Desert, Anywhere: The Problem with Yucca Valley

Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Raymond Yue/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Two new traffic lights are going in on the main road leading to our place. Outside of East California, that wouldn't be big news. Here in the Morongo Basin, it's historic. The two signals are the first ever on Yucca Trail, a major two-lane alternative to busy Route 62 between Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, where the road becomes Alta Loma. There's not nearly enough traffic on the road to justify the expense, but the city of Yucca Valley has high hopes that it will be able to make itself indistinguishable from any other crowded, uninteresting cluster of stripmalls in the state.

The lights going in at Yucca Trail's intersections with Joshua and Palomar have taken a few weeks to install so far, and they come with increased capacity at the intersections, which until now had been four-way stops. Turn lanes have been added, a flurry of roadbed construction that caused traffic bottlenecks at each intersection. Sometimes things got so bad that as many as three cars would be backed up in each direction. It was a nightmare, trust me. The construction backups added as much as forty seconds to typical travel time along the six-mile stretch of road between Yucca Valley's core and Joshua Tree.

The proximate cause of these long-overdue improvements is the looming Walmart SuperStore on Route 62 at Avalon. A patch of open desert studded with mature Joshua trees when we moved here a year ago, the building's now near complete, and the Joshua trees consigned to a long withering death in their transplant locations. The new Walmart will replace the old Walmart, which was less than a mile away.

There isn't exactly a crowd of new retailers hoping to snap up the old Walmart space. That building will likely go vacant for a long time, joining a few dozen other shuttered commercial properties. When the Walmart Superstore opens, which is expected to happen in June, the boundaries of Yucca Valley's sprawl will have pushed slightly outward, and so will the boundaries of the seedy, vacant center of town, only a mile behind.

Yucca Valley, in short, is like the short-sighted urban planner's version of the creosote rings that used to live where the Walmart Superstore is rising. It expands around a dead center.

Cities don't usually spring up without a reason, especially in the desert. Needles is where it is because the Santa Fe Railroad crossed the Colorado not far away. Barstow sprang up where a couple of historic wagon trails crossed the Mojave River. Twentynine Palms grew around the Marine Corps base.

Yucca Valley grew because a few real estate speculators thought it might make them some money.

Yucca Valley started out as a hamlet called "Lone Star," a waystation for watering horses and mules between Banning and the Twentynine Palms mining district. A few homesteaders settled in the west end of the Morongo Basin, their numbers growing after World War I veterans whose lungs had been damaged in gas attacks discovered the area's clean air helped them heal. In the late 1950s, members of Los Angeles society not particularly drawn to the pool party lifestyle of Palm Springs discovered the Morongo Basin, and desert subdivisions began to attach themselves to Route 62.

That's a fine recipe for a small city, a low-rent Sedona or Telluride, and you can still see the roots of that neglected future Yucca Valley in the scattering of shops around Route 62 and Pioneertown Road, in Yucca Valley's Old Town. It's not a recipe for the 40-square-mile scattering of strip malls that Yucca Valley became.

It's not just the Walmart. (It never is.) The stretch of Route 62 that runs the few miles between Old Town and the new Walmart is chockablock with seedy-looking convenience stores, a fair representation of downscale fast food chains, buildings that once housed larger chain stores, payday loan businesses and nail shops. Two gigantic national chain drugstores each occupy a corner of a block of land that trembles before the developers' machinery. Only the reluctance to lend money to obviously doomed enterprises bankers seem to have developed since 2008 has kept the land unbuilt so far.

The boosters think positive nonetheless. A vacant lot behind one of those drugstores bears a cheerful looking sign advertising the businesses the developer would like to think will occupy the site as if they're already up and running. One of the businesses advertised on that putative commercial space now occupied by a prematurely bulldozed desert is a Vietnamese restaurant.

I confess to having mixed feelings about that one. It would be nice to have a Vietnamese restaurant that close. And despite my ambivalence, which I think is shared by some of my neighbors who head into Yucca to buy supplies and then leave as quickly as possible, there is nothing about Yucca Valley that would suggest the town could ever support the amount of business development the boosters dream of.

In order for a city's economy to prosper, it has to offer something to the outside world. Aside from one obvious nearby attraction -- more about that below -- Yucca doesn't offer much. It's 25 miles from the popular off-road vehicle area at Johnson Valley, but Landers and Lucerne Valley are closer. Yucca Valley offers off-base housing for military and civilian staff working at the Twentynine Palms marine base, but housing in Twentynine is about 25 miles closer.

Yucca Valley is at the junction of Routes 62 and 247, which might make you think that through traffic on those routes would generate enough commercial activity to build a small city. But there's about the same amount of traffic on Routes 58 and 395, and only a small crossroads development where they intersect at Kramer Junction.

That one obvious nearby attraction is Joshua Tree National Park. Though the eponymous hamlet of Joshua Tree -- in which I live, a mile from the Yucca Valley line -- and Twentynine Palms each claim the title of the park's gateway community, that role should more naturally fall to Yucca Valley. Most visitors to the park arrive on road from the west, either regular visitors from Southern California or global visitors who land at LAX or Ontario airports. You really reach the environs of Joshua Tree National Park when you summit the Morongo Grade on Route 62 and start descending eastward into Yucca Valley. For a mile or two, it looks like a new world: Joshua trees growing on the spiny ridges of the Sawtooth and Little San Bernardino Mountains, long views toward the Sheephole mountains at the other end of the park, the occasional picturesque Mom and Pop business. You can keep your spirits up for a few miles: the development is small scale, pink- and teal-hued in the manner of Route 66 kitsch, and designed -- if you can call it that -- in keeping with the rural, desert surround.

That's Old Town Yucca Valley. It's where the businesses are that actually contributing to the community, owned by locals rather than global conglomerate chains. The businesses here are more likely to be run by people who actually like Yucca Valley the way it was: part of the Mojave Desert. Here you have ancient Joshua trees carefully preserved in parking lots and sidewalk gaps, and landscaping saguaros trucked in at considerable expense.

This part of Yucca Valley upholds its gateway community status: it looks like it belongs outside a major desert National Park. That's because the attention of the developers has been focused eastward. By the time the visitor gets a third of a mile east of Pioneertown Road on the 62, that bleak picturesqueness is no longer picturesque. The road is fringed with cheap tiltup strip mall buildings destined to fall in the next big quake. Even here, though, there's worthwhile businesses; shade tree mechanics and locally owned taquerias and the like.

At first, anyway. A few more blocks and the chain stores start popping up, each set ridiculously far from its neighbors as though to defend against inter-commercial catapult attack. There are no sidewalks here, unless you call deep sand traps with weeds and litter "sidewalks."

By the time you get to the point where the newly-ensignaled Yucca Trail veers off from Route 62, you might as well not be in the desert. From here to the new Walmart, Yucca Valley is indistinguishable from any other seedy, ugly, chain-infested, car-dependent California suburb. Except most other such suburbs are able to spend more on upkeep. Imagine putting Oildale at the entrance to Yosemite, or moving Fontana onto Catalina Island: that's what it's like having Yucca Valley at the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park.

I've talked to hundreds of Joshua Tree National Park visitors in the past decade or so. I've never spoken to a single one who voluntarily spent more time in Yucca Valley than they had to, outside of Old Town and nearby Pioneertown. You can sit in cafes in Joshua Tree and overhear tourists complain to their understanding servers about having to run the Yucca Valley Gauntlet to get to the park. And those complaints get more pointed as each new development goes in.

And just as is the case with Fontana and Oildale, Yucca Valley has residents that love their city and want to make it a better, more sustainable, more livable place. Right now, though, they're outnumbered. Yucca Valley is tying its future to the notion that shoppers from around Southern California will come to town to shop at the town's new Walmart Supercenter. Never mind that they'd presumably be driving past the Supercenters in Beaumont and the Coachella Valley to do so. Never mind that the city is destroying the very things that made it worth visiting.

If your desert experience consists of viewing distant mountains while waiting in the drive-thru lane at Starbucks, why not just stay in Glendale?

The new Walmart isn't far from the eastern edge of Yucca Valley. Yucca Valley will soon run out of room for new sprawl. That won't stop the boosters. Residents of adjacent Joshua Tree are fighting plans to put a new Dollar General store in the middle of the bohemian-tinged conclave that is what Yucca Valley should have been. The boosters point out that the proposed dollar store fills a crying need. Without it, there would be an 18-mile stretch of open desert between the nearest dollar chain stores in Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms. Perish the thought.

It's not too late for Yucca Valley to change, to become a better, more appropriate, more suitable gateway to Joshua Tree National Park. Its government could start by, oh, I dunno, preserving what's left of Yucca Valley's remaining Joshua trees. Just a thought.