Nipton: Small-town life in the Mojave Desert
Road Journals Blog—The Mojave National Preserve is remote, so if you're looking for someplace to spend the night, you won't have a lot of choices.
Baker, on the preserve's northern edge, is a fuel-and-fast-food stop with three motels, none of which, it’s fair to say, has quite achieved AAA Diamond status.
The more interesting option is Nipton, on the northern edge of the preserve and a short drive off Interstate 15. If you like the desolate charm of towns on the backside of nowhere, Nipton is for you.
Of course, “town” may be an overstatement. According to Wikipedia, it boasts all of 20 residents. There’s a hotel, a restaurant, a trading post—and not much else to attract tourists. Yet they come: Harley riders, hikers, off-roaders, Vegas-bound motorists, Europeans exploring the American Southwest, Nevadans purchasing California lottery tickets.
The hungry among them end up at the Whistle Stop Café, a pleasant restaurant with checkered tablecloths, a pool table, and rough-cut wood walls, on which hang historic photos from Nipton’s days as a crossroads town for miners and railroaders.
The place is a whistlestop in more than name. Railroad tracks run alongside town, and cargo trains rumble by several times a day. Sometimes a train will pull to a stop in front of the restaurant and the crew will jump off to get a bite to eat.
You’ll read about the Whistle Stop before you see it. On the two-lane road leading into town, amid the vast expanse of desert scrub, is a big sign letting you know that the Whistle Stop has the “best burgers around.” Talk about truth in advertising.
The house specialty is a half-pounder served inside a soft flour tortilla. It is, in fact, a darned good burger. The Whistle Stop claims to have pioneered the tortilla-burger concept, and from what the staff told us, finer burger establishments everywhere are now picking up on it.
The Nipton lifestyle isn’t for everyone, so the kind of people who end up here tend to be pretty interesting.
Ed McRann, our genial waiter at the Whistle Stop, told us he was a mountain man from Montana. He certainly looked the part, wearing patchwork leather pants that he hand-stitched himself. He had sort of a George Armstrong Custer hairstyle and moustache going.
I had seen McRann earlier in the day wearing a long bowie knife in a sheath around his waist. When I asked him how long the knife was, he said that it was “long enough,” and that, had I ever been treed by a grizzly like he once was, I’d carry one, too.
As it turned out, McRann carried the knife to cut firewood for the cabin stoves at the Hotel Nipton next door, where he works when he isn’t waiting tables.
The Hotel Nipton dates to the early 1900s. In front is a beautiful garden of rocks and assorted cacti. The adobe structure has a covered wraparound porch where guests can sit and watch the trains go by. Inside are five bedrooms furnished with antique dressers and quilted bedspreads, and two communal bathrooms. Staying there is almost like renting a house. There’s a living room with a wood-burning stove, a comfy couch, bentwood chairs, and a reading library.
In back of the hotel are five tented cabins with swamp coolers, stoves, and electric lights. In the evening, you can sit and watch the sun sink behind the low-lying brown mountains in the far distance.
Do you have a favorite out of the way—I mean way out of the way—place to recommend?
Anne Burke wrote about the Beanery at Kelso Depot in the March/April issue of VIA.
Photography by Anne Burke
This blog post was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.