant and popular hangout for well-heeled celebs, retirees and hip millennials seeking a playground close to Los Angeles. But just about an hour’s drive away, the southern Mojave Desert boasts a smaller, far less known city—Twentynine Palms, which not only offers fun historical and cultural attractions but also serves as a gateway to some of the most incredible outdoor destinations and adventures in the U.S. This desert oasis is the home of the main entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, renowned for stunning landscapes, and leads directly to the extraordinary sand dunes of the Mojave National Preserve and, via America’s iconic Route 66 to the Mojave Trail National Monument.

The city, whose early claim to fame and allure was gold deposits that resident Serrano and Chemehuevi tribe members led 1870s prospectors to, derived its name from the palm trees growing around the local spring—the Oasis of Mara. Judging by Twentynine Palm’s contemporary eateries, off-beat art galleries and installations, and sky-gazing enterprises, the city’s present-day citizens (a populace padded by the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center—the world’s largest Marine Corps training base) share the 19th-century miners’ pioneering spirit. 

Experience the top attractions within Twentynine Palms and also use it as your launch site for exploring various Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert destinations (there are a whopping 2 million acres of wilderness next door to this town). What awaits you are magnificent landscapes that stretch out forever, the Milky Way in all its shimmering glory, soaring sand dunes and cacti, and colorful springtime wildflowers.

Sources of Inspiration: Can’t-Miss Sites in Twentynine Palms

Twentynine Palms has a long history of inspiring the work of music legends. Famed Hollywood composer and songwriter Allie Wrubel composed “The Lady From Twentynine Palms,” first released in 1947. (This is the same guy who, seven years earlier, wrote “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and won an Academy Award for it.) Robert Plant wrote a song called “Twentynine Palms” for his 1993 album “Fate of Nations.” The rock band U2 stayed at the quaint Harmony Motel in town and was famously photographed there while touring the Mojave Desert and developing their 1987 “The Joshua Tree” album. The motel has also housed and fueled many Snow Patrol songs. Below are some top Twentynine destinations to inspire you.

Twentynine Palms
Photo credit: @Visit29Palms.

Oasis of Murals

In 1994, a local merchant group that eventually evolved into a nonprofit, began commissioning giant murals depicting the history of the city and the surrounding desert’s flora and fauna. The murals, in turn, attracted more artists to the town and inspired a host of additional art events and destinations. Pick up a brochure at the 29 Palms Visitor Center and take a self-guided tour of the mural collection. And while you’re at it, be sure to take notice of the outdoor sculptures and art installations around town.

Sky’s The Limit Observatory & Nature Center

Twentynine Palms’ dark skies provide a perfect opportunity to see our galaxy at its best. And every Saturday night, The Sky’s The Limit Observatory & Nature Center (STL) makes it that much easier by letting visitors take a tour of stars, planets, constellations and the Milky Way with the help of volunteer astronomers and STL’s telescopes, including the 14” Celestron telescope in the observation dome.

Smith’s Ranch Drive-In

Watch a movie under the stars at this outdoor movie theater and you’ll be participating in a long-standing tradition—the drive-in’s been operating since 1954 and still shows first-run films Thursday through Sunday nights.

29palms Farmers Market

Looking for something to do at night beyond movie viewing, stargazing, dining and bar hopping (there are some really good restaurants and watering holes in Twentynine Palms)? Head to the 29 Palms weekly farmers market, held from 5-9 pm every Saturday at Bucklin Park—the locally grown fruits and veggies and fresh-made salsas, nuts and spreads are delicious.

The Glass Outhouse Art Gallery

There are several notable art galleries in Twentynine Palms (Desert Art Studio, 29 Palms Creative Center & Gallery, 29 Palms Art Gallery) that showcase and sell artworks ranging from paintings to crafts, and also provide workshop environments in which visitors can create their own pieces. But the most ‘out there’ among the galleries may be The Glass Outhouse Art Gallery featuring the work of desert artists and photographers—which includes a glass outhouse. The property also displays various found-object art installations.

Dive into the Desert near Twentynine Palms

Few towns in the country offer the kind of natural wonder at their doorstep that Twentynine Palms does. Miners came to this desert locale looking for gold and not only found the mineral in spades but something equally rare and far more essential in these parts—water. Today’s visitors stand to discover a whole other kind of treasury here. One with immeasurable value. The sort that’s intrinsic to the rocks, sands and vegetation of three monumental parks and a nostalgia-inducing stretch of road, renowned for historic road signs and motels.   

Joshua Tree National Park—Where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts Meet

Twentynine Palms.
Twentynine Palms. Photo credit: @Visit29Palms.

Take National Park Drive from downtown Twentynine Palms to Joshua Tree National Park Headquarters and Oasis Visitor Center, located at the Oasis of Mara. You’ll find the park’s North Entrance is just a few minutes up the road. 

Pass through and remember to breathe because what’s in store are 800,000 acres of otherworldly geological features, multi-color mountain views, monolithic granite boulders, forests of ancient teddy bear-like Joshua trees (don’t cuddle ‘em—they have massive thorns), blankets of wildflowers, towering cholla cacti and spiky ocotillo plants, coyotes and desert bighorn. Some of the activities you can pursue here: rock climbing and bouldering, hiking, camping, visiting historical mines and participating in eye-opening ranger programs, such as walks, hikes, campfire talks and tours of gold mining-era sites.

The must-see spots include: Skull Rock (a granite rock shaped by eons of erosive rain water), Keys View (panoramic vistas of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault and high peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio), Cottonwood Spring Oasis (formed by earthquakes, the spring is a starting point for multiple hikes with fabulous views and geology) and 49 Palms Oasis featuring fan palms in a rocky canyon setting. Access the 1.5-mile hiking trail that leads to 49 Palms Oasis right from Twentynine Palms.

Mojave National Preserve

In this serene 1.6-million-acre Preserve, you’ll find cinder cone volcanoes, large stands of Joshua trees, carpets of wildflower blooms edging desert roads, canyons, mesas and mountains. But the Kelso Dunes, rising up to 650 ft. and covering 45 square miles, are among the most amazing sights here—and not just because of their dramatic appearance. They ‘sing’ a low-pitched, rumbling tune and vibrate as visitors compress the sand grains and make them roll over one another by climbing up to the tops of the dunes and sliding down.   

Mojave Trails National Monument

Granted National Monument designation in 2016 under President Barack Obama, this mysterious gem of a spot contains the longest undeveloped stretch of Route 66 in the U.S. and connects the Mojave National Preserve to Joshua Tree National Park. Among the monument’s 1.6 million acres: stunning mountain ranges, slot canyons, ancient lava flows and sand dunes. You’ll want to rock hound here and search for fossils; gaze at stars from the parking lot of the Amboy Crater, a 250 ft.-high volcanic cinder cone that’s one of the darkest places in the Mojave Desert; climb the wavy Cadiz Dunes; and visit Camp Iron Mountain, one of the camps within the Desert Training Center where American soldiers were prepped for combat in WWII.

Getting to Twentynine Palms

The nearest airport to Twentynine Palms is Palm Springs International Airport (PSP/KPSP), located about an hour’s drive away. But visitors outside of California can also fly into one of the Los Angeles airports or Las Vegas and drive to Twentynine Palms—it takes about two hours and 20 minutes from LA and about 3 hours from Las Vegas.