California deserts are anything but predictable, with sites as bizarre as they are beautiful. So it’s no surprise that these dramatic landscapes are the setting for weirdly wonderful places to bed down for the night.
To help you track down the lodging that best fits your desert dreams—or maybe creates them in the first place—we’ve put together a roundup of some of the state’s most memorable desert lodgings. Go retro-cool in luxed-up Airstream trailers near Joshua Tree National Park, tuck into a teepee in the Mojave Desert, or stay in a TV mogul’s over-the-top casbah near Palm Springs. No matter where you decide to spend the night, we bet you’ll be posting pics with “Look where I slept…” the next morning.
—Ann Marie Brown
Blissing out at a spa always gets gold stars on any holiday. But get Zen-perfect treatments and healing waters from naturally heated mineral springs in a relaxed but undeniably luxurious desert setting, and the experience goes downright platinum. That’s what you get at this hillside retreat on 77 palm shaded acres in Desert Hot Springs, roughly 10 miles north of Palm Springs.
While there’s a full fleet of mud baths, massages, clay wraps, and salt rubs, Two Bunch Palms is also known for its alternative therapies. Sign up for a shamanic healing session (with a resident shaman), take a “sound bath” with gongs and Tibetan singing bowls, or feel the beat with drum-circle therapy. Then head to the Grotto, where Desert Hot Springs’ famous mineral water rushes out of the ground at more than 150°F and flows into a massive rock-lined pool. Leave your mobile behind in this “no phone” zone.
Legions of famous faces have visited Two Bunch, but one of the most legendary is gangster Al Capone, who is rumoured to have built the first structure here in 1928. Local lore says he dug a secret tunnel so he could get out fast if his enemies showed up. You can rent the Capone Suite, a charming stone hideaway with stained-glass windows, or bunk in one of 70 elegantly appointed rooms and suites. The choices range from vintage-hip in the older Grotto rooms to ultra-chic in the quad of Casa Blanca adobe suites, which sit below a man made lake brimming with koi and turtles. Two Bunch’s bohemian vibe means that pretensions are few, so you can wear your comfy Two Bunch bathrobe anywhere on the property, including in the light-filled restaurant, serving gourmet food with a healthy twist.
Slip on your Bono-style wraparound shades, put on your best rocker sneer, and head to this retro cool 1950s motel made famous by the band U2, which stayed here while recording their iconic album The Joshua Tree in 1986. The small lobby shows off memorabilia from Bono and his bandmates, including photos taken on the property by famous rock-and-roll photographer Anton Corbijn.
Catch the U2 fever and hum a few bars of “Where The Streets Have No Name” as you lounge by the pool. Then retreat to your room, featuring colourfully painted walls and open beam ceilings. Some rooms include kitchenettes. Relax on your own private patio for memorable views south into Joshua Tree National Park. Feeling energetic? Load up the car (convertible preferred) and sing the rousing chorus of “Beautiful Day” as you head to the trailhead for Fortynine Palms Oasis, one of the loveliest hikes in the park. A three mile round-trip takes you up and down a few easy hills to a lush thicket of native fan palms.
Art and nature thrive at this collection of thick walled adobe bungalows and wood frame cabins on 70 acres within the Oasis of Mara. There’s no lodging closer to the Twentynine Palms Visitor Center of Joshua Tree National Park, and no place that better captures the artistic essence of J-Tree. Walk the property and you’ll discover hand carved signs that deliver both practical and quixotic messages. Gaze at artist Makoto Hashigami’s “Spirit of Mara” mural depicting a Native American woman carrying water from the oasis. Visit the art gallery at the 29 Palms Creative Center, or sign up for a workshop.
Owned by the same family for five generations, 29 Palms Inn offers a comfortable set of cabins, including two that date from the 1920s. The relaxed grounds also include a two acre organic farm, an enclosed gazebo sheltering a hot tub, and a sprinkling of hammocks. A houseboat floats on the palm shaded pond, which attracts so many bird species that a local naturalist leads guided walks on weekend mornings. The inn’s boho restaurant, right next to the pool, serves artisanal cocktails and sourdough bread as tasty as San Francisco’s signature loaves. Families hang out by outdoor barbecues, and well-behaved dogs are welcome in select cabins.
For a stroll down retro-chic memory lane, cruise over to this kitschy compound, where tricked-out trailers form a Mojave dream motel in Landers. Owned by B-52s lead singer Kate Pierson and her partner Monica Coleman, the collection of shiny vintage Airstreams range from fantastic to far out, and from teeny (19 feet long) to downright roomy (32 feet). Sleep in the artistic equivalent of a tubular lava lamp in “Hot Lava.” Live the campy life surrounded by Native American totems in “North to Alaska.” Or get your groove on while sipping cocktails in mid-century-inspired “Tiki.” Each trailer sleeps two and has its own bathroom and small kitchenette, plus A/C for summer and heat for winter.
Landers is about 15 miles from the artsy town of Joshua Tree, so you’re far enough off busy State Highway 62 for star filled skies, but close enough to drive into town for dinner or supplies. It’s about a half hour drive southeast to Joshua Tree National Park, so you'll have time to get up, go for a hike, then come back in time to mix martinis.
Don't feel like hiking? A must see in Landers is the Integratron, a giant white dome which aeronautics engineer and UFO believer George Van Tassel started building in the 1950s. For one of the trippiest experiences you'll ever have, experience the signature “sound bath," when allegedly healing tones are played on crystal bowls in the acoustically perfect chamber. (Visits by appointment only; closed Tuesdays.)
Got an extra $24K? Or maybe a dozen or so friends who want to split the tab? Book a stay at this Moroccan-themed estate, where the legendary entertainer and creator of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune lived large. Sure it’s expensive, running a cool $8,161 per night with a three day minimum stay (four during some prime time dates), but you’re sleeping in a billionaire’s 5,400-square-foot home, with 13 palatial bedrooms spread out among the main house, guesthouses, and pod-like guest casitas.
Sip cocktails with your crew next to the massive infinity pool of this 39-acre luxury retreat.
Need to keep busy? Swim in the massive infinity pool with a cabana that seems to float on the water’s surface. Play bocce ball. Check out the 16-stall horse barn racetrack. (Griffin raised and raced Thoroughbreds.) Savour the views of the Santa Rosa Mountains from multiple terraces. Throw a cocktail party under the circular skylight in the great room, where you can hang out with your besties on a pair of enormous curved coaches.
Griffin, who owned the Beverly Hilton and several other posh hotels and resorts, modelled his estate partly after fashion designer Yves St. Laurent’s villa in Marrakech. The compound sits on 39 acres, so there’s room to stroll around, or even go for a paddleboat cruise on Lake Merveilleux (“Lake Marvelous”), Griffin’s 2.5-acre lagoon.
This wacky collection of third wheels and other campers is a visual hoot, with tricked out trailers to fit every personality. Consider Western-themed “The Pioneer,” a log cabin trailer with cowboy print curtains, or hot pink “The Fifi,” designed by the owners of a New Orleans wig store. The compound’s newest addition, a circus-style wagon named “The Pee-Wee,” served as a prop in the 1988 film Big Top Pee-wee. (It was the home on wheels of Pee-wee’s love interest.)
More a fun loving commune than a rural retreat, this place attracts an artsy meet-and-mingle crowd. You and your trailer neighbours might gather on the fake grass lawn to enjoy a few cold ones or roast s’mores at the fire pit. Hicksville is all about sharing, from the communal bathhouse to the solar heated saltwater swimming pool (open March to November) to the rooftop hot tub. Solitude seekers, you might want to aim elsewhere for your desert digs.
If you’re into games, Hicksville might be your idea of heaven on earth. There’s mini golf, archery, ping-pong, a dartboard, horseshoes, and a no-coins-required jukebox. Dogs are welcome too; they’ll have fun paddling in their own special pool at Fort Dog.
Most people visit Tecopa for a quick soak in the old mining town’s artesian mineral waters, but now there’s a reason to linger: One of three luxury canvas teepees at the shady China Ranch oasis three miles down the road could be your unconventional lodging in the Mojave Desert.
“I am providing a place where you can get in touch with nature, which will change the way you think. It will make a better human of you.” — Cynthia Keinitz, owner, Cynthia’s lodging near Death Valley
Owner Cynthia Keinitz, a former head of a successful design firm based in Las Vegas and Chicago, decided to ditch the rat race and reconnect with herself and nature. In the Amargosa Canyon, 38 miles south of Death Valley Junction, she bought a circa-1920 cottage and named it Ranch House. Her trio of canvas teepees sits in a leafy grove of cottonwoods, just steps from the cottage, where guests swap tales of their desert adventures over breakfast (available for an extra fee). Bathrooms and outdoor showers are shared. There’s also an outdoor kitchen with a shared fridge and microwave.
But the teepees are the stars here. Don’t think cramped quarters—each teepee is 22 feet wide and sleeps four. Turkish rugs, plush linens, and heated mattress pads for winter nights make them surprisingly homey. While coyotes howl in the distance and desert winds blow, you’ll be snug as bugs inside. The teepees have no phone service nor internet, but no matter—the digital world can’t compare to the excitement of the nighttime desert sky when you peek outside.
Get up early and hike from your teepee door into Amargosa Canyon, where birds and wildlife thrive along the Amargosa River. Head back to Tecopa to sip a date shake from the adjacent China Ranch Date Farm. Check out the date museum, and then load up your car with fresh dates for the drive into Death Valley.
It’s pretty cool to be able to kick back in the middle of Death Valley National Park and choose from more than 100 varieties of icy cold bottled and draft beer. That’s what you get at this rustic roadside refuge on the west end of the park, where you’re likely to find a crowd even in the hottest months.
While most folks just pull up to whet their whistle after exploring nearby Darwin Falls, you can book a night here too. Choose from 14 basic motel rooms, a cottage, a handful of barebones tent cabins, or simple camping spaces if you brought your own tent or RV.
Panamint Springs is far from fancy, but it offers a weather bonus in summer: It’s usually 10 degrees cooler here than at Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells due to the site’s 2,000 foot elevation. Other nearby places to explore include a “forest” of Joshua trees at Lee Flat (the species isn’t common in the park), and Father Crowley Vista, where darkly mysterious lava flows descend into multihued Rainbow Canyon.
It may be the driest spot in North America, but Death Valley has its secret stashes of watery bliss, and one is at this low-key ranch resort in the south end of the national park. Book an overnight stay at this Western-themed lodging and you can relax in the chemical-free pool, naturally heated by warm underground springs and kept at a constant 82°F.
Don’t confuse the Ranch with the similarly named—and much more luxurious—Inn at Death Valley, one mile away. The Ranch (formerly known as The Ranch at Furnace Creek) is Death Valley’s economy lodging, but it’s got plenty of reasons to check it out. Of course there’s that inviting pool, but there’s also a borax museum, where you can study up on the 20-mule teams that first put Death Valley on America’s radar. (The land was once owned by the Pacific Coast Borax Company.) Or play a round of golf next door at Furnance Creek, the “world’s lowest golf course.”
The 224-room lodging is part of a small desert community, with a post office, general store, two restaurants, tennis courts, and a saloon. Horseback and carriage rides are offered at Furnace Creek Stables. Death Valley National Park’s excellent Furnace Creek Visitor Center is within walking distance, and guided walks, naturalist talks, and interpretive programs are offered daily from mid-October to mid-May.