original Kelso Depot burned down in 1922. The
current structure, completed in 1924 and saved from
the brink of elimination a quarter-century ago, has
been restored inside and out, and contains Mojave
National Preserve's visitors center.
is your favorite offbeat spot in California? Drawn to the
historical and remote, I long have fancied Kelso Depot.
miles southwest of Las Vegas, the depot has a solitudinous
sparkle as its Spanish Mission Revival-style structure
comes into view for motorists traversing Mojave National
Preserve on Kelbaker Road. Palm and other handsome trees,
along with green grass, mostly surround a two-story
building that has been respectfully restored to its
original 1924 appearance and contains the preserve’s
visitors center and museum.
the years I have stopped by a half-dozen times, always
curious how renovations are going and eager to stand
outside in the desert to soak up the calm. Kelso Depot for
me has represented, above all, a wonderful contrast to
came about when the Union Pacific Railroad line from Los
Angeles to Salt Lake City was completed in 1905. The track
between Kelso and Cima, 18 miles to the northeast, rises
2,000 feet as it meanders past the Providence, New York
and Ivanpah mountains. Such a steep grade (2.2 percent)
required supplemental locomotives to be attached at Kelso.
The depot there housed railroad workers, and its cafeteria
fed them, as well as train passengers, for decades.
2,000 people lived in Kelso in the years around World War
II, but by 1959 train technology had eliminated the need
for extra locomotives, and in 1985 the building was
shuttered. Concerned citizens rallied to prevent a razing
by persuading Union Pacific to sell Kelso Depot to the
federal government in 1992 (price: $1).
visitors encounter an uncluttered and pristine interior
that harks back to the site’s bustling prime. The
horseshoe lunch counter, surrounded by a couple dozen
swiveling wooden chairs, is a showpiece. A video that airs
upon demand in the small theater is an up-to-date,
top-notch production. The exhibits upstairs, including
refurnished rooms and railroad history displays, are
concise and engaging. In the basement, there’s a scale
model of the building, landscape and tracks.
feelings about the place pretty much echoed what Huell
Howser, the late folksy host of PBS’ travelogue
"California Gold," said at the depot’s grand
reopening in 2005: "This depot here in Kelso, this
oasis, this place of tranquility and rest and
asked Mojave National Park tour guide Phillip Gomez what
don’t know if it’s so different from any place else,
really, any other visitors center that you have spent some
time in," Gomez said, with a light thud, on the phone
in late February. "You get a lot of routine
in a perfectly polite but dry tone, commenced: " ‘Do
passenger trains still come by?’ You know, many of them
are pretty mundane. ‘Is the restaurant open?’ When it’s
obviously not. It’s been closed for 2 1/2 years, but
they still are hoping against hope."
thought he might be done, but when I started to speak, he
‘Where do you live?’ That’s a typical one. And then
my favorite, ‘What is this huge, outsized building doing
out here in the middle of nowhere?’ It’s amazing how
many people ask that question, almost word for word. ‘What
do you do out here?’ is another one. ‘Where do you go
all from the perspective of the visitor driving here, in
their automobile, with the windows rolled up and the air
conditioner going, and they’re in the early 21st century
asking about a different time and place."
visitors see out their windows, aside from the startling
oasis of Kelso Depot, is vast and barren terrain. Mojave
National Preserve nevertheless offers attractions well
Hole-in-the-Wall area 30 miles east of Kelso, for example,
has a 1.5-mile loop trail that meanders through tight
passages with sharp and striking volcanic formations. In
Banshee Canyon, mounted ring bolts allow hikers to
negotiate the steepest portions. This great little hike
gives visitors, without demanding too much physical
effort, a real taste of the big, high desert ambiance.
Caverns, a few miles south of Hole-in-the-Wall in
Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, has been
closed for tours since 2011. Progress toward
re-stabilizing the site, however, has advanced to the
point where there’s talk of an imminent reopening.)
miles to the northeast of Kelso is the world’s largest
concentration of Joshua trees. The Teutonia Peak Trail
ventures into this forest, a relatively flat 3-mile round
trip off Cima Road.
a few miles south of the depot, Kelso Dunes rise some 650
above the desert floor. Twice I have tried to climb them.
The first attempt came up short as I underestimated how
difficult it is to walk steeply uphill on shifting sands,
and I ran out of time. The second try, years later, was
not as restricted by time pressures and I was able, ever
so slowly, to summit the huge sand pile. It was an
for the depot, I now admit that my infrequent, short
visits may have created a myth in my mind about its
magnificence. Gomez’s spin on the place, one based on
his seven years’ worth of experiences there, was a
reality check. The pictures I took of the depot in early
February revealed that, actually, the grass beside the
building wasn’t all that green, some of the trees were
kind of shaggy, and there was an unsavory sprinkling of
shacks, trailers and trucks in the vicinity, too.
the desert’s breezy emptiness been infiltrating and
compromising my brain? Maybe, but if so I am not alone.
Schlencker and his wife, Lesley, of the Bracken Ridge
suburb of Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, were
traveling from Joshua Tree National Park to Death Valley
earlier this year when they stumbled across Kelso Depot.
driving into the ‘town’ from the south and seeing the
depot building, it immediately exuded an air of a bygone
era," Schlencker wrote in an email. "I doubt you
could pass through without stopping, it had such an
biggest regret was that we were only passing through and
we determined to come back another time and spend a couple
of days poking around. … There was just something
special about the place, and the building in particular.
The restoration was fantastic."
straight-shooter Gomez agreed with that last assessment
and touched on the site’s special qualities.
think the depot, in the larger picture, it’s not so much
the building itself," he said. "The building
itself, there were many copies of this building made all
along the line. Most of those places are all torn down.
There’s one in Caliente, Nev., and there’s one on the
Santa Fe line, in Riverside, Calif. Those are not nearly
in the pristine condition that this one is since the
also this one is in its natural desert surroundings; it
doesn’t have a lot of concrete, and parking lot pavement
and so forth like these other places."
I will stop by and admire Kelso Depot again — although
perhaps with a recently acquired dose of reasonable
addition to a visitors center and museum, the building
contains a small gift shop that sells, among other things,
a copy of the "California Gold" episode in which
host Huell Howser visits Kelso Depot on its renovation’s
"grand opening" day. The DVD costs about $20.
(Online, it’s available for $25.)
tiny community of Amboy, 40 miles south of Kelso and
outside the preserve, is worth a side trip if you want a
taste of Route 66 nostalgia. There’s a crater to climb
nearby, too, if you can spare a couple of hours for the
depot, at 90942 Kelso Cima Road in Essex, is open from 9
a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, call
760-252-6100 or visit www.nps.gov/moja/learn/historyculture/kelso-depot.htm.