Desert Hearts festival is like a little slice of Burning Man -- without all the hassle


Many music festivals have been commercialized beyond recognition over the last decade, but there are some that truly echo the counterculture origins of their predecessors.

Perhaps the purest example of this is Desert Hearts festival, which took over a small, hilly forest of the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation east of San Diego, California, from April 27-30. Desert Hearts has expanded from its humble beginnings of roughly 200 people in 2012 to nearly 5,000 attendees, but it has maintained its tight-knit sense of community.

You won’t find any rock-and-roll being played here -- techno and house have taken over as the soundtrack for these gatherings -- but this is probably the closest equivalent you’ll find to regional concerts celebrating the free-love movement in the 1960s. There aren't any corporate sponsors. The connective atmosphere is sort of like a mini Burning Man, without the hassle of building a city in the desert or the theatrics of setting fire to a massive effigy. There’s still plenty of quality music and breath-taking art, however, much of which is dreamily embedded in the beautiful forestry.

See pictures from Desert Hearts 2018:

There’s only one stage, and campers are free to access every nook and cranny of the grounds -- even the stage itself, where performers mingle with fans. There’s roughly a dozen official themed camps that organize everything from dancefloor parties (Wine & Cheese) to couch-filled relaxation stations (Pile Palace) and workshops (Healing Area). Everyone seems quick to offer each other help or supplies whenever they're needed.

The inclusive vibe keeps people coming back -- this year’s festival sold out long before the lineup was even released. Some promoters would want to capitalize on that ethos by selling more tickets to maximize profits. But the creators/DJs of the Desert Hearts crew – Mikey Lion, his brother David "Porky" Leon, Lee Reynolds, and Matthew "Marbs" Marabella -- are happy with what they’ve got.

“We don’t want to get any bigger than this. There’s a certain kind of intimacy when everyone is together,” Lion said. “We don’t want to lose that. We don’t want to make it so that you don’t feel like you can go find your friends on the dancefloor.”

If you want a break from the 80-hour long marathon of music that continues through the nights, there’s plenty of other off-beat activities to spend time on.

A blackjack dealer presides over a table where you can bet anything except cash. You can do yoga or try your hand at painting in a tent lined with canvases -- or volunteer to be the model. There’s even an open bar where the bartenders accept non-monetary tips.

Lion, Reynolds and Co. recently launched a party series called City Hearts to throw "micro-festivals" in the urban corners of the U.S. and beyond. If that doesn’t work out, though, they seem content to hang out with the extended family they’ve already fostered.

See what people wore at Desert Hearts:

Listen to some of the music played at Desert Hearts: