There are a lot of towns in the middle of nowhere in this giant state we live in. Some more nowhere than others. Why this intrigues me, I couldn’t exactly tell you. Or what it is about the world of old trains that draws me, I’m not sure. But there is a forgotten town in the Mojave National Preserve, that piqued my curiosity on several counts.

The Kelso Depot was built in 1923 to provide a full service stop for railroad workers and passengers on the Union Pacific railroad. The key ingredient to Kelso, which began in 1905, was the nearby spring water, required for running the steam engines that came through. At one point Kelso had up to 2000 residents as folks interested in working in the various mining operations in the area (including boron, iron, gold and silver) moved into the desert town.

Abandoned back in the 1980’s, the train depot was recently fixed up and turned into a museum, with national park rangers running the facilities. The most prominent feature of the building is the restaurant (no longer in use) for train passengers to have a meal or cup of coffee and slice of pie from one of the pie cabinets. There is also, within the building, a ticket counter and telegraph office, the storage area for luggage of those just passing through, and upstairs, the boarding rooms for Union Pacific workers. Here, in this distant desert depot, men who worked the railroads could live for a time, sleeping in sparsely furnished bedrooms and even reading the newspaper in the small but adequate lounge. While there are a few bedrooms to view, most of the upstairs has been turned into museum exhibit areas and office space for the rangers. The lounge is still available to sit and read books about railroads or the history of the Mojave area. There are little biographies within the exhibits, and stories about some of the towns in the area.

The ranger at the front desk will show you a short film about all the natural attractions within the Mojave preserve if you ask. Everything is spread out, though, and would require a greater time commitment than a day to visit.

Within the tiny town of Kelso there still remains the old post office, now boarded up, a rickety wooden schoolhouse, now boarded up, and, by the train tracks, a two cell iron jail. This was an endless source of entertainment for any children saw it and probably ended up in as many photographs as the depot itself. It seems that if there were any troublemakers of a criminal sort on the trains coming through, they were put in this holding cell until other arrangements could be made.

Noticing that there was a modest collection of trailer homes on the other side of the tracks, I asked one of the rangers if people lived there. After all, as far as I could tell, there were no functioning buildings for miles around besides the depot museum. The ranger told me that, in fact, there were eighteen Union Pacific railroad workers living in the town. I ventured that real estate is probably more reasonable out there than in Los Angeles.

Back down the sun baked old road we drove up is the Kelso Dunes. This truly is a wonder of the desert, a gathering of sand, blown mostly from the Baker area (which is 35 miles north of Kelso) and planted in a soft heap in the Mojave. The general floor plan of the Mojave is a dry, tan, dirt with small forms of plant life like yuccas and sagebrush. The dunes are pure soft sand. We began the trek out to the highest peaks of the dunes, hoping to hear them sing the weird rolling melody I had read about. These dunes are called “booming dunes” because, when one runs down the dunes, causing the sand to slide like a small avalanche, a sound can be heard. We walked and walked, passing people along with pieces of cardboard in their hands to use for sleds. The dunes were farther away than they appeared. Realizing we would have to walk all the way back at some point, we stopped on one of the lower dunes and began running along the ridge, hoping to hear the “booming.” The conditions apparently weren’t right that day. No one else hiking in the sand claimed to hear the mysterious dune sounds. Some reports say it has to be windy. Some say it has to be very dry. It was a fun experience just to walk on these dunes, which had been deposited in the middle of this nowhere. My husband said to my daughter that this must be like the sand that hid the Mitzri for Moshe Rebbeinu.

It is out of the question to visit this place in the summer. The temperature was lovely and mild for our winter day trip, but still so dry that carrying water is necessary even for a short walk. And then there’s that one teeny tiny factor that might make this a less than ideal road trip… it’s 226 miles to Kelso from Los Angeles.
Perhaps, if this sounds a bit much for a day trip, you might consider driving through Kelso on your way somewhere else. Kelso is, after all, on a wavy two-lane stretch, aptly named Kelbaker Road because it leads from highway 40, through Kelso, up to Baker. Baker is on the 15 freeway. Also, there are some other sites in the preserve like the “Hole-in-the-Wall” which is a hiking and camping area of volcanic rock that has been turned into swiss cheese by the wind, and Mitchell Caverns, which offers guided tours of the region’s limestone caves. Both are for experienced hikers.

So if you are on your way to somewhere in Arizona, or on your way back from Las Vegas, you could take a slight detour into this national preserve and have a stop at a train depot from yesteryear, before continuing on past the Joshua trees toward home.

Notes: Bring hats, sneakers, sunscreen, food and water. There is a gift shop in the depot with water in case you run out.

For more information on Kelso Depot and the Kelso Dunes see: Mojave National Reserve: http://www.nps.gov/moja/