Right in the middle of the Mojave Desert where today’s traffic intersects with busy I-15, I-40 and State Highways 58 and 247, is Barstow. Founded on transportation, Barstow is the California desert terminus of historic Route 66 that begins in Needles. Although its Route 66 fame is well chronicled on a visit here, it is another form of transportation that made the city famous: the train.
In a city where even the McDonald’s is lodged in former train cars, it is obvious that the train rules. The railroad town was named after William Barstow Strong, the former president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railways. Trains are still a big part of the Barstow experience, including the Amtrak that stops in the preserved historic Barstow train depot. However, Route 66, which follows Main Street, is also revered and memorialized in motels, cafes, museums and murals. Take some time to tour these preserved and celebrated pieces of the desert’s rich transportation past that also lead to some unexpected and surprising finds!
Must-Sees in and Around Barstow
This enclave of gracious period buildings provides plenty of transportation history in one stop, so plan to take a little time to absorb. The preserved buildings, circa 1911, give a glimpse into Barstow’s early days and California’s passion for travel—from the train to the car.
Harvey House (also known as Casa del Desierto), one of the famous stopovers from the late 1800s, displays menus and uniforms of the famous Harvey Girls (think Judy Garland in the movie of the same name) who came from all over the country to work and live in these quarters. The original copper chandeliers dangle from the ceilings and polished wooden floors tell a story of gentile service and bountiful hot meals in between railroad stops. Interestingly, the upstairs of the Harvey House museum features a NASA Voyager exhibit, a contrast in histories for sure.
Route 66 Mother Road Museum is tiny but packs in an interesting collection of historic photographs and artifacts from this part of the Mother Road, including historic vehicles, a fun film, books, maps and souvenirs.
Western America Railroad Museum is steps from the unmanned Amtrak depot and pays homage to the history of Western railroading with exhibits and a mass of railroading artifacts, from steam engines to one of the largest collections of railroad date nails in the United States. For model railroad hobbyists, there is Dogtooth Mountain H.O. Railway on exhibit.
Desert Discovery Center on Barstow Road might surprise you—it has been chosen as the exhibition site for the second largest meteorite in the United States! The center is located at 831 Barstow Road; call 760-252-6060 for hours of operation.
Old Woman Meteorite was discovered in late 1975 by three prospectors in the Old Woman Mountains of San Bernardino County. A few months after the discovery, the men invited the Curator of Meteorites for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C, to visit the site, and he confirmed it was a genuine meteorite. Since the discovery was found on public land (BLM), it was classified as an object of scientific interest—not a mining find as the prospectors had hoped.
However, it is a treasure for those who visit and study the relic. The meteorite, a leftover dating back to the formation of the solar system, holds a wealth of information about the origin of the solar system and its environment some 4.5 billion years ago.
Main Street Murals:
A driving or walking tour of the old downtown that traces Route 66 is an outdoor history museum of murals that flank the sides of the city’s oldest buildings along Main Street. The 16 or so murals (with numbers increasing annually) are hand-painted and themed from the city’s beginnings to tributes to the Mother Road and to some of the city’s most prominent past residents and visitors.
Rainbow Basin Natural Area is a landscape just 8 miles north of Barstow, rich in fossil beds, multi-colored rock formations, scenic canyons and even desert tortoises. The area has been designated an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” so visitors are cautioned to only travel on roads marked “open.” To find Rainbow Basin, travel north on First Avenue off Main Street, then turn left on Irwin Road. When you see the sign for Rainbow Basin, turn left on Fossil Bed Road and follow the signs.
Ivanpah Solar Power Facility a short distance from Barstow along the 1-15 towards Las Vegas is another site worth seeing—the world’s largest solar thermal plant. Visible from the freeway, the facility on 4,000 acres features fields of mirrors sending solar energy to towers. You can’t miss it if you try.
Calico Ghost Town is a nice side trip from Barstow and is one of the desert’s few restored ghost towns that is open for visitor business. Early human beings may have wandered the hills that make up Calico Ghost Town off Calico Road in Yermo, given its proximity to the Early Man Site nearby. But we do know for a fact that Wyatt Earp once walked the streets of the 1880’s silver-mining boomtown. Calico was resurrected in 1950 by Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame. The ghost town could have become a Knott’s Berry Farm in the desert, but he later donated the town to San Bernardino County as a regional park. The “quasi-tourist attraction” does see a fair share of tourists on the weekend, unlike other ghost towns that populate the Mojave, but the town “as purty as a gal’s calico skirt” is far from a commercial attraction.
One-third of the original structures of the hillside town exist; others have been recreated. The main street of Calico, lined in wooden sidewalks, is populated by shops, a few informal eateries and people decked out in period costumes. It is not unusual to catch a gunfight here at any time. On top of one hill overlooking Main Street is the one-room schoolhouse; hills on the other side are the site of former miners’ shacks and numerous abandoned shafts. Take an “Extreme Calico Mine Tour” to absorb all of the local mining history or an “Off-Road Tour” that follows the 20-Mule Team route.