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Film set offers a bit of the pretend Old West

I am a cattle rancher's daughter, and even though I haven't been home on the range for ages, I'm still a sucker for anything that screams "Cowboy!"
/ Source: The Associated Press

I am a cattle rancher's daughter, and even though I haven't been home on the range for ages, I'm still a sucker for anything that screams "Cowboy!"

That's why I'm irresistibly drawn to Pioneertown, a tiny desert hamlet in Southern California near Joshua Tree National Park that was created by movie cowboys in the 1940s as a film location.

Got a horse? Bring him on down. Pioneertown's one motel, guest ranch and local roadhouse all have corrals and hitching posts. There's even a trash bin for the manure.

It's been decades since I owned a saddle, but my kids love petting the horses when we visit Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace. These days, this funky old roadhouse with character is more likely to contain bikers than cowboys, but it's fun nonetheless.

Until recently, I had never heard of Pioneertown, even though I've owned a weekend home nearby for five years. Then, a business owner in nearby Yucca Valley suggested I take a drive through Pipes Canyon, a scenic area strewn with boulders as beautiful as those in the park.

I took California 62, which is the main drag through Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree toward Twentynine Palms, and turned left onto California 247, known to the locals as Old Woman Springs Road.

This road is scenic itself, with its wild, windswept bluffs and tall Joshua trees, but things get even more beautiful when you turn left again, onto Pipes Canyon Road.

As my friend had predicted, I have become smitten with this desert landscape, with views as long and pretty as those of my favorites places in New Mexico. The land remains mostly undeveloped and consists of rolling hills and mesas interspersed with piles of granite boulders. Off in the distance, you can see the purple summit of Mount San Gorgonio, Southern California's tallest peak.

After about 10 minutes, the pavement curves to the left and turns into Pioneertown Road.

You're now facing the 20,000-acre Pipes Canyon Preserve, a little-known place owned by the Wildlands Conservancy. There are uncrowded hiking trails to a tree-lined creek bed with willows and cottonwoods, surrounded by Joshua trees, pinyon pines and manzanita bushes.

A few more scenic miles brings the visitor to Pioneertown, a collection of homes on the west side of the road, and an Old West movie set town to the east.

I was delighted the first time I stumbled onto this place, since I am attracted to undiscovered movie history as well as the real history of the Old West.

The two strains merge here, where movie actors, some of whom had been actual cowboys, formed a partnership in the 1940s to develop the area as a Western movie location.

Investors realized they could make money by developing the empty scenic landscape and renting it out to movie studios during the era when the Western was king.

Among the movies made there: "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (1972), starring Paul Newman; "The Gay Amigo" (1949), starring Duncan Renaldo as the Cisco Kid and Leo Carrillo as his sidekick, Pancho; Gene Autry pictures "Indian Territory" (1950), "Whirlwind" (1951), "Silver Canyon" (1951) and "On Top of Old Smoky" (1953); "Cody of the Pony Express" (1950), starring Dickie Moore; and many more.

Singing cowboy Roy Rogers, the Sons of the Pioneers musical group, cowboy actor Dick Kurtis and others were investors in the project, which ultimately played host to their movies, as well as early TV series like "Annie Oakley," "Buffalo Bill Jr." and "The Cisco Kid."

Made to look like an Old West town's main street, Pioneertown's dusty Mane Street remains unpaved and rustic. It is small, and although it welcomes tourists, it isn't as relentlessly touristy as other Old West-style towns I've visited. A sign warns drivers, "If you're making dust, you're driving too fast."

You're just as likely to meet one of the hamlet's 300 local residents sitting out in front of the bowling alley, for example, as out-of-towners.

All the buildings are real - unlike other mock Old West towns, which are mostly stage flats - but they are not necessarily what they seem. The "bank," for example, is a home. Others are rented out as bed-and-breakfast suites.

The town's founders built the Pioneertown Motel for crew lodging, but it still welcomes visitors today, with a covered wagon in front. A modest and quirky place, with theme rooms that range from cowboy to the Twilight Zone, the motel has housed Roy Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Autry and other film stars.

Today, it appeals to tourists seeking the offbeat, as well as riding clubs who like the popular equestrian trails nearby and the space to keep their horses and park their trailers.

Across the street, the Pioneer Bowl is a real six-lane bowling alley built for Roy Rogers and decorated with murals by famous set decorator Wallace Roland Stark.

It provided entertainment for film crews in an area where there was little entertainment.

In 1948, Roy Rogers rolled the first ball down a lane to officially open the bowling, with movie cowgirl Dale Evans and newspaper columnist Louella Parsons watching. He reportedly threw a strike.

Continuing the acting tradition, locals stage free Mane Street shootouts on weekends to amuse the kids.

Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace roadhouse is one of the main attractions here, bringing in musicians like Leon Russell and Canned Heat for special shows, and featuring local talent five nights per week. The rustic roadhouse, with old wooden walls, a stuffed moose head and assorted antlers on the walls is a fun and funky hangout with diner-style food and plenty to drink.

Its flier advertises it's open from 11 a.m. till "y'all stop drinkin'."

If You Go ...

GETTING THERE: Follow Interstate 10 east and take the Highway 62 exit to Yucca Valley in the Joshua Tree National Park. Look for the Pioneer Town sign and take a left on Pioneertown Road.

GENERAL INFORMATION: Pioneertown Motel, (760) 365-4879.