Book now: The Bungalows by Homestead Modern
I’m stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 91 freeway on my way to Joshua Tree on a toasty, Southern Californian October day because I’ve pulled the rookie move of leaving the city on a Friday around noon. To be fair, I’ve only been a Los Angeles resident for five years, and it’s my first time traveling to the famous desert oasis nearly 150 miles away. As I pass time humming along to oldies, the scenery slowly begins to transition from busy strip malls and highway interchanges to open spaces dotted with windmills. About 130 miles in, I start seeing the spindly armed namesake tree of my destination, and the hustle and bustle of L.A. begins to feel distant.
The quirky Mojave desert town of Joshua Tree (population 8,000) has long held a reputation for being a place where visitors can dabble in New Age philosophy, admire midcentury modern architecture, and take in the otherworldly beauty of the stark landscape dotted with Joshua trees. I’m hoping to get a taste of all three this weekend.
My destination is The Bungalows, a recently revamped midcentury modern hotel with 14 suites spread out over three buildings, locally owned and managed by Homestead Modern, a short-term vacation rental company that entered the hotel business with this flagship property. The Bungalows opened to guests in June 2022 and is set within the sprawling 130-acre campus of the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, aka the Institute of Mentalphysics, a spiritual center inspired by East Asian philosophy, established in 1946 and dedicated to improving one’s physical and mental well-being. All buildings on the campus were designed by the Southern Californian architect Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. The retreat is home to the world’s largest collection of Lloyd Wright buildings.
After traveling up the scraggly Little San Bernardino Mountains, I finally arrive in the neighboring town of Yucca Valley and the sparsely populated western edge of Joshua Tree, where the hotel is located. The original structures were constructed in 1960 and designed by the midcentury modern architect Harold Zook, who was best known for the eclectic homes he created in the Midwest and Los Angeles. I’m able to park in front of my room since the buildings that now house The Bungalows were originally designed to be a motor lodge. The Bungalows, a no-contact hotel, has no formal front desk—guests are asked to “check in’’ a couple of weeks before their arrival date and are emailed information on how to use their room’s smart locks four hours before their check-in time. However, Bungalow employees are just a text or phone call away should guests need anything.
When I open the front door, I find myself in a room bathed in the golden light of sunset and steeped in classic midcentury details: polished concrete floors, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors embracing the indoor/outdoor flow that midcentury constructions are famous for, and, most impressively, Zook’s original post-and-beam ceilings. Each suite has been updated with contemporary amenities like air-conditioning and heating, a plush bed, and high-speed internet. I’m especially excited to discover a kitchenette with a full-size fridge and freezer, stove, microwave, and all the kitchenware one might need—I imagine preparing a meal and enjoying it out on the suite’s large outdoor patio space. One thing that is noticeably missing from The Bungalows? A television—thank goodness.
After unpacking, I wander through the campus, decorated with smiling Buddhas and landscaped with desert flora, and I can see how one might not even need to leave the Joshua Tree Retreat Center to get the full Joshua Tree experience. The property abuts the Mojave Desert Land Trust, and there are a few different hiking trails and meditation walkways in the retreat that take guests through Joshua tree–dotted scenery that’s similar to what they would see in the park and the same views I have from my room.
I pass rows of midcentury modern–style cottages where guests and practitioners of Mentalphysics stay. I stumble across the retreat’s Lloyd Wright–designed Sanctuary, the property’s largest meeting space, at 5,000 square feet. It has his hallmarks: the liberal use of strange shapes (the building is quirkily octagonal) and a soaring silhouette topped by an almost-skyscapring steeple. A sign advertises the retreat’s wellness activities, like yoga or meditation classes that the Institute regularly offers and Bungalow guests can join.
As I continue along the fancifully named “Silk Road,” the path that bisects the property, I pass the Food for Thought Café, which serves vegan fare for breakfast and lunch Thursday through Monday. While the veggie burgers and mushroom curry bowl sound tempting, I am in the mood for something more substantial and am planning to grab some grub at the nearby music venue/ex-biker bar Pappy and Harriet’s. I continue along the Silk Road path until I reach the pool and hot tub (admittedly, they are a bit old school, but there are plans to revamp both) and make a mental note to return for a posthike dip.
The next morning, I rose early to drive 15 minutes to the entrance of the 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park. A shuttle services the popular northern area of the park, but it’s a good idea to have access to a car for getting off the beaten path and seeking out one of the two other less-visited entrances. Joshua Tree, unlike many other large national parks, has a plethora of short and sweet hikes, many less than a mile long, giving visitors a taste of the different types of terrain, which include flat valleys and rugged mountains. I opt for the popular Heart Rock Trail, about a mile round-trip that leads to a heart-shaped rock, but find more peace on the less-frequented one-mile Ryan Ranch Trail. Just as I’m about to embark on the nearby Ryan Mountain Trail, I see a huge bank of gray, angry clouds rolling toward me. The accompanying cold front blows in with a dramatic whoosh. As cold rain peppers my skin and thunder rumbles, I scurry back to my car for cover.
For the rest of the afternoon, I sit in my suite listening to Billie Holiday to match those midcentury vibes, watching the fat drops of rain rolling off the sliding glass doors of my room and enjoying the smell of post-downpour petrichor in the early evening after the rain stops. The best thing about rain in the desert? The clarity of the night sky after all that dust settles. With a glass of rosé, I bask in the dull light of the Milky Way in the cool air with dozens of satellites crisscrossing the sky and savor these final moments of peaceful stillness before morning, when I’ll make my way back to city life.