A diversion into the Mojave Desert
If you like desert scenery, the journey on Californian Interstate I-15 from Barstow to the Nevada border at Primm (115 miles) is quite an interesting one. The busy freeway traverses the Mojave Desert and provides the driver with wide vistas that are, obviously, unlike anything you can find on a motorway back in the UK. I am lucky enough to have made the trip several times over the years and I always enjoy it.
As much as I like the I-15 drive, I have often thought about exploring the area it passes through a little more. On a recent visit I finally got the chance; I made a little diversion off I-15 to the east and took a drive through the Mojave National Preserve. It turned out to be a fascinating “mini road-trip”; I was able to get a closer look at the desert itself and there were several items of railway interest along the way too.
The journey began at the exit from the northbound I-15 at Barstow on to E Main Street.
Here are 13 highlights from the trip;
1) Barstow (I-15 Junction / E Main Street – Odometer = 0)
I came off the freeway and then followed a Greyhound bus into “Barstow Station”; the town’s main bus station. I parked up in the car lot and then watched as the bus reversed into a spot alongside several other vehicles in the liveries of various companies. The Greyhound was heading to Los Angeles but all the others were bound for Las Vegas.
Barstow is a major transportation hub. It is located 120 miles northwest of central Los Angeles and a glance at any map (including the one at the bottom of this page) shows that it lies at the centre of an “X” formed by the modern highway system. I-15 arrives from Southern California to the southeast and then continues northeast to Las Vegas NV and Salt Lake City UT. I-40 branches off to the east heading towards Flagstaff AZ and beyond, whilst California Route 58 brings traffic from Bakersfield and the northwest. The origin of this transport pattern goes back to the first railways and even to the old Spanish trails that preceded them.
I followed the passengers from the bus into the “Barstow Station” complex. It is a modern attempt to recreate a 19th century railway station and features several fast food chains and a gift shop.
It also has, perhaps, the only McDonald’s in the world to be built out of old railway vehicles; three old passenger coaches have been lined up outside the station and painted in the red and yellow colours of the burger chain. Inside they have been fitted out in a layout that is a little sympathetic to an old dining car. It is a novel idea at least. I got a coffee.
I took my drink to the quietest of the three “coaches” and sat there imagining that I was in the restaurant car of a train crossing the desert. It actually took quite a bit of imagining as the view out of the window was into the main part of the building where people were browsing in a shoe shop.
I wandered around the gift shop for a short while but I was soon ready to leave.
I drove into the centre of Barstow. Apparently the town has a bit of a reputation and it is not known as the most livable place in California. It did seem a little down at heel but there had been some obvious attempts to try and improve things, and there were quite a few interesting painted murals decorating the place.
There were also quite a few old motels around the centre. They all seemed to be open but they also looked empty. I wondered if many people actually stopped and stayed in Barstow these days.
I stopped at a gas station to try to fill up with fuel before heading in the desert. I tried for 5 minutes to pay by credit card at the pump, only to find eventually that the place only took cash.
I drove across a large bridge over the railway lines, went past the real Barstow Station and then parked outside the Western America Railroad Museum.
2) Western America Railroad Museum (3 Miles)
Despite its rather grand title, the Western America Railroad Museum was quite a modest volunteer-run affair. It was totally charming nonetheless. Inside the small building were all sorts of random exhibits dedicated to various aspects of the Iron Road. There was a whole room dedicated to railroad nails and another filled with telex machines, padlocks and other equipment recovered from freight yards.
There was a terrific model railway layout in one corner, a glass case filled with old timetables in another and lots of old photographs and paintings on the walls. It was all as haphazard as it was wonderful.
Railways came to Barstow in 1883 when the line towards Needles was completed. The line south through the Cajon Pass towards Los Angeles and San Diego was added in 1885. The lines were owned by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (usually known as the “Santa Fe”) and the town (previously called Waterman Junction) got its current name from the president of that company: William Barstow.
The successor company, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), still owns the tracks through the town today as well as the large classification yard there.
I talked briefly to one of the volunteer staff about the large collection of memorabilia they had on Santa Fe’s most famous passenger service: the Super Chief. The train linked Chicago with Los Angeles from 1936 to 1971 and in its early years was used by many of the most famous Hollywood stars. The train used to stop at Barstow and as well as various advertising materials, the museum had a beautiful painting of it standing at the station.
Outside in the yard was a small collection of diesel locomotives and rolling stock. Most of them seemed to be from the Santa Fe company but there was at least one from rival Union Pacific there too.
I came out of the museum and walked around to the front of the station.
3) Harvey House
Barstow still sees two passenger trains a day; the town is a stop on the Los Angeles to Chicago “South West Chief” (modern day successor to the old Super Chief) operated by nationalised passenger carrier: Amtrak. Although the Amtrak station guide lists Barstow as an unstaffed halt, it is actually the finest remaining depot-hotel in California. It dates from 1911 and was originally a so-called “Harvey House”.
The Harvey Houses were large station restaurants designed to meet the needs of travellers on trains without dining cars. They were a creation of English immigrant Fred Harvey and are often considered to be the first national chain of restaurants in the USA.
The Barstow Harvey House was built in a beautiful Spanish Renaissance style and it currently serves, not as the Amtrak station, but as a government building which houses city offices and museums. It goes by the name of “Casa del Desierto”.
Back in the railroad museum there had been a little display about the Harvey House and a model of a “Harvey Girl” waitress. The sign behind the model explained that the girls were supposed to memorise customer orders without ever writing them down.
Having satisfied myself that I had seen everything I needed to see, I left Barstow and headed east on historic Route 66.
4) Historic Route 66
I had driven this way before. Several years ago I got quite obsessed with Route 66 for a while and spent a bit of time driving on as many of the western sections as I could.
The road linking Los Angeles and Chicago was given the official designation US 66 in 1926 and this led to it eventually becoming internationally famous as “Route 66”. The road passed through Barstow and the town is even mentioned in the famous “get my kicks” song. Route 66 broadly followed the Santa Fe Railway from San Bernardino through the Cajon Pass into Barstow. It then headed east alongside the same railway through Needles, Kingman and on to Flagstaff.
Another road, US 91, branched off Route 66 in the middle of Barstow and headed northwest to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.
With the coming of the Interstates in the 1970s and 80s the old road designations were discontinued. I-15 replaced US 66 south of Barstow and US 91 north of it, whilst I-40 took over from US 66 eastwards through Needles. In some cases the interstates were built on top of the old roads; in others, as between Barstow and Needles, the old roads were left intact alongside the new ones.
On this trip I planned to drive along the 50-mile section of Route 66 from Barstow to Ludlow. The old road runs parallel to the modern I-40 for all of this stretch and the heavy traffic on the freeway is usually visible in the distance.
The old road is pretty much deserted and, despite the 55 mile speed limit and the occasional bump, it is a real pleasure to drive on.
For me, the best thing about driving along Route 66 is the amount of abandoned items you get to see alongside the road. There are old gas stations, derelict restrooms, faded signs and sometimes even whole deserted villages.
All these locations used to make a living from Route 66 but when the interstate opened they found themselves bypassed and fell into instant decline. There is something eerily romantic about these places and I always love to stop and have a closer look at them.
Route 66 certainly attracts its fair share of aficionados and many see it as a challenge to complete the whole route. Not all of them use motorised vehicles, and even in the short time I spent on it, I came across a young guy on a push bike and two middle-aged ladies who were walking along with a support vehicle (hazard lights flashing) following just behind them.
5) Daggett (10 miles on /13 miles total )
All the way between Barstow and Ludlow the railway line is also parallel to Route 66. I stopped more than a few times to watch the trains running along it.
This is the busy double-tracked BNSF main line running from Los Angeles into Arizona and then further east. Most of the trains are hauled by BNSF’s own orange-liveried locomotives, but as far as Daggett (10 miles outside Barstow) the line is shared by BNSF’s great competitor: Union Pacific and it is possible to see trains hauled by locomotives in the distinctive UP yellow colour scheme here as well.
In 1905 another company, the Los Angeles and Salt Lake (LA&SL), opened a line between Salt Lake City and Barstow. The LA&SL had an agreement with the Santa Fe to use the existing line south of Barstow in order to reach Los Angeles. The two lines met at Daggert just outside Barstow.
The line from Daggett to Salt Lake passed through 600 miles of largely uninhabited country. Its creation spurred several settlements along the route. These included Las Vegas, Nevada, which was first settled in 1905 and incorporated in 1911.
Today the LA&SL line still exists as part of the Union Pacific (UP) Railroad and freight trains heading down from Utah and Nevada still meet the rival BNSF tracks at Daggett and then follow them into Barstow.
Route 66 runs right through Daggett and the little town was actually used for filming the famous movie “Grapes of Wrath” in which the “Mother Road” featured so prominently.
The centre of the town has moved away from the road now and the area around the old railway station has a bit of an abandoned feel to it. There was a derelict gas station and a lot of old signs but little else.
I left Daggett driving past where the Union Pacific line branched off towards Salt Lake City (I would meet up with it again later in the trip) and then carried on east with the BNSF line still parallel. The railway was busy with a constant stream of trains, sometimes as frequent as one every 10 minutes, passing by.
Most of these trains were comprised of “inter-modal” container wagons. The length of some of the trains was simply staggering. The sheer amount of freight one single train crew can move is absolutely amazing.
As I stood watching these mammoth trains trundle past, taking several minutes to go by in most cases, I started to wonder what on earth was all in the containers?
Judging by many of the names on the sides, I would guess a lot of it must be Chinese-made products heading from the Pacific ocean ports to the Atlantic for trans-shipment on to Europe. Plastic bowls and cuddly toys perhaps?
BNSF and Union Pacific are the two biggest rail companies in the USA and have a duoply on inter-continental freight haulage. Standing next to the track in California and watching all these containers go by, it was not hard to see why both companies made profits into the billions of dollars last year.
6) Bagdad Café (15 miles / 28 miles )
Another 15 miles on from Daggett I reached Newbury Springs; home of the “world famous” Bagdad Cafe. Or at least home of the cafe used in the “somewhat famous” 1988 German-US Film: Bagdad Café. The movie tells the story of a German housewife who has an argument with her husband and ends up leaving him to stay and work at the cafe.
The real town of Bagdad is actually further east on Route 66. It is now a ghost town and although it apparently did once have a café, the place was closed long before the movie was made.
The cafe in Newbury was originally known as the Sidewinder until it was used in the film. The name was changed afterwards in a (apparently successful) attempt to lure fans.
I parked the car and went inside for lunch.
I had already read that the Cafe was popular with German tourists, but I hadn’t expected to see quite so many of them in one visit. There were only seven other customers in the place when I arrived. A group of four German men were just paying the bill and getting ready to leave, in the far corner a couple of German girls were just ordering, and a lone German biker was sitting at the bar talking on his mobile phone. Another two Germans arrived whilst I was there. 30 years on the film is still pulling the tourists in !
I sat at the bar. The walls were full of colourful stickers, banners, cards and badges. It looked chaotic but it was quite attractive at the same time. In other words; it was a bit of a dump but in a quirky kind of way. There were a few photos of the film dotted around and one of its “stars”, the “yellow flask”, was hanging on a hook behind the bar. Whether it was the real cast member or just a stand in, I couldn’t actually work out.
I ordered a Buffalo Burger, fries and a diet cola. I can’t say it was very memorable or really all that distinguishable from a hamburger, but I was very hungry and it certainly hit the spot.
The elderly couple running the place were friendly enough but they seemed a bit too busy with preparing and serving the orders to stop and chat. That was a shame because I would have liked to have asked them about the percentage of German visitors they get each year.
I went to the toilet just before I left. In keeping with the rest of the decor of the place, the restroom was covered with graffiti. Whilst I was washing my hands I noticed that someone had written directly on the wall in front of me “If you are reading this, you are from Europe”. It was a nice touch, but it should have been in German, I thought.
As I was leaving Newbury Springs, I spotted a sign advertising a lake for sale.
A lake !
Just what you need in a desert!
I carried on, back on Route 66 to Ludlow and then reluctantly along I-40 for a while, before I finally reached the turning for Kelbaker road. I left the freeway and turned north into the desert preserve.
7) Kelso Dunes (75 miles / 113 miles)
Immediately after the junction was a sign welcoming me to the Mojave National Preserve; an area of protected land run by the National Park Service.
The scenery got better and better as I drove north along the Kelbaker Rd, with some really dramatic views of granite rocks on the left. After about 15 miles I turned off the road and headed along a graded dirt track for 3 miles to reach Kelso Dunes, a well known area of migrating and static dunes.
There was a little car park at the end of the dirt track and there were 2 cars parked there. There was no one around though. There was a collection of signs introducing the flora and fauna of the area as well as explaining the dune field itself.
There was a path heading towards the dunes and I went for a little walk along it towards the sand hills. The whole place was quite fascinating and I thought it would certainly warrant a longer visit in the future.
I returned to the car, retraced my route along the dirt road and then continued towards Kelso itself.
8) Kelso (12 miles/125 miles )
Just before Kelso I was reunited with the Union Pacific line I had last seen at Daggett. I drove across the level crossing and parked in the car park outside Kelso Depot.
The attractive station building was built in 1923 in a Spanish California Mission style and has now been restored as the Mojave National Preserve’s main visitor centre. Inside it was quite busy. There were three park rangers working and about ten tourists wandering around looking at the displays and browsing the small collection of books they had there.
One of the displays explained that Kelso was actually named after a railway worker John Kelso, apparently after his name was drawn out of a hat, and that originally it was little more than a siding. There was a water source nearby and from the early days of the LA&SL, trains were watered there.
Passenger trains were also halted for rest stops. The lovely little cafeteria that the customers used is still preserved intact. Sadly, it doesn’t serve food or drink anymore.
Outside the depot there is nothing much left of Kelso. The town briefly grew to about 2000 residents in the 1940s when nearby borax and iron mines were open, but they all closed within 10 years and today Kelso is a ghost town.
North of Kelso there is a road that runs next to the railway north for 20 miles to Cima. I followed it.
9) Cima Hill
There had been a few cars on the Kelbaker road but on the Keslo-Cima road there was absolutely nothing. It was almost eerie driving along with just desert and railway line for company.
The section of track north of Kelso is known as Cima Hill and is the steepest part of the whole line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
The tracks rise 2,000 feet in 20 miles; looking back towards Kelso you can clearly see the increase in gradient.
I stopped and watched as a southbound train headed gingerly down the grade towards Kelso. Trains in either direction barely top 20mph on this section.
I drove on and then got a wider view of a long container train as it headed down Cima Hill with the beautiful Providence Mountains visible in the background.
Eventually I reached Cima itself.
10) Cima (20 miles/ 145 miles )
Cima was founded around 1900 and served as both a railroad siding and a commercial centre for ranchers and miners. Now though, like Kelso, it is classified as a ghost town.
I parked up and had a quick look around. There certainly didn’t seem to be much to the place. There was a sign that said “Cima Store”; it advertised a wealth of goodies, but the place it stood in front of looked deserted, shuttered and barred. There was an American flag flying next to the building but no sign of any inhabitants.
There was a railway siding which, judging from the state of the rails and the overgrown weeds in the middle of the track, hadn’t been used for years. There were also a few old freight cars at the end of the siding and a fenced off compound with some old abandoned motor vehicles in it. That was it; that was Cima.
Having found no signs of life at all, I ventured north towards Teutonia Peak and the area known as “Cima Dome”.
11) Teutonia Peak / Cima Dome (8 miles/ 153 miles)
I parked up at the little car park at the Teutonia Peak Hiking Trail. There were 2 other vehicles parked there but again there was not a soul about.
The trail leads up to the peak itself and is about a 4-mile round trip. I hadn’t time to do the whole thing so I put it on the list for next time and went for a more modest trek on the flat part of the walk.
I walked around for almost half an hour. I was totally alone and it actually felt quite serene to be in such an amazing landscape all by myself.
The area has the densest concentration of Joshua trees in the world, more even than the Joshua Tree National Park further south. It is difficult to convey in photographs just how many there actually were.
There were also quite a few old silver mines dotted around just off the walk itself, luckily they all seemed to be covered by secure grating.
It was hard to believe that although all this is only about an hour or so south of Las Vegas, there was no-one around. Apparently, the Mojave National Preserve gets relatively few visitors.
After I had finished my walk I returned to the car and headed back first to Cima and then about 20 miles north towards I-15. Just before I got to the freeway I turned right and made a final short diversion to Nipton.
The sun was starting to set as I reached the little town.
12) Nipton (33 miles / 186 miles)
Nipton is yet another town that began in 1905 as a station on the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad (now Union Pacific). Apparently there was originally gold nearby too.
I drove across the level crossing and then parked in front of a RV park. It actually looked quite busy and had several vehicles in it. One or two people were wandering around. I went for a little walk.
The place was actually quite attractive. It was very much a little oasis in the desert with quite a gathering of large trees, a bit of grass and a collection of little wooden buildings. There were also several colourfully-painted old cars parked around the place. I wasn’t quite sure why they were there.
Closer to the railway was the “California Hotel” which had mock teepee rooms in its grounds. Next to the hotel was the “Whistle Stop Cafe”. A couple were standing on the verandah having a beer watching the setting sun. I thought it looked pretty relaxing and I was about to join them when I noticed that the sign outside the cafe said it had just closed.
The little general store next to the cafe was due to close too, but I managed to slip in as the last customer of the day. The guy who sold me a Diet Coke was wearing a tee shirt with “American Green Inc” on it. When I asked about it, he told me that the American Green company had purchased Nipton a few years back with the intention of turning it into a cannabis resort.
Apparently the plan hadn’t quite worked and American Green had since sold Nipton. The new owners were still trying to realise the same dream though. I suppose that could explain the cars; looking at colourful old cars must be great when you are totally stoned.
I headed off into the sunset, literally, and after about 10 miles I finally got back on I-15 and drove towards the state line.
13) Primm (20 miles / 206 Miles)
Heading north on I-15 you can see the lights of Primm’s casinos in the distance long before you reach them. The place is literally on the border with California and it is the first settlement in Nevada on the freeway. Apparently it has only had the name Primm for 20 years and was originally just known as “State Line”.
There are actually 3 casino hotels in Primm, all linked by a monorail. I headed to the original one: Whiskey Pete’s. The place is named after a local guy who couldn’t make a living selling fuel so turned to bootlegging booze instead. I parked in the lot and popped inside to use the restroom.
I am not entirely sure why Primm seems to thrive. I guess it is maybe because it attracts those Californians who are desperate to gamble but either can’t wait or have no interest in spending another hour to reach Las Vegas. Or perhaps, it is as the sign outside suggests; a last chance to “Get Even B4 Leavin”. There must be a lot of people who, having lost money in Las Vegas took that sign at its word and then lost even more in Primm.
I was surprised to find the casino quiet. There were a few people scattered around playing the slot machines and a few more sat at the bar playing the table top games, but generally the place seemed quite empty.
As I walked briskly across the casino floor I noticed a vintage car sitting in a glass case in the corner. On my way back from the restroom I went over for a closer look.
For some reason (and there is a long explanation on the internet) the actual car that 1930s outlaws “Bonnie and Clyde” were shot to death in is on display in the middle of the casino floor at Whiskey Pete’s.
Bonnie and Clyde were finally cornered and killed in Louisiana in 1934. The recently-released film “The Highwaymen” staring Kevin Costner tells the story leading up to the violent end of the couple. The movie is worth a watch and it helps to explain just why there are so many bullet holes in the car.
My “diversion” was finally over and I headed back to the Freeway. From Primm it would be around 45 miles on to Las Vegas or around 235 miles back to Los Angeles.
I can certainly recommend the Mojave National Preserve and I hope to explore it more in the future. Certainly, Kelso Dunes and Cima Dome both warrant a little more investigating.
A rough sketch map with my travels marked in yellow.