TRAVEL: Southern California – Mojave Desert

The first step I took into a real desert, I was nearly killed. Not by the heat, or dehydration, but by one of its deadly inhabitants. That may or may not be a lie. What’s definitely true is that I had underestimated the way of the desert.

We had driven over 130 miles away from the beautiful seaside town of Laguna Beach where we were staying and into the blazing heat of the Mojave Desert, all in search of an old ghost town that went by the name of Calico.

 

After a week staying in Laguna Beach exploring the seaside and surrounding towns, Jessie and I were quite keen to get away from the coast and see something different. As soon as the opportunity appeared before us, we decided we would take the car and head in the opposite direction to the West Coast, and drive inland for the day. After a bit of research, we found that heading inland would bring us to the Mojave Desert, which seemed perfect for us, but we couldn’t just head aimlessly into the desert – we’d need a real destination. Then we read something about an old ghost town called Calico.

View of Calico Ghost Town. Image it in sepia tones for greater historic accuracy.

Calico was a small silver mining town founded in 1881 in the Mojave Desert region of Southern California. Once prospectors opened the Silver King Mine, California’s biggest producer of silver in the mid-1880s, the town boomed to a population of 3,500 people, with hotels, general stores, bars, restaurants, brothels, and a school. In 1890, the value of silver began to drop dramatically and soon enough, the mines had to be shut down. Within the next ten years, Calico had become a ghost town, and was completely abandoned by 1907. In 1951, Walter Knott, founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, purchased the town and began restoring it to its former silver rush era appearance using old photographs as references. In 1966, Knott donated the town to San Bernardino County, and the town became a County Regional Park, along with a tourist attraction. This seemed like a good destination for our trip into the Mojave Desert.

Soon enough, we were in a sporty Mazda rental car and headed out away from the palm trees and towards the desert. Not far into our journey we noticed cars ahead of us swerving out to the right, and suddenly we came across our very first sighting of tumbleweed. Now this wasn’t your standard basketball-sized tumbleweed – this tumbleweed was a dried up old bush almost the height of our car bouncing casually along the road. We followed the bending line of cars before us and unfortunately missed the photo opportunity.

The Mojave Desert, as seen from the I-15 highway.

As we drove on, our surroundings became much less populated until all around us was nothing but dusty, rocky mountains and valleys, and the only plant life seemed to be green bushes with little yellow flowers. The temperature gauge in the car told us it was getting hotter outside, but lucky for us, we had the AC running.

A little further along, and we started nervously watching our depleting gas gauge and thinking we should probably get gas. The good thing was that we had enough to carry on a fair way, and there would surely be a gas station soon. The bad thing was that we were wrong. The GPS in our rental car didn’t tell us where gas was, so all we could do was carry on along the highway and hope to see a gas station near an exit ramp. We carried along, watching the gauge drop further when finally we found a gas station and veered off the highway to fill up. The lady inside asked me how many gallons I needed, and I said I didn’t know. She replied with “well how many gallons is the needle pointing to now?” and I told her that there was no needle, and that the car had a digital gauge. “A digital gauge?” she exclaimed, “wow! These fancy new cars these days!” Then she even called her co-worker over to tell him the news. After a bit of awkward small-talk, we were all filled up and back on the road. The desert hadn’t beaten us yet.

After just over two hours driving along I-15 (which happens to be a part of historic route 66), signs told us we were in the Mojave Desert area. The horizon was bare and stretched over hills for as far as we could see. However, soon we began to see more and more billboards and signs of life at the side of the road, and this upset me. This was not the barren desert I had in my mind’s eye. When we saw signs indicating we were nearing Calico, I noticed something else. There in the distance was a big lake as blue as the sky in the middle of a valley. What kind of desert has a big lake right in the middle of it?! However, as we got closer to the lake, it slowly began to recede, and when we got up on a hill we noticed the lake was actually just an empty valley. We had just seen our first real mirage.

How to find towns in the desert: Look for their names in the mountains.

We pulled off the highway and onto Ghost Town Road (I guess they didn’t have much hope for Calico even back then?), then we noticed high up on the mountain, written in white stone, was the word “CALICO”. We pulled over to the side of the road so I could take a photo, then I stepped out of the car and two things happened. Firstly, the heat hit me like a bad smell. Secondly, and more importantly, I heard something scurry right where I put my foot. My life flashed before my eyes as I instantly remembered that deserts are full of deadly, venomous creatures like snakes, spiders, and scorpions, and I had just made a grave mistake by setting forth into this land without checking first. It was only a single moment, but time slowed down as I waited for a swift sting on my ankle, after which I’d feel my blood turn cold and fall to the ground, turning white as I died… I looked down to where I heard the noise. It was a lizard, about the length of a standard dinner knife. I was going to live.

Main Street, Calico Ghost Town, USA.

After this happy news, I got back in the car and we each paid our $6 admission, parked up, and entered the Calico ghost town. Calico is made up mostly of one main street and a few extra attractions off to the sides. Immediately we noticed that the town was now customized for tourism, and not quite what it would have been in its glory days. On its main street, suitably named Main Street, you can find various stores, such as gift shops, hat shops, and Indian jewelry shops, along with a few restaurants and bars. A special mention must go out to the amazing Knott’s Berry Farm blackberry soda that they sell here – it is incredible, and I have been unable to find it anywhere since. They also have a few original buildings to explore, such as the Post Office, the Sheriff’s Office, and some lady’s old house. Off the main drag, you can find the old school (restored on the original foundations), along with a bunch of other old buildings including a house made of glass bottles.

Vintage train rides are always fun.

Once you’ve explored Main Street and the rest of the old buildings, there’s an informative train tour that goes around the old mine sites and tells you the history, and a mine walk where you enter one of the old mines to see the life of a Calico silver miner. You need to pay a few dollars for these but it’s worth it because if you go all the way out into the desert for this town, you may as well learn the history of the place, and besides, who doesn’t love a little train ride?

A big lizard basking in the sun shows me some chin.

There are also a few walks that take you around the perimeter of the town to see some old shacks built into the mountainside, which is perfect for exploring desert life – a lot of which is native to the Mojave Desert. While walking around this area, we came across two big lizards, and some very cute and very fast Mojave ground squirrels. However, if you’re going to walk around in the desert, you’re going to need a lot of cold beverages so at this point, we went back to the saloon bar for more blackberry soda.

Luckily, when you buy fountain beverages in Calico, they put in a lot of ice, so if you get a large size cup, you end up with a lot of ice cold water. The problem is that you drink that water way too fast. Walking around in the heat of the Mojave Desert didn’t feel as unbearable as I expected – it was very hot but it was a dry heat. It felt like my skin was heating up but without the humidity you don’t really sweat. However, I found that despite being underwhelmed by the heat (I thought I would be crawling along the ground struggling to breathe), every time I took a drink of water, it was difficult to stop. Before I knew it, my giant cup was empty and I’d need to get a refill.

The car thermometer - proof of the desert's heat.

After spending the day wandering about in the sun, we went back to the car to head back to Laguna Beach. When we turned the car on, the thermometer read 109 degrees Fahrenheit, or almost 43 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, ghost towns as a tourist attraction are quite difficult to get right. It seems that most ghost towns in America are either in complete ruins, so they don’t gain a lot of interest, or have been restored to a sparkling tourist attraction, and in the case of Calico, you can’t help but be weary of how perfect most of it looks. You go to this ghost town hoping to see an old Western town the way it was just as it was abandoned, but when you see that these old buildings are active gift shops, selling old western themed knick-knacks, it doesn’t feel very authentic. Indeed, it does have some small original buildings, but after noticing all the modern conveniences added in, you wonder if you would get a better idea from staring at crumbled ruins. On the positive side, there are lots of plaques around to explain the history of the buildings, and it is interesting to see the buildings in their original surroundings.

This scene probably didn't exist in the original town plan.

Lucky for us, we weren’t heading out to Calico for the history. We were there to see something fun in the Mojave Desert and that is exactly what we got. We’d had our first taste of a real desert, and got to learn some stuff about silver mining in the old West, plus we got to explore an old mine and ride an old train. Then on the way home, to celebration surviving our desert trip, we stopped at Chili’s Bar and Grill and had southwestern eggrolls and ribs, and that is an amazing experience in itself.

 

 


Background:

We made this trip from Laguna Beach to Calico on the 5th of May, 2011. For more information, check out the Calico website.


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2 thoughts on “TRAVEL: Southern California – Mojave Desert

  1. Sue

    Wow, sounds an awesome trip. But just as well you haven’t told me about all your near death experiences……I would be freaked!!

    Reply
  2. Kim Glen

    “Unfortunately, ghost towns as a tourist attraction are quite difficult to get right.”

    You make a good point. If it’s too “authentic,” where are you going to get your blueberry soda and some relief from the heat? If it’s too “commercial” you lose out on something.

    Reply

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