JOSHUA TREE, Calif. — You never know what's going to turn up in the desert.
I'm not just talking about the cactuses and jumbled boulders of Joshua Tree National Park, though they seduce rock climbers by the thousands and were part of what motivated me to make the 150-mile drive here from L.A. The weirdness of the desert was an attraction too, from the local radio ads for a mail-order "herbal breast enhancement" formula to the horse hitched to a post at the Joshua Tree gas station.
But this trip was driven mostly by curiosity about another novelty: the growing crop of offbeat lodgings in the park-adjacent communities of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. This group includes the Mojave Rock Ranch Cabins, a series of four kitschy, two-bedroom ranchito homes on an isolated mesa; the Villa dei Fiori, a flower-festooned and fastidiously kept house with its own adjacent cave; and Rosebud Ruby Star, an artsy B&B with two rooms, a separate bungalow and resident horse and mule.
That's not to say there's another Palm Springs rising here. Joshua Tree park attendance has been relatively flat since 1994, hovering between 1.1 million and 1.4 million a year. During the hot, slow summer months, traffic is light enough on the park's main road that coyotes can stroll at dusk with impunity. The combined population of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, though growing, remains just 25,000 to 30,000. Innkeepers say most visitors to the area are inclined toward spartan hotels or camping.
The new innkeepers are counting on those visitors with a more platonic admiration for the desert: They love it, but don't need to sleep with it.
In my tour of the offbeat lodgings, I stayed two nights at the self-catering Villa dei Fiori, spent another night at the Rosebud Ruby Star Bed & Breakfast and inspected the Mojave Rock Ranch Cabins inside and out.
The Mojave Rock cabins, which lie about eight miles from the park's west entrance across a dry lake bed, are the most striking of the bunch. The owners, landscape designers Troy Williams and Gino Dreese, decamped from Los Angeles in 1996 and began with a single rental house, known as the Ranch. Since then they have begun buying, overhauling and renting out neighboring residences in their quiet corner of the desert.
Now their territory covers more than 100 acres and holds four rental houses in the Gene-Autry-meets-Simon-Rodia school of design: the Ranch, the Bungalow (opened in 1997), the Homesteader (1998) and the Casita (1999). Each house has two bedrooms, kitchen and one bath, comfortably sleeping two couples or one family.
Each also features a tiny rooftop satellite dish and small TV set. To compensate for the absence of a swimming pool, each cabin's garden includes a "cowboy spa"--an aluminum horse trough about the shape and depth of a bathtub. Pets are forbidden inside, but each house has a dog run.
As word has spread about the places, rates have climbed; they now run $275 to $325 per night, fairly stiff in a territory where houses routinely sell for less than $60,000.
From their rich cactus and succulent gardens to the stamp collections lacquered onto kitchen counters to the California flag doing duty as bedroom drapes, the houses are as full of playful, bold strokes as the windows are full of broad desert vistas. Clearly, the setting appeals to those with a flair for the dramatic: The proprietors say that close to 90% of the ranch's guests work in the entertainment industry.
Nestled on a hillside about two minutes' drive from the park's west entrance, the Rosebud Ruby Star Bed & Breakfast is the brainchild of aspiring artist and Ohio transplant Sandy Rosen. It consists of two small guest rooms (with private baths, vivid palettes and their own patio doors) attached to Rosen's Santa Fe-style home. After buying in 1998, Rosen took in her first guests in spring 1999.
There's no pool on the five-acre lot, but there is the diversion of Rosen's horse and mule, which occupy an enclosure that once was a tennis court. The innkeeper serves a fine breakfast on the patio--coffee, juice, fruit, French toast, bacon and potatoes. Rates run $140 per room per night, double occupancy.
There's also a third choice on the property: the B'iltmore Bunkhouse, a small, free-standing homesteader's cabin with kitchenette ($152 nightly) and a low-ceilinged upstairs sleeping loft that can accommodate two kids or a second couple ($193 takes all).
Villa dei Fiori is Dale Allan Pelton's fittingly elegant name for the three-bedroom, one-bathroom home he keeps in the shadows at the edge of the national park's west end. Pelton, a film industry art director, has been quietly renting out the home for about nine years and just completed an interior redecoration.
It's a gorgeous place, with wine-red and orange walls, original artworks, a hefty library of art, design and gardening books, four vine-draped pergolas and a boulder-strewn backyard, with its own fire pit and cave.