Southern California has been the backdrop to countless films and television shows throughout the years, from science fiction fantasies to high-speed action flicks. But once filming wraps and the sets are broken down and auctioned off, the sets are often abandoned, left to be deteriorated by the elements. (Just ask anyone who's visited Tatooine.) It's rare that a film set is so well preserved that you can actually walk the same dusty streets that your favorite hero strolled down before saving the day. But in Pioneertown, California, you can do exactly that -- you can be the western movie star you've always wanted to be.
The History of Pioneertown, a Real Wild West Town
Pioneertown, California, located in the Morongo Basin of San Bernardino's High Desert near Joshua Tree National Park, was establishd by Dick Curtis, who dreamed of a "living breathing movie set" conveniently located near Hollywood but away from the distracting noise of the city. Hollywood investors, including Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Sons of the Pioneers, Bud Abbott (of Abbott and Costello) and Russell Hayden (Hopalong Cassidy) got involved and collectively puchased the land.
According to the Pioneertown website, the town's name derives from the song "Out in Pioneertown," by Tim Spencer of Sons of the Pioneers.
Not unlike Spahn Ranch (though with a less tarnished history), Pioneertown was the filming location of several western titles, including Cisco Kid and Annie Oakley. Even more recent movies, such as 2017's Ingrid Goes West, were partially filmed in the small desert town.
Pioneertown's Film Museum chronicles the town's rich film history.
What To Do in Pioneertown
When I visited Pioneertown on a warm Saturday back in late April, I was immediately struck by how cozy and relaxing the town is. The town has a "no cars" policy on Mane Street -- a sign reading "Horse, paw, foot traffic only..." greets you as soon as you enter.
Perhaps the best part of visiting (besides pretending you're Clint Eastwood) is visiting the shops that line the dusty streets. While the Pioneertown Bank and the Wagon Wheel Saloon aren't in operation (but they make for great photo ops), there's no shortage of locally-sourced and locally-made goods to persue while in Pioneertown. I spent nearly three hours wandering from store to store; I stopped by the General Mercantile, where I purchased a copy of Ken Layne's incredible Desert Oracle Volume 1, the Pottery Shop and the cutest little health and beauty shop. I'll bet Roy Rogers and Gene Autry never picked up incense when they rode into town, but I personally wouldn't have it any other way.
Every old west town needs a great watering hole and Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace is just the place to kick back after a long day of riding your horse (or hiking among the Joshua Trees). Pappy & Harriet's is a local favorite and has hosted countless musical artists throughout the years, including Paul McCartney.
If you find that one day isn't enough, you can even stay the night at the Pioneertown Motel, where silver screen stars such as Gene Autry have lounged.
Pioneertown Film Festival
The Pioneertown International Film Festival, a three-day experience celebrating the Western genre, independent cinema and the American culture of the west, will be held at Pioneertown, California from May 27 through May 29. Screenings will take place in the original studios built by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The festival will include screenings of From Dusk Till Dawn, Heartworn Highways Revisited, Acid Westerns of Jack Nicholson and Monte Hellman and more, as well as a special presentation of Stupid F*cking White Man: The Indigenous Image in Westerns curated by programmer and filmmaker Adam Piron, who will discuss the legacy of Jim Jarmusch's western Dead Man.
The festival will also feature performances by Sons of the Pioneers and The Dandy Warhols.
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