Cattlemen and cactus poachers, miners and musicians, activists and artists. Homesteaders and Harley riders, Native Americans and netpreneurs, tree huggers and trailblazers. For more than 5,000 years, people of all kinds have visited Joshua Tree. What was once a national monument frequented by roughly 30,000 people per year is now an 800,000-acre national park whose popularity is growing at a staggering rate. More than 2.5 million people visited the park last year, up a half million from 2015 and one million from 2014. With only nine campgrounds and roughly 550 campsites, many people who visit during peak periods wait more than an hour outside the entrances only to be told the campsites are at capacity.
If they’re lucky, those who are turned away at the park can swap a sleeping bag on uneven ground for a firm mattress and running water at one of the gateway communities’ historic properties. Joshua Tree and its unincorporated neighbor to the north, Pioneertown, have a handful of legendary lodging options in the midst of a reboot. In the past few years, several of them have changed ownership, breathing new life into what was once a relatively sleepy stretch and attracting a decidedly hip clientele — not just during Coachella, but all year long. These independent establishments are rustic and rough, nothing at all like their glossy counterparts in the low desert. And although the properties are being beautifully updated, they’re maintaining their distinctive identities, quirks and all.
A shady spot at Joshua Tree Inn.
Room 8 where Gram Parsons died.
A High Desert still life.
Preserving the rich history of each location has been the main priority of the new guard, starting with Margo Paolucci, a retired high school history teacher hell-bent on keeping the spirit of the Joshua Tree Inn alive. Paolucci preceded most of her comrades in the local hospitality industry by a decade, having moved to Joshua Tree in 2002 after learning that the hacienda-style motor inn was for sale. “That was before Joshua Tree was hip, before it was the new bohemia, before anybody knew about it,” she states unequivocally.
Paolucci quit her job of 30 years with the Los Angeles Unified School District, saying, “I just felt that the inn needed more attention.” She had stayed there many times as a guest while visiting the park and discovered how special it was. “I didn’t want to be a motel owner,” she explains, “but I did want to make sure the cultural history was not being destroyed by a corporation coming in and taking over. It’s been quite a journey preserving it.”
Joshua Tree Inn owner Margo Paolucci.
The inn, which was built in 1949, has always attracted musicians, most notably country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, who died of a drug overdose in Room 8. Ever since Parsons’ death in 1973, the inn has been a living, breathing tribute to the singer, who was a member of the International Submarine Band, The Byrds, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. The mirror that hangs on the wall inside his room is original, as is a single remaining tile in the shower. (“Gram actually showered there,” says Paolucci proudly.) Visiting musicians, many of whom come to record at Rancho de la Luna, leave guitar picks, as well as CDs for guests to play on the old-school stereo, which sits on the bedside table beside a guest book. Once, when artist William Adair stayed in Room 8, he was inspired by a lyric in one of Parsons’ songs about a gold-plated door and decided to gild the door leading from Room 8 to the adjacent patio in 14-karat gold plate. A few years ago, another artist built a shrine to Parsons outside the room, featuring a 4-foot granite acoustic guitar and a piece of concrete with the words “Safe at Home” (the name of Parsons’ first full-length album) painted on it.
Joshua Tree Inn’s Gram Parsons guitar shrine.
Mojave Sands manager Susan Burnett.
Parsons is hardly the only artist to have stayed at the inn, though his death on the grounds forever solidified his place in its history and gave other musicians a reason to come. Room 9 is named for Emmylou Harris, Parsons’ duet partner and protégée, Room 11 for Scottish folk singer Donovan, and Room 12 for actor John Drew Barrymore. Other high-profile (and possibly high) guests have included musicians Keith Richards and Robert Plant, actors John Wayne and John Belushi, and television producer Lorne Michaels, who is rumored to have fleshed out the idea for Saturday Night Live beside the pool. The inn is also popular with motorcycle riders, and not just during Babes Ride Out, an annual gathering in which female bikers descend upon Joshua Tree.
Though Paolucci has made improvements over time, replacing all of the beds and — most recently — repairing the roof and swimming pool, her preference is to keep as many of the original details as possible. “We try to change absolutely nothing,” she says. “We don’t go for fancy. We’re a roadside motel. That’s how it was built and that’s the vibe.”
Like Paolucci, transplants Mindy Kaufman and Drew Reese relocated to Joshua Tree after becoming intoxicated with the area. They purchased a second home there in 1997 and commuted back and forth to San Francisco, where Kaufman designed home accessories for Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn and Reese was a wine consultant. In 2000, they decided to make the desert their primary residence. “It was empty,” recalls Kaufman of Joshua Tree then. “Nothing was going on. We essentially turned the lights on in this town, Drew and I.”
The koi pond at the Sands.
61715 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree Saloon
61835 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree.
848 Old Woman Springs Road, Yucca Valley.
61695 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree.
Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown
53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown.
The “Messie Jessie” at Crossroads Cafe.
The communal outdoor table at the Sands.
Not long after settling in, Kaufman and Reese purchased a family retreat that hadn’t been lived in for 10 years. With the help of a handyman, they spent six months renovating the 1950s ranch-style cottages, which sit on a little more than 2 acres. The result: Spin and Margie’s Desert Hide-a-way, which features four suites and one cabin with loads of personality, private kitchens, and charming courtyards. From the beginning, Spin and Margie’s appealed to groups coming to town for weddings, family reunions, birthday parties, and the like. Kaufman and Reese owned the property until April of this year, when they sold it.
They received multiple offers, but ultimately bequeathed it to fellow designers Stacy Binns and George Bennett. “They are really going to pump it up and take Spin and Margie’s to the next generation,” says Kaufman confidently. “They are going to make it a little groovier and do the stuff we never got around to.”
Some of the rooms at the Mojave Sands are equipped with old-school typewriters.
Binns and Bennett are architects and furniture designers from Dutch Flat, California, where their business, Fringe Design, has been based for the past few years. “We were looking for that wonderful change in our lives,” says Binns of their recent acquisition. “Architecturally, for ourselves, this gives us an opportunity to think out some ideas and realize them. There is a freedom here and the landscape really allows proportion to happen.” Their first move was the addition of an Airstream trailer, which they purchased in South Dakota and have since renovated. “We are hoping to put a couple more Airstreams back in the goat field and maybe a hot tub,” says Binns. “I think that will just add a little more sparkle to the place.” The couple also owns property in nearby Desert Heights, where they hope to build an inn with several domes at some point.
Three miles down the highway, The Mojave Sands has also undergone a facelift. The five-room roadside inn formerly known as The Oleander Motel was built in the 1950s, but closed for quite some time. A decade-long remodel began in 2000, but Susan Burnett, now the general manager, says the low-key motel wasn’t fully operational until 2013. “A lot of local people worked on this,” says Burnett, a former costume designer who moved to Pioneertown from L.A. and wears a necklace displaying her nickname SueBee. “Everything is hand-fabricated and kind of experimental,” she says. Artists Bobby Furst, Don Lombardo, Stephen Andrews, and Isaac Correa all contributed, resulting in beautifully crafted woodwork, metalwork, and sculptures. There are two suites and three standard rooms, all sleekly appointed with vintage furnishings, work by area artists, and eclectic touches, such as record players and typewriters, plus private patios with fountains. “We don’t have TVs; we don’t have Wi-Fi. It’s really a getaway,” explains Burnett. A reflecting pool stocked with large goldfish is the centerpiece of the outdoor common area, which also features a long dining table, chairs scattered all around, and an abundance of native plants.
sir paul mccartney played a surprise set there last fall, which only added to its cred.
Across Twentynine Palms Highway in a residential neighborhood sits Starlight Villas, eight vacation rentals originally part of a single estate. Leota Bell and her husband, William, built the estate in 1960 to host friends and visiting professors. Leota outlived William, an early executive of United Parcel Service, by 24 years and became very active in philanthropic work. Even since her death in 2010, Leota has been regarded as one of the community’s most generous benefactors, having given money to Copper Mountain College, the Hi-Desert Medical Center, and the Hospice of Morongo Basin.
In 2012, Los Angeles marketing consultant Cliff — who prefers to keep his last name private — purchased the Bell estate, scrapping his initial plans to buy a single -family home in L.A. “I felt like it would be more meaningful to turn a property like this one into a place for visitors from all over to enjoy, than to just buy a place for myself,” he says. Since then, Cliff has taken his time remodeling each villa. They all have thematic names and styles, such as the Retro Zen Den, the Monet Suite, and the Draper Cabin (for Dorothy Draper, not Don). Inspired by a cruise around Bermuda, Cliff painted the bland, tan exteriors in different hues, in shades like lavender and orange sherbet. “I wanted something that popped and provided a bit of color therapy since people like to be uplifted when they are on vacation,” he explains. The interiors have full kitchens and amenities, such as wireless internet and satellite TV. What distinguishes Starlight Villas from other properties in the area is that a single unit can accommodate an entire family, rather than one or two guests.
The Roy Rogers room.
Mike French of Pioneertown Motel.
For an even more remote feel, drive 12 miles northwest of Joshua Tree to Pioneertown, where the temperature drops 10 degrees and boulders abound. In 1946, legendary actors Gene Autry, Dick Curtis, Russell Hayden, and Roy Rogers were tired of driving 125 miles from Los Angeles to film Westerns. (In fact, the town got its name from Rogers’ band The Sons of the Pioneers, who recorded on Mane Street.) Their solution was to build a mix of facades and real interiors meant to replicate an 1870s Western town. Mane Street, which still stands today with a ceramics shop and the town’s only post office, served as the backdrop for dozens of films and television shows in the ’40s and ’50s, including The Cisco Kid, Annie Oakley, and Judge Roy Bean. Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a live music venue and mesquite barbecue joint situated directly in front of Pioneertown Motel, has been attracting sold-out crowds since 1982. Sir Paul McCartney played a surprise set there last fall, which only added to its cred.
Pioneertown Motel and Rimrock Ranch were built in ’46 and ’47, respectively, to give the cast and crew of various films somewhere to live while filming. As a result, the two properties have somewhat of a shared history and, coincidentally, both changed ownership recently. Brothers Matt and Mike French purchased Pioneertown Motel in December 2014, moving to the area from Portland and L.A. For more than two years, they have painstakingly restored the 1946 jewel, which had become somewhat seedy. Working with interior designer Casey Keasler and two local craftsmen, Aaron Wood and Ryan Drobatz, the French brothers tore out the floors and built the bed frames, side tables, and doors by hand. “We are all about trying to refine the property to its original form, to a simple, honest aesthetic,” says Mike. “We have led the design and worked alongside them on everything.”
Overflow mobile housing at Rimrock Ranch.
A vintage lawn chair and portable survival box at Rimrock Ranch.
61738 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree.
2477 Belfield Blvd., Landers.
51010 Pipes Canyon Road, Pioneertown.
The glamorous reception at Pioneertown Motel.
Eric Dean raises the Rimrock Ranch flag.
Gwen Barker and Eric Dean bought the 11-acre Rimrock Ranch not long after staying there for the first time over New Year’s 2016. The advertising execs were ready for a change and sensed that owner Jim Austin, a musician and surf wear entrepreneur, was too. “We were like, ‘We have no idea what it would take to do this, but if you ever think about selling, please let us know,’ ” recalls Barker. “I expected we’d get a phone call in maybe two years. Instead we heard back in a week.”
By April 2016, the couple had moved into the Hatch House, an architectural wonder that Austin built a decade ago, after the original home burned down. Barker and Dean rent out the other side of the house, which features an industrial steel canopy shielding it from the sun and walls made of glass and rusty metal siding. The property also features four duplex-style cabins from 1947, a lodge built in 1951, and a colorful Airstream trailer whose interior is decorated in purple fabric.
Like the guests who book their rooms, the countless couples who choose to wed on their grounds, and the other dreamers who are drawn to this corner of the desert, the men and women who oversee these storied properties share an almost spiritual affinity for their surroundings. “As society gets way more connected, it’s nice to go places where you can unplug and get away from it all,” says Mike French. San Diego–based designer Jennifer DeLonge is getting ready to open the 15-acre Pioneertown Ranch this month, having been pulled there for the similar reasons.
“I wanted to be able to do a project I could rent out,” she explains of the 1940s home she is restoring.
“My husband and I had gone out to Pipes Canyon last year and totally fell in love with it. I was surprised because I grew up near the beach. But I love the quiet and the stillness. And it’s the complete opposite of how fast our world is,” she says.
The rock heart of Rimrock.
55836 Twentynine Palms Highway, Yucca Valley.
61705 Highway 62,
55872 Twentynine Palms Highway, Yucca Valley.
Hoof & The Horn
55840 Twentynine Palms Highway, Yucca Valley.
55838 Twentynine Palms Highway, Yucca Valley.
A High Desert nondigital entertainment system.
The owners also share an affinity for one another and for the community as whole, often meeting for breakfast at La Copine on Thursday mornings. (“That’s the one day we don’t have to wait to eat there,” says Burnett of the insanely popular four-day-a-week restaurant in Yucca Valley.) Despite the influx of Airbnb options (there are more than 300 in Joshua Tree alone), business is booming — even during the hottest months, when historically, people stayed away. “When we first opened, our season started in October and would end in April,” Mindy Kaufman says. “Now the season starts with a serious bang in September and ends in mid to late June because July is hot and miserable. But in August, it starts up again.” Burnett has lots of friends renting out homes and is grateful for them. There’s often no room in the inn. “There are all these creative people from L.A. who can’t afford to buy a house in L.A., so they buy one here and rent there,” she says. “They’re all super talented and have great taste, so every Airbnb looks like a Free People ad, or something you would see in Architectural Digest. It’s mind-blowing.”
Equally shocking is the rapidly increasing popularity of the park, which has seen its visitation numbers jump 20 to 30 percent annually through the past few years. “One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is people pulling up into the desert over the curb and taking out desert flora and vegetation with them,” says George Land, public information officer for Joshua Tree National Park. Land theorizes that the sudden spike began with the publicity push surrounding the park’s 75th anniversary in 2011 and believes social media has kept it going. “The hoteliers, restaurateurs, and gas station owners all the way around the park, both in the Coachella Valley and in the gateway communities, have benefited a great deal,” he says. Indeed they have.