February 20, 2019

Photo Essay: A Double Dinosaur Climb, In Claude Bell's Prehistoric Garden

When dinosaurs were still alive—some 70 or 80 million years ago—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.

So, industrious Southern California entrepreneurs simply created their own along our roadsides. Who cares if they're fake? That just means you can go up inside of them and look around their innards.

When you mention Southern California roadside dinosaurs, the ones everybody talks about are in Cabazon—particularly Dinney, the 150-foot-long Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus you can see from the 10 freeway. Those who have never driven this stretch of the 10 may still recognize them from the movie Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

Inside Dinney's Gift Shop, you can examine the evolution of man from prehistoric times, as built into the walls...

...from Homo erectus erectus and Homo erectus pekinensis to Homo sapiens neanderthalensis... the European early modern humans, a.k.a. the Cro-Magnon.

Farther back off the access road, there’s a three-story concrete Tyrannosaurus rex—like Dinney, also built by theme park artist Claude Bell (of Knott’s Berry Farm fame). Bell spent 11 years on Dinney, without the help of contractors or construction crews. Then, in 1981, he started work on Mr. Rex—as an octogenarian.

They're now touted as the “World’s Biggest Dinosaurs”—or simply the "Cabazon Dinosaurs"—and you can also buy a ticket to climb on up into the T. Rex.

But first, you've got to amble through Bell's recreation of prehistoric life—a kind of walkabout through a dinosaur garden that takes you through a habitat we've only ever seen in movies (and on the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios).

There's plenty here to entertain kids—like another gift shop, this one with animatronic dinosaurs chomping towards you—but this grown-up enjoyed the peacefulness outside, with few if any other humans around.

During my visit, the sun was setting and began to cast a glow on these menacing faces, which still appeared darkened in contrast to the snow-capped mountains to the north.

The long-necked dinos—maybe Plateosaurus, Brachiosaurus, or Diplodocus—gazed at each other, not noticing me.

Though they were silent, I suspect their bark was still worse than their bite.

Among the many velociraptors...

...all were grounded from flight.

In history, not all of these dinosaurs lived together or even all at the same time...

...but as long as we're indulging our fantasies...

...let the ceratosaurus mingle with the triceratops...

...just as we humans mingle with all the dinosaurs in the garden (though we never actually had the chance).

As delightful as the garden is, there's only one reason why anyone ever goes back there—to climb into the mouth of the most infamous carnivorous king of the dinosaurs.

Mr. Rex was completed in 1986, just two years before Bell's death at age 91—although technically, he's forever unfinished. Bell envisioned a slide down the Tyrannosaurus tail, but he never got to see it through.

After climbing up a couple of flights through steel and concrete, holding onto a rebar railing for dear life as you ascend a narrow spiral staircase, you find yourself standing inside the head—just beneath the beast's glowing yellow eyes.

A few steps forward and another step up, and it's got you in its jaws...

...where you can look out on the freeway through its mighty teeth and feel the wind whipping through as day starts to wane.

The dinosaurs have gotten a recent paint job and are both cosmetically and structurally well-maintained, but there's a sadness to visiting the property—which is now incomplete.

Bell had built his dinosaurs primarily to attract customers to his restaurant next door, The Wheel Inn, which he opened in 1958.

Unfortunately, The Wheel Inn closed back in 2013 and was razed in 2016.

But Bell built the dinosaurs to last—in fact, to far outlast him. And they're well on their way.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Treasure Trove of Roadside Dinosaurs
Photo Essay: The Living Ghost of Yermo
Photo Essay: A Roadside Cactus Ranch in Reseda
Photo Essay: A Metal Menagerie of Wild Animals (Updated for 2018)

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