Driving into Pioneertown feels like entering another world. Or, more accurately, another time. The unincorporated community nestled in Yucca Valley, California, looks like something straight out of a 1940s Western film-because it is.
Pioneertown was built in 1946 with funding from Hollywood actors Roy Rogers, Dick Curtis, and Russell Hayden, among others. Its purpose? To serve as a motion picture set as well as a tourist attraction, complete with a motel where stars (like the investors) could stay while filming movies such as The Cisco Kid and Edgar Buchanan's Judge Roy Bean.
Gene Autry filmed his show at the (now-closed) bowling alley.
The tiny little town (population 350 as of 2006) boasts an operating mercantile and pottery store, likker barn, and saddle shop-all with 1880s-style facades-on Mane Street.
There's also a bank, livery, town jail (where you can pose for photos behind bars), and a saloon.
You'd half expect to see tumbleweeds rambling across the road and outlaws slinging pistols, but on a quiet early spring evening during a recent trip, there wasn't a soul in sight and not a sound in the air except the chatter of birds echoing in the wind. Eerie? A little. But mostly a welcome break from bustling Los Angeles, a mere 125 miles away.
It's not always such a ghost town. Shop owners open their doors during the day, and recently, a younger crowd has started to breathe new life into the community through cultural and business ventures. On weekends from April through October, the Mane Street Stampede Wild West Show performs live music and reenactments.
Evenings are always abuzz at the iconic Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, a honky-tonk serving up delicious barbecue, a spacious beer garden, and an impressive roster of live music (Robert Plant and Paul McCartney have even graced the stage).
At the recently renovated Pioneertown Motel, suite doors bear the names of the greats who used to hang their hats in those very rooms: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Barbara Stanwyck, and The Duke (John Wayne), to name a few.
The hotel's authentic Western decor (think cowhide rugs and Southwest-style blankets) and no-frills approach (no TV, and a simple coffee set-up at the front desk) help you to submerge yourself in the experience.
An on-site tent serves as an event space (hello, rustic wedding of your dreams!) and can be dressed up or down for any occasion (here, it's outfitted in Powwow rentals).
At night, the stars shine so bright, you won't want to do much else but gaze up at them. Except maybe drink, play cards, stage duels, as The New York Times reports Old Hollywood film actors would do.
While in the area, exploring the nearby Joshua Tree National Park is a must.
The scenic drive to the desert takes you past majestic mountains and California countryside dotted with cacti and the twisted trees for which the area is named. But there's no need for an SUV: I did just fine in a compact Chevy Cruze Hatchback. Once there, it's time to hike, mountain climb, or simply take in the otherworldly views.
Speaking of all things out of this world, it's worth a visit to the Integratron in nearby Landers, CA, for a sound-yes, sound-bath.
The acoustically perfect structure was built in 1954 by aeronautical engineer and UFO advocate George Van Tassel, who believed the building was capable of rejuvenation, anti-gravity, and time travel. A bit nutty? Yes. But the Integratron now hosts fascinating sonic healing sessions, where crystal bowls are played, reverberating in the sound chamber to supposedly relax and energize the mind and body.
To feed the mind and body, head to La Copine, a favorite local roadside spot hailed for its fresh American-style brunch.
If you have time, do a little shopping at the Pioneertown General Store, housed in a vintage Airstream outside La Copine, and in Old Town Yucca Valley, which has a lineup of super-cute stores including vintage boutique The End and antique shops Canyon House and Pioneer Crossing Antiques.
Top image by Jonah Fuller, courtesy of The Pioneertown Motel.
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