WINDMILLS, A VOLCANO AND ROUTE 66
Ok, to start with, this isn’t really so much a photography story as a travelogue. In my world, travel and photography go hand in hand. I love to explore new places and record what I find. It keeps the memories intact. But this trip is not a new experience for me as I’ve traveled this road dozens of times over the past 20 years. Oh, and most of these photos were taken through a car window.
This story is about the route from Las Vegas to Palm Springs and back. It doesn’t involve many interstates, but it does include the back roads of the Mojave desert. In fact, I haven’t ever taken the freeway between these two points. The first trip was gonzo tour involving a rented red Cadillac, sand dunes and hitchhikers. I’m still not sure that I survived it. But enough about the past, let’s get on with the tour.
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First things first – here’s a look at the route (map on right). According to Google Maps, it’s a 230 mile, 4-1/4 hour trip. Plan on it really taking about 3-1/2 hours. I’m going to start the journey in Palm Springs. This is where my Mom lives and that’s why I’ve driven this route so many times. Start by getting out of town onto Interstate 10 for about 3-4 miles. This will take you past 4000 windmills that provide power for the area.
The windmills are an amazing site. I see them get transported when I’m back home and it’s only when you pass one on the highway can you appreciate their size.
After driving past the wind turbines, you’ll turn off of the interstate and start heading up Highway 62. This road takes you from Highway 10 to 29 Palms in the first leg of the tour. This stretch of traffic and stop signs will make you appreciate the freedom of desert driving when you get there. Highway 62 is highlighted by… well, nothing. Sure there are some quirky shops and businesses, but for the traveler it’s mostly the fast food chains and gas stations that catch the eye. This is also your last chance to pick up water and food before you hit Nevada.
Watch your speed along here – it changes about every 3 miles from a high of 65mph down to 35mph. It’s easy to want to blast through this area, but don’t. Highway Patrol will find you, if they’re not already stopped dealing with someone else. Starting at Morongo Valley, you’ll head through Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and finally 29 Palms. If you have extra time, you can check out the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a great trip through desert scenes, rock formations and of course, Joshua Trees. The area is also very popular with rock climbers. You can also take your RV there and stay a while!
Morongo Valley to 29 Palms is a 32 mile stretch. Possibly the longest 32 miles you will ever drive. Here in Nebraska I drive 30 miles for groceries and it flies by, not so on Hwy 62. But in the end you will arrive in 29 Palms, known mostly for the massive Marine Base just outside of town. This desert town is also known an “Oasis of Murals”.
29 Palms has a lot of world class murals that are visible from the road as you drive through town. They’re a great distraction from the infinite tattoo shops and ‘Marine Haircut’ barber shops. This is last stop before the desert.
The next leg of the journey takes you from 29 Palms to Amboy. You’ll start driving out towards Wonder Valley and watch the buildings get sparser as you drive. Wonder Valley is an interesting collection of homes and businesses from the geodesic dome house to the pyramid sales store. You’ll see homesteader shacks that have been turned into fine homes or left to the desert. The homesteader shacks were built in the 30’s so that people could get a 5 acre parcel of land from the government. I’ve never met anyone from Wonder Valley, but I imagine that this painted cactus explains a lot about them.
As you drive through this area, think about the guts that it took to homestead this land in the 1930’s.
Leaving Wonder Valley, you’ll be climbing up into the Sheep Hole Mountains (please don’t ask how they got that name) and then back down into a dry lake bed. Enjoy the view and easy, traffic-free drive.
Descending into the dry lake bed, you’ll be able to see some things out in the distance. Look for the town of Amboy, maybe a train or two and to the west, you’ll see the Amboy Crater. If you have time, you can drive up to the crater and hike into the dome. Don’t worry, the scientists ‘think’ that it’s dormant.
Now that you’re closer to Amboy, you’ll be on the dry lake bed. Today it is used for mining Chloride thanks to the high salt content that the lake once had. On the left of the road, you might see a short canal filled with water that is used to soak the salt out of the ground. You’ll either find this really cool and stop for photos or just keep driving. Personally I think it’s cool and I always look for the bright turquoise water in the middle of nowhere. Note: Don’t drink the water; it’s REALLY salty.
As you cruise past the dry lake bed , turn right and go over the railroad tracks. This will take you on the former Route 66 and into downtown Amboy. Amboy is a neat little town (ok, it’s actually a gas station) that shrank when Interstate 40 was built. These days there isn’t much to see, but there the “Roy’s Motel and Cafe” sign that stands of a reminder of better days. There is an effort to restore the area to its former glory so stop in and buy a shirt or something to support the cause.
After you’ve explored the sights of Amboy, motor along Route 66 for a little and then make a left up towards Kelso. Once again you’ll be climbing up past the mountains. You’ll see some mines along the way as you get closer to passing under I-40. Quick note: this is not the area to be speeding. Highway Patrol will leave the interstate and patrol this stretch on both sides. I found this out the hard way. A few times.
As you pass under the interstate you’ll enter the Mojave National Preserve and see more beautiful desert scenery. Towards the peak of the road you’ll see some interesting rock formations. This is nice area to stop for some desert photo ops. Careful where you pull off though, this is also the only part of the trip with curvy roads.
Another thing to look for is the changes in the desert as you rise and fall in elevation. The plants change, the formation of the hills change and throughout this whole drive you’ll see a wide range of desert ecosystems. Also, always be on the lookout for desert tortoises.
Once again you’ll be driving down past the Kelso Dunes and into a dry lake bed. There’s a road that will take you to the Kelso Dunes if you want to explore this area. Kelso is a former railway stop (thanks to its water supply) and is now a great visitor center and cafe. This is a perfect place to stop and stretch your legs. Here’s a tip, if the visitors center is open, use the restrooms in the basement and not the outdoor ones in the parking lot. Additionally, the basement usually has a photo exhibit that is worth checking out. The cafe is now open (check for the latest hours) and you’ll also find some great information about the desert inside the visitor center.
During the past 20 years it has been interesting to see the transformation of the depot from shuttered relic to today’s vibrant center. Stop and explore and get ready for the next leg of the journey.
Leave Kelso and head towards Cima on the aptly named Kelso-Cima Rd. This 18 mile stretch doesn’t offer the best scenery, but it can be a blast to drive in a rental car. Why? One word: dips. When it rains in the desert there is no place for the water to go, so you get a flash flood. To help the water run its course, roads will dip down into a small valley. Usually these are dry and clean. If they are flooded, you won’t be driving through them. Most of the time they are dry and sand free. By the way, did I mention to check the weather before driving this route?
Ok, not that I would ever recommend that you get airborne in a rental car, but if you ever wanted to, this would be the road to do it on. You’ll also find out how easy it is to bottom out as you land in a dip.
Here’s my guideline for approaching dips (at the posted speed limit of course): Check to see how much road damage there is at the bottom of the dip. The more you see, the more cars that have bottomed out there. You might want to slow down a little for these areas.
Now that you’ve had your fun, continue on to Cima. From what I can tell, Cima is a post office. I’m sure it was once a nice small desert town, but like the others it has fallen on hard times. You’ll leave Cima and head down the Morning Star Mine Road. This leads into a forest of Joshua trees. Once again, you’re in a new ecosystem. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve learned that the desert is not just one boring landscape of sand and cactus.
As you head out on this road, keep in mind that this is the least maintained road on the trip. Watch for potholes and other patches. This road used to have the added bonus of free range cattle, but I haven’t seen any for a long time.
A couple of more turns will get you towards I-15. You’ll turn on to Ivanpah Road and finally onto Nipton Rd. Cima to I-15 is about another 22 miles. Enjoy your last bit of open road driving before you join the idiot drivers heading to Vegas.
Stop at the on ramp and check out the new solar power station on the hills across the freeway. Also from the top of this hill you can see the town of Primm on the Nevada-California border and Jean in the distance. Take a deep breath and merge into the freeway traffic. Depending on the time and day this can either be a relaxing or hellish drive. Weekday afternoons are great, while Friday evening will put you into the Las Vegas Gran Prix. Primm to Vegas is about 38 miles.
From here, the rest of the drive is just your standard freeway traffic with some idiots thrown in to keep you awake. If you want one last shot of desert air, pull off at the Jean exit and drive up to Goodsprings. This old mining town is home to the wonderful Pioneer Saloon. Have a cold one, you’ve earned it.
If you have driven this road before and have some other ideas for stops along the way, please add your comment below. You can also ask questions in the comments section as well and I’ll try to answer them.
Thanks for reading.
Important Disclaimer: This road is isolated and provides little to no service. Weather can be a huge factor to making it through. Always drive safe, obey road signs local laws. Top up your gas tank before leaving. Bring extra water and something to eat. Cell service is not available for most of the trip. The usual desert hazards apply here: Extremely high, dry heat, scorpions, rattlesnakes & big nasty rabbits. If there has been heavy rain the day before your trip, the roads could be flooded. Check online for road conditions, plan another route, or just go for it. I’ve only been turned away once and that was after a local storm at 29 Palms.