Last Stop: Pioneertown, CA

Pioneertown's deserted Mane Street, a former Western movie set.
  • Pioneertown's deserted Mane Street, a former Western movie set.

I am in love with the deserts of Southern California. There is no greater joy than leaving the ’burbs on a sunny Saturday, stocked up with water and sunscreen, and driving off into the beyond.

On one such happy weekend we decided to explore Black Rock Canyon, hidden in the northwest corner of Joshua Tree National Park. Black Rock is a great alternative to the better-trod trails and vistas: it’s free to park and hike for the day, it is closer to San Diego than the rest of the park at just over two hours’ drive, and there are plenty of distinctive Joshua trees and breathtaking views to enjoy. Plus, it’s only thirty minutes from the quaint and quirky Pioneertown, off the 62 West from Yucca Valley.

After a few hours of hiking, we decided to make the most of the daylight and explore this strange hybrid of ghost town, movie set and tourist trap.

Pioneertown was initially built in the 1940s as a set for Western TV shows such as The Cisco Kid and included homes so the actors could live onsite. Now, it lies in the glittering desert as an odd mix of the old, the new and the fake.

Strolling down Mane Street is a bizarre experience. An abandoned bowling alley stands opposite a reconstructed jail, bathhouse and bank. Carts of “dynamite” sit like props in the dusty street, presumably from the weekly Old West re-enactments. Unsettlingly realistic dummies slouch in rocking chairs on porches, and fake crows are tied to rails and posts. We pass a grave with a wooden sign proclaiming “Welcome.” It is hard to tell what is real and what has been purposefully set up to unnerve.

On the day we visited, the four-block town was empty aside from locals selling handcrafted saddles and feathered dreamcatchers, and a couple of tourists who seemed as confused by the place as we were. The houses on Mane Street look more like live-in works of art than homes; some residents had installed a display of broken chinaware, 50s-era toys and colored glass in the front yard.

“Where knick-knacks come to die,” my friend Nick observed, dryly. And there is something desperately sad about Pioneertown; it really feels like the last stop of a long journey, and I wasn’t sure if we were paying our respects by being there or just gawking. Visiting at sundown was an especially eerie experience.

Thankfully, Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is as lively as the town is desolate. This restaurant/bar/live music venue was bubbling on an early Saturday evening and we were lucky to get a table. The pulled pork was amazing, as was the tri-tip and cheesy fries. We caught a few numbers from a local bluegrass act, The Shadow Mountain Band, before we had to hit the road.

The SoCal deserts always surprise me. Pioneertown is a true wonder in the grit and definitely worth a brief stop.

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I didn't get Pioneertown either when I visited a few years ago. A lot of the original sets burned down a while back.

'Wouldn't have thought of visiting such a place, but your engaging description makes me want to experience the eeriness and kitschness of it all for myself.

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