Hit The Road: Pioneertown

Got a hankerin’ to hit the road? Come visit Pioneertown, a delightfully strange Western town in the high desert of California. Once the backdrop for hundreds of TV shows and movies, it’s now a destination for cool music, great food and cheap beer.

Pioneertown. Photo from Wikipedia

Pioneertown was built in 1946 as a location for Western TV shows and movies to shoot, but it’s more than that. The Western facades aren’t facades - they’re actual stores and homes, and they’re actually occupied. Still, to this day. A walk down ‘Mane Street’ in Pioneertown will bring you past battered wagon wheels and graves marked with just a cowboy’s weathered boot, and from within the window of a home that looks like it could be from The Cisco Kid comes the flickering blue light of a television.

In the 1940s prolific villain actor Dick Curtis came across the land that would be Pioneertown while riding horses (I love the idea that Western actors would be out riding horses in their spare time). He got together with a group of other actors to spearhead the development of the town; Gene Autrey, Bud Abbott, gossip columnist Louella Parsons and the cowboy singing group Sons of the Pioneers (who would lend the settlement its name) were among the investors. Dick Curtis’ vision - a town that could look like and be filmed as an Old West location while being filled with permanent structures where the actors and crew could live - came to life.

Over the years hundreds of TV shows and movies were shot in Pioneertown. The Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show, The Gay Amigo (!) and The Howling 7 (errr..) all made use of the backdrop. It seems to have been a while since Pioneertown appeared on film (I found an unsubstantiated claim that The Devil’s Rejects shot there), but lately it seems to have found a new life as a rock band destination. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, the self-described best honky tonk west of the Mississippi, was originally a cantina set for Pioneertown. In the 70s it became a real cantina, geared at bikers (there’s a weird local legend that bikers bury their dead - along with their Harleys - somewhere in the desert behind the Pioneertown Inn), and then in the 80s it became the Pioneertown Palace. To the best of my knowledge it was Cracker, who recorded their album Kerosene Hat there, that really kick started the modern boom at the bar, which has recently hosted major acts like The Arctic Monkeys, Billy Corgan, Robert Plant, The Eagles of Death Metal and Peaches. Cracker (and singer David Lowery’s other band, Camper Van Beethoven) hosts an annual festival there.

Photo by David Butterfield.

Pappy and Harriet’s is a pretty amazing place to see a show, even though there’s a huge fireplace that obstructs the back third of the house. It’s a small venue, and there are tables right up against the stage. The food at Pappy and Harriet’s is great - lots of BBQ on the menu - and the beer is cheap. The atmosphere is definitely honky tonk chic, with license plates all over the walls and tons of vintage posters, including many for local hero (and local corpse) Gram Parsons.

But Pappy and Harriet’s is just one part of the larger charm of Pioneertown. Located in the elevations of the high desert, Pioneertown is surprisingly cool. It’s located about four miles off Twentynine Palms Highway, which means that you’re very far from most sources of light pollution (except for Pappy and Harriet’s) and that the stars are spectacular. Even in Pappy and Harriet’s parking lot, with the bright lights shining off the building, you can see the entirety of the Milky Way stretching out overhead. For a city boy like myself it’s a majestic view of the heavens you never otherwise get.

Pioneertown is private property, but you’re welcome to amble up and down Mane Street. I’ve found the residents to be incredibly friendly; I’ve chatted with people sitting on their porches and people feeding their pigs. There are stables for your horses, should you bring them, and if you don’t there are usually horses around to see. The Pioneertown Bowl will usually have its doors wide open, perhaps with giant fans blowing in - there’s still no AC, but the beer is cold and the wooden lanes are the oldest in America. Gene Autry used to tape his show there.

During the week Pioneertown is quiet, but on the weekends between April and October it’s a cowboy fantasyland. The Pioneertown Posse do gunfights and other Western cosplay up and down Mane Street, and there are interactive gold panning stations and storefronts open for kitschy business. Pioneertown is a tourist destination, but it doesn’t have the money-grubbing feel of a theme park. The Posse is made up of volunteers, and there are no admission fees or hard sells. There are no glaring souvenir stands or cheesy picture booths. It’s a chill, laid back and stress-free tourist locale.

Inside Pappy and Harriet’s. Image from the LA Times Calendar

The Pioneertown Inn, located just behind Pappy and Harriet’s, offers cheap rates but little quiet. The Inn, which was used as housing and as a location back in the Western heyday, now tends to be the province of people coming out to the desert to see a show at Pappy and Harriet’s or to have a peyote-driven vision quest in the desert. If you’re okay with loud neighbors, the place can’t be beat, but if you need more peace and quiet the town of Joshua Tree provides many rustic accommodations. Don’t expect luxury at the Pioneertown Inn - the rooms tend to the small. But you’re not supposed to be staying in the room - you should be out in the desert.

I’ve fallen in love with the High Desert, and with the Joshua Tree park. The land around Pioneertown is filled with hardy shrub and littered with beautiful, ancient rock formations. Smoothly curved and sandy, the rocks make you feel like you’re on an alien world. The San Bernardino Mountains loom in the background, and wildlife is plentiful. A walk outside the center of Pioneertown can scare up rattlesnakes and road runners, and at night you can hear the coyotes and the dogs singing to each other. During the day the deep blue of the sky is often broken with the soaring figure of a huge hawk or eagle, scouting out some desert rat prey.

Every person should make a trip to Joshua Tree National Park at some point in their life - it’s probably among the most awe inspiringly beautiful places I have ever visited - and a stop at Pioneertown, located north of the park, should also be mandatory. There’s an incredible satisfaction to having the dirt of Mane Street crunching under your shoes as you squint into the sun, a saloon behind you and a jail just over your shoulder. And as the sun goes down and the desert night cools down, the sounds of music and the smell of cooking meat at Pappy and Harriet’s entice you inside, where you’ll find friendly sun-blasted locals and LA hippies. After a big (cheap) meal and plenty of beer, you stumble off to the Pioneertown Inn, a billion blazing stars overhead and sleep like a cowpoke on the trail.

Plot your trip on Google Maps.

See the schedule of the Pioneertown Posse.

Check out who is playing at Pappy and Harriet’s (note: even if you’re just coming for food and booze, it’s a good idea to call ahead and make reservations. The place isn’t big and it’s popular).

Stay a night at the Pioneertown Inn.

Make plans to visit the Joshua Tree National Park (I’ll be writing more about the park and the town of Joshua Tree in the future - it’s one of my favorite places to be).