Treats! heads due east from Los Angeles to the high desert in search of the many hidden structural oases full of modernism, luxury & sublime secrecy. Architecture buffs, Dwell dandy’s, prefab luxe outlaws and desert-lovers, take note! by Kelly Lee
En route from Los Angeles east on I-10 and I-60, one comes to a literal and figurative fork in the road. Make a slight right and you land in the mid-century modern mecca that is Palm Springs and the lush low desert, where the grass is kept green by ejaculating sprinklers and martinis are sipped poolside by caftan-clad chicettes. Where vintage cars and bikes with bells and baskets cruise along the palm-tree-lined boulevards dotted by luxury hotels and spas.
Or, exit left towards Yucca Valley and Pioneertown and take an entirely different path altogether. Just over the hill another 40 miles, give or take, enter the Flintstone wonderland that is the high desert, where the craggy landscape speckled with decades-old Joshua trees mix with a sun-beaten cast of characters: Down-and-out desert rats. Bikers. Artists. Marines. Writers. Rebels. Hipsters. Hippies. Pioneers. Soul-seekers. LA refugees. Outlaws. Southern California’s high desert attracts a unique mix, who often have one thing in common: they are looking to escape. The “system,” their jobs, their lives, themselves—even if just for the weekend. But until now, there hasn’t been a spot for those who crave the respite of the desert to retire to and be inspired by—beyond a tent or rustic motel room that is often little more than a glorified cabin.
A secret enclave of luxury accommodations is rising up, slowly, steadily, and stealthily blending into the Bedrock landscape. Where modern luxury meets eco-friendly. Where glass meets steel. Where architecture buffs and desert-lovers who desire a little glam with their dirt can unwind, refuel, wander, transcend, escape.
Considering that 1.25 million people visit Joshua Tree National Park each year, by far the main draw of the high desert—initially at least, it’s somewhat mystifying that not more in the way of accommodations exist. There’s the 29 Palms Inn with its quirky tiki-inspired hot tubs, which, while charming in its own Gilligan Island sort of way, has been the most upscale alternative to sleeping on the ground beneath the desert sky. There’s the five-room Mojave Sands Motel, which is a modern step up from the 29 Palms Inn, but is certainly more sparse than luxe. A few dusty motels and the odd mom-and-pop B&B, and that about sums up one’s options.
Slowly but surely, however, high end in the high desert has at last rendered itself a promising possibility. But, not in the form of chi-chi boutique hotels or luxe large resorts. Rather, the luxury is more hidden. More remote. More sublime. For the non-camping or glamping set, an oasis of modern architecture is forming, being built by like-minded individuals—architects and dreamers —those who live in glass houses and don’t throw or move stones (more on that below…). And, if you’re lucky and privy to their whereabouts (hint: you now are), you can experience a more stellar stay thanks to vacation home rental sites like Homeaway and VRBO.
If you’ve veered left and are wondering what curiosities, landscapes, and luxuries lurk beyond the hill, read on.
Here, a guide to the secret luxury getaways of the high desert (but, shhhh…don’t tell anyone):
Off of the paved two-lane Old Woman Springs Road in Yucca Valley, one turns onto a dusty dirt path. After traversing a few miles of jagged dirt roads dotted by desert bunnies, roadrunners, and the occasional rattler, alongside modest homes built by desert long timers, a small wooden sign appears among the breathtaking granite boulders: Rock Reach. Up a steep incline and then back down and around the bend, a sparkling modern escape of glass and steel emerges. You have arrived at your own home away from home, where the backyard is your own Joshua Tree National Park. Where at night the stars shine so bright, you can’t believe you’re only 2 1/2 hours from stars of the other sort: those that light up the silver screen and tabloids of Hollywood. From your cowboy hot tub, count the stars, or during the day, spot the leathery, chubby chuckwalla between the bewildering boulders. Cool down at the outdoor shower or read, write, or while away the days in the languid bliss of doing nothing.
Conceived and built as an escape from the heat of the low desert by Dave McAdam, the visionary behind the revolutionary Blue Sky Building Systems – which enables modern homes to be built in as quickly as a few months, the modernist retreat floats gently above the desert rocks, as not to destroy the land that first drew its owner to it. A steel deck provides a prime spot for enjoying homemade margaritas as you watch the sun descend in the distance behind the otherworldly landscape. Published in Dwell magazine, Rock Reach House can be rented for weekend—or longer—getaways.
From Rock Reach House another mile down the curvaceous dirt road, a second modernist escape appears. Built as a vacation home for music and Coachella-loving Canadian Gordon Graham after he spotted the Rock Reach House in Dwell magazine and decided on the spot that he must have one of his own, the spectacular steel and glass Rock Reach House II is smartly tucked away on 10 pristine and private acres in the Mojave desert. Modern and sleek with playful mid-century modern interiors by Christopher Kennedy (who also did the interiors of Rock Reach House), the majestic modern escape can be rented for adventures of your own.
Down a rollicking dirt road in trippy Pioneertown and conceived by Los Angeles-based architects Linda Taalman and Alan Koch of the firm Taalman Koch Architecture, sits the modern and stylish steel and glass itHouse. Named one of the 10 best houses of Southern California by the LA Times and included in Sunset magazine as one of the best homes in the west, itHouse embraces the natural beauty of the desert landscape with a light footprint, lots of glass, and a striking fireplace that is suspended from the ceiling. A weekend house for the owners, itHouse can be rented for your own secluded, stylish retreat.
Kelly Lee is a Beverly Hills-based lifestyle, travel, and fashion writer and is the editor of the popular daily style blog KellyGolightly.com. When she’s not sharing her discoveries with readers around the globe, she can be found shooting photos in the desert, scouting the next “it” destination, hunting for vintage treasures, or tasting the local delicacy of whichever country she finds herself in next.