One of the world’s best-known road trips is filled with ruins, art, and stunning natural beauty.
A friend recently asked me what there was to do on the drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, which just happens to be one of the most legendary road trips there is.
The drive features prominently in literature (eg Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and countless films. And when someone, especially foreigners, visits the western US, they often make this very trip.
For many people, it’s a quick four hour drive through the desert, with stops for gas and maybe food but not much more. Which is a shame, because there are a lot of really great things to see. In fact, I prefer almost everything on the way to Las Vegas over Las Vegas itself.
So, here are my suggestions for getting the most out of this most American of road trips. (Keep in mind that this trip can be reversed, so you’re doing it while driving from Las Vegas to LA.)
Calico is a ghost town about two hours from downtown LA, and just slightly northeast of Barstow. It’s a well-preserved, park-style ghost town that charges a small admission fee and is geared toward tourists.
Though Calico is definitely no Bodie and adults may find it a bit too manufactured, it’s a great stop for kids. When I went, there was a ride and a chance to go in a mine. And visitors of any age will surely enjoy walking down what feels like a something resembling an authentic, old West main street.
One of the other best things about Calico is that it’s just off the freeway, so it can be a very quick trip.
Peggy Sue’s 50s Diner
Sitting just across the freeway from Calico, Peggy Sue’s is the kind of place that once upon a time helped cement road trips in the American psyche. It’s kitsch enough to be endearing, but doesn’t have the forced and overly cohesive feel of “retro” diners in more populous places. Like many things in the desert, Peggy Sue’s feels sprawling and slightly cobbled together.
The food at Peggy Sue’s is fine but won’t win any awards, which is about right for a diner in the middle of nowhere. It also includes a gift shop and a garden area with a menagerie of metal dinosaurs. Ultimately, it’s the kind of place that — unlike generic chains — makes a long drive actually feel like a road trip.
I’ve written about Zzyzx Road before, but to reiterate here, this is one of the coolest and most overlooked stops on the journey between LA and Vegas. It’s beautiful, serene, and austere.
Situated less than 60 miles northeast of Peggy Sue’s and Calico, Zzyzx Road leads past salt flats and a dry lake bed to the remains of an old resort. Today, part of that resort is used as a college research center and part is in ruin. There are still springs, palm trees, and the remains of boats lying around. It doesn’t take long to explore and is definitely worth it.
Seven Magic Mountains
Beside Interstate 15 about 10 miles south of Las Vegas, seven pillars of brightly painted boulders rise out of the brown desert. The pillars are an art installation called Seven Magic Mountains. It was built in 2016 and is scheduled to stick around until mid 2018.
This is another quick and easy stop that offers a good payoff for being both free and fascinating.
Bonus: Keep driving and check out Hoover Dam, real ghost towns, and the Virgin River Gorge.
Also, if you drive for an hour and a half on Interstate 15 beyond Las Vegas, you’ll come to one of the most striking stretches of highway I’ve ever experienced anywhere: the Virgin River Gorge.
The gorge was originally carved by the Virgin River, but in the mid 20th century the government blasted out enough space for Interstate 15. Building the freeway was so difficult that it reportedly cost about $100 an inch. Today the road twists through dramatic red cliffs, many of which still bear the marks of being cut and blasted by dynamite.
There’s a campsite and some hiking trails in the gorge. But even if you don’t have time for that it’s an amazing drive. (Just don’t do it at night, when you won’t be able to see any of the amazing scenery.)
— Jim Dalrymple II