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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.