A railway town since its founding, Barstow is now a city of 60,000 people. In 1888, the Santa Fe Railroad arrived in town and a splendid station was built in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The town was named after the president of the Santa Fe, William Barstow Strong, and it soon became a service center for the gold and silver mines that surrounded the community.
Before all this feverish activity in the late 1800s, the Mojave Desert had been occupied by Indian tribes who (2,000 years ago) lived beside the immense lakes that covered most of the Mojave. Today, the landscape is bone dry, and Barstow is a highway town, at the junction of Interstate Highways 15 and 40, on the routes between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Flagstaff. The historic railway station has been converted into a restaurant and shops.
What to See & Do
California Desert Information Center
Anyone interested in exploring the region's natural attractions should head first to this multi-agency center, located on Barstow Avenue, just a block north of I-40. Operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the local Chamber of Commerce, this facility offers displays of desert life, and much information on the Mojave Desert: campgrounds, old wagon trails, hiking routes, wildlife, and natural history. You'll find a full range of maps, brochures, books, and desert guides.
The most prominent historic site in Barstow is the original Harvey House building, across the street from the old train station. Railroad riders swarmed from the trains to be served meals by the famous Harvey Girls, a special breed of western pioneer, who came to the desert from eastern cities to work for Fred Harvey in his outpost restaurant.
Be sure to visit Calico Ghost Town. In the 1800s, Calico was a bustling silver town. Walter Knott, founder of Knott's Berry Farm in Orange County, provided the money to restore this old mining camp, now a San Bernardino County regional park. Contained within a picturesque canyon, Calico boasts wooden sidewalks, shops, restaurants, and tunnels to be explored in Maggie's Mine. A railroad car takes visitors to mine workings north of the ghost town. There's a modern campground and RV park, with 110 sites and hookups, in a wooded canyon near Calico. The town is open every day except Christmas, and parking costs $4.00. There are special festival-style events on Palm Sunday weekend, and on Mother's Day weekend -- a musical celebration. Columbia Day, in October features a Wild West parade and gunfights, and on the first weekend in November, there's an Old West celebration and Indian fine arts show.
On the Desert
North of town, via Fort Irwin Road, is Rainbow Basin, where well-preserved fossils are found on ancient lake beds. The basin has been turned into a highly colored landscape, eroded by wind and water over millions of years. Fossil collecting is prohibited now, and the geological area is a National Natural Landmark. A narrow 4-mile loop drive winds through the basin. This road is suitable for small vehicles only; not for trailers and motor homes.
The Bureau of Land Management campground at Owl Canyon -- one mile east of the loop road -- is a fine place to stop for a picnic. There are several developed campgrounds in the BLM country surrounding Rainbow Basin, and the Desert Information Center in town has information on these campsites.
The large Barstow/Calico KOA campground is located seven miles northeast of Barstow, next to Calico Ghost Town. The campground has shaded sites, dump station, a pool, playground, store, laundry, and propane service. For information, call (619) 254-2311.
Two BLM recreational sites offer camping in the desert: at Owl Canyon, next to the Rainbow Basin Geological Area, and at Afton Canyon. These are primitive sites with few (if any) services. Check at the Desert Information Center.
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