Ridgecrest, CA

Enjoying the Openness of California's High Desert During Covid

Don Simkovich

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While sports events, theaters, concerts and landmark museums in Southern California remain closed, there’s one place to go for an open feeling—the High Desert.

Just up Highway 395, north of San Bernardino and east of Mojave, plenty of open land administered by the Bureau of Land Management offers plenty of trails and camping near the “living ghost town” of Randsburg.

The entire region is a former center for mining where gold was discovered on the slopes of Rand Mountain in 1895. A town sprung up overnight and the population in this arid region swelled to over 3,500 residents. That led to the formation of the Rand Mining District and evidence of once-active mines are visible along the 395 just south of Randsburg on the way to Ridgecrest and Inyokern.

Today’s population is officially at 69 hardy folks and the town hosts a bar, plus the popular Randsburg General Store. A two-cell jail still stands and was active into the 1950s.

The Randsburg General Store is among businesses in the region that are working hard to stay open during the coronavirus restrictions. In late December, the store, which is popular as a restaurant, was having a raffle of a large screen TV and had a petition that visitors could sign to recall Governor Gavin Newsome.

ATVs, Hiking, Camping

There were plenty of active bikers between Christmas and New Year’s but the volume was down from typical pre-Covid days.

People who make their way into Randsburg are hikers and All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) enthusiasts and plenty of motorcyclists wanting to give their dirt bikes a strenuous workout.

Two of the most popular areas to ride ATVs are Jawbone, due west, and the Grass Valley Wilderness Area on the eastern edge of Highway 395. ATV rentals are available in Jawbone. The BLM land is well-traveled and the Grass Valley Wilderness area has hiking, camping and, yes, fishing. Vegetation includes Joshua Trees and creosote bushes. Animals are desert tortoises and Mojave ground squirrels.

The China Lake Naval Weapons Research Base with headquarters in Ridgecrest occupies the eastern edge of the wilderness.

There are seven principles that visitors should follow on wilderness land:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

The upper Mojave Desert has a romantic heritage, described on Mojave Desert.net:

"It is a land steeped in the romance and lore of a colorful past which witnessed a cavalcade of pathfinders, explorers, gold seekers, stagecoaches, and freighting wagons -- culminating with the entrance of railroads, industrial enterprises and now, the modern missile, rocket and space age.
Here is a land of contrasts. On the west rise the dramatic peaks of the Sierra Nevada. To the north and northeast are the lava-banded Coso's and the buff and brown mountains of the Argus Range, with the Slate Range as its furthest corner. On the east, the little broken ranges are an extension of the Panamints while the Kramer Hills dominate the southern stretch of this vast desert."

Make a Stop in Kramer Junction

In addition to open vistas, the antique store in Kramer Junction is worth a visit. Kramer Junction Antiques sits at the intersection of 395 and Highway 58. There’s an unusual collection of smaller military jeeps and other vehicles along with an array of antique gas pumps.

The old pumps are quite colorful, painted in orange, red and shades of green and are labeled with Shell and the names of smaller oil companies that aren’t recognizable. The junction is a good place to stretch the legs and the museum is a memorable place that’s easy to see within a half hour.

It’s a great place to tour and take an extended day trip from most anywhere in the greater Los Angeles area and Riverside. The trip takes just over two hours to two-and-a-half hours from Pasadena, depending on traffic.

Stopping in the town gives a feel for California that’s so different from the coast. You get a sense of the historical, industrial nature of the state and how minerals played such a part in development on the eastern side of the Sierras.

During the late 1800s and into the 20th century, mining was a major industry.

Another five hours north is the old mining town of Brodie, a state park where the old buildings from the 1880s to 1920s are still intact.

Other points of interest within a few hours of Randsburg include Lone Pine, the gateway to hiking up Mount Whitney and the Museum of Western Film History which, unfortunately, is closed. The town is about 90 minutes north of Ridgecrest along 395 and was the place for western movies to shoot on location from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Gene Autry made 20 different movies in Lone Pine through Columbia and Republic Pictures from 1936 to 1951. Lucille Ball shot a movie there, too, in 1954—The Long, Long Trailer.

Farther north is Bishop with plenty of local hiking and fishing and Keough Hot Springs.

Beyond that is Mono Lake and passes into Yosemite Park.

This really is rural California.

Look at the economic figures for Inyo County and the labor force is only 8,230 for 2020. The unemployment rate was down to 5.8 percent.

Kern County is at 9.4%

Mono County is at 8.1%

Regarding Covid, in Kern County the case count was 1,276 on January 4th and has been in a steady downward trend.

For updated tourist information, log onto visitkern.com and log onto a joint site for Mono County and Inyo County. Updates are provided on road conditions, wildflowers for the spring and family trip ideas and tips.

There are travel restrictions but if you’re wanting out of the urban jungle and into the open land, then plan a trip to the High Desert, Mojave and Eastern Sierras.

Business resources in the largest town in the area, Ridgecrest with 28,755, is the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce. There are over 250 members including growing businesses, non-profit organizations and solo entrepreneurs.

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I interview entrepreneurs, and dig into the news around Southern California, giving a voice to business owners, artists and more. I also co-write the thriller novel series Tom Stone Detective Stories.

Pasadena, CA
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