The highway shortcut from Interstate 15 to Searchlight on U.S. Highway 95 and beyond to Lake Mohave runs through historic Nipton, Calif., to explore a remote part of Southern Nevada.
The two-lane highway runs 21 miles through scenic high desert and rugged foothills. It often boasts a fair springtime show of desert wildflowers, many varieties of cactus and an extensive forest of Joshua trees. The road to the lake beyond Searchlight features thickets of cholla and roadside flowers.
To reach little Nipton, follow I-15 south 55 miles from Las Vegas. About 11 miles south of Primm, turn off at exit 286 onto the paved road east that will become state Route 164 at the Nevada border. Follow it 10 miles to Nipton, which sits along the Union Pacific railroad tracks.
These days, the long freight trains rolling across the Mojave Desert never stop in Nipton, once a busy watering stop along the tracks. The wail of locomotives approaching the road crossing and the thunder of passing boxcars and tankers is about all that disrupts the silence of the desert ghost town. The few permanent residents barely notice, but campers in the RV park and guests at the historic Hotel Nipton may be startled by the noise, especially in the middle of the night.
Nipton started life as Nippeno, a little mining camp at a desert crossroads during a regional mining era in the 1880s. When the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (later the Union Pacific) pushed across the Mojave in 1905, the camp enjoyed a modest boom as a watering stop for the steam locomotives and a siding where railroad cars could be loaded and unloaded. Soon renamed Nipton, the little crossroads became a gathering spot for travelers and scattered desert dwellers. In 1910, a stagecoach line from Searchlight brought travelers to and from Nipton. It operated through 1926, until supplanted by automobile travel.
The tiny hotel in Nipton was built of adobe made on-site between 1904 and 1910. Its thick walls and roofed veranda gave guests some relief from the desert heat. A deputy sheriff from Searchlight originally installed the Garden of Mystery, a decorative cactus garden in front of the hotel. The hotel remained busy into the 1930s. It often accommodated Hollywood celebrities headed for the nearby Walking Box Ranch, which was owned by movie stars Rex Bell and Clara Bow.
When the railroad switched to diesel locomotives, watering stops such as Nipton become obsolete. Nipton would have perished if not for an enterprising resident who bought up the town site. After the owner’s death in 1949, Nipton languished under a series of owners. In 1984 it was acquired by the Freeman family, which started a major cleanup and restoration of several original buildings, including the hotel, which has been a bed-and-breakfast inn since 1986. A couple of residences now house artists or professionals working in the area, while the schoolhouse is used for meetings and workshops. In the 1940s-era trading post, visitors find information on the nearby Mojave National Preserve and a small convenience store. Next door, a cafe features Mexican fare using fresh produce grown on-site. For information, rates and reservations for camping, cabins or hotel rooms, call the Hotel Nipton at 760-856-2335.
The turnoff to the Walking Box Ranch is 14 miles from Nipton on the way to Searchlight, marked on some maps as YKL Ranch, its name after it was sold in the 1950s. The ranch headquarters and adjacent acreage is under Bureau of Land Management control through a cooperative arrangement with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival-style ranch house, associated buildings, facilities and grounds have been open for occasional guided tours, with the last scheduled for Tuesday. Tours should resume when restoration work is completed in 2016. For details, call the BLM at 702-515-5350 or search online at blm.gov.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.