Kelso Depot, an oasis in the Mojave Desert
What is your favorite offbeat spot in California? Drawn to the historical and remote, I long have fancied Kelso Depot.
Ninety-five 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.
Over 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 metropolitan life.
Kelso 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.
Nearly 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).
The town got its name in 1904 when railroad workers put the names of three crewmen in a hat, and John H. Kelso, a former mule skinner, was drawn.
Today, 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.
My feelings about the place pretty much echoed what Huell Howser (1945-2013), the 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 wonder.”
I asked Mojave National Park tour guide Phillip Gomez what he thought.
“I 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 questions.”
Gomez, 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.”
I thought he might be done, but when I started to speak, he continued:
“ ‘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 to shop?’
“It’s 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.”
40The number of miles west of the depot that a flame-engulfed mail car coasted downhill before stopping, as recounted in Scott Thybony’s pamphlet “Kelso Depot” (Western National Parks Association, 2008)
What 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 worth exploring.
The 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.
(Mitchell 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.)
Thirty 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.
Finally, 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 exhilarating experience.
As 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.
Had the desert’s breezy emptiness been infiltrating and compromising my brain? Maybe, but if so I am not alone.
I doubt you could pass through without stopping, it had such an allure.
Tony Schlencker of Queensland, Australia
Tony 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.
“Even 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 allure.
“Our 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.”
Even straight-shooter Gomez agreed with that last assessment and touched on the site’s special qualities.
“I 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, Nevada, and there’s one on the Santa Fe line, in Riverside, California. Those are not nearly in the pristine condition that this one is since the restoration.
“And 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.”
Someday I will stop by and admire Kelso Depot again – although perhaps with a recently acquired dose of reasonable restraint.
Call The Bee’s Reed Parsell, 916-321-1163.
Kelso sits about 510 miles southeast of Sacramento via Highways 99 and 58, Interstate 15 (or Interstate 40 – the mileage difference is negligible) and Kelbaker Road.
In 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.)
The 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 vigorous exercise.
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.