Strange days in Coachella Valley
Coachella Valley might seem like a strange place to start a series about California's hottest cannabis destinations. Outside of Palm Springs, the area due east of LA is a mix of sleepy suburbs and dusty desert towns. Music festivals and national parks attract weed enthusiasts in waves, but it’s not exactly a hot spot for high society. It lacks Humboldt’s history and can’t even touch LA’s swag. What it does have, though, is a small, inconspicuous town of 28,000 residents.
Desert Hot Springs, our first pit stop on the high road to the High Desert, is the town that pot built. In 2014, four years before California legalized recreational cannabis, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. With $400 in the bank, it was desperate to attract business. Then it turned to weed. That year, Desert Hot Springs became the first municipality to embrace industrial-scale cultivation in California. Cultivators and manufacturers like luxury cannabis brand Candescent poured in, providing thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue, turning a seemingly doomed desert outpost into a full-on cannabis oasis. It only seemed right that we start where it all started, so to speak.
We were already in town for a gallery exhibition in 29 Palms, a small military town bordering Joshua Tree National Park, about an hour’s drive north east of Palm Springs. So we booked an AirBnB minutes from the park’s entrance, and compiled notes on the area’s 420-friendly attractions. For four days, we travelled across the Coachella Valley up to California’s High Desert and then back to the San Jacinto mountains in search of the perfect stoner’s holiday. What we found was a mix of strange and beautiful in a wild and resilient place.
Desert Hot Springs
The first stop on our desert adventure was the Amigo Room at Palm Springs’ Ace Hotel, where we pressed the bartender for recommendations and sipped mid-morning Bloody Marias. He gave us a glowing recommendation for Desert’s Finest, a licensed dispensary in Desert Hot Springs, conveniently located en route to our High Desert headquarters.
Based on our bartenders advice and some well-lit Yelp photos of reclaimed wood interiors, we were expecting Bay Area polish. But those wide-angle, fisheye photos get us every time. In reality, Desert’s Finest is an unassuming sand-colored building that almost disappears in its desert surroundings. With the receptionist behind glass and a dimly lit waiting room, it harkens back to pre-rec days. And those reclaimed wood walls? They’re buried beneath a sea of product.
But the bud is dank, the prices are affordable, and the (unmedicated) slushies and espresso are gratis -- if they happen to have cups on hand that day. The showroom is a small space interrupted by a horseshoe of display cases, filled with a diverse selection of Southern California-based products. They're stacked with a decent selection of name-brand flower, including four strains of Los Angeles Kush. A few bigger staples like STIIIZY, PLUS Gummies, and OLO sublingual strips are here too. In total, we walked away with a handful of pre-rolls from Chalice Cup winning CaliGreenGold, Grateful Dave’s, and Henry’s, and picked up a couple of in-house Donkey Punch pre-rolls for good measure. We got all of this and a tin of sour blueberry PLUS Gummies, all for under $100.
Despite the catfish effect, Desert’s Finest delivered on selection and caffeine. It’s a bit of a trek for Palm Springs vacationers, but if you’re passing through town, or speculating for an industrial-scale grow in Desert Hot Springs, it’s worth stopping in. Just don’t expect LA style or Bay Area service, and don’t forget to bring your own cup for that free slushie.
With a decent haul in Desert Hot Springs we made our way to Joshua Tree for lunch. The High Desert isn’t known for its culinary prowess, but there are still a few food staples. The Country Kitchen, a small diner in Joshua Tree is adept at murdering midday munchies. From 6:30AM to 3PM everyday, they serve a mix of standard diner dishes, mexican breakfast, and Cambodian specialties, held over from the restaurant’s original owner, Mareine Uy. They also offer a small selection of wine and beer. To look at the menu, you might think they’re doing too much but The Country Kitchen delivers on no-frills comfort food across the board. If you leave this spot hungry, you’re doing it wrong.
With a few hours to kill before checking into our AirBnB, we walked off lunch, window shopping along the the town’s main drag. Rodeo drive, it is not. This is the desert and desert people are a strange bunch. If you get tired of the LA-expat vibes at stores like the Wonder Valley Oil Shop, there are a handful of second-hand stores packed with howling coyote t-shirts, worn cowboy boots, and random shit like a picture of a creepy old baby in a shattered frame or a decorative plate from Six Flags over Texas. The High Desert has an endless supply of knick knacks, but our appetite for kitsch is finite, and anyway, it was time to break into our stash.
We grabbed a couple of bottles of rosé and drove the final 16 minutes to our AirBnB in 29 Palms, steps from the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. The three-bed, two-bath, white-walled ranch-style house turned out to be a cleanly appointed oasis in a town not known for its aesthetic. 29 Palms is a military town, filled with off-duty marines and wide-eyed drug addicts. It’s home to some of the best (and only) bars in the high desert and a surprising number of windowless massage parlors. The highway cuts through the city, flanked on either side by unspectacular stripmalls. It’s a far cry from the crowded midcentury paradise of Palm Springs and even less metropolitan than Joshua Tree (the city, not the park). It’s the perfect place if you really want to escape.
If you want luxury, turn your tight ass around and go back to Palm Springs. This is the High Desert, and it’s unapologetically out there. We spent the majority of our time here, boiling in our backyard hot tub, but we managed to get out enough to see 29 Palms in all its strange glory. With nearby communities booming from the Cannabis trade and new-age tourism, 29 Palms remains a true desert oddity.
There’s not much in the way of cannabis tourism here but there are amazing views. We popped a couple of gummies after happy hour at The Virginian, an old school dive bar on the city’s strip, and headed to Skull Rock, a granite formation just inside Joshua Tree National Park. There’s plenty to see here -- the park is a massive 1,235 sqaure miles -- but we only had time to watch the sunset as the edibles kicked in.
The next day, we woke up early and walked into town to find breakfast. In a sea of fast food, we we opted for the Jelly Donut, a locally owned no-frills spot a few blocks from our AirBnB. The shop specializes in, you guessed it, jelly donuts but the real draw is the Pho, served from 5:30AM until 9PM daily. We grabbed a few donuts for the crew for the morning, and made our way back for Pho on the covered patio in the afternoon. This place isn’t exactly cute, but it does have personality. The menu is packed with double entendre and the restaurants owner has turned explaining it into performance art. Dishes include Pho King, Pho Luv, and Pho Real, which make for tons of pun when read in succession. There’s something magical about slurping Vietnamese noodle soup on a hot afternoon with a view of the desert mountains in the distance, but be prepared for a nap after; Pho King Pho Love comes with a side of food coma.
We spent the rest of the afternoon recovering in the AC of our AirBnB, before heading to The Glass Outhouse for the opening reception of Muchacho, an exhibition of nearly naked men by friend of the Grass Agency, Helen Gordon.
The two-plus-acre property is a truly one-of-a-kind art space dedicated to promoting the works of lesser-known artists. The sculpture garden (more of a patch of dirt than a garden, really) is a haven for outsider art and found objects. What it isn’t, is a fine art space. You can take a trippy piss amongst the dust and brush in the gallery’s namesake glass outhouse, a free-standing toilet in a two-way mirrored box; pop into the tiny chapel down the hill; or snap a pic in front of a giant Pepsi can. If you happen to be their at night, you can pull up a weight bench next to a swole skeleton and gaze up at the stars.
That night, we got an impromptu light show from a far-off fireworks display, before heading back to town for a night cap at The Fine Line, a newly renovated, train-themed cocktail bar. We kept it simple with shots and beers, but after talking to the bartender, we’d trust this spot with any of the classics. It may be your best -- or even only -- bet for an honest martini in the High Desert.
On our way out of town the next morning, we popped into 29 Palms Liquor and Gas to stock up on munchies and stumbled on a veritable stoner’s paradise inside a Mobil filling station. That afternoon, a camera crew filled the parking lot, foretelling the eastward creep of twenty-something LA creatives, but inside it was classic High Desert weird. After grabbing a nitro cold brew from the fully functioning cafe in the back of the store, we snagged some pot leaf-printed knee-high socks, a couple of blown glass pipes in the shape of witches’ claws, and a bottle of tequila for our next destination: Hicksville Pines, California’s one-and-only bud and breakfast.
This inconspicuous roadside motel is actually a cannabis tourism mecca, known as much for its kitschy, themed rooms as it is for its 420-friendly attitude. Our hosts greeted us with a gram of locally grown Blue Dream at check-in, but we’d recommend coming prepared. Depending on road closures and traffic, you could be about an hour from the closest dispensary. That said, there is a delivery service called Strain Hunters 420 offering a limited selection operating out of Idyllwild, should you need to re-up.
On our way up, we popped into the 420 Lounge in Palm Springs to check out the state’s first on-site consumption lounge and grabbed a couple of pre-rolls for our stoney stay in the mountains. As a dispensary, it was serviceable. As a lounge, it felt strangely staid, more like a Christian coffee shop or extended-stay hotel lobby. If you’re looking for a quick, private toke, by all means pop in. Just don’t expect any of Palm Springs’ signature style.
Hicksville Pines, while remote, is located just outside Idyllwild, a small community near the entrance to San Jacinto national park. It features themed rooms, with a cult sensibility, and a rec room with free arcade games, custom velvet paintings, and an old box vape. It’s one part mountain retreat and one part grownup amusement park, but this isn’t a free-for-all. Hicksville has one rule in particular that might surprise you. With the exception of the 420 room there’s no lighting up indoors. Ashtrays can be found on just about every surface outside, though. They’re not trying to harsh your mellow, just following state regulations.
We booked three suites: The Dolly Room, dedicated to the queen of country; The Dita Room, a plush pink escape, decorated by burlesque star Dita Von Teese; and the Haunted Mansion, complete with props from the Disneyland ride. There’s a total of ten rooms for rent, all housed in candy-coated a-frame lodges. Our favorites: Mondo Trasho, in honor of the king of filth, John Waters; the Great Northern, a nod to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks; and the honeymoon suite, complete with a heart-shaped bathtub in the bedroom.
We spent our evening soaking in the hot tub, stoned off our stash before hitting the rec room for a quick vape and some parlor games. The next morning, our hosts served a mad breakfast spread in the main cabin. At Hicksville, $10 gets you coffee, OJ, bacon, breakfast tacos, seasonal fruit, and a deceptive but delicious unmedicated green waffle shaped like a pot leaf. Just the thing to snap you out of a morning haze.
On our way back to town that morning, we drove through the wreckage of the Cranston Fires that swept 13,000 acres of forest last year. Staring at the wreckage, we were struck by the resilience and resourcefulness of the communities here. Yes, this place is a little rough around the edges but there’s a spirit of experimentation here that’s fading in other parts of the state. Whether it’s a donut shop that sells Pho, a dispensary that serves slushies, or a bed and breakfast that embraces pot culture with open arms, everyone seems to be saying: Fuck it! Why not? That reckless disregard for the norm is what makes this place great. When it works, it can change your way of looking at the world, and when it doesn’t, it’s still a sight to behold.