The Tiny Pony Tavern doesn’t call itself a gay bar, but it is the gayest bar in California’s Yucca Valley. The queer- and trans-staffed establishment, which opened earlier this year, sets the tone for guests with a Progress Pride Flag affixed to its front door—a familiar sight in big cities, but an unexpected, welcome nod to queer patrons who call this corner of the desert home.
Just 20 minutes from Joshua Tree National Park, known for its craggy panoramas and twisting trees, the bar fills a void in the area’s growing arts community, where the queer population has grown in tandem with the influx of young creatives seeking an alternative life in the desert. Near the headquarters of the world’s largest Marine Corps training base, what was previously a gun shop now features a long wooden bar, handcrafted by a local artisan, and kitschy velvet paintings of cats and rearing horses.
In April, owner Alison Paris was told by a server that the former owner had stopped in for a drink and wanted to have a chat. She was apprehensive about what he might say regarding the reimagined space, as Yucca Valley hasn’t historically been the kindest to queer folk. “I figured they’re kind of like old Yucca Valley people that were going to be, like, ‘Look at this hipster bar,’” she says. Instead, he expressed excitement about the Pride flag and gratitude that something inclusive had taken over.
The bar serves as a watering hole for all desert folk: transplants collaborating on art shows, contractors looking to shoot pool after work, and families young and old with kids and dogs in tow. The ever-evolving menu is the work of chef Sorcha Murnane, a trans man who dreams up fan favorites like the Loaded Yuca Fries, smothered in cheese and topped with crunchy bacon. Bartender Bryan Paris, who got his start barbacking at The Monster across from the Stonewall Inn in New York City, mixes drinks like the Green Juice, which—you guessed it—features fresh-pressed green juice and a spirit of your choice. Open seven days a week, Tiny Pony kicks off Mondays with “Cheeseburgers in Paradise,” featuring tropical drink specials and half-off burgers. Tuesdays bring rowdy karaoke crowds for $5 tequila shots, and weekends welcome out-of-towners with a hearty brunch.
To get a sense of the scene on any given evening, we talked with the people who know Tiny Pony best: The Regulars. The space is aflutter with preparations for Joshua Tree Pride on June 18. Regular Mia Torres—who works by day as a welder and carpenter—canvasses shops and restaurants throughout the area to bring the community together for a celebration of queerness, while choreographer, DJ and dance instigator Ryan Heffington is planning to spin house music into the wee hours at the Tiny Pony afterparty. For Joshua Tree–raised Jessica Myers (and wife Laura Myers), it’s thrilling to see the community come together for such a cause. There wasn’t anything like this for her growing up.
Jessica (31, she/her) and Laura Myers (33, she/her)
What was nightlife like growing up in Joshua Tree?
Jessica: It was very easy to underage drink, or we would go out into the desert and do a bonfire because there really wasn’t much else to do, but now that’s changing.
What was your first time at Tiny Pony?
Jessica: Our first time that we went was opening night. I told Laura, “I don’t want to hold your hand; we’re in Yucca Valley.” I was afraid. There’s a lot of homophobia and racism in Yucca Valley in small pockets. So I didn’t know what we were walking into. But we got up to the door and I saw a Pride flag and I was like, alright, here we go! When we walked in, there was all these beautiful gender-nonconforming staff. It was the most amazing thing ever.
Laura: It’s a super-queer space. I’m always fine with PDA. I’ve never been one to be shy of it, but Jessica is really conscious of the surroundings we are in, which is good. We probably need that, because in some situations you really do need to be safer. And I’ve heard around town, too, that some of the more grungy bars that aren’t newer and younger aren’t necessarily a safe place if you are someone other than white and cis. But the community at Tiny Pony is just unreal.
What’s your favorite feature of the bar?
Laura: The photobooth. Everyone is kissing everyone.
What does it mean to you to have a Pride event in the town you grew up in?
Jessica: My little cousin here who is 13 just came out as gay. I think it would be good for her to have something like that in the town that she grows up in, that’s inclusive and that she feels she can be a part of. It’s nice for people coming out to have something in the town that they grow up in. I think everyone deserves that.
Mia Torres (53, she/her)
How often do you go to Tiny Pony?
It’s been more often lately. I go probably three times a week. Often it’s for a hot dog and a beer for lunch before I go back to work. Maybe once a week it’s an evening hanging out with friends.
What’s your favorite drink at Tiny Pony?
The first thing I tried was the Cadillac Margarita and it was amazing. The next time I went—my girlfriend’s a vegetarian, so I try to eat vegetarian as much as possible, but I love hot dogs—I had this bacon-wrapped hot dog. I saw that on the menu, and then it was like, black beans, pickled carrots, jalapenos… It was like a frickin’ American hot dog had crashed with a taco truck.
What does Tiny Pony mean to you?
The fact is that queer community and queer life are becoming more the norm and not so hidden. I have a niece who’s 11, and she has already said, “I like girls, and I just want everyone to know,” and she’s just completely open about it. I really do believe that the children will save us. With social media and the way we can communicate around the world these days, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and I feel like that’s ultimately going to be our saving grace. I see the most different, diverse people from all walks of my life, you know—real estate agents, my waitress, my dentist—and they’re all going in and checking out Tiny Pony.
Ryan Heffington (48, he/him/Daddy)
What is your relationship to the desert?
I’ve been going out to the desert since I was 18. My friends would bring speakers and we do, like, psychedelic trance parties. And it was just a great alternative to L.A.
What was your first time at Tiny Pony?
I was at Tiny Pony either opening day or the day after, and I was just passing through. It really has all the elements: great alcohol, unpretentious vibes, aesthetics and a great staff. Every time I walk in now, it feels like I know a lot of people that are just patrons and the staff, and they’ve always been so open. Alison introduced herself to me and immediately asked if I could DJ there.
Four or five months ago, I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in the desert. I felt very isolated. Why, as an almost-50-year-old gay man, did I choose to move out in the middle of fucking nowhere? Like, what was I thinking? It’s not escapism; it was the circumstances. But then I started to meet the people and I was like, oh, yeah, this is exactly where I want to be.
How has Tiny Pony become an outlet for your creativity?
I think it’s just being around like-minded and open-minded people. Most of the people I’ve met at Tiny Pony I would consider artists, where I feel like [they have] an attitude of an artist, with freedom and expressing themselves even visually or physically. When I see people here, I feel like anything’s possible, in a way, just by conversing with them. There’s no restrictions on who they are or how they identify. It’s just one of the most beautiful places to walk into and have that feeling.