In case the dozens of storefront signs advertising “Marine haircuts” didn’t make it clear, Twentynine Palms is a military town. The Marine base is quite far from the highway and nearby Joshua Tree National Park, but on certain days artillery blasts reverberate out toward the civilian homes, shops and restaurants in the hub of the otherwise sleepy town. Like most settlements in the high desert, Twentynine Palms is built along Highway 62, the main thoroughfare that leads from Interstate 10 through Joshua Tree and on toward Arizona. Though linked by dusty roads to nearby cities and the national park, the more isolated Twentynine Palms feels distinct from its neighbors: Vibrating just beneath the serene city is an offbeat energy that thrives on the outskirts of civilization.
Best things to do in Twentynine Palms
You don’t have to stay at one of the charmingly mismatched bungalows dotting the expansive grounds to have a great meal or a drink at the 29 Palms Inn. (Only guests can take a dip in the pool, though.) An ample cocktail list supports a menu of burgers, sandwiches, and salads made with produce grown right on the hotel’s property. Go for lunch to take in the sunlit splendor of the pool and palms, plus a lagoon filled with swimming turtles.
Situated comfortably next to a Western wear outlet, Twentynine Palms’ only Mediterranean restaurant slices stellar shawarma and fries fluffy falafel balls. If you’re eating in, it’s a cozy, friendly spot with a cluttered decor perfect for a glass of wine or Turkish coffee with your fattoush salad, but it’s also a great takeaway spot if you want something other than a sandwich for your day in the park. The menu also features Mediterranean fusion burgers made from lamb or falafel.
This charming, inexpensive and unpretentious facility is the platonic ideal of a classic bowling alley. Wild patterns adorning the walls amplify a decor that—delightfully—seems like it hasn’t been updated much since the 1970s. Though the number of lanes leaves something to be desired, you can kill time waiting for one at the facility’s own top-notch bar, the Back Alley, which gets lively when there’s a game on television. Bowladium’s in-house taqueria, Mexican Street Tacos, serves a variety of meats, including fish and shrimp, and even hosts to a hot-salsa challenge.
Built right up against the national park, Tortoise Rock Casino is essentially one very large room filled with slot machines and a dozen table games like blackjack and poker. An extremely friendly staff and a clean (but cigarette smoke-filled) environment set it apart from other small casinos, and well-priced food and drink specials make it more than just a place to play games of chance. There are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon than drinking a vodka cranberry and feeding the penny slots.
This cute dive bar with a lot of character serves as the last bastion of friendliness and good times before a seemingly desolate stretch of desert. Located on the eastern edge of town, the Fine Line is a great place for uncomplicated cocktails and coozie-wrapped bottles of beer, best quaffed on the bar’s booth-packed patio or while playing at one of several pool tables. The venue even has one of the high desert’s only shuffleboard tables, where you and your friends can test your accuracy by sliding pucks across a lengthy sawdust-covered game board.
One of the last remaining drive-in theaters in California, Smith’s Ranch’s single screen is flanked by trees for a secluded setting. Relax in your car or bring lawn chairs and a boombox for double features of first-run movies. A quaint snack shack delivers outstanding versions of movie treats like chili dogs, popcorn and even pulled pork sandwiches—all for significantly less than cineplex prices. Admission is $5 per person, and if you bring a twenty you’ll leave full, entertained and with money to spare.
The mountainous range of rocks that cuts this part of Joshua Tree off from the rest of the national park makes this campground feel completely unique. Indian Cove is only accessible by car via a separate, dead-end northern entrance mere minutes from the highway and downtown Twentynine Palms. With plenty of gorgeous campsites nestled against jutting rocks and large boulders great for climbing, this is one of the most accessible portions of the park for vertical beauty. And, in the days following a rain, there’s even a waterfall if you’re willing to hike up to to the top of the valley in the southeasternmost part of the section.
One of Joshua Tree National Park’s most Instragrammable locales, Arch Rock is a geological marvel. As the name suggests, it’s an enormous naturally formed stone arch that bends upwards over the top of a big, precarious-looking boulder. Not far from the White Tank campsite, it’s a 15 minute drive into Joshua Tree National Park from the highway hub of Twentynine Palms. It’s a beginner level jaunt to the stone marvel with more than enough boulders for more experienced hikers to climb atop.