For most people, this is a place to drive through. The majority of people who experience Barstow do so as a gas or food stop between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. For them, it offers little more, and the small towns outside of the mighty metropolis of Barstow (at under 30,000 people it is by far the largest city in the region) barely register a glance.
Until recently, I was one of these people, driving through here on my way to a place I viewed as better. And then Covid hit, and I suddenly found myself desperately searching for places easily accessible from my home in LA via car. I have now made three trips to the area, not to pass through, but to explore, to learn, and to experience a region that was a blank spot to me.
This is a region that has some really cool things, things worth a stop, worth a day or two rather than just a pass through. It has beautiful scenery, some cool history, and a community of incredibly welcoming people. And really, what else could you want? This guide will share some of the things I’ve experienced in California’s high desert. Be sure to click on the links throughout to read more in-depth articles of various aspects of the area.
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While it is technically possibly to arrive in Barstow by train, if you come to the area, I am 99.8% certain you’ll arrive by car. Barstow sits at the junction of Interstates 15 and 40, and California 58, which heads to Bakersfield. From here, I-15 heads northeast to Las Vegas and south to Los Angeles and San Diego, and I-40 heads east into Arizona toward the Grand Canyon. The region this guide talks about lies between I-15 and I-40.
Barstow is about two hours from Los Angeles (less from the eastern parts of the metro area) and an hour and a half or so from the outskirts of Las Vegas, making it possible as a day trip from either city, or a very easy long weekend.
Unsurprisingly, you’ll need a car. If you have one with four wheel drive, you’ll be even happier, as this will allow you to more easily see some of the mountainous desert areas. However, everything in this guide was accessible in my Toyota Camry, even if some parts of Mojave National Preserve required some downshifting and slower driving.
Things to Do
The biggest tourist attraction in the area is Mojave National Preserve, one of the largest units of the national parks system in the lower 48. The preserve is absolutely worth visiting, whether just doing a short loop off I-15 as a diversion from the interstate, or a longer loop between I-15 and I-40. It should be noted that some of the roads in the preserve are just well packed dirt and gravel, though the main ones of these are easily traveled in pretty much any car. Smaller roads might not be. (Click here to read my guide to Mojave National Preserve.)
This area was once known for mining. Calico Ghost Town preserves one of those mining boom towns, and while it is pretty kitschy and touristy, there is some real history there between the souvenir shops. For a more authentic experience, check out Daggett, a tiny town just outside Barstow. (Click here to read about Daggett and Calico.)
For a slightly more modern history, you’ll want to get off I-40 and drive the parallel Route 66 between Barstow and Newberry Springs, past the remnants of some iconic roadside businesses. While Route 66 traverses the entire desert, it is not fully drivable, so this is your best chance to see it. (Click here to read about this section of Route 66.)
Let’s talk about Barstow for a moment. While many want to do some outlet shopping, you can also check out the Route 66 museum, which sits right next to a train museum, and a historic Harvey House. This is also the train station, in that rare case you arrive this way.
Desert scenery is amazing, and besides the preserve, you can hike any number of trails. On my last trip, I climbed Pisgah Crater, a dormant volcanic cinder cone. It was incredibly beautiful, and I recommend it highly. (Click here to read about Pisgah Crater.)
And there is even more I have yet to experience, from petroglyphs in Newberry Cave to some of the country’s best water skiing in the local lakes. Seriously, the region has a ton!
Where to Stay
You sort of have three options of places to stay in the region. If you want a hotel, it’s going to be in Barstow, which has the full spectrum of name brand lodging in the non-luxury sphere. Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, Best Western, and so forth… all have properties here.
Option two: camp or RV. This will allow you to be closer to the desert, or smack dab in the desert. Neither of these appeals to me, but they might to you.
Option three: Airbnb. On my last two trips, I have been hosted (once by the Barstow Chamber of Commerce and once by the Newberry Springs Chamber of Commerce) in lovely Airbnbs in Newberry Springs. This has combined beautiful desert vistas (Newberry doesn’t have anything that blocks views) with things I depend on like wifi, running water, and a bed.
What to Eat
This is not a place to visit for the fine dining scene. Most of what you’ll find is chain restaurants of the casual and fast food variety. However, do yourself a favor and stop at one of the Route 66 roadside places. Two recommendations: Bagdad Cafe and The Barn. Both have fun vibes, popular with locals and bikers, and offer some solid food.
The region is known for pistachios. I recently attended the Newberry Springs Pistachio Festival, but even if you don’t, grab some nuts either from a farm stand or a store. (Click here to read about pistachios.)
Other Useful Information
A couple notes about the climate. This is desert, and it is dry. If you are unused to that, it can cause some discomfort on your skin, on your lips, or in your nose. Stay hydrated, put a bit of Vaseline up your nose if needed, and bring chapstick. You might even want to travel with a portable humidifier for your lodging if you are especially sensitive.
As a desert, the area can also have some extreme temperatures. Summer highs can exceed 100 Fahrenheit, and winter lows can dip below freezing. Be aware and pack accordingly.
One quick point about the people here. They are awesome, and welcoming, even if you are a coastal liberal like me visiting their mainly conservative community. Avoid politics except in controlled environments, and you’ll feel the warmth. Remember, the overwhelming majority of people in the world are decent.
If you find yourself driving between California and either Las Vegas or northern Arizona, do yourself a huge favor. Stop here in the high desert for a few hours or a few days. Explore. Get lost (spiritually, not physically) in the beauty of the desert and the fascinating history of a cool region. Have a meal with some new friends. Learn that just because most people don’t stop doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. You’ll want to come back.
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One thought on “The Ultimate Guide to Barstow and the California High Desert”
Loved the Guide to Barstow. It has prompted me to explore the area. I especially liked when you spoke of the friendliness of the people & to avoid most political bantering. Thank you!