I knew I’d stumbled into someplace…different…when I pulled into the packed dirt parking lot of the Nipton Trading Post, and it wasn’t just the huge glass octopus sculpture wriggling next to the highway. I rolled to a stop next to the five-room adobe hotel, which was built in 1910, and almost startled myself with the silence that greeted me after switching off the rumbling Indian Scout.
I could smell the hot, dusty leather of my saddlebags, was very much aware of the crunching of my boots as I stood and swung a leg stiff from hours of slogging across the desert over my luggage roll and backrest. My skin dimpled–someone was watching me.
For a few fleeting moments I was in another time, a traveling cowgirl who just rode into an unfamiliar town. A tumbleweed rolled across the empty dirt street to the theme from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”…OK, maybe that last bit was just in my head. I doffed my hat–er, helmet, squinting in the harsh desert light, and turned to see I was far from alone, and yes, I had definitely attracted some attention.
Two middle-aged guys in a fire engine red ’65 Mustang convertible were walking towards me, clearly curious about my equally retro-licious and iconic motorcycle. Past them, clustered around the railroad tracks, was a team–posse?–of photographers and assistants, all focused on a singular blonde woman in a gauzy dress, prancing up and down on the tracks. The large tour bus parked in the shade clearly belonged to her.
I stood for a moment, taking in the rest of the tiny settlement of Nipton: the aforementioned trading post and hotel, a restaurant called the Whistle Stop Café, an historical marker and a smattering of houses. Further out in the scrubby desert, past the hotel, I could just glimpse a few white teepees, along with a brightly-painted old car and what appeared to be metal sculptures. Yep, this is the place.
Nipton, current population somewhere between 15 and 20 souls, was founded in 1905 as a stop on the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, which merged with the Union Pacific Railroad in 1910. It feels very much in the middle of nowhere, despite being just 12 miles southeast of Primm, Nevada, but positioned as it is just on the California side of the border on a two-lane state highway in the Mojave Desert, it’s definitely off the beaten path.
Nowadays its unlikely story includes being owned by a former fossil fuel company that has shifted direction from oil and gas exploration to real estate development, with the idea being to turn tiny Nipton into a cannabis tourism destination. Wait, what??
Indeed, stepping inside the Nipton Trading Post to inquire about my reservation for one of the teepees, it became clear that pot is a dominant theme. Along with some groceries, cold drinks and southwestern souvenirs, two walls of the store were shelved with a variety of CBD products. (While legal for recreational use in California, marijuana itself, or anything containing THC, is not sold in Nipton, so BYOM.)
I was on my way to Las Vegas for a karate tournament, but we also had an Indian Scout with some touring accessories on it to test and I’m always down for a road trip, so I’d booked a night in Nipton to best position me for a ride up to the Hoover Dam and then north into Valley of Fire State Park before dropping into Sin City to get my butt kicked at the tournament.
Nipton’s location is convenient for a journey into the desert, be it the nearby Mojave National Preserve, Lake Mead or Lake Havasu, or the motorcycle destination of Laughlin. And its quirkiness appealed: accommodations include the old hotel, little “ecocabins” or, my choice, teepees. The ecocabins and teepees are solar-powered, just enough to run the interior lights and to charge your phone, but there are no TVs. The cabins are heated in the winter with woodstoves and the teepees have little propane heaters, but the weather during my visit in late April was warm enough that the provided blankets were plenty comfortable.
After a surprisingly delicious meal at the Whistle Stop (I know it sounds weird in the desert, but try the shrimp and grits, you won’t be sorry) and a quick stop into the trading post to grab a couple of cold beers, I explored the fairly deserted campground before calling it an early night.
I was up with the sun the next morning, wanting to get to Boulder City, the gateway to Lake Mead, for breakfast. The roads around the Hoover Dam have been greatly improved since I was last there as a kid, but the dam itself still inspired just as much awe as it did back then. It still produces power for California, Nevada and Arizona, although falling water levels in Lake Mead have affected how much it can output.
From there I rode north through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (part of the National Park system; if you don’t have an annual pass a fee is required) and then into Valley of Fire State Park.
Valley of Fire is, as its name suggests, full of interesting and beautiful red rock formations. Turn north at the Visitor Center for a ride into the heart of the park, where the road dips, climbs and weaves through a Technicolor landscape; keep your speed down as tourist traffic can be heavy and there are several blind, off-camber turns that can catch you out.
From there it was an easy, although boring, slog south on I-15 into Vegas. But if you’re ever riding in the area, a stop in Nipton and visits to the Hoover Dam and Valley of Fire should be on your list.
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