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Six Great Herds of Roadside Dinosaurs

Cactus Ranch
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I hate to disappoint you, but if you’re looking for signs of Southern California’s prehistoric dinosaurs, you’re probably not going to find much.

At least, they won’t be the dinosaurs you may be thinking of, like the T. Rex and Triceratops. After all, we’ve got lots of their closest living descendant – that is, birds.

You see, some 70 or 80 million years ago – when dinosaurs were still alive – California was still underwater. The ancient sea may have been shallow – and receding – but it didn’t leave much for today’s paleontologists to find.

I know you’re going to protest, but it’s true. Even the great beasts in the Natural History Museum’s Dinosaur Hall are mostly from Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and beyond.

La Brea Tar Pits? Actually, since the Page Museum and its tar pit site focus on mammals of the Ice Age, they have no dinosaur bones – just mammoths and saber-toothed cats and such.

But there are some great places in Southern California where you can join more recent (but still retro) versions of the extinct creatures for a roadside adventure. Here are six of them:

1. Cabazon Dinosaurs, Cabazon

When you mention Southern California roadside dinosaurs, everybody talks about the giant ones in Cabazon, which have been clearly visible off the north side of the 10 Freeway for over 30 years, and were famously featured in the movie Pee Wee's Big Adventure. There’s a three-story concrete T. Rex and a 150-foot-long Apatosaurus that were built by theme park artist Claude Bell (of Knott’s Berry Farm fame) to attract customers to his restaurant next door, The Wheel Inn diner. Unfortunately, The Wheel Inn closed back in 2013 – and while the “World’s Biggest Dinosaurs” attraction lives on, it’s as a creationist museum masquerading as an amusement park and gift shop. If you’re OK with denouncing the theory of evolution for a few minutes while you visit, it’s worth a pit stop and a visit inside the dinos (for a small fee) – even just for the photo opp.

Cabazon Dinosaurs
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center, Riverside

Another, larger herd of extinct beasts is off the side of another road: this time just north of the 60 freeway, and just west of Riverside in the Inland Empire. It’s not quite the desert, but it’s close. Unlike the dinos in Cabazon, these bad boys play hard to get. Some of them have been hiding up there for over 50 years, waiting for you to find them. Although there are more than ten dinosaur sculptures, only a couple of them are near the entrance – so you’ve got to walk through some of the botanical gardens (of which there are nine acres) and up the Dinosaur Trail to find your own private Jurassic Park. The lumbering souls seem gentle, and almost fragile – some even handmade out of burlap, styrofoam, and household glue, making them more like folk art than your typical big roadside statue. Take some time to walk the trails and peruse the dinosaur eggs in the museum, and try to catch the sunset from up top.

Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center (6)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center (5)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Dinosaur Swampland, Apple Valley

At first it just looks like any other abandoned lot with an RV parked in it; but upon closer inspection, it actually appears to be some kind of post-apocalyptic wonderland where people coexisted with dinosaurs. In truth, this was the site of a would-be children's amusement park called "Dinosaur Swampland." By the mid-1970s, there were at least 36 dinosaurs across four acres on a 17-acre parcel owned by retiree Lonnie Coffman, originally of Van Nuys. He formed the standing ones out of stucco wire (which looks a lot like chicken wire), which he covered in cement and then stuccoed over – giving them kind of a greenish hue that the sun has since bleached out of most of them. He made the ones lying on the ground, however, by covering molded dirt in poured concrete. Coffman had built the menagerie as a kind of public art piece on his own property, but because of insurance issues and property taxes and other bureaucracy, he could never really get it off the ground as a miniature golf course. The site is currently abandoned and crumbling, and full of broken glass, beehives, and rattlesnakes. Somebody must own that plot of land, so it’s best to admire the dinos from the street, and enter only with permission.

Dinosaur Swampland, Apple Valley (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Dinosaur Swampland, Apple Valley (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Peggy Sue’s Diner-Saur Park, Yermo

Yermo, whose name is derived from the Spanish word meaning "wilderness," is an exit off of the 15 freeway on your way to or from Vegas, but instead of bringing traffic to the town, the construction of the freeway allowed travelers to pass right by it. Once a thriving town of places to get gas, something to eat and drink, and to stay the night, many of the businesses closed, leaving a few residents, a Marine base storage unit, the Burger Barn, and Peggy Sue's 50's Diner. A classic and original 50's diner, Peggy Sue's was built in 1954 out of railroad ties and mortar from the nearby Union Pacific rail yard. Appropriately enough for its Calico-adjacent location, it was purchased by another former Knott's Berry Farm employee and reopened in 1987. Since then, it has remained merely an oddity – an eccentric roadside attraction that, although worth the detour, gets overlooked. Peggy Sue's is just so emblematic of the desert dream: to provide something where there is nothing, shelter for those who are lost, food and drink for those hungry and thirsty, whimsy and entertainment amidst desolation and drought. It's a little slice of comfort pie. And it delights.

Peggy Sue's Diner-Saur Park (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Peggy Sue's Diner-Saur Park (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Charlie Brown Farms’ Land of Dinosaurs, Littlerock

Charlie Brown Farms is a wacky roadside pit stop in the Antelope Valley, along a stretch of the Pearblossom Highway that doesn’t have much else by way of dining options, gifts, or dinosaurs. It started out as a humble fruit stand back in 1929, and now it’s got three buildings on six acres with an entire acre just for parking. It’s no wonder you’ll find tour busses, trucks, and family minivans parked here, considering the pony rides out front and the dinosaurs around the back patio (along with some creepy dolls and statues of other animals and human characters). Pick up a few fresh ostrich or emu eggs (sorry, no fresh dinosaur eggs), pick out some jerky made from game and exotic meats, and slurp a date shake while you wait in the long line for some Texas-style BBQ to eat in the back dining room. Your wait could be up to 45 minutes, so make sure you’re not in a hurry.

Charlie Brown Farms' Land of Dinosaurs (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

6.  California Nursery Specialties, Reseda

The first thing you notice when you drive by the Cactus Ranch — also known as "California Nursery Specialties"— isn’t its tremendous collection of succulent plants. Rather, it’s the roadside dinosaurs. Now, those aren't an unusual sight out in the desert or even the Inland Empire, but you may not expect to see them on a residential street in Los Angeles. Of course, this one and a half-acre site isn't in a part of L.A. that most people know. The California Cactus Ranch isn't the only nursery in Reseda, but it's probably the wildest. And that's largely in thanks to its mini ghost town whose primary residents are some giant metal dinosaurs. Back in the mid-1990s, the nursery's owner, David Bernstein, had been looking for ways to draw more customers to his cactus nursery. So, he called upon his friend – landscape designer Bob Swearingen – and together they built storefronts of a saloon, mercantile, U.S. Marshal's office, and the "Kactus Kitchen" restaurant. If the ghost town doesn’t bring in the customers, the dinosaurs certainly do – and once they get there, they stay for the cacti.

California Nursery Specialties (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Bonus: If you love the rusted steel look of the dinosaurs at Cactus Ranch, take a drive around the desert town of Borrego Springs in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to see the work of metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda, whose dinosaurs (and serpents, mammoths, camels, birds, and such) dot the desert landscape.

Related Reading:
The Dinosaurs of California’s Lost World

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