California City, Here We Come! A Day Trip To the Mightiest Metropolis That Never Was

Here’s a great pic of me and my two friends Tavi and Jonathan, hanging out in the Mojave Desert:

If it looks like we’re in the middle of nowhere, well… we are. But there’s so much more to the story than that! There’s standing on the site of what could have been a great American city. But things didn’t turn out quite as planned… and what’s there now has to be seen to be believed.

In 1958, a real estate developer bought 80,000 acres in the Mojave Desert. He wanted to build a glorious city – one that he thought would eventually be as populated as Los Angeles or San Francisco. He called it California City, and he designed it to radiate out from a big loop around a central park, which he appropriately named “Central Park.” He carved hundreds of miles of roads through the flat, hot desert landscape, and named all of them. Then he started selling plots of lands, so other builders could construct homes, apartments, retail, schools – everything a modern, major city would need.

Except… hardly anyone came. The project was a colossal failure. Maybe it was because California City was rather isolated (almost 2 hours from downtown Los Angeles), maybe because the desert heat made living there difficult, maybe there were other reasons.

By the mid-’80s, California City, which was designed to eventually accommodate hundreds of thousands of people, had a population of 3,000. Now the population has grown to around 13,000 – although that includes the 2,300 inmates serving time at a state penitentiary that was built within the city limits about 12 years ago. (That penitentiary is one of the largest employers in the city.)

And the hundred of miles of roads that were built in the ’60s, to subdivide the land into more managable parcels? They’re still there. They’re all identified on Google Maps. You can find them, northeast of the city center. Because of them, a map of California City looks like a bustling, busy suburb:

But switch over to the satellite image for that exact same area, and the cold hard truth smacks you in the face. THERE’S NOTHING THERE!

There’s only dirt roads (and a few crumbling paved ones) going nowhere in the middle of the desert. All this barren land does help California City boast one impressive feat: in terms is land area, California City is the third largest city in the state, trailing Los Angeles and San Diego. That’s right, in terms of acreage, this tiny desert town has San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, Fresno, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Palm Springs beat.

I first read about California City about eight years ago, and I’ve always wanted to go check it out for myself. I never made it out there, but my passion was reignited when I bought my new Jeep, and a drive to California City seemed a great day trip. Plus, Jeeps love dirt roads. Everyone knows that!

California City looks bizarre from satellite… and it’s even more bizarre in person. Hundreds of streets, intersections, and cul-de-sacs, all remnants of a real estate developer’s dream, slowly baking in the hot sun.

And there are street signs! Everything is marked – so you know exactly where you are, even though there’s nothing where you are. Look, I’m at the corner of Fareholm and Esperanea!

Before we explored the streets to nowhere, we explored the part of town that was built, where most of the town’s actual residents live. It’s spread out, with lots of vacant lots and abandoned buildings. There’s one main road that has a few strip malls and restaurants – a couple fast food joints, a Rite-Aid, a Best Western, gas stations, and the like.

Central Park is still there, and the centerpiece is a big man-made lake. The park is crumbling, but there was plenty of evidence that is was (or could be) a really lovely place to hang out. There’s a pavilion on a peninsula jutting into the lake…

…and a man-made waterfall that’s seen better days…

…and a rotting footbridge that’s now closed to the public (but that didn’t stop us).

On the far side of the lake was a decrepit building that we first thought was apartments, but after circling around to it, we realized it was what’s left of a hotel, the Lake Shore Inn.

There’s not tons of information available about the Lake Shore Inn, except that it was built in the ’60s to help sell the area as a resort town, and that it was abandoned a couple decades ago. There’s a big hole in the fence by the pool area, so we decided to investigate.

I even took a dip in the pool.

We found the big, stainless steel kitchen for the restaurant and ballroom.

The whole place could easily be used as a setting for a horror movie. It’s spooky!

A local told Jonathan, when we stopped at a gas station, that the best restaurant in town was Gloria’s, a Mexican joint, so we stopped there before heading home. I had an avocado omelet, and it was pretty good.

My first thought, when planning this day trip, was that we would walk the desert streets and around the park enough to provide a good workout. But when I realized it was going to be hot there that afternoon (in the low-90s), I completed my workout before we left (using my Bowflex equipment).

We still got in a good amount of walking, mostly in Central Park and around the Inn, but the high points of the trip was exploring this bizarre experiment in urban planning, and spreading time with buddies that appreciated it as much as I did.

Keep it up, David!

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6 Responses to California City, Here We Come! A Day Trip To the Mightiest Metropolis That Never Was

  1. Jeff Dinkin says:

    So wild, but yet, Lancaster and Palmdale have thrived. Go figure….

  2. sunningdale476 says:

    Hello David, I’m here in Palm Springs for a few weeks working on the house. If you’re crazy enough for a repeat trip to the heat and dust let me know. Great post about the desert, by the way. Michael C

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