Welcome to Joshua Tree, Man

I've always had this vision in my mind of Joshua Tree as a warm place, both in temperature and in spirit. A place filled with tie dye and wildflowers, late night bonfires and wide-smiling travelers whose well-worn shoes skip from rock-to-rock beneath waving arms and billowing braids.

That picture in my mind was spot-on.

Joshua Tree with kids: where to stay near the park in Yucca Valley, what to do, day trips, where to eat

My sister and I took the trip up from San Diego a couple weeks ago with all four of the boys. We set our sights on Yucca Valley, where a Glamping Hub property called Thunderbird Lodge Retreat had offered to host us. After a quick couple-hour jaunt on the freeway, we made our way down a long dirt road to our destination in this Joshua Tree-adjacent community, cursing ourselves for bringing the lame-o mom van instead of Nate's truck.

The Oasis at the Mesa

Our first impressions of the place were…well…my sister kept saying we were bound to stumble upon Walter White. To me, the drive in felt more like a scene out of an old western, complete with the high midday sun and cactuses and rolling tumbleweeds. Once we arrived, we didn't see another soul the entire time we were at the property. It was equal parts refreshing and alarming. I live in the countryside so I'm used to some seclusion, but it's weird to leave my house and encounter literally no one. Honestly, though, I tend to avoid vacation rentals altogether because I tire of condos and destination towns and the loud buzz of humanity when I'm trying to rest. Glamping Hub's schtick is the exact opposite of that stereotype – promising unique, handpicked and wild accommodations.

That's precisely what we got. I shouldn't have been surprised at the lack of suburban cookie-cutter trappings.

Joshua Tree with kids: where to stay near the park in Yucca Valley, what to do, day trips, where to eat

We dropped our stuff off and drove directly into Joshua Tree to Skull Rock, one of the most accessible and intriguing sights in the park.

Photo walk with kids in Joshua Tree

We then spent a ridiculous amount of time ogling the remnants of the epic “super bloom” that happens every spring when all of the wildflowers decide to suddenly burst forth their color all at once.

Joshua Tree with kids: where to stay near the park in Yucca Valley, what to do, day trips, where to eat

Settling in back at the rental, the boys were easily entertained by the epic and much-revered concept of other people's stuff. That's one of the things that makes vacation rentals way different than camping or staying at a hotel, and it's a double-edged sword. On one hand, there are usually movies and books and games to help occupy your group.

On the other hand, there can be trinkets that toddlers like to turn into projectile weapons.

Staying at a vacation rental in Yucca

Fortunately for us, the boys were mostly drawn to the eclectic fixtures outside (including an awesome lit-up glass bottle wall near the fire pit) and a sweet organ in the living room. My sister and I made ourselves at home and cooked up some meat and veggies we'd brought along.

Domeland, Yucca Valley

The next day, we were off to Pioneertown, which was well worth the trip. After a couple hours there, we took an impromptu detour down yet another sandy dirt road, following an upside-down sign labeled “art detour.” We eventually stumbled upon a few more signs identifying the spot as “Domeland,” and I'm still not sure if what we encountered was art or a residence or some strange joke. There was a geodome with a motorcycle out front, all sorts of no trespassing signs, and a (fake? prop?) guillotine fashioned to look like it was made out of a giant Visa card, with (plastic???) human skulls all around it.

Domeland near Pioneertown

Also decorating the space were a bunch of stripped tree trunks that appeared to be either upended onto their branches or yanked up and propped above-ground on sparse roots. We got out of there as fast as my mini van could carry us.

Corned Beef and Hash in PioneertownDinner was in Joshua Tree, at a charming greasy-spoon place called Crossroads Cafe. The waiter had a friendly gait and an easy smile. I was relieved to see signs of life after the ghost town adventure that leaned a little too far into the ghostly realm. In any case, the corned beef was delicious and they had Mickey Mouse pancakes for the kids. I wasn't cooking any of it, so it was a win all-around.

At the vacation rental near Joshua Tree

We swung into a Walmart in Yucca Valley, where the real action is apparently found around here. The place was buzzing with hipsters taking selfies, and the store was weirdly out of firewood AND lighters AND marshmallows (except for the new limited edition chocolate-stuffed kind, which sounded totally weird but later turned out to be amazing). I asked a clerk what the deal was and she explained that we happened to arrive a couple days before Coachella. Right at that moment, I looked up and discovered that I was standing in line behind none other than Ellen Page. THE ELLEN PAGE. From Juno!!! I know she's also done Inception and other stuff, but to me she will always be the beloved Juno with the preggo eggo. I lifted my phone to eagerly text my sister – who was stuck back in the car with the boys – and Ellen Page shot me a dirty “don't you dare” look that was the most perfectly-practiced glare I have ever seen. It made me wish I could plaster her face onto my own during those post-bedtime moments when my kids' tiny heads emerge from their doorway in search of water or milk or Band-Aids or urgent answers to philosophical questions.

If you're reading this, Ellen Page, I'm sorry for inadvertently appearing to invade your privacy. I'm sure that gets old.

I should also apologize for repeating the whole experience on the internet.

Joshua Tree with kids: where to stay near the park in Yucca Valley, what to do, day trips, where to eat

Back at the rental again, the boys whiled away our last night with countless marshmallows while my sister and I reflected on the trip. The wide, open space that had spooked us a bit on arrival was now a welcome companion. We filled it with a dancing fire and echoing laughs. In the morning we took care to put back what the kids had moved – as best we could remember – and leave a thank you note for the owner. It struck me as I was signing my name that this is something wholly unique to vacation rentals. Hotels and even boondocking have a common end goal of erasing all signs that anyone has been there. In vacation rentals, there's an intentional connection between the past and the present. It infuses a certain charm into the memories made. That affable, warm vibe that I'd expected from Joshua Tree was deeply reflected in the nature of our approach.

It's an experience I definitely plan to repeat.

Joshua Tree with kids: where to stay near the park in Yucca Valley, what to do, day trips, where to eatIn the next few weeks we're tromping around Tahoe and Florida, and Glamping Hub is definitely on the short list for our accommodations! If you've been watching our camping adventures and thinking you may want to test the waters, glamping is a phenomenal way to dip your toe into the “roughing it” lifestyle without having to gear up or get dirty.

Have you ever stayed in a vacation rental? How about a glamping rental?