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Land Sailing
Photography by Peter Frigeri

Sailing a dry lake bed with DeTour Vegas.

The Adventure Traveler's Guide

Desert Companion

Desert thrills with a sense of place

There are thrillseekers, and then there are chillseekers — adventurers who prefer to get their adrenaline in measured doses between eating, drinking, sightseeing, and relaxing. Whether you’re a weekend warrior or an endorphin junkie, these quick
Southwest jaunts offer the best of both worlds: high adventure with a sense of place.

 

‘Kind of like flying’

Sailing a dry lake bed with DeTour Vegas

Safak Sahin didn’t come to Las Vegas from Turkey in 2006 to start an adventure sports tour company — he was a Fulbright Scholar working on a doctorate in hospitality management at UNLV — but he seems born for it. In a 10-minute explosion of chatter and maneuvers, the slight, dark-haired Sahin pulls five land-sailing crafts out of a trailer, assembles them, recounts the history of his company, DeTour Vegas, and initiates my group of four family members in the art of driving a three-wheeled cart with a sail attached to it across a dry lake bed, Jean in this case.

“I was a member of the paragliding club, and the president of the club had one of these (land-sail crafts), so he let me try it,” he says. “I fell in love at first try … because with the same wind you can go any direction.”

There has to be some wind, however, which can make the sport tricky to schedule for tourists, whose time in town may be limited to days without the requisite minimum 8-10 mile-per-hour breezes. That’s partly why Sahin — a wind-sport hobbyist who launched DeTour Vegas in 2013 while his career as a hospitality professor was stalled in the U.S. immigration bureaucracy — also offers ATV outings, which are less dependent on weather.

Locals, on the other hand, can play it by ear, wait for good wind forecast, and book a land-sailing tour a couple days in advance. The experience is worth that flexibility (and the $200 per-person cost for a four-hour excursion). DeTour takes care of everything from refreshments and transportation to permits and equipment. Everyone in my group was riding the 15 mph winds within minutes of being seat-belted into our crafts, laughing as we picked up speed, and yelping as we rattled over bumps and grooves in the hard desert floor.

“It’s really exhilarating, the feeling of being pushed by the wind. It’s kind of like flying,” says Jennifer Sahin, Safak’s wife and DeTour’s co-owner. “It’s awesome at night on a full moon. Really awesome.”

It also has a lower barrier of entry than other wind sports and is more eco-friendly than adventure sports that produce emissions. The Sahins work with the BLM to make sure they stick to designated recreational areas and give tour participants mandatory reading on the protected Desert Tortoise.

“We really love this sport,” Jennifer Sahin says. “It’d be great to see more locals doing it.” Heidi Kyser

Info: detourvegas.com

 

Placemakers

—When you’re done land-sailing, go another 15 minutes south on I-15 and stop by Primm Valley Resorts for dinner. Your best bets are Guillermo’s Mexican restaurant at Buffalo Bill’s or GPs Steakhouse at Primm Valley. And make sure to take a doggy bag/to-go order (see next item). (Primm Valley Casino Resorts, 31900 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Primm, NV, primmvalleyresorts.com)

—Why stay in Nipton at all? Because it’s the gateway to Mojave National Preserve,  home of Cima Dome natural formation, Rock Spring historic site, and Hole-in-the-Wall campground and nature trail, among countless other sites and activities. Stay as long as you can, but even a short visit should include time for a visit to the Kelso Dunes and Kelso Depot Visitor Center, the historic and geologic highlights of the area. (Mojave National Preserve, 760-252-6100, nps.gov/moja/index.htm)

—From Primm, head another quarter-hour south on I-15, and then take the Nipton Road exit east to Nipton, California. There — for those who don’t mind the periodic honk and whistle of a train roaring through town — are the charming, rustic accommodations of Hotel Nipton, a restored 113-year-old bed-and-breakfast with campsites, RV hookups and tented cabins on the grounds. Another caveat: when we visited in March, the restaurant was closed two out of three days, so plan to bring your own food. (Hotel Nipton, 107355 Nipton Road, Nipton, California, 760-856-2335, nipton.com)

 

Welcome to slot country

The endless fun of Cathedral Gorge’s maze-like passages

CalienteI can’t get enough of Cathedral Gorge. Of the five state parks in Lincoln County, this is easily my favorite. What makes the park special, and what keeps me coming back, is the line of cliffs that serve as the eastern border of the park. The whole formation is less than a mile long, but it’s jam-packed with a seemingly endless series of slots that cut back into the cliff like hallways, forking and twisting and closing over, drawing intrepid explorers ever further, deeper, in search of what’s around that next bend.

My most recent trip started with a visit to the “Moon Cave,” a set of slots the park rangers were kind enough to mark with a sign. After venturing into the main passage, a quick left brought me to a narrow tunnel maybe two feet high and ten feet long. Head first, on my belly, I crawled in, twisting left, then right, as I followed the curve scoured out of the million-year-old bentonite clay by centuries of intermittent rain. Clambering out the other side, the passage opened up again to allow exploration deeper into the cliffs.

At the back of Moon Cave is an actual cavern, but it’s at the top of a natural chimney 20 feet high. Climbers courageous enough to try the ascent face an equally unnerving descent once inside. I’ve never been brave enough to make that plunge.

Most of the “caves” in the park are not as demanding. In fact, the combination of level terrain and self-guided exploring means people of all ages and ability levels can enjoy Cathedral Gorge. There are easily enough major slots to fill a full day, and minor slots that look like dead ends can unexpectedly open up, leading to further exploration. I have been going to Cathedral Gorge for years, and I find new treasures every time.

Three hours from Las Vegas, Cathedral Gorge is close enough for a day trip, but to get the most out of a visit, I recommend staying at least one night. Three hours is plenty far enough from Vegas to get profoundly dark skies, and the stargazing at Cathedral Gorge is truly impressive. The park has sites for tent or RV camping, and the campground is clean and well-appointed. Central bathrooms have real, flushing toilets, running water, and hot showers. Campsites have picnic tables and shade ramadas. And the park hosts regular ranger programs in the evening.

My favorite time to visit Cathedral Gorge is in late September, during the annual Dutch Oven Cook-Off State Championship. Cooks from around the state vie for titles in a variety of categories, but the real winner is always my belly, stuffed full, and ready for a relaxing night around the campfire. I can’t wait to go back. Alan Gegax

Info: parks.nv.gov

Support comes from

Placemakers

—Caliente is the perfect hub for a weekend adventure in eastern Nevada. All five of Lincoln County’s state parks are within an hour’s drive, and the town itself has everything a vagabond traveler needs, including three motels that all score highly on TripAdvisor. The town exudes a Western, frontier feel, exemplified by the 1920s mission-style train station that now serves as the town hall. For meals, I frequent the Knotty Pine (775-726-3767). The service and food (especially the burgers) are surprisingly good for such a small town.

Caliente

Photography by Christopher Smith

—The high canyon walls of Kershaw-Ryan State Park hide a verdant paradise of lush grassy lawns, manicured flower beds, and park facilities so well-maintained they practically sparkle. Actually, the spring that feeds this canyon literally sparkles, as it feeds into a children’s wading pool that is open to visitors during the hot summer months. The Canyon Overlook trail gives a beautiful perspective of the park from above, where the stripe of green at the canyon’s bottom lies in stark contrast to the parched desert all around. (parks.nv.gov)

—Half a billion years ago, our humble section of North America had yet to emerge from the ocean’s depths. These Cambrian Era seas teemed with forms of plant and animal life unlike any the Earth had previously seen. As they slowly died off, they collected on the sea floor, where their bodies were squeezed between layer upon layer of detritus that would eventually become the shale found at Oak Springs. Today, at the Oak Springs Trilobite Site, a well-placed rock hammer can split those layers back apart, revealing the fossils preserved inside. And if you’re lucky enough to split open a rock and find a trilobite, it’s yours to keep. (travelnevada.com, search “Oak Springs”)

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Cathedral Gorge is only three hours away, but its endless slots and narrows beg for an overnight stay in the park.
Photography by Christopher Smith

Cathedral Gorge is only three hours away, but its endless slots and narrows beg for an overnight stay in the park.

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Cathedral Gorge is only three hours away, but its endless slots and narrows beg for an overnight stay in the park.
Photography by Christopher Smith

Cathedral Gorge is only three hours away, but its endless slots and narrows beg for an overnight stay in the park.

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Kershaw-Ryan State Park
Courtesy of Nevada State Parks

Kershaw-Ryan State Park

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Caliente

Oak Springs Tribolite Site

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Jeep
Photography by Scott Lien

“Wheeling” in Sedona is a bumpy affair, but there are many opportunities to take in amazing views.

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Jeep
Photography by Scott Lien

“Wheeling” in Sedona is a bumpy affair, but there are many opportunities to take in amazing views.

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“Wheeling” in Sedona is a bumpy affair, but there are many opportunities to take in amazing views.
Photography by Scott Lien

“Wheeling” in Sedona is a bumpy affair, but there are many opportunities to take in amazing views.

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Elote Cafe
Photography by Scott Lien

"A foodie paradise," i.e. the Elote Cafe

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Mulepacking in the Grand Canyon offers incredible views at a leisurely pace.
Photography by Peter Frigeri

Mulepacking in the Grand Canyon offers incredible views at a leisurely pace.

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Mulepacking in the Grand Canyon offers incredible views at a leisurely pace.
Photography by Peter Frigeri

Mulepacking in the Grand Canyon offers incredible views at a leisurely pace.

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El Tovar Hotel
Photography by Peter Frigeri

El Tovar Hotel

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El Tovar Hotel
Photography by Peter Frigeri

El Tovar Hotel

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Westside Lilo's Cafe
Photography by Peter Frigeri

Westside Lilo's Cafe

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Gooseberry Mesa offers challenging rock-hopping
Photography by Christopher Smith

Gooseberry Mesa offers challenging rock-hopping

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Gooseberry Mesa offers challenging rock-hopping
Photography by Christopher Smith

Gooseberry Mesa offers challenging rock-hopping

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Kanab’s Roadrunner trail is short but lively — and a preview of more trails to come.
Photography by Christopher Smith

Kanab’s Roadrunner trail is short but lively — and a preview of more trails to come.

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Willow Canyon Outdoor
Photography by Christopher Smith

Willow Canyon Outdoor

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Moqui Cave
Photography by Christopher Smith

Moqui Cave

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Glimpsing infinity through a Celestron telescope.
Photography by Brent Holmes

Glimpsing infinity through a Celestron telescope.

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Simi Dabah Sculptures
Photography by Brent Holmes

Simi Dabah Sculptures

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29 Palms Inn
Photography by Brent Holmes

29 Palms Inn

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Pie for the People
Photography by Brent Holmes

Pie for the People

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Andrew Kiraly does his best superhero impression with jetboard and jetpack.
Photography by Brent Holmes

Andrew Kiraly does his best superhero impression with jetboard and jetpack.

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Andrew Kiraly does his best superhero impression with jetboard and jetpack.
Photography by Brent Holmes

Andrew Kiraly does his best superhero impression with jetboard and jetpack.

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Afterwards, he did a 122 mph lap in a Corvette and his poor widdle tummy hurt ooh poor baby.
Photography by Brent Holmes

Afterwards, Andrew did a 122 mph lap in a Corvette and his poor widdle tummy hurt ooh poor baby.

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Afterwards, Andrew did a 122 mph lap in a Corvette and his poor widdle tummy hurt ooh poor baby.
Photography by Brent Holmes

Afterwards, Andrew did a 122 mph lap in a Corvette and his poor widdle tummy hurt ooh poor baby.

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Red Apple Fireworks
Photography by Brent Holmes

Red Apple Fireworks

Jeep date

Photography by Scott Lien

Photography by Scott Lien

Bouncing through paradise on the trails of Sedona

On the Jeep’s dashboard GPS screen, we’re floating, gently, in a featureless white Matrix void, with absolutely nothing around us. Meanwhile, absolutely everywhere around us swells the real-world beauty and deep magic of Sedona, Arizona, through which we’re jouncing, violently, on a rock-addled, gonzo rut called Greasy Spoon, the basic roadness of which is apparently so slight that SkyNet has simply blanked on it. That meaty smack you hear is my shoulder greeting the doorjamb for the umpteenth time. We’re going about 3 mph, straight down.

“Woo-hoo!” Scott, the driver, shouts as we rattle to the bottom of the hill. The rush! He’s elated. I’m busy racking my vocabulary for a word that describes how four-wheeling — wheeling to aficionados — whipsaws you around the passenger seat no matter how slow your roll or how securely you’re belted in. Ooh, whipsaw actually works pretty well. BAM! See, there I go again; hello, doorframe!

Damn, though, this place is gorgeous. (Merely gorgeous? This is where my vocabulary fails.) The red stone spires robed in high-desert juniper and domed by the biggest sky since Montana — this is what draws an estimated 4 million beauty-guzzling visitors a year. Hikers. Bikers. Vortex-seekers. And wheelers. Numerous trails exist specifically for off-roading, varying in their degrees of technical challenge — the rises, drops, twists, and rock obstacles that add woo-hoo to the experience — and frequently beset by a rainbow infestation of pink, red, orange, and yellow tourism Jeeps.

Midway through our two-hour bounce along Greasy Spoon, my phone buzzes. It’s my wellness app telling me I’ve reached my 10,000-step goal, even though I’ve spent the whole day in this seat. That’s whipsawing.

Hey, look, a bobcat! Aw, nice of it to ferry that tired rabbit across the trail in its jaws. I love seeing the wonder of nature in action.

Another buzz, this one a news alert: missiles in Syria. Seems there’s no escaping real life, not even in paradise.

We roll back into town with the setting sun behind us, still vibrating from a couple great rides that day. Even though we’ve come to Sedona on a Thursday to avoid the crowds, we can’t avoid the crowd throttling the restaurant district. We snag the last table in The Cowboy Club and toast our adventures with drinks and rattlesnake sausage.

The next morning, I watch dawn creep down the face of the sandstone ramparts that fill the balcony’s view from my room at the venerable Arabella Hotel. Then we’re off to tackle Broken Arrow, a classic Sedona trail that launches right out of a neighborhood of swank custom homes. The first obstacle is a rock wall that looks pretty vertical to me, but, with a roar of low gear and applied horsepower, Scott pilots the mighty Jeep Wrangler up and over, his joyous whoops not entirely drowned out by the audible clenching of my sphincter.

The rest of Broken Arrow is like that: slow, juddering drives punctuated by surges up and down blunt rock faces, a symphony of Jeep snarl and butt-clench, the whole experience bear-hugged by a landscape that holds a profound spiritual significance to many, from Native Americans to new-age believers to real-estate agents.

We bounce through our last obstacle, a daunting stretch of terraced drops called “the steps.” It’s exhilarating — if not enough to entirely blot out the jitters of the real world, at least enough to bring my blood-anxiety levels down to a tolerable level. “Somewhere at the bottom,” I squawk, flinging helplessly and happily in my seat, “there’s a pile of crumpled Jeeps driven by people who didn’t master this the way we have!” Scott Dickensheets

Info: visitsedona.com

Placemakers

Chapel of the holy cross

Chapel of the Holy Cross. Photography by Scott Lien

—Here’s an unabashedly spiritual location: Chapel of the Holy Cross. This narrow, soaring slice of architectural modernism, completed in 1956, rises from a hillside outside of town and commands spectacular views through its windows. You needn’t be religious to find it inspirational. (780 Chapel Road, chapeloftheholycross.com)

— A “foodie paradise,” according to the Arizona Republic, Chef Jeff Smedstad’s Elote Café, attached to the Arabella Hotel Sedona, is a dinner-only Mexican place. “They don’t take reservations,” the check-in clerk told us. Instead, she said, people begin lining up at 4:30 to claim a time slot. “The food is worth the wait,” the Republic assures us. If you like Elote’s food, you can buy Elote’s cookbook. (771 State Route 179, elotecafe.com)

— Is looking for a “vortex” — said to be a special spot where energy moves in and out of the earth — silly? Who knows. As long as it involves tramping around some beautiful Arizona slick rock while you wait for the goosebumps, it’s okay by us. Sedona is lousy with vortexes, but the Airport Vortex is easy to find and get to (a short albeit steepish hike) and the surroundings — and selfie angles — a great. (Airport Road, greatsedonahikes.com)

— Once a private apple orchard, Slide Rock State Park is now a complex of hiking trails, historical buildings, and a creek-fed, slick-rock water park, all sprawled at the foot of dramatic, patina’d rock walls. A great stop on the way out of town. (6871 N. Highway 89A, azstateparks.com)

 

Ride with a view

Mulepacking in the Grand Canyon offers incredible views at a leisurely pace.

Photography by Peter Frigeri

Let your mule do the walking in Grand Canyon

At 9 a.m. on April Fool’s Day, I was on the back of a mule, Li’l Jed, at Grand Canyon getting snowed on. Not fluffy “White Christmas” snow, but wet sheets that pelted my yellow, “Mule Rider”-stenciled slicker and left ice chunks in Li’l Jed’s mane.

“Do you guys ever cancel a ride due to weather?” I asked our group’s wrangler, Kevin Lenss, a bowlegged, gray-haired cowboy straight out of central casting.

“Rarely.”

Li’l Jed and I sat there in the snow for a good half-hour, waiting for the other six tourists in my group to be assigned their rides. Before letting us into the muddy pen at concessionaire Xanterra’s ranch, hostess-wrangler Adriana McNeme had joked, “In our 100-plus years of leading mule rides at the Grand Canyon, no one has died. Let’s not change that today.”

Her quip set the tone for the outing: good-natured fun, tinged with a stark warning. We were, after all, going to approach the deepest canyon in the world on the backs of animals that, as McNeme put it, “have their own brains.”

“What’s the most hair-raising thing that’s happened to you while leading a ride?” I asked Lenss, as we hit the trail and the snow gave way to breezy sun. “Has a mule ever taken off into the forest?”

“Oh, people fall off occasionally,” he said. “Broken arm, that kind of thing. Nothing serious.”

I would say the view is almost worth a broken bone. Our ride — one hour out and one hour back — was on a dedicated rim trail far removed from the pedestrian bustle of the Village and Visitors Center. From time to time, Lenss pulled our group over, coaxing us into a row facing the canyon, and told us stories about points of interest we could see. Down to our west were the Mormon Flats, so-called because the Latter-Day Saints who built the South Kaibab Trail down into the canyon would stop for work on the Sabbath and hold services up on the plateau. To the east, the point from which the conquistador Garcia Lopez de Cardenas looked down at the Colorado River and estimated it to be less than 10 feet wide. During intervals where we passed through the forest, Lenss drew on his biology degree to point out varying species of agave, or wallows dug by javelinas at the feet of piñon trees.

I grew up on horseback, so the ride was a bit tame for me. But it thrilled the other people in my group, who were inexperienced horsemen, including one guy who said it had been on his bucket list. Xanterra does rides down into the canyon, too, for those more adventurous. One word of advice, though, regardless of which route you pick: Check the weather report. What’s too cold (or wet, or hot) for you probably isn’t for Lenss. Heidi Kyser

Info: grandcanyonlodges.com/things-to-do/mule-trips

 

Placemakers

—Stay at El Tovar Hotel, the 112-year-old luxury lodge built from native boulders and Oregon pine that made an appearance in National Lampoon’s Vacation and has hosted dignitaries from Albert Einstein to Bill Clinton. Also plan to have dinner at El Tovar restaurant, the park’s only fine-dining eatery, but book early. Every table fills every night on the weekend. (1 El Tovar Road, Grand Canyon, 928-638-2631, grandcanyonlodges.com/lodging/el-tovar)

—Why does everyone suddenly think he’s a hiker when he gets to Grand Canyon? Because the bottom beckons, and the first half is the easy part: the descent. It masks the trail’s steepness (a net elevation change of 4,380 feet over 7.8 miles), causing folks — some 250 a year who have to be rescued — to misjudge how hard the return will be. Unless you’re an experienced hiker, opt for the three-mile trek down Bright Angel Trail to the second rest area and back out, max. (nps.gov, search “Bright Angel”)

—Visit the Historic Kolb Studio Art and History Exhibits. Sitting precariously on the cusp of the canyon near Bright Angel Lodge, the studio offers a compact tour of the longtime home of brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, who set the standard for generations of Grand Canyon explorer-photographers. (Grand Canyon National Park Historic District, South Rim, 928-638-7888, nps.gov, search “Kolb Studio”)

— On the way to Grand Canyon or back home, set aside an hour or two to visit Seligman on Route 66, off I-40. Eat at Westside Lilo’s Café for a healthy dose of kitsch ambience amply compensated for with tasty food, most of it cooked by Lilo herself. Scattered down the main drag is a series of fun stops, including a second-hand and general store, and a coffee and ice cream shop. (413 Chino Street, Seligman, AZ, 928-422-05456, westsidelilos.com)

 

Cycle of life

Kanab

Photography by Christopher Smith

On the comeback (bike) trail in Kanab, Utah

Kanab. Ka-what? Kanab! I know, I know — you’re all about Park City and Moab and even St. George, all brand names when it comes to sweat ’n’ heave tourism in Utah. Kanab? It’s sort of known as an onramp to bigger and better adventures. But that’s changing. Kanab, population 4,400, is hoping to emerge as a mountain biking destination unto itself, with a small but growing artisanal beer/coffee/pizza beardo-hipdustrial complex to support it. The town’s two inaugural bike trails, Raven and Roadrunner, are short but strenuous runs carved into a hill that bookends the town at the north. If you, oh, say, used to ride a bike like waaay back two decades ago and now you’re in your forties and merely straddling a bicycle for the first time in years feels like mounting a very volatile and paranoid baby giraffe, wellll, there’s a bit of a relearning curve; each single-track trail offers a bracing 20-minute ride with moderately challenging ridges, rocks, drops and squiggles to negotiate. Your first time through is a mere handshake; these are the kind of trails you get to know through multiple extended conversations, which may entail getting pitched into a bush that, whoa, didn’t look that prickly (personal experience speaking).

The new trails are the product of an active biking community, led by Kanab Cycling Club President Christina Hansen, who’s working with the city government to ultimately build 40 miles of trails in the area. City officials understand that bike trails are more than outdoors amenities for citizens; they’re a smart investment in tourism infrastructure. “Plus, it’s getting crowded in Moab,” Hansen says. “People are looking for other places to go.” For weekend warriors and casual riders, low-key Kanab makes for a perfect two-day jaunt.

If you want to level up, consider heading out of town to Gooseberry Mesa, northeast of Kanab. Just outside Hurricane, this tabletop mesa features a network of multitrack trails that strike a balance between trickier passages of technical rock-hopping and ribbons of open, easy, scenic trail. Best of all, they’re uncrowded, so the prospect of you (projecting here), gawky larval noob, getting mauled on the trail by screaming leather-necked Mad Max mutants is slim to nil. Note that Gooseberry Mesa is a mountain biking day-trip destination that requires driving over some chunky dirt roads (four-wheel drive not required but recommended), so pack snacks, water, and sunblock for the breaks when you’ll want to sit down, catch your breath, and take in the view from the top — likely in rich and satisfying solitude. Andrew Kiraly

Info: kanab.utah.gov

 

Placemakers

—Kanab feels like it’s in a state of permanent Sunday — lazy, beery, yawny Sunday, not churchy, boring Sunday

— and I suspect the vortex spouting this Sundayness is at the Rocking V Cafe. The decor is Southwestern DayGlo sunset — purple floor, orange walls — but the vibe is sleepy and affably small-town. The menu of riffy Ameri-Mex will perk you up, though; I recommend the shrimp quesadilla, black bean salad, and house-made guac to fuel your adventures. And yes, hallelujah, praise be, whatever, there’s hope for Utah, they serve real beer and cocktails. (97 West Center St., 435-644-8001, rockingvcafe.com)

— Wait. You’re going to be spending most of your time outdoors. Why stay at a place like Canyons Boutique Hotel?

Canyons Boutique Hotel

Photography by Christopher Smith

Because you’re a grown-up who understands the fortifying virtues of good sleep and a certain je ne sais pimp. Lots of dark wood, polite but not obsequious discretion, and, of course, all the amenities you’d expect of a full-service hotel. (190 N. 300 West, 435-644-8660, canyonshotel.com)

— Oh no! You totally forgot to pack your paracord survival bracelet! (It exists, it’s a thing.) Part bookstore, part gear shop, part coffee hangout, Willow Canyon Outdoor is the spot to pick it up — and chew the fat with locals. Don’t underestimate the small coffee bar; their espresso will wake. You. The. Hell. Up. (263 S. 100 East, 435-644-8884, willowcanyon.com)

— Okay, Moqui Cave is a corny kitsch trap lying in wait off the main highway, an old cave turned into a hybrid gift shop/ad hoc fossil and Native American artifact exhibit, but the breadth of diversion makes it worth the $5 entry, particularly the collection of dinosaur tracks and the abiding opportunity to say, “Hey, I’m in a CAVE cave cave cave …” (4581 US-89, 435-644-8525)

— The décor is rugged — stone floors, wood-slab tables — but the hearty vegetarian dishes emerging from the oven at Peekaboo Canyon Wood Fired Kitchen also boast culinary refinement. The “Mushroom Madness” pizza is so earthy and rich, you can’t possibly eat another slice. Okay, maybe one more. (233 West Center St., 435-689-1959, peekabookitchen.com)

 

Joshua Tree star trek

A personalized look at the cosmos with a literal night watchman

Andromeda

Hammonds’ photo of the Andromeda Galaxy. Photo courtesy of Coyote Telescope Tours

It was inky dark shortly after sunset on Saturday, April 1, outside lively Pappy + Harriet’s, an old 1940s Western movie set that’s been converted into a glorious palace of Americana kitsch, live music, and flowing drinks near Joshua Tree National Park. But I wasn’t headed inside for a twangy shindig like the fun-loving crowd moseying into one of the best bars in the Southwest. Rather, I was meeting Darryl Hammonds, proprietor of Coyote Telescope Tours, for a caravan ride up twisty canyon roads to Pioneertown Mountain Preserve, a protected — and lightless — haven in the Mojave Desert wilds. Once we arrived at the lofty spot, Hammonds secured his wide-barreled, high-tech Celestron looking glass to an industrial-strength tripod. Shortly after, I peered deep into the vastness of space for a show of the ages: the glowing, gossamer wings of the Orion Nebula, a solar nursery.

“We’re looking at a gaseous cloud that’s about 1,400 light years away,” said Hammonds, explaining the vista. “And that cloud is the result of a supernova. In the center are four tiny stars are called the ‘Trapezium.’ They’re baby stars, like a hundred thousand years old. They’re just born.”

It was an absolutely gorgeous brood.

Secluded from the light pollution of Las Vegas and Los Angeles by mountains and distance, the frequently clear skies above Joshua Tree blaze nightly with a vast, glittering chandelier of glowing orbs. And the evening’s skies were definitely no disappointment, even with a waxing crescent moon washing out many dimmer celestial bodies from view.

Throughout the star party, Hammonds explained the highlights of the heavens in a gregarious, approachable, and informational manner. He started the tourist-friendly enterprise in 2014 after retiring from the military, and his enthusiasm for astronomy was on full display as he tapped buttons on the telescope’s control panel. With each new set of coordinates, we gazed with wonderment at new bodies in the brilliant firmament. A fuzzy, oblong cloud was the playfully named Cigar Galaxy. Jupiter was regally ringed by its four major moons. As a finale, a lunar glimpse at Earth’s closest neighbor focused on Tycho Crater with its central mountain looking like a frozen raindrop hitting a tranquil pool. All were totally stunning.  (If you’re into nighttime photography and the Hubble Space Telescope, ask Hammonds to show you some of the photos he painstakingly takes and composites on his nights off. With a phone filled with mind-blowing hi-res images, he’s a paparazzo of the original stars.)

Hammonds’ excursions are an especially good deal for families or groups visiting Joshua Tree National Park. He’ll meet where it’s convenient for you from Twentynine Palms to Yucca Valley, and the flat fee includes up to 10
party-goers. Scientific inspiration and aesthetic wonderment are included in the package. And as for the existential sense of being a minuscule, meaningless mote that some of his clients exclaim when beholding such vast magnificence beyond, he’s remarkably down-to-earth and humanistic in his philosophical outlook.

“You shouldn’t feel insignificant,” Hammonds said. “If anything, you should feel very significant because you have a brain to be able to comprehend and understand what you observe.” Now that’s a truly cosmic outlook. Greg Thilmont

Info: Pappy + Harriet’s, 760-365-5956, pappyandharriets.com; Coyote Telescope Tours, 844-648-3759, coyotetelescope.com

 

Placemakers

—There’s something about this part of the desert that’s definitely otherworldly, or at least just downright surprising. To wit, the Simi Dabah Sculptures (1) is a huge forest of metal art in the town of Joshua Tree. What does it all mean? (simidabahsculptures.com)

—For the most scenic route to Joshua Tree National Park and its environs, drive the two-lane backroads through the gorgeous Mojave National Preserve with photo stops at the Kelso train station and then the retro Route 66 attraction of Amboy. The first lodging you’ll come across is the classic roadside oasis of the 29 Palms Inn (2) with its adobe bungalows and swimming pool. The barbecue burger in the on-site restaurant is stupendously towering and delicious. (73950 Inn Ave., 760-367-3505, 29palmsinn.com)

— If there’s a hip downtown near Joshua Tree National Park, it’s surely the crossroads of Twentynine Palms Highway and Veterans Way in Joshua Tree. There, Pie for the People (3) bakes outrageously good New York-style pizza with funky combos including the “David Bowie” with plum sauce. Other food groups are available at nearby Joshua Tree Coffee Company and Crossroads Cafe. (61740 Twentynine Palms Highway, 760-366-0400, pieforthepeople.com)

— Travel astrally, or inwardly as it were, at the Integratron in Landers, heading north to Barstow. The distinctly domed building offers harmonic sound baths and other acoustic treatments. It’s booked out for months, so something must be working! You can also get metaphysical at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center with architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright and his son, Lloyd, back on the Twentynine Palms Highway.  (Integratron, 2477 Belfield Blvd., Landers, Calif., 760-364-3126, integratron.com; Joshua Tree Retreat Center, 59700 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, Calif., 760-365-8371, jtrcc.org)

 

A blast — literally

JetpackingJetpacking to heroic heights in New Pahrump

For a few precious, power-drunk seconds, I’m hovering triumphantly like Iron Man, lording it over all of Pahrump, and I even keep my balance long enough for the cinematic fantasy to get a little mental music going (it’s an electric-guitar version of “Flight of the Valkyries,” if you must know) before an errant micro-swivel of my ankles sends me zagging sideways like a rogue bottlerocket. I crash into an early lunch of lakewater.

“I’m sending you back up!” Emil says from his jet ski. He twists the throttle, sending water through the tube that tethers us, and I launch skyward again. Iron Man, take two!

Jetpacking and jetboarding are tricky and demanding, but addictively exhilarating in those superhero moments when you carve a perfect donut turn across the water. Once a YouTube curiosity, jet-based water adventures have not only become popular with day-cationing thrillseekers, but they’ve come into their own as bona fide sports with their own tricks and techniques. (In Pahrump, “Stairway to Heaven” and “Underwater Submarine” used to be things you’d likely see on the menu at the Chicken Ranch.) The good news is that you don’t have to be a tattoo-sleeved brogre to have a good go at flying over the water. By the end of a 40-minute session of jetpacking and jetboarding ($259), I was floating around like a plausibly menacing Baron Harkonnen, and even got enough confidence to try my hand (and flailing legs) at a few tricks like “Walking on Water” and “Dolphin Dives.” (Which, in my case, might be better described as “Flounder Slaps.”)

“I love the feeling of freedom, the sense of escape of ’boarding,” says Jetpack America Manager Emil Nedelcu. Once an avid wakeboarder in Florida, Nedelcu tried a jetboard 10 years ago and fell in love with it. I can see the attraction.

Jetpack America is on the campus of the Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club, a 330-acre spread of improbable poshness in Pahrump. (If you have an extra $3,000 lying around, you can also take a Corvette driving course at its Ron Fellows Driving School.) For a day trip that mixes different kinds of buzz, you could do worse than a jaunt to Pahrump for watersports, wine-tasting, and other diversions. Pro tip: If someone at Spring Mountain Motor Resort offers you a “hot lap,” know that the only nether region it involves is your stomach hurtling into your mouth as you fly around a racetrack at 120 mph. Andrew Kiraly

Info: springmountainmotorsports.com

 

Placemakers

—Jerky is Pahrump’s spirit animal, and Miguel’s Fresh Jerky is its, I dunno, church? See, great jerky defies metaphor. Anyway, Miguel is a 17-year veteran of the chewy dried tasty flesh arts; I recommend his peppered and original beef, but adventurous molars should chaw on the surprisingly flavorful venison jerky. For vegetarians, the dried fruit and nuts (butter toffee peanuts!) are the bomb. (Highway 160, near Gamebird Road)

—Wine snoots may not necessarily swoon at a sip of what’s on offer at the Pahrump Valley Winery — and that’s okay. Since taking it over in 2003, Bill and Gretchen Loken have poured heart and soul into developing it into not just a full winemaking facility, but a classy, accessible retreat for the rest of us. They’re well on their way to producing wine made completely from Nevada-grown grapes — a true miracle in the desert. Have the penne alla vodka at Symphony’s with their rich, sassy zin. (3810 Winery Road, 775-751-7800, pahrumpwinery.com)

Pahrump Valley Winery.  Photography by Brent Holmes

—Big-ass explosions: The other thing that’s legal in Nye County. Red Apple Fireworks is a veritable candy store with shelf upon gleaming shelf of near-pro-grade pyrotechnics. “This stuff is as close to Disneyland as you can get,” an employee says, gesturing to walls of colorful packages with names like Title Bout, The Star Chamber and YOWZA! (3610 Highway 160 #402, 775-727-7200, redapplefireworks.com)

—Front Sight Firearms Training Institute really is that — a gun resort that’s become a mecca for serious shooters who prize its top-flight trainers. And, at 18 years and still growing, it’s a Nye County institution. (1 Front Sight Road, 800-987-7719, frontsight.com)