When Cowboy Became Cool Again: The Renaissance of Pioneertown

Welcome to California's hippest one-horse hamlet

April 5, 2022 9:00 am
Pioneertown Motel Entrance
Pioneertown Motel Entrance
Belathée Photography

Anyone who’s made the drive along Route 62 and turned left onto Pioneertown Road is probably familiar with the 1880s-themed Western motion-picture set-meets-historic desert community of Pioneertown. Built in 1946 by Dick Curtis, numerous black-and-white Westerns and TV shows were filmed there, including six seasons of The Cisco Kid and five of The Gene Autry Show. For several decades, most folks either made the detour off Twentynine Palms Highway to catch a band at landmark bar and barbecue joint Pappy & Harriet’s or for a scenic photo-op stop when heading out to or home from nearby Joshua Tree. 

Beyond Pioneertown’s dusty Mane Street, the desert gives way to conservancy-owned mesas, the Sawtooth Mountains and Preserve lands that stretch to the San Bernardino National Forest. Lured by the landscape, its stories and starry-skied magic, brothers Mike and Matt French (two thirds of design and development studio Life & Times) first visited Pioneertown well over a decade ago, where they found, fell in love with, and eventually bought its namesake motel

“The mystique of the desert was certainly a draw. At that time, it was very early in the growth of Joshua Tree, and it seemed like Pioneertown had a ton of potential,” says Matt, who along with his brother swapped L.A. for a slower pace of life and a house along its four-block Mane Street in 2014. “The live music element at Pappy & Harriet’s felt super exciting, but the motel was sitting there underutilized. It felt rare to find a property like that with so much character which was still relatively undiscovered.”

Built by Roy Rogers in 1946, the single-story inn was a place for filmmakers and western stars to stay when shooting in town. Gene Autry’s old haunt (number 10) sits front and center, but the walls in room number nine can talk, too. Mike’s favorite story is that the guys used to clear out the furniture and hold poker nights there, calling it Club Number 9. “It’s probably our most requested room,” he says. Together with business partner Eric Cheong — who led the motel’s latest redesign, adding Saltillo blankets, cowhide rugs, and locally made leather goods – the brothers updated the place in stages over three years without ever closing completely. Rooms also come with a copy of the Life & Times-produced seasonal Pioneertown Gazette — a bellwether roundup of cool area go-sees, like Bob Carr’s Crystal Cave, Cactus Mart, and old-school diner C&S.

With its epic landscapes and get-away-from-it-all vibes, the area has since exploded in popularity, with Life & Times presciently ahead of the curve. Traveler numbers in Joshua Tree, a once semi-secret go-to for climbers, and neighboring unincorporated communities like Flamingo Heights (where foodies flock to La Copine) and Landers (home of UFO-friendly sound bath center the Integratron) have surged.

Despite temporary pandemic-related closures, Joshua Tree National Park recorded 2.4 million visitors in 2020, but with real estate prices climbing long before Covid hit, California’s high desert had already become a major destination. “While there are challenges that come with this kind of growth, there are also a lot of positives. We are seeing a lot more locally owned small businesses creating job opportunities and an influx of people moving to the desert full time. Tourism is great for business, but as a resident, it is really nice to see people joining and participating in our unique desert communities.”

In step with the steady but thoughtful influx of  bars and restaurants, seeing the need for more food and entertainment options in Pioneertown, the brothers most recently turned their creative sights on its Red Dog Saloon, serendipitously partnering with kindred spirits Eric Alperin of Alperin Enterprises and Adam Weisblatt and Holly Fox of Last Word Hospitality.

Interior Red Dog Saloon
Interior Red Dog Saloon
Belathée Photography

“Alongside the motel, the bar was one the most functional buildings in Pioneertown — cowboys always need a place to sleep and drink,” explains Matt. “Red Dog is part of the National Historic Register, so we kept it as close to the period as possible, salvaging the original bar and memorabilia.” Opened in August 2020, tacos and pre-batched cocktails were served from a drive-through window. “The idea was for people to walk up and order breakfast or late-night food,” explains Mike, “but we ended up operating the entire restaurant out of that window. Hundreds of people came from all over, and it was great. We ran things like that until June 15 last year when we could finally open the bar.”

The brothers’ next F & B move will be “a total and unique redo” of the former Touchdown dive bar at Yucca Valley airport, which was opened in 1957 and where actors would fly into when filming. Gunning for a late-spring/early-summer opening, Mike adds that they partnered with Eric, Adam, Holly and newly minted executive chef Phil Bronco from Red Dog, giving nothing else away about The Copper Room other than its name, and that the “concept and menu will be completely different.” 

But it’s not just killer cocktails the French brothers like to get behind: Championing area artists also rank high on the list. Celebrating indie and western cinema, the inaugural Pioneertown Film Festival, founded by filmmaker Julian Pinder, is set to debut in May, but they also have a Pioneertown Artist in Residence Program in the works. “It’s still early stages, but we’re working with some exciting partners,” says Matt, adding that they’re looking forward to providing space and pouring cocktails for the film festival. “We hope to foster more creativity here — artists and musicians make up the fabric of Pioneertown and these desert communities, and we want to do our part to keep that going.”

With a one-mile stretch of Twentynine Palms Highway home to design stores like Acme 5 Lifestyle, Hoof & The Horn, and specialty wine and cheese shop Desierto Alto, the once whistle-stop Yucca Valley is now a destination in and of itself. The Mojave Flea Trading Post is another must-look for handmade goods. Located in the old United States Post Office building, Life & Times leases the space to James Morelos, who champions over 50 local brands and makers, like Desert  Moonrise and Saint No. Life & Times merchandise (think felted cowboy hats, bandanas, cozy sweatshirts) is sold there too, although guests can shop items from Pioneertown Motel’s front desk cabin. Just shy of Coachella’s opening weekend, a new Saint No exhibition, Shine Like Gold, opens at Mojave Flea’s Palm Springs outpost on April 7. 

And while on the subject of Coachella: After a two-year hiatus, the desert music festival and its countryfied cousin, Stagecoach, are back. According to Matt, rather than make the drive to and from Los Angeles again, many artists and industry people stay local and come up to hang out in Pioneertown between weekends. Paul McCartney’s 2016 post-Desert Trip Music Festival set at Pappy & Harriet’s is still the stuff of legend. With Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and many, many others appearing this year (Phoebe Bridgers, Run the Jewels, Doja Cat, Stromae, etc etc etc), you never know who you might belly up next to at the Red Dog bar.

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