Weekend Drive: Odd Histories of the Landmarks Between L.A. and Vegas

You drive by the Calico Ghost Town and Zzyzx Road on your way to Sin City, but do you know the tales behind these odd stops? Spoiler alert: brothels

Like slogging up the hill for a Hollywood Bowl show or waking up at dawn for the Rose Bowl Parade, the drive to Vegas is a classic L.A. ritual. Millions have flown by Zzyzx Road at 80 mph—and sometimes puttered at 20 mph—but most know little about the landmarks of the iconic 270-mile trek.

Calico Ghost Town

This quasi-amusement park near Barstow is also part of the San Bernardino Regional Parks System and a state historic landmark. A rowdy mining village that churned out $20 million in silver ore during the 1880s and ‘90s, Calico was filled with hotels, saloons, brothels, a school, and, at one point, 3,500 residents. When the value of silver dipped in the mid-1890s, the town’s fortunes eroded, as did its population; a few years into the 20th-century, Calico was completely abandoned. Walter Knott, of Knott’s Berry Farm, bought the town in 1951 and rebuilt Calico’s buildings from photographs, save for the five that remained, and donated it to the state in 1966. Calico is now filled with souvenir shops, a museum, and even a functioning railroad like the one that carried silver out of the mines.

The Abandoned Water Park East of Barstow

It’s a grim halfway marker, the amusement park lying in ruins on the west side of the 1-15, looking like something out of a Mad Max movie. After a ‘50s businessman carved out a man-made lake at the spot, a campground opened in 1962. Waterslides and other rides were added gradually and the spot became known as Lake Dolores Park, which had its heyday in the ‘70s but shuttered in 1988. The owner sold the park two years later and a new ‘50s-themed incarnation, called Rock-a-Hoola Park, opened in 1998. Only a year later, an accident would paralyze a 23-year-old employee, sullying the park and leading to the owners’ bankruptcy and the park’s closure again in 2000. The waterpark fell back to the widow of the recreation area’s original builder, the lake’s namesake, who sold it to a business consortium that pumped $400,000 into it and kept it open for a few more seasons. The park closed for good in 2004 and the rides were, over time, ripped up and sold. Most of the park’s sun-bleached buildings, bathrooms, and signage remain for scavengers; we would not want to run out of gas there.

Zzyzx Road

This half-paved, 4.5-mile road leads to Soda Spring, a natural water source humans have used for centuries that was the focal-point of the now-defunct Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa. The brain-child of an eccentric L.A.-based radio DJ named Curtis “Doc” Springer—he named the place “Zzyzx” just so it would be the last word alphabetically in the English language— the spa lasted from 1944 to 1974, only closing after the federal government evicted Springer because he didn’t own the land, and tossing him in jail over FDA violations. The site is now home to the Desert Studies Center, a research facility managed by California State University and the Bureau of Land Management.

Baker, Calif. Thermometer

For years, Baker’s giant, broken thermometer has been a depressing symbol: busted thermometer, busted town. But the 134-foot tall electric sign, which began revealing the Mojave’s scorching temperatures in 1991 before shutting down in the Great Recession, is on its way back to life. After the most recent owner foreclosed on it and its adjacent gift shop ($8,000 a month electricity bills!), the thermometer has been returned to the family of its creator, Willis Heron. There are plans to invest $150,000 in the attraction and possibly use solar panels to save on energy costs. Fewer drivers stopped in town for gas, food, and drinks after the thermometer went dark, so there’s much buzz on turning it back on, even if it is reporting temperatures in the triple-digits.

Photographs courtesy (1),(3),(4) wikipedia.com; (2) flickr.com/kgarrison