There must be something in sandy, crooked Joshua Tree that encourages eccentricity. Or perhaps it’s the looming orange rocks, the piles of dusty stone that look just poised to fall. Or maybe all that clear air and big sky just lend a place a certain kind of freedom.
Regardless of the reasons, the high desert communities east of Los Angeles possess not only a heartbreaking beauty but an unapologetic quirkiness. Of the weird and wonderful cluster of villages surrounding Joshua Tree National Park, Pioneertown is perhaps the most unusual, a former western movie set facade transformed into a fully functioning burg about 130 miles east of the real Hollywood. An outlaw mix of Hollywood artifice, natural wonder and community unity, Pioneertown offers visitors a unique bit of respite from the 21st century din.
The main drag
There’s basically one street in Pioneertown. Just follow the signs off Pioneertown Road and onto the broad strip of packed dust known as “Mane Street” (who says cowboys don’t have a sense of humor?).
This is pretty much the center of the action, a few hundred yards of dirt trail lined with ramshackle Old West storefronts (many of them private residences) and a few weatherworn saloons.
What to do
For a place with fewer full-time residents than most L.A. apartment buildings, Pioneertown offers a surprising amount of entertainment options, from a trail hike through the surrounding desert to a cold brew and some good eats at one of the town’s restaurants and bars. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is a local institution, offering drinking, dancing and no-frills home-cooking in an atmosphere reminiscent of a cowboy mess hall. At the top of Mane Street is Pioneer Bowl. In addition to a bar and grill, murals by movie set painter Wallace Roland Stark and a jukebox with an impressive country music collection, it also houses the town’s piece de resistance, a 1947 bowling alley.
Built by western star Roy Rogers to while away the time between takes, the lanes remain pretty much as they were when Rogers rolled the first ball. Inside, it’s all polished wood with steel and sherbet-colored detailing not unlike the front grill of a ‘50s Cadillac. And if you’re in the mood for Old West-infused entertainment, the Pioneertown Posse and Gunfighters for Hire stage free shoot-outs outside the bowling alley now through November.
Where to bunk
At the end of Mane Street, you’ll find the Pioneertown Motel. Owners Carol and Ernie Kester affectionately call it their “house with 19 rooms.” Built in 1947, the motel offers suites more mountain cabin than Day’s Inn, each decorated in a homey knotty-pine kitsch. Also on the main drag is Maggie’s, a bed-and-breakfast housed in one of the Old West storefronts.
An alternative to the motel’s no-nonsense coziness, Maggie’s comes complete with early morning coffee, private patio and white lace curtains that flutter if the wind is right. Off Pioneertown Road, just up from the main village, you’ll find Rimrock Ranch Cabins, an unconventional overnight option offering private cottages. Each rustic bungalow features fireplaces for warming up cool desert nights. And for those who don’t want to leave civilization behind completely, there’s Internet access. Frequented by artists looking for solitude, Rimrock Ranch offers a peaceful environment, as well as enough diversions to stave off boredom.
Pioneertown was built in 1946 by a group of investors including gossip columnist Louella Parsons and comedian Bud Abbott and Rogers. Originally built to function as a year-round, full-time working western film set, Pioneertown was named for western band (and original investors) the Sons of the Pioneers, of which Rogers was a member before launching his movie career.
With its proximity to Los Angeles, its rough-and-tumble authenticity and a spread of windblown desert, Pioneertown thrived, serving, over the years, as the filming location for everything from Gene Autry’s “The Cisco Kid” to the “Judge Roy Bean” TV series. Eventually, however, as the demand for westerns waned, Hollywood began to move out and real people began to move in, slowly transforming Pioneertown into a one-of-a-kind community.
Getting there: Take Interstate 10 to Highway 62 (29 Palms Highway-Joshua Tree National Park). Continue about 25 miles northeast on Highway 62 to Yucca Valley. Look for the sign “Pioneertown.” Then travel north (a left) on Pioneertown Road (about five miles).
Info: www.pioneertown.com includes links and phone numbers for Pioneertown attractions and businesses.