ROAD TRIP USA: LOS ANGELES to LAS VEGAS via MOJAVE DESERT BACKROADS
For tourists to the USA, one of the most often-traveled routes is Los Angeles to Las Vegas. We have seen it in countless movies, including The Hangover, Very Bad Things and Swingers. I have spoken to many international tourists who have made this drive. Almost always, they travel straight along Interstate 15, making the 4+ hour drive as fast as they can, seeing power lines, billboards and truck stops along the way.
However, if you take a full day and the initiative to push your car off the restrictions of the 4-lane Interstate and into the depths of the desert, you will find a rewarding journey filled with surreal desertscapes and highway ruins, exposing layers of forgotten Americana that few international travelers can experience in American cities. Additional time may allow for some exploration of Joshua Tree National Park, famous for its tormented yucca palm trees (no two alike) and unique cartoon-perfect boulder formations, and made famous by U2’s 1987 landmark album.
On my suggested backroute, you will see abandoned Route 66 towns, dry lakes, a damn volcano, a great oasis of a hotel to stop for a drink along the way, 100,000 twisted and knuckled palm trees reaching for the big blue sky and, finally, a sunset from atop a sand dune. Bring lots of film and plenty of water.
Between the expanse of Los Angeles and the gaudi neon temples of Las Vegas, there is a magnificent forgotten desert that few travelers are taking the time to see.
1. First, get the hell out of LA as soon as you can, as you’ve got a big day ahead of you and LA traffic is a liability for your time constraints. Take Interstate 10 east towards Phoenix. I don’t suggest exiting the Interstate until you reach Highway 62 north, just before Palm Springs.
Check here for up-to-date travel information before you head out from wherever you are in LA.
2. Upon exiting north on Highway 62, you’ll come by a collection of surreal wind turbines spinning away in front of the San Bernardino Mountains, making hydroelectric energy. Great photo opportunity; watch your head.
3. After about 20 miles to the northeast, you will get to the oddly famous town of Twentynine Palms:
A town legendary in popular music, perhaps for its unforgettable name, or perhaps for its metaphoric location, built near an oasis. Can you guess how many trees inhabit this oasis?
Sang about by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sublime and Robert Plant, you’ve probably heard about of this place on the radio. U2 stayed here at the Harmony Motel. It is rumored that, with many of the town’s streets lacking street signs and nomenclature, this town also inspired the lyrics of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
In addition to its musical history, there are two films that also carry the town’s name in their title:
Twentynine Palms, a bizarre French sexual-drama-horror film shot here; and
29 Palms, a direct-to-video, goatee-laden crime film about a bag of cash that I could never bring myself to watch
Today the town is a relatively nondescript hub of the Morengo basin. There is a heavy US military presence here, as a Marines base is located just north of town.
The one must-visit place here is the 29 Palms Inn:
4. Grab Lunch or a Cocktail at the historic 29 Palms Inn.
Built in the roaring 1920s, the 29 Palms Inn has an oasis-like atmosphere and an eternal, relaxed hipness. The bar makes great margaritas, so grab one and check out the pool. Remember, no more than one drink (preferably with a meal), as the US has strict drinking and driving laws. Live music nightly here.
5. Now is the time to decide whether you should drive into Joshua Tree National Park. It’s gorgeous, but remember- to get to Vegas, you have to come out the way you came in. So, don’t venture in too far if you do. There is still a lot of road ahead. Those that want to explore Joshua Tree Park should get a hotel in Twentynine Palms to allow for extra time and to really take in the desert stars.
Going back towards Las Vegas:
6. At Twentynine Palms, you’ll head north on Amboy Road. Be sure to not continue going east on 62. Ask directions, if you’re confused. Here, the drive gets lonely and vast as you ride through the starkness of the Mojave Desert. Watch for distant trains crawling their way across the desert as you go downhill towards the town of Amboy. Suggested listening: Ry Cooder, the Paris, Texas soundtrack.
7. 60 quick miles (100km) north of Twentynine Palms, you’ll hit the fascinating relic town of Amboy; great for snapping photos of American-style ruins. Like pyramids, Amboy is a relic of a past culture that has now evolved to outdate places like this.
Hard to believe, but fifty years ago, Amboy was home to over 700 actual, 20th Century human beings. Now it is an unincorporated town that is sometimes used as a movie set (particularly memorable in The Hitcher). Amboy was once an important stop along the world-famous Route 66. It was a happening oasis that would mark the final night of many cross-country trips before visitors would hit their destination city of Los Angeles the following day.
Today, there are approximately 8 residents (all male) and 10 surviving buildings. No, I don’t suggest you settle here and begin a new life. However, a photo opportunity in front of the eerie Roy’s Café is an absolute must on this road trip. I have one of my own and so should you.
Keep an eye in the sky for actor Harrison Ford, who frequently flies in (sans Chewbacca), utilizing one of California’s first-ever landing strips.
2.5 miles (4km) southwest of Amboy town, the “Crater” is an extinct volcano that is far from beautiful, but noteworthy for its mystery and intrigue. The crater of the volcano is estimated to be about 6,000 years old. You can use the Western Cone Trail to traverse up the cone. Yes, you can actually climb a volcano and feel good about yourself before playing the slot machines. Actually, the height is only about 250 feet above the desert plain, but you don’t have to tell this to your friends back home, just mention that you climbed a volcano and let them use their imagination.
OK, time to move on towards Vegas. Vegas, baby, Vegas:
8. In Amboy, go east on the National Trails Highway for approximately 3 miles before turning left (north) onto Kelbaker Road. Take this road north across Interstate 40 and into the parkland of Mojave National Preserve. Right in the heart of the Perserve is the awesome:
KELSO SAND DUNES
Hopefully, you can catch the sunset from atop one of the Kelso Sand Dunes. Some of these giant piles of sand reach as high at 650 feet from the plains below. They are crisp and clean and, unlike the dunes in Death Valley, you may even have them all to yourself. Bring water and your coordination.
10. From Kelso to Las Vegas, you’ve got about 140 miles, or just over two hours to go until you hit The Strip.
Get back on Kelbaker Road and go north. About 5 miles north of the dunes, be sure to catch Kelso Cima Road to the right (east). This road will take you north to I-15 and into Vegas. Soon, before you can see Vegas itself, you will notice the dark, desert sky has become empurpled with the reflections of the excitement ahead. Enjoy.