If you have been following my adventures through the years you know my wife and I like to visit little known forgotten places like ghost towns, stage stops, military outposts, mining camps, and other places slowly being lost to time and the elements. One such place is Desert Center, California just off Interstate 10 in the Mojave Desert.
Desert Center had its beginnings in 1921 when founder Stephen Ragsdale built a service station and café along the route of what would eventually become Interstate 10.
At the time the café was the only place to obtain a meal for 50 miles in any direction. The café was open for business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with Ragsdale stating, “We lost our keys – we can’t close!” The café finally did close in 2012 with a note left on the door stating it was closed temporarily for maintenance.
My wife and I stumbled across the site in the fall of 2016 when we were lured off I-10 by the nearby modern-day ghost town of Eagle Mountain just north of Desert Center. While Eagle Mountain turned out to be a bust (we took the wrong road and the town is on private property under the watchful eye of security personnel), Desert Center proved to be a special treat.
During our visit, the café was just as it was when the door was closed and locked on its last day of business in 2012. Peering through the windows we could see salt & pepper shakers still sitting on the tables along with sugar dispensers, vacant chairs awaiting customers in position at the tables, and inverted coffee cups were set next to the coffee maker ready to be filled.
Walking around town we explored an old railroad caboose, antique vehicles that had been baking in the sun for years, old gasoline pumps on the island of the service station which hadn’t dispensed gas in decades, and viewed many other neat old relics.
Despite the traffic whizzing by on adjacent I-10, we had the whole place to ourselves and you could just feel the ghosts of yesteryear welcoming us to their haunts.
Sadly, I recently read that contents of the entire town had been auctioned off online by a descendant of Ragsdale’s. The old gas pumps sold for $3,300, the old neon sign for the café fetched $7,400, the wooden phone booths located in the back of the café brought in $1,500 and a Los Angeles Times newspaper rack went for $270.
While the physical items may have been sold and carted off, the ghosts still remain and I am sure would appreciate you taking the time to exit I-10 for a short visit when you travel through the area. You will find Desert Center just north of Exit 192 on I-10 with plenty of space for RV parking.
Exploring the ghostly days of a bygone era, just another adventure in RVing!
If you have memories of Desert Center during its operating days, please share.
You may also like: Explore One Of The Best-Preserved Ghost Towns In The West
Dave Helgeson’s many roles in the RV industry started before he even had a driver’s license. His grandparents and father owned an RV dealership before the term “RV” had been coined, and Dave played a pivotal role in nearly every position of an RV dealership. He and his wife Cheri launched their own RV dealership in the Pacific Northwest. The duo also spent 29 years overseeing regional RV shows. Dave has also served as President of a local chapter of the Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), worked on the board of advisors for the RV Technician Program of a local technical college, and served as a board member of the Manufactured Home and RV Association. Dave’s reputation earned him the title of “The foremost expert on boondocking,” bestowed by RV industry icon, the late Gary Bunzer (The RV Doctor). When he’s not out boondocking, you’ll find Dave in the spotlight at RV shows across the country, giving seminars about all things RVing. He and Cheri currently roam in their fifth travel trailer, with Dave doing all the service, repair and modifications to his own unit.
Thanks for sharing this! I had never heard of Desert Center before, I wish I’d known about it before the stuff was auctioned. I would have driven up from San Diego just to see it, and my wife would have wondered why I would drive that far just to see an abandoned town lol
Keith Matthews says
I grew up there. Those phone booths use to be crank phones.
Vanessa Castillo says
My family and I recently stopped by on our way home from Arizona back to California. I’ve been to the place a few times. My husband has never been so I asked him to stop.
We had a ghost story happen to it.
We were looking into the cafe with my sons 5&3 years old. You have to put your face close to the glass to see In because of the strong glare, my 5 year old and myself were looking in. My 3 year old wants to join in, the minute he put his face to the glass and could actually see what’s inside he jumped back and screamed as if something scared him which was super strange for him. Then all of the sudden the food just started shaking as if someone from the inside was trying to open the door. I have never experienced a paranormal activity outside of my home so I was a little freaked out. Best part is I was recording up until my son screamed and I hit stop. You you can hear him get scared I’m the video. My husband is a law enforcement and that is an area he patrols. He went to work the next day and told the other agents what happened and they let him on know of all the experiences that has happened to them while patrolling that area.
Keith Christianson says
Your article makes me feel really Old when my old stomping grounds are described as an “abandoned ghost town”. I attended Eagle Mt. High School and graduated in 1966 with my class of about 33 students. I worked for the senior Ragsdales all thru high school and the younger generation were my classmates.
I pumped 1000’s of gallons of gasoline and repaired many tires working in the two gas stations.
The area was never any better looking than it looks now but it was a fun place to grow up.
Marcia Patrick says
I lived in Desert Center our car broke down and we ended up there for about 4 months . My husband cooked in the resturant and I cleaned the motel rooms very enjoyable time
In the 90s we flew to the Desert Center Airport several times to camp under our wing and watch the dark night sky with our telescope. There was still a Mexican food cafe we walked to near the highway. Last year we spent the night at the Lake Tamarask Desert Resort in our RV. It was a great spot with friendly full-timers and travellers. You can access the desert with an ATV if you have one. – Margy
Mtn Gram says
Thanks, Margy, for letting us know about Tamarask Desert Resort at Desert Center in Southern CA just off
I-10. We are planning a trip that will put us just about
there at the end of a “driving day”. Had wondered if
that might be a good rv park for a night or two, and
thanks to you, I now have an answer !!
Keith Matthews says
I grew up there. Those phone booths use to be crank phones.
I have a Question. Is every one that went to the desert center ever come out alive???
Ken Brannan says
I lived in Eagle Mtn. For 13 years. Good place to grow up. 1960-1973. Graduated in 72. Kaiser paid for everything but food. 3bdr-2 bath w/gar $48mo.my dad drove the giant dump trucks W^8ft tires bring iron Orr off the mountain. Safe place to live. 4000 people livedThere in the 70’s. many memories from that little town. Sorry it is no longer vibrant.
Harry Palmer says
Thanks for showing the pictures and talking about this special place. I love to look at old towns & sites from our history since many of these sites will be gone in years to come. Great article.
You didn’t mention the general Patton used to go and have dinner there make his telephone calls during World War II . It is the birthplace of Kaiser Permanente
Mike Jones says
In 2012 my wife and I were on our way back from Laughlin, NV and were hungry when we reached Desert Center. We saw the cafe and when wee pulled up to the front, we noticed a “B” rating in the window from the health department. We considered how hungry we were and that Palm Springs was 50 miles away and decided to take our chance. The food was very good and the servers were very friendly. After eating we walked around and enjoyed the antiques that were all around the property. Then in 2013, another trip brought us back to Desert Center and wanted to eat at the cafe again, it was closed with a note saying “temporarily closed”. So again in 2014 we tried again and no change to the closed cafe. Now we hear that pieces of it has been sold off, sad day for us but we have great memories of how Desert Center was!
I remember stopping there in the spring/summer of 1974. We got there after midnight, it was 112F and even the gas pump handle was warm. I was glad there was a fuel station there and we got some snacks.
Life was sure different then. I had a 1954 Chevy pickup(no a/c) and a home made camper. We made it to the Colorado River and all the way back home to L.A. County – I would never enter that desert without a/c these days.
We used to go from Anaheim to Phoenix every December, and generally stop in Desert Center. To us kids, being in the desert with nothing else around for 50 miles seemed like such an dangerous and exciting adventure. It was a 2-lane road most of the way to Phoenix, back then.
Larry L says
Great stories I loved reading them all
I still remember when I was a small kid traveling with my family on that old 2 lane road before i-10 — mid to late fifties and then worked there in 2012 on the transmission line and ate at the cafe also and now I travel through there to Kingman Wow I think the place will always be with me Larry
Apache wollf says
Been there and enjoyed it. There is (at least there was) a small nice RV park up the road on CA 177. There is also a small General Store and you are only a mile or so from Lake Tamarisk which also has an RV park. Its been a few years since we were there so much could have happened since but its right off the I 10 so no big detour.
Wow! This place looks like it is straight out of “The Lost Room” miniseries!
Danny L Dykstra says
I flew into the Desert Center airport on December 18, 1994. I think I walked to the Cafe to call my Uncle who lived in the area. Gave him and other assorted relatives a ride in my Cessna 172. The Air Force had a drop zone in the area and there was a large military fork lift on the field.
Charlie Stevenson says
Back in the 60’s my Dad bought 1000s of tires from Lincoln Ragsdale. We hauled them back to Phoenix with a low-boy moving van. We would fill it to the top then run it around the desert to settle the tires down from the ceiling. Then I ( 12 yrs. old) would crawl up inside and put more tires in the top area. This was in the summer time and it was really hot in the top of that trailer, but it was fun.
Neil Grehlinger says
Dave – Have you ever been to Jeffery City WY? Uranium mining town. Approx 20,000 residents in 1970. Now population is maybe 5 – 7. Very interesting people.
Joseph Koenig says
Fascinating article. I just read about a Dr. Sidney Garfield in the Antelope Valley Press. He founded Kaiser Permanente. During the Great Depression he opened a hospital six miles from Desert Center when thousands of men were involved in building the Colorado River Aquaduct.
In 1992 My husband worked for Caltrans and we lived in Desert Center for one year. The housing we were assigned, was the old Patton/military cinder block huts. We ate at the Cafe quite often and there was an additional storage room attached to the cafe with a window. Peering in we could see an entire Locomotive Engine! Another interesting memory was watching Carole King film a music video in one of the old empty storefronts across the street from the cafe. They hauled in her piano and Hollywood tumbleweeds… I guess they thought we didn’t have enough tumbleweeds in the desert! Ha! I do remember Mr. Ragsdale, he was definitely an interesting man.
Dave and Carol says
Awesome write up! We are 8 miles from Desert Center and will be stopping there for lunch. Thank you for the great info on this lovely landmark.
Dave and Carol
Dave Allen says
I stumbled on this site; so glad I did. I grew up in D.C. from ’37-’48. I worked for Stanley Ragsdale; was afraid of “Desert Steve”. High school at Coachella 55-60 miles distant. After H.S. worked for Stover Bros in ’47-’48, building the Eagle Mtn barracks and cafeteria, the start of the mining operation. I was about 14 when Camp Young was in full swing. D.C. was almost overrun with soldiers. I worked behind the counter. OMIGOSH, such memories.
Lisa Hjulberg says
Hello! What a great article! My dad grew up in Desert Center in the 30’s! He has written his memoirs, which include a lot about Desert Center life. I sent you a Message on Facebook. Please check Messenger to accept my message. I look forward to hearing from you about the pictures. Thanks!
Harold Cutter says
On way back from spring break at lake havasu our van broke down in middle of nowhere. The gas station close by was hole in wall city called Desert Center. Waited in lot for family to pick me up after 3hrs here. That was 1963!! Hell was never this hot and lonely!!
The hieldbrants lived at desert center
Exra and hazel and marjorie
They lived in a tent. One mom told me to drive ny anl told me to say hi to steve. She told me that when she lived in the tent desert steve chased her out the door for fun. I went there and the man at the station said desert steve just left. My mom wanted me to say hi to her old friend. She lived in desert cente with her mom and dad ezra and hazel. Wish i had pi tures of her in those days
Frank Long says
In the early 70s we lived in Lake Havasu and Drove through Desert Center on our way to visit family in Long Beach . I’m sure there are faster ways these days .