Escape of the Week: Pioneertown, California

Written by on April 18, 2012 in Destinations - 17 Comments

It’s a fiercely windy morning in the Inland Empire’s high desert. Desert sand crunches underfoot and the icy gusts ripping through the barren area make tears race down my cheeks. Nearby, shrubs polka-dot their way up the snow-covered Big Bear Mountain. Backed up against the cloudless blue sky, the scene unfolding is the perfect display of the sublime beauty of the Southwest desert.

For a Friday morning, there’s no action here. Nothing at all. Unless you count a student film project parked on an open expanse of land, getting ready to jerry-rig a camera to a motorcycle for something their group is working on.

“The winter is slow,” says Stacie Samuels, who owns Pioneertown Motel, along with her husband. Right now, it’s just my room being rented.

On this morning, slow is an understatement.

We’re the only ones here. And, the area we have come to tour, a Hollywood lot fashioned after a 1870s frontier town, Pioneertown, is closed.

A relic of the Wild West.

Ground first broke in late 1946 with Roy Rogers flinging the first shovel of desert sand. Dreamed up by Hollywood investors, Pioneertown is a lot like Bonnie Springs. It’s got gun fights. It’s got the old western motif. But, there’s more to it. There’s a history here that unites Hollywood and the magic of film with the desert.

Today, Pioneertown is more tourist attraction that movie set, although the soundstage still stands at the far end of the little town.

It’s had the likes of Roy Rogers crunch down the same desert sand road as I walk. It’s been the on-location spot for shows like “Cisco Kid.” Hundreds of films have used the old west façade as a backdrop for stories, along with a handful of television shows.

The beauty of Pioneertown isn’t just the recreation of an old west town – it’s the interaction people get in exchange for a four-mile, windy jaunt up a mountain road from Yucca Valley, California.

On weekends, especially from February through autumn, Pioneertown is alive. There are two groups that stage gun fights and old west re-enactments– the Pioneertown Posse and the Gunfighters for Hire.

But, there’s more. The buildings, which on other sets are merely facades, have meat to them. There’s a throw-back bowling alley, which, according to the Morongo Basin Historical Society, is the oldest in the state still in use. A general store. A pottery gallery and more.

“People that come here either get it … or they don’t,” remarks Samuels.

It’s easy to see what she means. Not everyone is impressed with an old west town that was a part of the Hollywood western film heyday. Or the rustic – and darling – inn Samuels operates.

Pioneertown Inn is old. About as old as the town itself. With 17 rooms, it’s not posh. Or luxurious. But, it is comfortable and homey.

One wing of the rustic Pioneertown Inn.

The rooms offer the basics – a little front patio, a country-quilt covered bed, bathroom (complete with books for reading materials), big closets, windows that let sun spill in and a wall with kitchen necessities that include a sink, stove and microwave. For the ones who believe, stay in room 13. Rumor has it, it’s haunted. Don’t worry — according to Samuels’ the ghost is reportedly friendly.

Travel Tip: While you’re there, be sure to swing by the famous Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, adjacent to the main drag of Pioneertown.

A band performs at Pappy & Harriet's.

Originally a cantina for the town, today, it’s a restaurant/bar/music venue that ropes in renowned musicians including Lucinda Williams and Robert Plant, celeb guests (Ryan Gosling has been counted among the crowd), and a general crowd of laid-back hipsters, marines and families.

Make sure you swing by the bar and then the restrooms.

The men's restroom at the popular venue.

The women's restroom.

For the fascinating backstory on this desert hotspot, check out the story I did for Vegas Seven, In the Shadow of the Old West, an Unlikely Music Venue.”

Have you ever visited a Wild West town?

About the Author

Diana Edelman is a travel writer and expat currently residing in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She is a former career breaker and long term solo traveler. Today, she helps promote responsible elephant tourism and is the co-founder of #RTTC, a weekly chat on Twitter focusing on responsible tourism. When she isn’t writing, Diana handles the PR and social media for Save Elephant Foundation, which runs the popular Elephant Nature Park. Her writing as appeared in About.com, Thought Catalog, The Huffington Post, Matador Network, Travel + Escape, Luna Luna, Vegas Seven, World Nomads, Viator, CheapOair, OneTravel and more.

17 Comments on " Escape of the Week: Pioneertown, California "

  1. Sophie April 19, 2012 at 4:10 am · Reply

    I’d stay in room 13 for sure! Fun place!

    • Diana April 21, 2012 at 7:31 pm · Reply

      Me, too!! We stayed in the room next door. At one point, I thought I felt someone sitting on my legs lightly, but I think I could have imagined it. :)

  2. Bobbi Lee Hitchon April 19, 2012 at 4:32 am · Reply

    I know I’m corny, but I’ve always wanted to stay at a place like this. It sounds even cooler than I imagined it. I think the quiet may have add too it! Great piece.

    • Diana April 21, 2012 at 7:31 pm · Reply

      It was fun!! I really liked it and would love to go back when it is actually alive. :)

  3. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures April 19, 2012 at 9:26 am · Reply

    Oh gosh I didn’t even know a place like this existed! Great pics!!!

    • Diana April 21, 2012 at 7:30 pm · Reply

      It’s so kitschy! And cool!! I would have never known it existed if I hadn’t gone on a random date with a guy who told me all about it.

  4. Christy April 20, 2012 at 3:10 am · Reply

    Stage gun fights sound awesome. I really want to go now. I love your photos!

    • Diana April 21, 2012 at 7:29 pm · Reply

      Thank you, Christy! The town is great for taking pics. :) I wish I could have seen one of the gun fights. Next time!

  5. Angela April 20, 2012 at 7:14 am · Reply

    It does look like a proper ghost town, I would love to dig deep into its history!

    • Diana April 21, 2012 at 7:28 pm · Reply

      It’s a really cool place! I would love to go back during normal business hours :)

  6. Abby April 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm · Reply

    That is so cool. It doesn’t look real! Actually, it looks real, just not 2012!

    • Diana April 21, 2012 at 7:27 pm · Reply

      It was wild!! And super photogenic!!

  7. Shanna Schultz April 22, 2012 at 6:12 pm · Reply

    Thanks for sharing. That is a taste of a real piece of Americana, there. Looks like a unique destination. Thanks for sharing!

    • Diana April 25, 2012 at 2:12 pm · Reply

      It really is a unique destination. Well worth a visit!

  8. Laura @Travelocafe April 29, 2012 at 11:50 am · Reply

    Oh, the land of the cowboys… amazing pictures. I’d love to see the place for myself.

    • Diana April 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm · Reply

      Go!! You should!!

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