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Nipton, Calif., a nostalgic hideaway in Mojave Desert

Tiny Nipton, Calif., provides visitors with an introduction to the adjacent Mojave National Preserve, as well as a quiet retreat into a nostalgic era when life moved at a slower pace.

Just across the state line about 65 miles from Las Vegas, Nipton seems a world away. Visitors from Southern Nevada trade city lights, urban bustle and traffic noise for star-strewn night skies, tranquility born of isolation and desert silence broken only by coyote calls or an occasional rumbling train.

To reach Nipton, drive south on Interstate 15 through the cluster of state line casinos and other attractions at Primm to the junction with Route 164. Known as Searchlight Cutoff, this secondary route funnels recreational traffic from I-15 to Lake Mojave and the Colorado River. Nipton sits beside the Union Pacific Railroad tracks 10 miles from the freeway exit.

Nipton backs up to the sprawling Mojave National Preserve, serving as a portal and information station for the 6 million-acre chunk of the Mojave Desert managed by the National Park Service. Accommodations and facilities in Nipton cater to visitors who come to experience the desert, as well as individuals and groups associated with the preserve and environmental interests.

Nipton capitalizes on its history. Located in an area with active mining in the late 1800s, Nipton began life in 1900 as a mining claim near a wagon crossroads. Soon a camp formed called Nippeno, after a spot in Pennsylvania. It grew into a small community renamed Nipton when it was chosen in 1905 as a watering spot along the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad that pushed across the Mojave. The railroad was later bought out by Union Pacific.

The old steam trains stopped in Nipton to take on water. They let a few passengers on and off, unloaded freight and loaded ore and livestock. Nipton became a gathering spot for a scattered population of miners, ranchers, cowhands and prospectors, as well as engineers, train crews and travelers passing through the area. The need for overnight accommodations led to the creation of the small, Spanish colonial-style Hotel Nipton, constructed of adobe beside the tracks about 1910. The little roadside community offered a few small businesses, a post office and a one-room school.

When diesel replaced steam power for locomotives, the trains no longer needed watering stops like Nipton. The town clung to life as a desert social center and a place where a few trains still paused for freight and passenger traffic. A private owner kept the town going from 1913 until he died in 1947. Decades of dormancy followed, with the property changing hands several times.

Nipton got a new lease on life when the Freeman family acquired ownership in 1984. The new owners worked hard to restore some historic structures, clean up the property and promote Nipton as a destination in the desert.

Nipton’s general store serves as a camping supply depot, gift shop with handcrafted items and information center for books and maps about the desert and nearby Mojave National Preserve. Next door is the Whistle Stop Cafe. The schoolhouse that served Nipton’s children from kindergarten through eighth grade from 1930 to 1960 has been repurposed as a conference and education center popular for regional meetings. A municipal solar generating system, which opened in 2010, provides 85 percent of Nipton’s electrical power with room for expansion.

Barely more than a burned-out shell when restoration began, the historic Hotel Nipton serves as a cozy five-room bed-and-breakfast inn with double or twin beds and a central sitting room for reading, games and conversing. Even its long-neglected cactus and rock garden has been brought back to life. Guests also find lodging in five large tent cabins. Nearby, two restored residences house mostly professionals engaged in local projects. An RV park with amenities welcomes campers and a few semi-permanent residents. Guests in Nipton have access to more facilities, including hot tubs, picnic areas, barbecue grills and Internet and wireless connections. Call 760-856-2335 for reservations and details.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.

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