Our first stop was the Oasis Of Mara Visitor Center, the north central section of Joshua Tree, just off California Rt. 62, about one hour from Palm Springs. An oasis is defined as an area made fertile by a source of freshwater in an otherwise dry and arid region.
People have lived in this area since humans reached the North American continent. The Indians were here not just for the water source but also for the useful plants growing here. They used honey mesquite and fan palm for food, firewood and building materials. The habitat sustained small game. The Serrano, the first recorded tribe to live here, called this place Mar-rah, meaning “little springs and much grass”. They used the water to cultivate corn, beans, pumpkins and squash.
Gold-hunters, cattlemen and homesteaders displaced the Indians. As the population of the area grew the water was depleted. By 1940 the National Park Service had to pipe in water to provide for the plants and animals living here.
The Visitor’s Center was following a strict COVID protocol and would only let a dozen or so people in at the time. I was able to get in and out in a hurry, picking up my Joshua Tree lapel pin and several postcards.
We were only in Joshua Tree National Park for about 6 hours total. There were so many things I would like to have seen: Indian Cove Nature Trail, Fortynine Palms Oasis, Key’s Ranch (ranger led), Geology Tour Road, Hall of Horrors, Cholla Cactus Garden and Ocotillo Patch. I think I’ll need about 5 days to see all that if I get to come back. People from the area come over and over again to enjoy this National Park. Joshua Tree NP is contemplating establishing some form of crowd control, such as timed entrances, during peak times of the year, because traffic backs up onto the local highways and roads.
After leaving Joshua Tree NP we took California 62 east to a local road that ran past Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and then went north. On that side road we passed several places where salt mining was being done (below). This is very different from the salt mining under Lake Erie.
Bronze plaque above reads: “Amboy and Roy’s Café – Amboy, settled as early as 1858, became a water stop when the Southern-Pacific Railroad laid its tracks through the Cadiz Valley in 1883-84. Following the course of the railroad and the National Old Trails Highway, Route 66 was opened in 1926. Amboy soon saw heavy traffic along the “Mother Road” as flivvers, dust bowl immigrants, soldiers and vacationers made their way through the Mojave Desert. Facilities included a café, service station, school, motel and post office. Water was hauled by rail from Newberry Springs, 50 miles to the west.
Roy’s has served travelers along Route 66 from the beginning. Opened by Roy Crowl and later operated by Roy’s son-in-law, Buster Furris. Roy’s has provided hot food and a cold drink, and gasoline to many a weary sojourner. Motorists could spend the night at the motel while vehicles of all types were serviced at the garage. Even after Interstate 40 bypassed the town in 1973, Roy’s has served as a welcome oasis in a lonely stretch of desert.”
Our lunch stop was at an old train station in Kelso, California. It is a now part of the National Park System. We were stopped by a train that was sitting on the tracks. We could see the station and the picnic area just beyond the train but couldn’t go on until it moved. Our guide began passing out the sack lunches – guess it – turkey sandwich, apple, chips and cookie. By the time we got all our sandwiches the train backed off the crossing onto a siding and another train passed, then the other proceeded on and cleared the crossing. It was about 40 degrees and windy so most of us finished lunch in the bus and then walked around the area of the train yard.
The first depot opened in Kelso in 1905.This current Kelso Depot was built in 1924 and included a ticket and telegraph office, restaurant, reading room, dormitory rooms for railroad crewman, conductor’s room, billiard room, baggage room and a locker room. The Union Pacific was trying to compete with the Harvey Houses of the Santa Fe train company.
Why did the Union Pacific put a railroad depot in Kelso, California? The steep grade (2%) from Kelso to Kessler Summit meant that “helper engines” would be needed to assist the locomotives up the 2,078 foot ascent. The steam trains also needed a lot of water. Kelso had a reliable water source from a spring in the nearby mountains.
A five stall roundhouse was built in 1922 for the “helper engines”. As the railroad moved away from the steam engines to diesel engines the “helper engines” were not needed nor was a large quantity of water. The round house was demolished in 1948.
Kelso’s heyday were the 1940’s through the 50’s. During World War II troops, tanks and trucks passed through Kelso on the trains and iron ore was shipped out from the local mines. The population of Kelso grew to almost 2000.
The temporary jail (shown above) was used by Kelso law enforcement to temporarily (a day or two) hold offenders from the mid-1940’s to 1985. Most occupants would have been drunks from the local Vulcan Mine or Union Pacific employees. The jail was actually west of the depot “on the far side of Kelbarker Street”. The jail was torn down in 1985 but the cement pad foundation is still in place. Someone took the jail and kept it in their backyard until 2005 when it was donated to the National Park Service.
The Union Pacific closed the Kelso Depot in 1985 and had plans to raze it. Local residents, activists and politicians rallied to save the building but once they were able to get the demolition stopped they found it was too expensive to do the renovation that needed to be done. In 1994 the National Park Service had title to the building. Renovation began in 2002 and it was opened to the public as the primary visitor’s center for the Mojave National Preserve in October 2005. Unfortunately, the Visitor’s Center was closed so we only were able to look in the windows.
Although it was not a stop, we passed the world’s largest thermometer in Baker, California just off I-15. It stands 134 feet tall and is capable of measuring the temperature up to 134 degrees F. The record high temperature was set in nearby Death Valley on July 10, 1913. That temperature was 134 degrees F.
Baker businessman, Willis Herron, had the thermometer built for $750,000 in 1991 to draw attention to his Bun Boy restaurant next door. But it was blown down by high winds in 1992, before it was ever officially lit. It was reconstructed in 1992 and has been standing ever since. Mr. Herron sold the restaurant and the thermometer and the property changed hands several more times. In September 2012 the then owner had the thermometer turned off when the bill to operate it broke $8000/month. There was talk of tearing it down.
Mr. Herron’s widow wouldn’t hear of that and used her savings to have it restored to its former glory. It underwent major renovation and was relit in 2014. You can see it was registering 57 degrees when we passed it.
Just before we entered Death Valley National Park on Old State Highway 127 we stopped at the village of Shoshone, California. It had a gas station/convenience store we could use for a potty break. Also there was a restaurant/bar (the Crowbar) that looked interesting and a small museum displaying artifacts from the area over the past 150 or so years. It was definitely worth a stop. They only ask for a donation. Mammoth bones from Lake Tecopa were also on display in this remodeled old gas station. The museum had a nice selection of books on the area to purchase.
Shoshone has an inn that may be a good place to stay if you need to avoid the $400 and up rooms at the Xanterrra hotels in the park. There is also a campground. It may be competitive with the National Park campgrounds. It would be about an hour to get to the Visitor Center in the center of Death Valley National Park.