Weird things happen in the desert. Burning Man. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Aliens. And to add some kid-friendly weirdness is the itinerary from our recent trip to Rancho Mirage, just outside of Palm Desert, California.
1. Ricardo Breceda Sculpture Garden
Driving from San Diego, the Ricardo Breceda Sculpture Garden is just off highway 79 near Temecula, which is on the route to Palm Desert.* The metal sculptures that Breceda welds are larger than life and include things like dinosaurs–Breceda’s first creation was a 20-foot dinosaur for his daughter nearly 2 decades ago–wild animals, mythical animals, and movie characters like Transformers and The Hulk.
There are also smaller sculptures that will fit in your car. But if you hire a flatbed truck to transport a 15-foot dragon to your house you will be my hero.
*WARNING: This route will lead you to highway 74 through the mountains, a 2-lane road with intermittent railing perched atop rocky cliffs. It’s beautiful…if you’re not afraid of heights and/or experiencing hangover-related anxiety attacks.
About an hour outside of Palm Desert is Pioneertown, an unincorporated community in the Morongo Basin of San Bernardino county not far from Joshua Tree. Created in 1946 as a movie set for 1880s-style old western movies, it’s weird as shit. Mostly because ACTUAL PEOPLE ACTUALLY LIVE THERE!
My husband talked to a local (while I browsed the local mercantile), who had lived there for nearly 50 years and told tales of how motorcycle gangs try to seize the town about every decade since the ’70s while residents hold strong. We saw a few folks sitting on their front porches, which are next to facades of an old timey bank and jail. Am I alone in wondering WTF their lives are like!?
There’s the Red Dog Saloon–with outdoor seating only due to COVID but a charming interior (see below) that I’d like to revisit once things open back up–serving delicious Mexican food and drink.
Recommendation: My husband endorses the Old Fashioned.
There’s also Pappy and Harriett’s, which is a restaurant and music venue featured on the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s travel and cooking show No Reservations. Travelocity reviewers didn’t seem to love Pioneertown, but I did. It’s gritty and a good jaunt off the beaten path.
3. Cabazon Dinosaurs
Because I’m a Pee-wee Herman superfan, and because I refused to drive home the way we came (*fuck off, highway 74!), we visited the Cabazon dinosaurs on our way back to San Diego. (Los Angeles residents will pass this first on their way into Palm Springs.)
Built in 1975, the iconic dinosaurs have been featured in several movies, none of which really matter except the 1985 masterpiece that is Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It’s easy to pull off the 10 freeway and visit this roadside attraction, featuring a 150-foot-long brontosaurus and a 65-foot-tall T-rex. You can go up into the brontosaurus for free, which contains the gift ship, but if you have kids it will cost you in either overpriced gifts or tears.
But to ascend the great T-rex like Simone and Pee-wee, however, you have to pay admission to the dinosaur museum just behind it. For about $50 per family you can walk through the dinosaur gardens, dig for fossils, visit yet another kitsch gift shop, and relive a classic movie scene.
If you love movie memorabilia and/or your kids like dinosaurs, do it. You won’t regret it. (Unless it’s 1,000 degrees in the desert, in which case you might regret it, but you’ll have great pictures either way.)
Recommendation: In-N-Out Burger is just up the street from the Cabazon dinosaurs and a good way to start/end any California adventure.