“We’re Getting Out of L.A. and Going to Joshua Tree”: Why the Desert Area Is Booming

During the golden age of Westerns, film crews would often make the two-and-a-half-hour trip to the Morongo Basin in San Bernardino County to shoot in the pristine, rugged desert. In 1946, actor Dick Curtis decided to monetize the location and banded with movie cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to create a wild West film location and settlement that they named Pioneertown.

The real cowboys already living in the area (north of what is now Joshua Tree National Park) weren’t too pleased. “Back when Pioneertown Corporation was hauling in potential land buyers and weekend tourists from Los Angeles, they set up a little ambush just as the buses got into town. A gang of armed men would ride up along the bus and force it to pull over,” says Pioneertown historian Kenneth Gentry. “They’d raid the bus and rob the driver. That was thought of as a fun way to introduce people to town.”

Despite the renegades’ best efforts, artists and iconoclasts would go on to homestead in the area, enamored by what film producer Chris Hanley (Spring Breakers) calls the “artistic freedoms in a rural High Desert minimalist setting of aloneness.” Early Joshua Tree converts included actress Ann Magnuson and artists Andrea Zittel and Ed Ruscha. UFO enthusiasts and theorists like George Van Tassel — creator of the area’s famed Integratron (a midcentury structure used today for sound baths) — also were drawn to the desert’s legendary “vibrations.”

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Outlaw musicians of the 1960s and ’70s from Jim Morrison to Keith Richards to Donovan also spent time in the area. “Disruptive American iconoclastic artist Paul McCarthy bought the 200-acre [property] of Donovan, and once filled the abandoned estate empty pool with Coca-Cola, as a performance art piece,” Hanley recalls. Most famously, there was musician Gram Parsons, who died of an overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973, only to have his cohorts burn his body in the desert.

“There has been art in Joshua Tree a very long time,” says Hanley, noting the petroglyphs that can be found in Coyote Hole in Joshua Tree National Park. He recalls the magic of getting lost running and finding himself surrounded by ancient images by the Serrano and Chemehuevi tribes there.

In recent years, music producers have also flocked to the high desert, building sweeping, isolated compounds that often feel like a Mad Max summer camp. They include the famous Rancho de la Luna Studio, built in 1993 by Fred Drake and David Catching, which has hosted everyone from Queens of the Stone Age to Iggy Pop. Newer to the area is musician Rocco Gardner’s creative retreat Escape, a favorite of artists including The Arctic Monkeys and Paolo Nutini. Also in Joshua Tree is the Hi-Lonesome recording studio, founded by Georgia native Chris Unck.

Today, Joshua Tree (with a year-round population of about 7,500), nearby Pioneertown (roughly 400) and the surrounding areas are in the midst of a land-buying boom, mostly driven by creative L.A. city slickers eager for a simpler life — and revenue from Airbnb. “I’ve seen land prices go up six- or sevenfold in just a couple of years,” says Mike French, who along with his brother Matt has owned the historic Pioneertown Motel since 2014. “Every day, it’s like, ‘So did you hear that so-and-so sold their property for like a million dollars, or something?’ You hear stories of people saying, ‘I’ve gotten 30 letters in the mail that say when you’re ready to sell, call me.'”

Marcelle Dunn, a real estate agent with Century 21 Showcase, who moved to Joshua Tree with her family as a teenager, has been astounded by the area’s explosion in popularity. “When I was in high school, when you said, ‘I’m from Joshua Tree,’ it was like, ‘Where?'” she laughs.

No one asks that today. Says longtime real-estate broker Bryan Wynwood of Joshua Tree Modern, “I’ve been extraordinarily busy for five years.” His clientele has become more and more affluent as Hollywood A-listers and heavy hitters have escaped to the desert, pushing prices out of many old-timers’ reach. “It’s not like the entertainment industry just discovered us yesterday,” he says. “Designers and grips have been out here for 20 years.”

However, many of these folks would be unable to afford their homes today. “Ten years ago, this was a heavily depressed market with countless houses under $100,000, and many for as little as $60,000. Some of those houses, if carefully remodeled with high aesthetic value, are [now] selling for over $400,000,” Wynwood explains. According to stats supplied by Century 21 Showcase’s Dunn, the median listing price for a four-plus-bedroom home in Joshua Tree is now about $920,000. Among those who own homes in the area are producer Tim Disney; veteran marketing executive Tim Palen, and Facebook exec Matt Jacobson (who in 2014 purchased the legendary California modern organic Kellogg House designed by the eccentric Kendrick Bangs Kellogg for artists Jay and Bev Doolittle in 1988.)

Set designer and prop stylist Steve Halterman and his partner Glen Steigelman transformed a midcentury Joshua Tree shack into a charming retreat complete with a studio where Halterman makes stained glass artworks. They also own the eclectic The Station, a refurbished gas station in Joshua Tree which they have turned into a quirky gift store, perfect for the tourists now pouring into the area every weekend.

In 2011, 1.4 million people visited Joshua Tree National Park, a favorite rock-climbing spot for the likes of Jared Leto and Jason Momoa. By 2019, park tourism had more than doubled, reaching nearly 3 million.

Dunn partially credits the tourism spike to the rise of social media. “Beyoncé and Jay-Z had a video [2014’s Run], Miley Cyrus posted a picture — boom,” she says. “We’re getting out of L.A.; we’re going to Joshua Tree. It’s a thing to do. We’re hashtagging it. We’re posting it.” Others credit Paul McCartney’s surprise performance at the legendary Pioneertown music venue Pappy & Harriet’s in 2016 and U2’s album The Joshua Tree back in 1987 for increasing the area’s visibility.

The architectural freedom offered by the desert has proved a powerful lure to hemmed-in cosmopolitans. “People build super-small cabins in the boulders as well as 5,000-square-foot masterpieces,” says French. There is also the enticement of renting out these homes. According to the website AirDNA, there are 927 active rentals in Joshua Tree and 86 in tiny Pioneertown.

One rental that gained visibility last year is a property called SkyHouse, which was used as a filming location for Palm Springs and was featured in ads for the movie. The three-bedroom house on eight private acres, and pool that Palm Springs stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti floated in, rents for $1,400 per night.

New to the rental market is the astounding Invisible House, a long, mirrored residence, located 10 miles outside of Joshua Tree, designed by Hanley and architect Tomas Osinski that looks like a horizontal glass tower. Currently listed on Airbnb for $2,661 a night, the 90-acre property includes a 100-foot indoor pool, its very own mountain, and a two-ton, solid glass bed in the master bedroom. According to Hanley, Invisible House was inspired by the Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers of New York City and the monoliths of Stanley Kubrick movies. Hanley also has plans to build a house made of shipping containers dubbed Starburst House designed by James Whitaker of Whitaker Studios.

Noted L.A. residential designer Jeremy Levine recently completed Hawk and Mesa, a family vacation home also available for short-term rentals, nestled in historic Pipes Canyon outside of Pioneertown. Designed in a style he calls “cowboy modernism,” it was built with recycled lumber and inspired by the rough wood of Pioneertown’s iconic Mane Street.

The 120-acre property also boasts private hiking trails, epic views and its very own Wild West legend, which captured Levine’s imagination when he first bought the property. Pipes Canyon was home to the last great Western manhunt, which took place in 1909. The search for Native American outlaw Willie Boy inspired 1969’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, starring Robert Blake and Robert Redford.

“Hiking through our land through the canyon we would imagine Willie Boy being hunted,” Levine says. “I’d hike at night with my flashlight. His ghost is here, you know, not literally but you can imagine it. … There are old horse troughs on our property that someone built — and that history is great.”

Hospitality company Homestead Modern offers 40-plus short-term rental properties in a 20-mile radius around Joshua Tree National Park, with prices ranging from less than $250 a night to more than $3,000. “We offer luxury bath, body and bedding products like you find in finer hotels. We also have a team that acts as a High Desert concierge to bring experiences in-home, ranging from stocking a kitchen to arranging private chefs and sommeliers, dog sitters, private yoga instructors, massages and sound baths,” says Homestead Modern founder Dave McAdam.

For many, though, the High Desert has become their one and only home. Jessie Keylon, a Thousand Oaks native, moved to Joshua Tree in 2016. She has thrown herself into the area’s vibrant artistic community, opening a gallery on Mane Street and building a tiny house outside of Pioneertown.

“To step out of the chaos of the city and chaos of traffic, and all that noise that so many of us come from … it’s amazing,” she says. “It’s so nice to wake up and go on a walk and not talk to a single person and not hear a single car.  Maybe I’ll see some rabbits, and some birds, and I’ll go say hello to my favorite oak tree, and sit on a rock, and watch the sunrise. It’s that calmness that’s kind of helped me kind of hear my own voice.”

The pandemic, however, has supercharged interest in the area. “Anyone who was thinking of moving out here just pulled the trigger,” French says. Those looking for homes or land can expect a highly competitive seller’s market. According to Madelaine LaVoie of Cherie Miller and Associates, prices in the past year have gone up an astounding 30 percent, fueled in great part by buyers from L.A. “Joshua Tree has evolved in 12 months exponentially in the direction it was already headed in recent years — as an extension of L.A.,” notes Hanley. Adds Dunn, “In the past six months, 75 percent of my clients are investors from L.A. looking to relocate or to live there indefinitely — now that they are working remotely for who knows how long.”

Not everyone is so happy with the influx of city dwellers, especially those who are buying up land for short-term rentals. “If I am being honest, I am a bit disgusted with how much of Pioneertown has changed since I got here,” Gentry says. “The majority of people who move here are aiming to make a buck, not to get away from it all.”

But for many exhausted urbanites, the desert offers a tantalizing space to reimagine their lives. “People come here to reinvent themselves,” Levine says. “You know someone who’s been in L.A., who’s been a producer and they’ve been working like crazy — they don’t like it anymore. They don’t like that lifestyle, so they say ‘I’m going to go out there and I’m going to open a cool coffee shop, a pottery store, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just be an artist.’”

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.