The Kelso Train Depot

The Kelso Depot
The Kelso Depot
Photo by Osie Turner

Although a short drive from Las Vegas, many of the city’s residents have never heard of the Kelso Train Depot. This is likely owing to the fact that the town of Kelso, California has been mostly abandoned since the 1960s — not that it was ever a thriving city to begin with. The train depot building was closed down from its intended purpose in 1985, but now hosts a museum and art gallery, as well as serving as a visitor center for the Mojave National Preserve.

Click here for a Custom Map showing the recommended route for this scenic trip.
(Map provided by and built by Tom Herbertson.)

Kelso was a railroad town that began as a pit-stop for Union Pacific Railroad workers in 1905 when the line from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City was built. It remained mainly as a layover stop until World War II, when a new need for minerals for the war effort caused the area to swell to a town of almost 2,000 residents. By the 1970s most had moved away to greener pastures, however, a few families remained. Kelso was known as the “town without T.V.” because, due to its remote location, television signals did not reach the few that still called Kelso home.

Originally dubbed the “Kelso Restaurant and Clubhouse,” the current train depot building was built in 1923 and opened in the following year. It served as a restaurant for passengers and workers, a boarding house for crew, and telegraph office. It was designed in the Spanish Mission Revival architectural style and built to rival the roadhouses of the competing Santa Fe lines. The depot stands out as an oasis and is still a welcomed sight for travelers driving through the vast desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Looking down the tracks from the depot.
Looking down the tracks from the depot.
Photo by Osie Turner

Today Kelso is a ghost town, the only trace of it still remaining besides the beautifully restored train depot is the post office building across the street. A few foundations of long-lost structures, the only evidence of the town’s brief existence, can be spotted from the road. The depot museum alone is well worth the drive, however. The main floor and lower level are filled with changing displays of artwork and photography relating to the Mojave Desert. The second floor houses artifacts and displays from the area’s past. Visitors can look in on the original train crew’s lodging quarters, and get a hands-on feel of what the men who worked the line did. The best part is that both the museum and galleries are free of charge.

Naturally, and unsurprisingly, the old depot building is said to be haunted. Rumor has it that a rail worker, staying in room 6, hung himself one night long ago. His ghost can be seen pacing around the second floor and looking out one of the windows down to the street.

For the morbid traveler, there is a small cemetery just up the tracks from the depot that is something of a mystery. No one seems to know for sure why it’s there or who is buried there. Even most of the rangers at the depot do not even know it’s there. All of the thirty or so graves in it have simple white crosses as markers, but no names or dates are to be found. The most likely theory is that it is the resting place of migrant rail workers from the lines early days.

Driving to Kelso can be a fun adventure in and of itself, the Kelso Cima Road offers spectacular views of a Joshua Tree forest. The Kelso Dunes—sweeping sand dunes like something straight out of the Arabian Desert, some reach over 600 feet tall—are only about eight miles from the depot as well.

If you have a free day and want to get out of the city, Kelso is an easy and short road trip to consider! Nature, history, and maybe even a ghost or two, what more could you ask for?

Kelso can be found at the intersection of the Kelbaker and Kelso Cima Roads.

For more about the Mojave National Preserve and Kelso Dunes, go to:


4 responses on “The Kelso Train Depot

  1. Love the Kelso Depot. When I visited, I listened to a clip of old Doc Springer talking about Zzyzx on his radio show. Not exactly a ghost, but at least a voice from the past. I’ll be on the lookout for ghosts next time.

  2. I’ve made a point of stopping by the Kelso Depot at least 2-3 times a year. For a spell, the old diner was serving sandwiches but it was tough to make sufficient money to keep it open. The exhibits upstairs are superb!

    As Osie’s photos show, the lines of the building make for a wonderful photo opportunity at various times of the day with the change of the quality of the light. It’s also a fun place to watch modern trains as they make their way up the grade!

    And the shape of the sand crystals at the nearby Kelso Dunes is world-famous. It creates a “singing” sound when one runs down the slope.

    And if you want to see a rather unusual photo of the Zyzzx Springs area — check out this aerial shot I captured a few years ago!

  3. Thank you for the comments, everyone! It really is a fascinating area, and, as often is the case in the desert, there is more to it than meets the eye. What I found surprising is that it is not that far off the I-15; its just amazing that its so close to such a busy thoroughfare.

    I am going to look into camping at the dunes when it warms up a bit. I’m sure that would be a wonderful area to spend the night sometime.

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