In the mythology of the modern West, Interstate 15 is one of the cold-hearted killers of the Mother Road, Route 66. With ruthless efficiency, I-15 hollowed out the small towns and fairground attractions of the hallowed midcentury highway. Today, though, I-15 across the Mojave Desert is a new kind of Mother Road for Las Vegans—our tether to the riches and inspirations of coastal California, and the road down which Californians carry their considerable treasures for deposit at the Bank of Vegas. In its own strange, radar-patrolled, truck-congested, occasionally gridlocked way, Interstate 15 is nothing short of life-giving. And, if you look closely enough and catch just the right exit, it’s as full of mystery and enchantment as its legendary predecessor. (Click on the treasure map above to expand.)
After turning off at the Jean exit and driving seven miles on a desolate road, the first sign of Goodsprings is a collection of weathered buildings on the right. Among them is the historic Pioneer Salon, built in 1913 (the centennial celebration is in October). If you’ve played Fallout: New Vegas, you’ll find the region familiar, although there’s no sign (yet) of Deathclaws or giant mantises.
B. Primm/State Line Lottery
Although the only access is from the Nevada side, the Primm Valley Lotto Store technically just manages to be in California.
C. Solar Power Plant
Those sci-fi silvery plates and blank towers just past state line aren’t from a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, and those plates are 170,000 computer-controlled “heliostats” that direct sunlight to boilers in the towers. Engineers had to deal with limited water, a remote location and the endangered desert tortoise. As with Hoover Dam, most of the electricity will benefit coastal California.
D. Joshua Trees, Teutonia Peak Trail and Mojave Cross
As the road heads into the densest field of Joshua trees in the world (yes, even denser than Joshua Tree National Park), you’ll encounter the Mojave Cross, a World War I memorial and a great example of the land conflicts in this region. The fence marking private land is the result of a 2010 Supreme Court case about the display of religious objects on public land. On the other side of Cima Road is a hike past rock formations to Teutonia Peak.
E. Roadside Angel
A tall microwave tower is the first sign that you’ve reached Cima, a Union Pacific settlement where helper trains from Kelso turned around. Notice the angel statue on the north side of Cima Road as you approach the intersection; at its base are offerings from travelers to and from Las Vegas.
F. Kelso Depot
Take the Kelso Cima Road and you’ll find a vintage 1924 train station in Spanish Mission Revival style. Stop to stretch, eat at the lunch counter and browse the museum. Also, check out the 1940s-era jail cells near the train tracks. Closed Wednesdays and Thursdays.
G. Kelso Dunes
A geologist’s dream, the 650-foot-high Kelso Dunes are worth hiking early or late in the day or in the moonlight; that’s when temperatures are low and light emphasizes the texture of the dunes. Sound also takes on a different, peaceful dimension at these unusual “acoustic dunes”: Voices are muffled by the sand, but you might hear booming sounds as the sand shifts.
This mysterious word has lured many a driver off of I-15 to Soda Lake. What was a health spa until the 1970s has been rebuilt as a desert research center managed by the California State University system. The site is officially closed to the public, and its manager warns off inconsiderate trespassers, but there’s a public area next to the main gate with restrooms and information for the curious.
J. Afton to Yermo
The flat area from I-15’s Afton Road exit to Yermo looks dry, but it’s the site of the ancient Lake Manix, filled by the Mojave River. About 18,000 years ago, the water drained into Soda Lake. Water sources remain underground, and there are periodic attempts to use them for business ventures such as the erstwhile Rock-A-Hoola water park, fishing ponds or agriculture. According to desert lore, the area was popular with bootleggers during Prohibition.
K. Lake Dolores/Rock-A-Hoola Water Park Ruins
With three names and four owners over the last 50 years, this water park in the middle of nowhere was plagued by bankruptcies, allegations of embezzlement and a tragedy that left a former employee paralyzed. The park—still remembered fondly by Mojave travelers—opened as Lake Dolores in 1962 and closed for good in 2004.
L. Calico Early Man Site
If you drive the two-mile rough road from I-15’s Minneola exit, you’ll find that most of the site is off limits to protect against looters. As in many desert locations, though, the real value is in talking with local experts: The popular Dig Weekends here are a great chance to learn, help out and socialize.
M. Yermo Agricultural Inspection Station
Sorry, motorists: Your brake-induced curses at Yermo’s Border Protection Station fall on deaf ears. California’s Food and Agricultural Department is committed to keeping the state’s $43 billion industry pest-free—and that means taking the time to check every vehicle for contraband plants that could be carrying tiny hitchhikers.
N. Original Del Taco
Now named Burger Den, this Yermo fast-food joint is the site of the first Del Taco, which opened in 1964 with 19-cent tacos and 24-cent cheeseburgers. 38484 Yermo Rd., (760) 254-3694.
P. Peggy Sueís 50ís Diner
This roadside diner in Yermo was built in 1954; its entrance resembles a giant Wurlitzer jukebox, and inside is a vast collection of kitschy pop-culture memorabilia. Don’t forget to visit the Diner-saur Park out back, where giant metal dinosaur statues surround a tree-lined pond with turtles and fish. 35654 Yermo Rd., (760) 254-3370, PeggySuesDiner.com.
Q. Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex at Fort Irwin
Remember those remarkable images of Mars from the Curiosity rover? We’re able to see them thanks to the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, about an hour from the Fort Irwin exit. It’s one of three dish locations in the world that the U.S. uses to communicate with robotic and manned spacecraft (the others are in Spain and Australia). Being in the remote Mojave means less radio interference and great reception. Tours by appointment: GDSCC.NASA.gov.
R. Skyline Drive-in
Seen a large animated image from I-15 as you drive through the eastern edge of Barstow? You’re catching a freebie from the Skyline Drive-In, one of the few remaining outdoor screens in Southern California. 31175 Old Highway 58, (760) 256-3333.
S. Barstow Harvey House
Constructed in 1911, this stately brick structure was one of the West’s foremost Harvey Houses, a chain of classy dining and lodging facilities that served workers and passengers along the Santa Fe rail line. Harvey House is now home to an Amtrak stop, a Route 66 Museum, the Western America Railroad Museum and the Barstow Chamber of Commerce. (The A-frame Bob’s Big Boy off the Lenwood exit several miles down the road was also once a Harvey House restaurant—albeit unaffiliated with this much older gem.) 685 N. First Ave., (760) 256-8617, BarstowHarveyHouse.com.
T. Victorville Sanitary Landfill
That mysterious white rectangular pyramid on the northwest side of I-15 is one of San Bernardino’s solid-waste landfills. It’s permitted to store agricultural, construction, industrial and biosolid wastes, along with dead animals. Good news: No recent EPA violations. 18600 Stoddard Wells Rd.
U. Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Memorial
The King of the Cowboys and his wife, Dale Evans, lived in Apple Valley prior to their deaths in 1998 and 2001, respectively. A museum dedicated to the couple opened in Victorville in 1967, and was moved to Branson, Missouri, in 2003 before closing in 2009. The couple is buried at Sunset Hills Memorial Park & Mortuary in Apple Valley. 24000 Waalew Rd., (760) 247-0155, SunsetHills.cc.
V. California Route 66 Museum
Opened in Victorville in 1995, the former Red Rooster Café (parts of The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond were filmed here) contains more than 4,500 square feet of historic photos and artifacts commemorating the Mother Road, including a 1917 Ford Model T, a 1940s telephone switchboard and the remnants of Hulaville, a junk-art bottle forest. 16825 S. D St., (760) 951-0436, CalifRt66Museum.org.
W. Summit Inn
This picturesque vintage 1952 diner adorns the top of Cajon Pass in Oak Hills, more than 4,000 feet above sea level. Featuring ostrich-egg omelets, and burgers of both the ostrich and conventional variety, this is your last taste of the Mojave before you descend toward coastal California. Don’t forget to play some old-time honky-tonk on the jukebox. 5970 Mariposa Rd., (760) 949-8688.