The Desert’s Best-Kept Secret Is This Breathtaking Preserve Near Joshua Tree
Hike without the crowds at this otherworldly oasis.
What if I told you there are thousands of acres of pristine California desert that are free to explore, where crowds are few and hiking trails are abundant, just a stone’s throw from one of the most popular saloons in the West?
Welcome to Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, an otherworldly oasis of sweeping proportions replete with Joshua trees, massive rock formations, and epic views of the Sawtooth Mountains. At more than 25,000 acres, this corner of the California desert is one of my favorite under-the-radar destinations not only for its proximity to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree (it’s literally five minutes from the aforementioned—and iconic—bar and restaurant Pappy & Harriet’s), but also for the surprisingly quiet serenity and majestic wildlife that can be found within its confines.
Unlike in nearby Joshua Tree National Park, leashed dogs are allowed to explore the trails that wind their way through the preserve. Some of my favorites include the sneakily strenuous 3.3-mile Chaparrosa Peak Spur Trail that gains 1,000 feet in elevation as you make your way up to a stunning 5,000-foot-plus overlook, as well as the 9.5-mile Sawtooth Loop where horses may rumble alongside as you pass alien-like boulders, yucca, and California buckwheat—it’s even more magical after a fresh snow.
The Pioneertown preserve is free and open to the public from sunrise to sunset thanks to The Wildlands Conservancy, a nonprofit land conservancy that manages nearly two dozen preserves across the state. The decades-old organization recently made headlines for its purchase of more than 25,000 acres near the Eel River in the northern part of the state. You can learn more about the conservancy’s efforts, or how to get involved, here.
When exploring the desert, It’s important to be respectful and mindful of the landscape and local neighbors, especially considering the large influx of tourists in recent years. Always pack out what you pack in, and leave no trace. Stay on hiking trails and make sure to be prepared with the right maps if you’re heading off the grid.
While you can’t camp overnight at the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, there are plenty of options for accommodations in the surrounding area. There are also myriad vintage stores and locally owned shops to explore in Pioneertown. (Side note: I also highly recommend the conservancy’s nearby Whitewater Preserve, where you can dip your toes in a meandering river just outside Palm Springs.)
Here are a few other spots where you can cool down after a hike:
More to Explore in Pioneertown
Pappy and Harriet’s
Sir Paul McCartney once played a secret gig at this storied bar and restaurant where the chili nachos are just as legendary as the live shows.
Head down Mane Street to rest your head at these Western-themed digs where leather, cactus, and card games reign supreme.