The dinosaurs near Palm Springs make the perfect road trip

13 Dec.,2022


Animatronic Dinosaurs

My favorite thing about being a relative newcomer to California is the sense of discovery I feel all the time in this vast and always exciting state. 

I take that back. My favorite thing about being a newcomer to California is complaining to friends back home in New England about the “freezing cold” 50 degree winters with an evil little twinkle in my eye. 

My second favorite thing about being on the West Coast is that there’s always something new to experience. As a travel writer, I can’t help but seek those things out, but it’s even better when they find me. So when I was driving an unbeautiful stretch of freeway between LA and my destination of Scottsdale, Arizona, and all of a sudden a 150-foot-long, Pepto-pink apatosaurus rose up in front of me, I shrieked with excitement — literally shrieked — into my empty car.

Julie Tremaine

That was the first time I ever saw the Cabazon Dinosaurs. I had only been in California for a couple of months at that point, and I had no idea what they were, so I didn’t take the time to stop while I had 300 miles of solo driving ahead of me. But from that point on, they were seared into my brain as the ultimate destination, the holy grail of kitschy roadside attractions, which for someone who grew up road tripping all summer long and stopping only at the weirdest possible places, is saying a lot.

Last April, I tried to visit Cabazon, stopping on the way back from a weekend in Palm Springs. But it was 100 degrees out, and by the time I walked up to the gate, I was already sizzling like a vampire in the midday sun. (I told you, I’m new here, I didn’t know better than to not hang out in the desert at high noon.) 

I took some photos of what I later learned is called Dinny the Dinosaur, the once-pink-turned-purple apatosaurus, and the similarly massive 65-foot Tyrannosaurus rex sculpture named Mr. Rex, painted at that time to look like the Easter Bunny. Then I got back in the car, cranked the AC, and drove back to LA. 

Julie Tremaine

But I didn’t forget those bizarre dinos. I, in fact, talked about them more than was totally socially acceptable. So during an unseasonably chilly spell in LA this October, I headed back out to the desert. Nothing was going to stop me this time. 

I paid my $13 and walked through the faux stone archway into the promised land. 

If you know something about Cabazon’s history, you might smirk a little at that particular turn of phrase. For a couple decades after the original owner’s death in 1988, the dinosaurs became a creationist museum, selling toys that reportedly said “the fossil record does not support evolution.” 

Julie Tremaine

If you don’t know anything about Cabazon’s history, stop reading this article right now and watch “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” Not only does Pee-wee arrive at the “Prehistoric Museum” on a ghost truck and meet a kindred spirit in the (now torn down) Wheel Inn once on the property, he has the most emotionally sincere conversation in the whole movie inside Mr. Rex’s mouth.

Now is probably a good time to mention you can actually go inside those immense neon-painted beasts. One of them you can even explore for free. Dinny the Dinosaur — painted like Dino from “The Flintstones” on my last visit — is home to a gift shop that’s accessible without admission. It sells exactly what you think it would sell: dino toys and T-shirts and mini fossil excavation kits, and a handful of books and games, with a few sparkly lizard plushes thrown in for good measure. 

If you make it through the winding, faux-dino-filled jungle paths to Mr. Rex, you’ll be rewarded with a whole different experience. That’s what I was after. 

Julie Tremaine

As soon as you’re inside the gates, you’ll be faced with three difficult choices: either get on a surfboard surrounded by two surfing (and bathing suit-clad) dinosaurs as a wave threatens to crash over you in the photo op area; head to the Dino Dig, a sand pit where you can search for fossils and redeem them in the gift shop for toys; or risk your life by heading into the wilds of the exhibit, where hundreds of dinosaurs wait for you.

I can’t tell you whether the dinosaur sculptures in the Cabazon dinosaur park are truly scientific representations of the prehistoric creatures. My expertise in dinosaurs amounts to maybe one day a year spent exploring the dino bones exhibits in the Smithsonian or New York’s Museum of Natural History, and a few dozen (OK it’s more like a couple hundred) viewings of “Jurassic Park.” What I can tell you is that the dinosaur sculptures are very creepy, especially with the way the dense foliage was limiting my view of what was coming next, and that they’re arranged in probably not historically accurate scenes, like the one where two T. rexes are towering over you menacingly while a tiny, definitely-not-to-scale stegosaurus ambles around their feet.

Julie Tremaine

But if a 65-foot concrete sculpture of a dinosaur dressed as Fred Flintstone is what drew you in, you probably weren’t expecting total verisimilitude anyway.

Once I made it through the dinosaur exhibits, I found a picnic area and an oversized dino head ready for selfies. 

Past that, a set of stairs lead directly into Mr. Rex. 

I’m not going to lie: The inside of that dinosaur was a little gross. 

As you ascend the flights of stairs, you’re surrounded by what I can only describe as “guts-colored red” walls, with a mottled texture that really does evoke the feeling of being inside a carcass. Once you get to the neck, there’s a narrow, circular staircase into his head. There, you’re rewarded with a fearsome view of Mr. Rex’s teeth all around you, with Dinny the Dinosaur beyond, and palm trees and desert as far as you can see. 

Julie Tremaine

That, and an inspirational sign encouraging you to “let the world hear you roar!” 

I did not have the same kind of emotional epiphany Pee-wee did inside that dino. Then again, he’s probably not quite as freaked out by rickety circular staircases as I am. 

On the weekends, there’s a Wafflesaurus ice cream truck, and there’s another gift shop that’s packed with delightful dinosaur animatronics that move and roar. There’s even one you can ride. I’m not sure I need to explore the Dinosaur Park again for a year or two, but I do know one thing: every single time I’m driving through Cabazon from now on, I’m going to stop and take a photo with Mr. Rex, if only to see how he’s dressed that day.

Cabazon Dinosaurs is open daily. Tickets are available on site.

Julie Tremaine