Beyond Palm Springs: A Course in Desert Architecture


“Desert sky, dream beneath a desert sky….”

-God’s Country, U2

Despite the colorful picture I painted last week, my recent trip to Palm Springs was not all midcentury immersion.  After a crash course in modernist architecture, Chris, Michelle and I were primed for a change of pace. The next stops on our tour included wonders created by that most talented desert architect of all:  Mother Nature.   No matter where we go, She is always showing off.  From the top of the San Jacinto Mountains to the floor of the high desert in the Mojave, Her ever impressive works of art were on full display.  We also squeezed in visits to a few manmade marvels along the way, but more on those later.  In the meantime…

A rare photo captured half way up the Palm Springs Arial Tramway ride to Mount Jacinto

Our first undertaking of the day was a trip up to Mount San Jacinto.  Chris wanted to make sure we saw the view of Palm Springs from above, so he whisked us over to the Palm Springs Arial Tramway.  We hiked up the parking lot to the tramway station and the mountains ahead loomed large in the heat.  The wait for a tram ride up to the top (elevation 8,516 feet) can be quite long during winter and spring, but as it was summer we were quickly onboard for the 2.5 mile journey.  As exciting as it is to ride one of the world’s largest rotating tram cars, I ditched my posse and hunkered down away from the windows with eyes fixed on the ground.  I temporarily forgot about my crippling fear of heights (when I later told my husband I was a willing participant in this activity, he assumed I was joking).  I somehow had enough wits about me to look up and snap this lone shot of our 6,000 foot ascent.

As soon as we exited the tramcar, feelings of relief were immediate.  And not just because both feet were finally firmly planted on land- the mountain air was almost 30 degrees cooler than it was down below.  The view of the Coachella Valley was truly spectacular- it was as if we were looking out from the window of an airplane high above ground.  The sky shone blue as we scanned the view, neatly framed by slow moving, billowy cloud puffs.

A ground view from the top of Mount San Jacinto

Next we embarked on a short hike (just under one mile) near the summit to check out the land around us.  We may or may not have been too hung over from the night before to opt for a more strenuous hike through the park, but nevertheless we were still able to enjoy the fresh air, mountain views and surrounding beauty of the landscape.  Or actually just I was- Chris and Michelle seemed ready to go.  Note to self:  during the night prior to plans that revolve around physical exertion in high temperatures, continuous drinking until 1am should be avoided.

From our Palm Springs home base the following morning after a tasty breakfast at Sherman’s Deli, we set out for more of the great outdoors.  As we headed out to the northeast, I was thrilled to be back in desert lands and heading for two of my favorite SoCal destinations.  I love so much about the desert, even though conditions there can run from merely harsh to absolutely unbearable for much of the year.  As soon as I get near its strange, minimalist and edgy beauty, the landscape pulls on my heart as if it were calling me home.

The northwest side of Joshua Tree National Park

We drove through the North West entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree is huge- just slightly bigger than Rhode Island. Originally declared a National Monument in 1936, it was re-designated a National Park in 1994.  Summertime temperatures hover at right about 100 degrees, so only the heartiest trees and shrubs will survive the heat here. Conversely, in the winter it can be bitter cold, sometimes chill enough for snow on the ground. Joshua Tree’s oldest rocks (and there are millions of them) are an astonishing 1.7 billion years old.  Visitors can camp, hike and climb here, but in the past few years several trails were closed due to an increase in graffiti on the landscape.  Sadly, the advent of social media has not been kind to the picturesque boulders that dot the park.

Keys View, Joshua Tree

After a scenic drive through, we stopped to sample the expansive scenery at Keys View, which is about a one mile drive into the park from our point of entry. Luckily, the temperature that day was a mild 78 degrees. Usually, the Salton Sea, Signal Mountain, Indio and Palm Springs are all visible from this spot. Unfortunately, smog (sucked into the Coachella Valley from LA via the Gorgonio Pass) made it difficult for us to see very far out, so we soon hit the road to explore more of the adjacent surroundings.


Thirsty from travel and hungry for lunch, we departed Joshua Tree and headed north toward Pappy & Harriet’s and Pioneertown.   Established in 1982, it features a mesquite grill, a fully stocked bar, a comfort food menu and live music.  Music runs thick through Pappy & Harriet’s veins as Robert Plant, Leon Russell and Cracker (they recorded cuts off their album Kerosene Hat there) have all graced its stage.  If you are nearby and read this in time, you can catch Shooter Jennings there this week 🙂  I highly recommend a stop at P&H’s if you’re in Joshua Tree or even Palm Springs for that matter.  There are excellent things to eat, drink and dance to there most of the week (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays).

Downtown Pioneertown

When our delish lunch was over, we made our last stops of the day on Mane Street in Pioneertown, conveniently around the corner from Pappy & Harriet’s.  Founded in 1946 by a group of actors and film production people, Pioneertown was the backdrop for filmed works such as The Cisco Kid (1950), The Gene Autry Show (1950) and Annie Oakley (1954).  The buildings along Mane Street used during the old filming days remained otherwise vacant for several years, but these days Pioneertown is enjoying a resurgence of popularity since a string of new businesses opened inside those storefronts.  In fact, we happened to be three of the very first visitors that day at the new Ernie Kester Film Museum, which had just opened to the public.

The new Film Museum on Mane
Cool goods and gifts at Arrow & Bear on Mane

Once we finished our browsing and downtown stroll, we headed to the car for the drive back to civilization in Palm Springs.  We debated what had changed and what hadn’t changed since our visits years ago.  Grateful that we still had time enough left of the weekend for more fun together, we headed back to Chris’ place to relax and recharge.  Our days together were nearing their end, but the adventures were far from finished.

Lisa Ihnken ©2018 All Rights Reserved

2 thoughts on “Beyond Palm Springs: A Course in Desert Architecture

  1. Lisa, I am so jealous I love Palm Springs. Next time you go you need to let me give you all the secret or best places to go. You obviously hit a lot of them. I love the tram, but I had to stay in the middle. You should have hit the Cabazon Outlets they are the best. Glad you had a great time. Miss you and love you in a good way. Mitchell


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