Where I Ditch The Airplane for a Drive Through the Desert (Trip Report)

Trip Reports

I realize this is about as far from a normal trip report as I’ve written, but it’s what led me to drive on this trip that makes at least part of this post relevant. Poor service options from Palm Springs meant there was no perfect solution, but extremely low fares allowed me to hedge my bets and make a game time decision. The part about the drive itself? That was just really cool.

Joshua Trees

When I decided to go to the Boyd conference in Vegas, I knew I’d be spending the weekend prior in Palm Springs. Since the old United Express Brasilias had long ago ditched that route, my choices were to connect via LA or Phoenix, drive back home and fly nonstop, or drive the whole way. It was hard to really plan this, since I wasn’t completely sure about my exact schedule, and that’s when I decided to just buy some insurance.

JetBlue was selling a ticket on Sunday afternoon to Vegas from Long Beach for only $40.10. And though JetBlue’s last flight home was too early for me (it’s oddly at 251p now), I was able to get a British Airways award ticket on American for 4,500 miles and $5.60. I could cancel the BA ticket until 24 hours out and still get the miles back in my account, though I’d forfeit the taxes. That meant I could either fly or drive and lose a mere $45.70. That was a good deal.

As the trip approached, my wife ended up having to fly that same day to Washington, DC for work. This added another wrinkle, but once we found her a good flight on US Airways from Palm Springs via Phoenix to DC, that sealed my fate. It would actually cost me more in parking, cabs, etc to fly than it would to drive. And I knew I’d leave early enough on the way out that I’d get to Vegas before my flight would have even departed.

What I didn’t quite realize is that the drive from Palm Springs to Vegas is just as long as it is from the LA area, if not longer. While you can backtrack and take Interstate 15 up like everyone in LA does, it would actually save me a couple minutes to drive through the middle of the Mojave Desert. I am so glad I did.

After dropping my wife off at Palm Springs Airport, I had to get out of the Coachella Valley. To do that, I backtracked west a bit and then headed north on California 62 through a pass in the Little San Bernardino Mountains. I passed through Morongo Valley and then began the impressive climb over a hill and down into the much larger Yucca Valley.

I had been here once before when I visited Joshua Tree National Park, and I wasn’t interested in staying very long this time around. Once I made it to Twentynine Palms (home of a big Marine base), I hopped on to Amboy Road and the real adventure began.

Amboy Road is named after the tiny town that is a 50 mile drive to the northeast. The drive begins on the fringes of Twentynine Palms. I love desert scenery, and out here it seemed to go on forever. I was surprised at the number of ranches that dotted the road as I continued heading east. There was a little church and a small cafe as well. As we reached the end of the valley, the ground started climbing up toward the Sheep Hole Mountains. Once I passed over, the terrain shifted dramatically.

On the north side of the Sheep Hole Mountains lies an enormous dry lake, Bristol Lake, in fact. From afar, it looks like there is no life down there, especially compared to the relatively lush desert I had just left. The long and slow descent into the bottom of the lake revealed that there was plant life. It was just small and close to the ground.

Descending into Bristol Dry Lake Bed

It wasn’t long before I reached the remains of the town of Amboy. Amboy lies on the Mother Road, Route 66, and used to be a happening place. While the trains still roll through (as did this one below, stopping me for a few minutes), not much else does. It’s said Amboy has 4 residents these days, and presumably they’re all working on Roy’s Cafe. I couldn’t tell if it was open, but I didn’t stop to investigate.

Train Rolls Through Amboy

In Amboy, I hopped on the old Route 66, part of the National Old Trails Road. But just a few miles east, the road is closed, blocked by a few lonely traffic cones. Traffic is diverted on to Kelbaker Rd, which is fortunately where I wanted to be anyway.

Kelbaker Road climbs north through the desert until it reaches a crossing of Interstate 40. After passing underneath, I entered the awe-inspiring Mojave National Preserve. The road wound through the desert, passing some incredible rock formations. There were so few cars out here, it was surreal.

Mojave Desert

Off in the instance, I saw a couple of structures. After some twists and turns, I ended up right at their feet in the town of Kelso. Though I wasn’t compelled to stop in Amboy, I couldn’t resist a stop in Kelso. There’s not much to the town other than a couple things that still support the railroad… and one big beautiful California Mission Revival-style train station.

Kelso Junction

Kelso was an important place for the railroad, because trains had to begin to climb the Cima Grade right after passing through. Early engines weren’t strong enough, so they housed “helper” engines in Kelso to give the trains the extra push they’d need to move on. That meant a fair number of people lived in Kelso, and the station was built with the top floor full of bunks to house them. The station shut down in the 1980s, but passionate individuals stepped in to save the structure from demolition. Today it’s a visitor center for the National Park Service.

Kelso Historical Train Schedules

When I left Kelso, I left Kelbaker Road and went on to Kelso Cima Rd. This road went north and paralleled the railroad over the Cima Grade all the way to the lifeless town of Cima itself. It was like riding a kids’ roller coaster with a bunch of small dips for a good 15 miles or so.

In Cima, I turned on to Morning Star Mine Road. It was here that I found the most lively part of the desert. There’s a different kind of Joshua tree dotting this land, one that’s taller and with more arms than the one most people know. The land here was thick with them.

Driving Among the Joshua Trees

I worked my way up past the Ivanpah Mountains and took a left on Ivanpah Road. From there, I enjoyed the sweeping view of the, you guessed it, Ivanpah Valley and Ivanpah Dry Lake. It’s funny that Ivanpah apparently loosely means “clear water” translated from a native language, because there was no water to be found.

After making a left on Nipton Rd, I knew my journey was coming to an end. In the distance I could see Interstate 15 carrying cars rapidly through the desert. Beyond that was the massive Ivanpah solar plant with its blinding mirrors.

When I finally joined Interstate 15 a mere 10 miles from the Nevada border town of Primm, my journey was basically done. In less than an hour I was back in civilization on the Strip.

I should note that on my return, I had booked a flight at 610p arriving LAX 731p. I was able to leave the conference at about 430p and after following Interstate 15, was back home around 815p. That’s probably about the same time I would have been home had I flown. I’m really glad I didn’t.

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28 comments on “Where I Ditch The Airplane for a Drive Through the Desert (Trip Report)

  1. I love this! I love just driving down roads to see where they go, but I’d be nervous doing it in the desert in summer!

  2. Took almost the same route a couple of years ago. We came off of I-10 and headed thru Joshua Tree, across the Mojave. In Kelso we took Kelbaker Road northwest to CA-127 and on to Death Valley.
    I have almost the same exact photo of the long straight road thru the Mojave.
    If you like the desert scenery this is a really nice drive.

  3. Great report, from a fellow roadtrip enthusiast! I drove part of that route back from Vegas to the Inland Empire over Thanksgiving weekend in 2006. I-15 was backed up something insane, literally all the way from the state line to Barstow, so I finally gave up at Cima Road and took that, to Kelso-Cima, to Kelbaker, to I-40 before turning west to Barstow and I-15. I would have gone the rest of the way to I-10, but it was already getting dark. One change I would have suggested would have been to first head east to Mecca, then head up 66th Avenue and Box Canyon Road up to I-10. As the name implies, you wind through a beautiful desert canyon before reaching the freeway, then you can cut through JTNP to Twentynine Palms and catch Amboy Road from there.

  4. Reading this excellent post makes me miss Huell Howser – just need to interview the few people that live there!

    Also Vegas to Long Beach in under four hours on a Sunday evening? Seems a bit of a good anomaly given the usual stories of 5-8 hour drives.

    1. James – My return wasn’t on a Sunday evening. I went to Vegas on Sunday but came back on Tuesday evening. No way would I make it that fast on a Sunday!

  5. Wonderful report. I’ve done this trip many times. Unlike anything remotely like where I grew up and I come back and visit time and time again.

    In our wonderful country, there are so many unbelievable places like this to see. Fly into somewhere, rent a car, drive out, see, stop, and learn, then back home again, where the world around us seems to be going nuts.

    Where I grew up, the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) county, is a place everyone ought to see one time or another. Fly into BWI, DC, PHL, even take a $29 EAS flight IAD to Lancaster, up near where you can see Camp David and sights of the Civil War. The plain-folks PA Dutch area, 300 years of history, makes you think. Why? How? Will it remain forever? While those big jets from all over the world fly over, here are people still going hither and yon in their horse-drawn buggies. Pragmatic, they are, with problems just like the rest of us, but still here!

    But, in fact, everyone of us has some marvelous places right near us that warrant a quick-see. Thanks to those big old, and little planes these places are there for us to see and learn, hopefully to make us figure out to get along with each other and make things just a little better.

  6. James, Huell Howser and California Gold, wonderful memory trigger, that was a great show, watched them all the time when I lived in SoCal.
    In Georgia we have Georgia Outdoors and Georgia Traveler on PBS, good shows but Huell was the best.

  7. I am glad you enjoyed your drive through the desert. I do have one concern to mention — water. Since there isn’t much water available, especially in uninhabited areas you should carry a few gallons of water in your trunk just in case of a breakdown when you drive through the desert (a few bottles of water or other non-alcoholic drink in the passenger compartment on ice would be nice as well). At desert temperatures dehydration takes place quickly, if you happen to break down with few people driving through the area and the lack of cell phone service in those areas you could sit along the road for a very long time. Some non-perishable food is advisable as well although not as important as water. A satellite phone would be advisable if you can afford it (Iridium satellite phones work anywhere except a few communist countries where the US government requires the service provider to block calls) but they cost $1500 and the prepaid minutes are extremely expensive as well.

  8. Back before 9/11, I used to prefer flying to Vegas. After 9/11, I stopped driving. Moving to Santa Barbara totally ended flying to Vegas.

    Between the cost of taxis, the craziness of LAS, the reduced schedules and inflexibility of flights, driving almost always takes about the same time and you’re on your own schedule.

  9. I’ve found that to get from LA to Vegas, taking the bus (either Luxbus or Megabus) beats both flying and driving yourself. No need to deal with TSA shenanigans, and you can enjoy the view while someone else is behind the wheel.

  10. You have probably already figured out that all the train dorks go to the Mojave to take photographs. Amboy and Kelso are just two noteworthy locations. For example, you probably passed by this location at the top of Cima Hill, east of Kelso.

    And here are some other examples.

  11. During the early ’70s, there were more than a few news stories about how Amboy was one of the few (if not the only) town in the country without television. It seems they couldn’t get the transmission over the hills from Los Angeles.

    In roughly 1976, someone figured out that it might be easier to bring in the signal from Phoenix; and that’s what happened.

    FYI, Amboy is on the BNSF main line (former Santa Fe) and Kelso is on the Union Pacific.

    1. That’s awesome, I just looked up this town and read all about the restoration. Do you have any links to these stories?

  12. We took that very same route some years ago as part of a grand tour of the West Coast and it was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. The wide open scenery is simply awesome. Then again, I really love the desert so that was really for me.

  13. Isn’t there some big airplane graveyard out in the dessert? If you have not been there and written about it before, I would think it would be a great place to photo and write about.


    1. There are two well known ones, Mojave in California and Marana/Pinal Air Park in Arizona. Mojave is west of the part of the desert that Cranky drove through on the way to Lost Wages.

  14. I think that many Potential passengers are going to drive for short distances rather than fly

  15. Sometimes these drives are a great experience in itself. I have driven on similar trips through the same desert. The scenery is great and visiting some of these old towns was really fun. I tried this many years ago when Route 66 was still a well traveled route. Freeways brought an end to that era, but it is still fun to see some of these old places. The roads may not be freeways, but there is not traffic and you can still travel at some higher speeds.

  16. What a great post. Thanks for sharing. I have a cousin who lives in Twentynine Palms. He says the town is dying, in his words, “they even closed the KFC.”

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