A Bit of Americana in the Southern California Desert

A Bit of Americana in the Southern California Desert



I made it!

I’m climbing the stairs of the Desert View Tower near Jacumba, California. And while 57 stairs isn’t that much, it’s taking a while because of all the stops to see old photos, to peer out the diamond shaped windows set in the thick stone walls and to take in the antiques displayed along the way.

The chilly wind whips my hair around as I step up onto the floor of the observation deck. It’s totally open to the world, so it can get pretty windy up here. It’s windy today. And way cooler than the desert air three stories below me. Almost cold.

I’m sure many a weary desert traveler has welcomed that same chilly breeze coming off the mountains since Burt Vaughn built the Desert Tower in the 1920s. The four-story stone structure was built to honor those travelers, those intrepid souls that crossed the blazing hot desert in their un-air-conditioned automobiles.

When they reached the top of the hill, they usually needed to cool their engines. Why not build a roadside attraction where they could stop and get a glass of cool water, stretch their legs, take in the desert view? And there is definitely a great view up here.

According to the sign on one of the roof supports, I can see Mexico, the Salton Sea, Mt. San Jacinto at Palm Springs and the sand dunes at the Arizona-California state line. And closer, like almost directly below the tower, I can see the cars zipping along Interstate 8.

Do they even know what they’re missing? In their hurry to get between San Diego and Phoenix, they’re passing by one of the last remaining old roadside attractions in Southern California. All they have to do is just look over to the side of the freeway and they can see the kitschy old stone tower standing tall and proud, a monument to earlier desert travelers.

I have to admit, though, that I’m one of those that passed it by. Quite a few times. Every time I stopped, it was closed. So I gave up. Well, now it’s open “all day, every day, no exceptions”. Except if it’s super windy. Then it might be closed.

Obviously, today isn’t a super windy day even though it feels pretty windy to me. After taking in the view and snapping about a zillion pictures, I descend to explore the funky little gift shop around the base of the tower.

Friendly dogs loll about on couches and chairs placed against the stone wall. I pet them before perusing the titles of a great selection of books for sale about other weird tourist attractions.

I buy a bottle of ice-cold water and set off to explore nearby Boulder Park. Cartoon- style carvings of animals and faces line the winding paths. A buffalo here, a snake over there. A monster face with a big red nose and mouth.

These are the work of folk artist and out-of-work engineer W.T. Ratcliffe. He carved the boulders during the Depression. I try to find all the carvings but I’m sure I miss a few. There are some that are pretty well hidden!

The Desert View Tower is just off the I-8 freeway in Southern California. It is on the north side at the In-Ko-Pah Road exit. It is open every day, from 8:30 to dusk. Cost is $3.50 for adults, $2.00 for kids. For more information call (619) 766-4612.