the rise and fall of roadside amenities (Desert Center and Chiriaco Summit, CA)
Though we’ve tried a number of times, we’ve never been able to crack it. The drive along Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to California’s border with Arizona is going to require a stop for gas! There’s just no doubt about it. Of course, you can always stop in Palm Springs for a little top-off, but we figure any side-trip here will add at least a few hours onto your journey. Instead, we suggest battling it out to the very center of the Colorado Desert to check out the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em roadside destinations of Desert Center and Chiriaco Summit.
With Blythe, CA still a good 70-80 miles away at this location, it’s no surprise that inspired entrepreneurs throughout the years have initiated posts along the way in hopes of satisfying empty tanks - and stomachs - and filling their pocketbooks at the same time. One of these visionaries was Steve Ragsdale, who after a previous visit to the area stranded his vehicle, debuted his “Desert Center” outfit in 1921. The peculiar character, later dubbed “Desert Steve,” figured the spot as good as any to rescue future motorists, and his gamble paid off - at least for a few decades - thanks in part to some rather clever advertisements in local papers and magazines. One of these promised “free room and board” to any weary traveler visiting Desert Center on a day when the sun isn’t shining! (That’s virtually impossible in this wide-open, arid landscape.)
Desert Center continued to flourish with the WWII-era addition of the Kaiser Mine. The iron-ore operation was located at Eagle Mountain about 13 miles away, and brought a number of laborers to the community. Their only complaint? Sometime preacher “Desert Steve” would not allow the sale of alcohol within his township!
Some years later, it was out in this rugged terrain where Polish-American philosopher, and UFOlogist, George Adamski spotted flying saucers above the Colorado Desert floor. His stories of a 1952 interaction with a “Nordic-looking” alien named Ortolan were widely distributed, and later augmented with photographs of saucers that were hotly-debated. While many considered Adamski’s images as nothing more than an elaborate hoax, others, even some Hollywood Special Effects experts, believed them to be true. No matter what you may believe, the mysterious nature of Desert Center continues to live on even today.
After an infidelity scandal sent “Desert Steve” into the hills (where he died in 1971), his son Stanley took over both his father’s real estate holdings - and eccentricities. While the unavailability of booze continued to be an Achilles Heel for the township, it was the 1980s closing of the Kaiser Mine that really gave Desert Center its hardest blow. In hopes of attracting more visitors (and aliens?) to the fading community, Stanley planted a number of palm trees in oddball arrangements at the side of Interstate 10. Sadly, Stanley’s “Tree-Ring Circus” was short-lived. When he passed away in 1999, the trees were left with no caretaker, and soon fell into a state of disarray and rot.
Aside from the dozens of haunting palm trunks that jut out at awkward intervals, all that’s left today in town is an assemblage of derelict gas pumps, ramshackle buildings, and the somewhat charming “Desert Center Family Cafe.” The latter offers a look back at the roadside pit stop’s enigmatic history, but charges a few bucks if you’re stopping by solely for a whiz. Set of Drifters tip: Stop in Desert Center for the spacey wabi-sabi vibe, not the coffee!
Now, keep in mind, if you’ve come to Desert Center to fill your gas tank, we can’t promise you the “24 Hour” service station just off the road will even be open! (It hasn’t been the last few times we’ve visited.) What we can promise you is that the bathroom will be sufficiently wretched! A better option would be to stop at Chiriaco Summit, a similar “desert oasis” located about 27 miles west.
Like Desert Center, Chiriaco Summit pays homage to the Colorado Desert’s connection to World War II. (It is here where General Patton trained soldiers on terrain he likened to the North African country of Tunisia. From our experience, Patton was not that far off the mark.) Tanks and other military muscle litter the entrance to the General Patton Memorial Museum at the edge of town.
What makes Chiriaco Summit quite different from Desert Center is that it has modernized itself with the times. Though tiny by comparison, the community offers a fully-functioning cafe, as well as a handful of well-known gas stations and fast-food grease pits. Though we believe the once-quaint landmark has grown a bit too unwieldy as of late - whatever happened to the antiques on sale at the cafe’s gift shop? - at least you’ll be able to relieve yourself without doing it over someone else’s pile!
Set of Drifters tip: Are you a movie buff? Desert Center’s rocky outback can be seen both as the backdrop in Terminator II and the more recent War of the Worlds remake.
Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Desert Center - accessible off of Rice Road, Exit #192 on I-10 (49 miles east of Indio; look for signs for Lake Tamarisk)
Chiriaco Summit Desert Oasis - accessible off of Exit #173 on I-10 (30 miles east of Indio), (760) 227-3227, http://www.chiriacosummit.com/
making the most of Interstate 15
Arriving to, or leaving, Las Vegas via car really drives home the fact that this town is an oasis of flashy entertainment placed smack dab in the middle of a vast desert wasteland. If you make your way from Los Angeles, there isn’t much to see until hit Interstate 15. Like all good American highways that lead you directly to some tourist destination, the 15 has its share of quirky things to watch out for en route to “Sin City.”
Aside from some rather picturesque scenery, including a salt flat and a proliferation of Joshua trees, your first “Must-See” is the infamous monolithic Bun Boy thermometer in Baker, California. For years, this marker has likely bore the brunt of many a joke, though sadly, the adjacent restaurant, and its delicious burgers and shakes, are no more. Still, the sign remains as a great conversation piece to tweet about during your final leg through California.
Not too much further down the road, a vast shining field of what looks like water will appear on your left. This is Ivanpah, one of the largest solar projects anywhere, spanning five square miles, and of this writing, consisting of three massive towers as tall as a 40-story building! Surrounding these are about 350,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, all reflecting sunlight that drives Ivanpah’s super power generator
We hear nearby birds are not too pleased with the change. Still, just think of the power generated from here on any given day! It’s a blazing out here.
Now if you need to pee, or want to gas up your car before arriving to Vegas, a good stop-off point is Stateline Service station accessible via the Cima Road exit near Nipton. Inside, there are cheesy souvenirs galore stacked alongside hot coffee and snacks both healthy and not. Set of Drifters tip (for the men): Make sure you hit the urinal - or rather the rock wall waterfall that would make Alex and Phyllis Madonna very proud.
We love the giant Food/ Gas signage out front almost as much as the trio of animatronic miners who pan for gold roadside sharing tales of Nipton’s mining past. If you have kids in tow, they will love this pit stop, and it won’t even cost you anything extra.
If you miss Nipton, chances are you won’t be able to miss Primm, Nevada’s border town that welcomes would-be gamblers too ravenous to wait ‘til Vegas. While Primm boasts oversized hotels and casinos, even a roller coaster, the vibe is nowhere near as glitzy as that of The Strip. So if you’ve come to do something raunchy that will “stay in Vegas,” keep on truckin’ another hour to your final destination.
Set of Drifters tip: Looking for a fun place to grab a simple bite? Check out Peggy Sue’s 50s-inspired diner located about halfway near the town of Yermo. For more information, see “eats."
Bun Boy (closed) - 72155 Baker Boulevard, Baker, CA 92364
Ivanpah Solar Power Facility - Ivanpah, CA (about 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas along Interstate 15)
Stateline Service - 65845 Cima Road, Nipton, CA 92364, (760) 856-2339
Primm - at the border of California and Nevada (about one hour from Las Vegas) on Interstate 15
Peggy Sue's 50’s Diner - 35654 West Yermo Road, Yermo, CA 92398, (760) 254-3370,
driving up to Idyllwild
Cozying up to a warm fire in a cabin out in the middle of the forest wilderness? Hiking through Alpine-esque terrain to check out rare flora and fauna? Thrifting for rare music and vintage duds? We love all of these things, and thus, we love Idyllwild, CA. There’s only one problem! You have to get there first.
At a whopping 10,833 ft., San Jacinto, the mountain range that cradles Idyllwild (and nearby Pine Cove), is massive. Yep, this is the same rocky behemoth that you see jutting up behind Palm Springs on your way out east from Los Angeles. One way to master the grand ascent is naturally via Palm Springs’ Aerial Tramway. But what happens when you get to the top? You’ll likely have to hike it the rest of the way since you left your car back down at ground level!
Yep, the only real way to get to Idyllwild is by driving Highway 243, the steep, winding road that, from its start in Banning, loops its way through the San Jacinto Wilderness. Along the way, picturesque views out into the San Gorgonio pass are topped only by pretty-as-a-postcard Lake Fulmore and breathtaking Indian Vista. Even if you do not have to stretch your legs just yet, make a point to do so at each of these vantage points.
Most Angelenos reach Idyllwild using this exact route, though if you have more flexibility with your time, we recommend switching up either your arriving or departing trip with what we’ll call “the back way.” Combining the short end of 243 to where it meets up with Highway 74, this route felt even more scenic than the first, with countless grand vistas emptying out onto some rather oddball landscapes. (The region is well-known for its unique blend of desert and alpine topography/ vegetation.) One downside the “back way” is a slowdown through Hemet, a rather populated desert town that has its good and bad patches.
Either way, if on the way to Idyllwild, keep your camera at the ready. You are bound to be stunned by beauty at every stomach-churning turn. Set of Drifters tip: Have problems with mountainous switchbacks, blind curves and severe panoramic drop-offs? What are you doing here in the first place? No seriously, bring a blindfold. You’re gonna need it.
Lake Fulmore - about 15 miles from Banning (or 10 miles from Idyllwild) on Highway 243, San Bernardino National Forest, CA 92220, http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sbnf/recarea/?recid=26467
Indian Vista Scenic Overlook - about 16 miles from Banning (or 9 miles from Idyllwild) on Highway 243, San Bernardino National Forest, CA 92220, http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sbnf/null/recarea/?recid=26515&actid=63
Brady’s Mini-Mart (Inyokern)
The trip to Death Valley National Park is a long and arduous one, seriously (see "sights"). At times, it may remind you of a multi-leg triathalon! So don’t make it harder than it needs to be! Get out and stretch your legs from time to time, especially before you make the final turn towards Death Valley at Olancha.
A good option that you may not want to pass up is Brady’s Mini-Mart! Not surprisingly, you can fill up your tank, use the loo (for a price), and grab whatever you need from the well-equipped store. It is the surrounding environs, however, that really put this place on the map... aside from the fact that it shares the same name as one of your “Set of Drifters!”
Expansive views almost seem to careen off the sides of Highway 395 around this area. If your friend is busy inside picking up road food (or a bad Country music cassette tape from 1991), spend a few minutes with your zoom lens to capture what California’s impressive natural landscape has on offer!
Set of Drifters tip: The ramshackle homes just beyond Brady’s are freaky. You can’t avoid them if you are taking photos of the ominous spacey mountain in the distance. Just try to make it obvious that you are photographing the rocks and not the lumpy people with three arms in front of them!
Brady’s Mini-Mart - 4467 North Highway 395 (near junction of Highway 14), Inyokern, CA 93527, (760) 377-4733