Adventure Chronicles: Exploring San Diego’s Deserts, Ghost Towns, & UFOs

In the interest of investigating the barren lands east of our bustling metropolis, the Adventure Chronicles gang set out on yet another expedition – choosing to ignore what would surely be extreme heat given that temperatures in the city were already approaching 90 degrees. Alas, we decided to hit the open road and head into San Diego’s deserts: past the Anza Borrego and into the scorching wilderness of the Jacumba Valley and the abandoned Ghost Town of Mountain Meadows.

san diego's deserts

Cruising the Historic Highway 80 

Once one starts traveling east, evidence of California’s deep-rooted Native American heritage begins popping up everywhere. Even the I-8 becomes renamed the “Kumeyaay Highway,” and other street monikers become essentially unpronounceable to most of us, natives though we may be. As we were cruising along the highway, we came upon signs for the historic Old Highway 80. Back in the early 1900s, before it was officially commissioned, HWY 80 was actually part of several auto trails that constituted the first all-weather, transcontinental highway (National Southern Highway). It later became known as the Broadway of America, and is pretty rich in history. A bunch of weird places have popped up along the route, and it’s definitely one of the most interesting roads in all of California to date; lesser known than its big brother, Route 66, but arguably just as intriguing.

A Vacation Destination Turned Ghost Town

We continued on the 80, maintaining a steady trajectory towards the town of Jacumba. Something became immediately noticeable as we approached what initially seemed like civilization – most of the buildings were completely abandoned and appeared as though they hadn’t been occupied for decades. An antique shop, a grocery and liquor store, and what looked like an old pool hall or bar paralleled a fully functioning and operating Quick Mart across the way. Talk about mixing past and present.

san diego's deserts

We peeked our heads around the corner and were astonished to see what looked like an ancient Roman building – after a little research, we discovered these were the ruins of an old bath house. Back in the early 1900s, Jacumba was known for its mineral Hot Springs and was a mecca for numerous Hollywood celebrities, including Clark Gable. Jacumba’s heyday came to an end in the late 1960s when I-8 was opened, which bypassed the town and shut it off from all major traffic. It slowly deteriorated, and the final insult to injury was the 1983 arson fire that burned the iconic Jacumba Hotel to the ground. 

san diego's deserts

All that remains of the hotel is a stone fireplace, hauntingly beautiful in its stark singularity on the side of the road, and the pink bath house ruins across the street.  A ghost town, technically speaking, is an abandoned city that contains visible remains; it typically becomes a ghost town because the economic activity that supported it has failed – in this case, the bypass in the 60s. It was a little eerie to walk through such a dilapidated piece of history, but remarkable to see the literal foundations of what was once such a booming getaway town. 

SEE ALSO: Miss last week’s Adventure Chronicles?

Coyote’s Flying Saucers

We hopped off Highway 80 directly onto another Native American-inspired route, In Ko Pah Road, still heading east. We were on our way towards Desert View Tower when something extraordinary appeared: an impeccably gleaming dome-topped UFO.

Was I hallucinating? Had the desert heat finally gotten to me?  We pulled over and took a second to calm our nerves before walking up to a series of RVs surrounded by alien and flying saucer paraphernalia. Literal paraphernalia – it was like walking onto a movie set for Aliens. Suddenly a glasses-clad man with a shirt that proclaimed ‘BELIEVE!’ popped out from behind one of the RVs. We couldn’t even begin to imagine what this was all about…

san diego's deserts

“Coyote,” less formally known as Jeff, bounded over to us and asked if we had seen any aliens lately. “Well, you’re looking right at one of ’em!” he said with a cackle. I asked if he had built all of these UFO-looking crafts himself, and he nodded emphatically. Coyote explained that he has been living in an RV at that very spot and working on different UFO models for the past couple of decades. [pullquote]”The desert isn’t for the faint of heart, y’know. If you don’t know what you’re doing, things could end up very badly for you…”[/pullquote] “The desert isn’t for the faint of heart, y’know. If you don’t know what you’re doing, things could end up very badly for you – especially when the sun goes down,” he cautioned. I believed him. Even his shoes looked like they were ready for a challenge: half-cut up cowboy boot, half shoe. Coyote told us he sees rattlesnakes, scorpions, and giant spiders on an almost daily basis; not for the faint of heart is right!

Much to our delight, Coyote asked if we’d like a quick ride in one of his UFOs. Was that even a question?! We all hopped in, sitting on a mattress he’d attached to a golf cart, and proceeded to careen down the dusty road at a blistering pace of 15 mph – stopping for a glimpse of a few treasures along the way, including handmade white rabbits (Coyote had an ode to Jefferson Airplane and their song ‘White Rabbit’ going on, which he proudly likened to his own craft’s name, Jefferson Starship) and an incredibly intricate series of sand castles perched on the side of the road. After our ride, another group of inquisitive visitors arrived, so we said our goodbyes to Coyote and continued on our journey – wondering what San Diego’s deserts could possibly have in store for us next.

Panoramic Desert Views

Finally it was up the hill and onto our last destination – the great Desert View Watchtower, which sits atop a high embankment off In Ko Pah Road and provides visitors with a stunning panoramic of Imperial Valley and the Anza Borrego Desert. The 70-foot tower was completed in 1928 by Bert Vaughn as a tribute to travelers – back when it used to take more than a month to travel from San Diego to Yuma. It provided road-weary wanderers with fresh radiator water (overheating was common in those days) and a quiet place to rest before continuing on.

san diego's desertsAlthough we arrived too late to actually go inside the tower and explore the museum, we were able to investigate the surrounding terrain. There was evidence of artistic and creative talent everywhere; beautiful hand-painted graffiti adorned walls of nearby buildings and drawings resembling cave carvings graced the outside of the Tower itself.

Creatures Made from Rock

It wasn’t long before we stumbled upon one of the real treasures of the area though – Boulder Park. The park was created just east of the San Andreas Fault amidst miles of massive granite batholithic boulders that have been exposed thanks to time and the elements of nature. In the 1930s, out-of-work engineer and folk artist W.T. Ratcliffe carved lizards, turtles, dogs, and buffalo from the granite, along with a series of stairways, over the course of two years. Many have withstood the test of time with the help of resident volunteers.

san diego's deserts

We took our time exploring the nooks and crannies of the boulders; everywhere we turned, there was something different to see. The only color used was red, but the effect was astonishing and the minimalistic nature of the carving is testament to Ratcliffe’s raw capability. As far as folk art goes, this is definitely worth checking out – both Boulder Park and the Desert Tower landed spots in the National Register of Historic Places.

Just as we finished viewing the carvings, the sun began to set and the crickets began to chirp; it was time to start the drive home. At only an hour and a half away, these magical, tucked-away sights are an easy day trip from San Diego and a great way to break up the monotony of a typical week.

If you’re thinking about visiting these places on your own, take the I-8 East from San Diego until you start seeing signs for Old Highway 80. Take the highway through the town of Jacumba Hot Springs (you’ll see the abandoned buildings on the left), then keep heading east until you see a sign for In Ko Pah Park Road. It isn’t a long road, and the Desert View Tower/Boulder Park are both at the end of the route; you can’t miss Coyote’s Repair Service just beforehand. 


Stay tuned for the next Adventure Chronicle! Where would you like to see us go next?

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2 thoughts on “Adventure Chronicles: Exploring San Diego’s Deserts, Ghost Towns, & UFOs

  1. Like this particular story. Always fun to get out of the city life in Cali, explore the exits off the main highways. Good storyteller here!

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