About 3 years ago, I had been to the City of Needles in California. My wanderlust raised its head and had me looking at a California map again for a fun road trip. Yes, I still love looking at paper maps and have kept a California map exclusively to highlight in pink every road I have explored. I noticed another route I hadn’t taken to Needles, so it was time to make another trip through the Mojave Desert.
Full disclosure, I called up one of the women I met on my first visit. She was thrilled I wanted to come back and connected me with Needles Tourism to plan my 3 days, which they hosted.
With a population of 5,200, Needles’s location often escapes travelers’ consciousness when planning their destination. However, there is renewed interest in exploring the entire length of Route 66. While Interstate 40 now bypasses the downtown area, Route 66 still exists, and businesses are thriving along it again.
1. The Mighty Colorado River
I have yet to mention that Needles is located on the mighty Colorado River. A journey over one of two bridges in the area will find you in Arizona; Needles is the last town in California before you travel to Arizona.
Standing on the river’s edge, one can see magnificent homes that line the banks. You will see kayakers, white sand beaches with people enjoying the refreshing water, and boats filled with families enjoying the wind blowing through their hair. People from Los Angeles and San Diego have discovered this area, for it offers a way to leave the crowds and traffic congestion behind them.
2. Watersports At Needles Marina Resort
One of the recent proud community additions is the development of Needles Marina Resort. Amenities include a swimming pool, pickleball courts, and laundry facilities for RV spaces. If you don’t have an RV, consider one of their cabins. The Marina has a large boat ramp used by locals for launching their private boats for a day of adventure. Also, a white sand beach is perfect to work on your tan. Many places will rent you equipment if you don’t have the accessories to spend time on the river.
3. Rivers Edge Golf Course
It is not often you find a golf course on a river, let alone the Colorado. Rivers Edge Golf Course is the only 19-hole golf course in the tri-state area. Laughlin Casinos often bundle packages for golf with their rooms. City-owned, the golf course has just received a large grant for improving the grounds. JJ DeLeon, general manager of Rivers Edge, stated one of the things he is proudest of is that this golf course design is such that it will challenge golfers of all calibers of expertise.
Ready for a bite to eat? I can attest that you will not leave hungry after having lunch at 19 Hole Bar and Grill. I’m still thinking about the deep-fried zucchini I had there, along with the bang bang shrimp. Oh, alright, I had a Moscow Mule to go with it — hey, it was a 100-degree day.
4. El Garces Harvey House
With the settling of the West, the need for transportation did not go unnoticed by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad owners. Thus, the building of the railroad to the West began. In 1883, after the demise of a couple of bridges in Arizona, the owners decided a new bridge to California was best suited to cross over the Colorado River in Needles.
With the construction going full force, the need for housing and food for the workers caused the town’s population to balloon. Not only did the population enlarge, but it also became apparent the location was the perfect place to change crews. Today, Needles’s top employer is the railroad, which continues to be the site for changing crews on long trans-United-States hauls.
I don’t think I am the only person that hadn’t realized the first railroad trains did not have dining cars. To handle this situation, specific spots were identified where the trains would stop for a fast half-hour lunch. Passengers reboarded and the same thing would happen for dinner.
Fred Harvey, a Kansas City resident, traveling west on the train, was far from impressed. So he created a plan. He wanted to build restaurants with fine linens, crystal, silver, and food prepared by fine chefs. Thus, the first Harvey House in Kansas opened, launching an empire of 100 Harvey Houses built 100 miles apart on the rail system.
In 1908, he hired architect Francis Wilson to design and oversee the construction of the Neoclassical-style El Garces Harvey House in Needles. The design included 62 hotel rooms for weary travelers journeying across the country. This particular Harvey house served the railroad from 1908 until the end of WWII and officially closed in 1949.
Today, the outside of the El Garces has been restored. Two rooms within the building are used for community gatherings, while the other spaces are down to studs waiting patiently for entrepreneurs who see the future of this, once again, quietly awakening town.
The Harvey Girls
Now, this is where the story gets interesting. I was able to tour the El Garces Harvey House with a descendant of one of the Harvey Girls — women selected as the waitresses at the hotels’ restaurants. Regretfully, his grandmother never revealed she was a Harvey Girl, and the discovery of this chapter of her life was revealed in memorabilia discovered upon her death. Now, however, her grandson, a full-time resident of Needles, has set out on a journey to become knowledgeable about what life was like for the Harvey Girls.
Staffing these remote Harvey Houses was no easy task. After seeing a model in Arizona that hired only women, Harvey decided to try it. He designed an ad that asked women from 18–30 who were intelligent and attractive to apply. They signed 6- to 12-month contracts, had a curfew, and were contributing community members. The picture reveals their nun-like uniforms. Harvey wanted to make a statement about his thoughts on the women’s roles: to serve meals and nothing more, and to make it clear to travelers who might have other ideas.
5. Needles Regional Museum
This spacious one-room museum, formerly a JC Penney built in 1948, packs a great deal of information for any visitor. It is located on Front Street, Route 66, directly across from the El Garces Harvey House. Railroad information abounds, with my favorite, a replica of a caboose. Now I know how the man in the caboose lived on these trans-continental rail journeys. It was not very large, but with all the comforts he needed, including a bed.
The Needles Regional Museum has an impressive Mojave Indian basket and pottery collection. Thus, it provides a terrific beginning talking point for sharing information, especially with local school children.
The statue greeting you at the door is one that no visitor can pass up with one of two questions:
Why is there a statue of Spike, Snoopy’s brother, here? Charles Schultz lived in Needles, and his dog during his stay here was Spike. A local businessperson worked with the Charles Schultz Foundation to get an authentic replica of this famous Peanuts character.
The other question would be: Can I get my picture taken with him? As you can see, I couldn’t resist. Of course, you can also get your picture with this 6-foot-tall replica of Spike.
6. Kush On 66
It was a delight to get a first-hand view of what surely will be coming to many communities in the future. Needles was an early adapter to allowing the cannabis industry into its city. Today, there are 30 businesses cultivating and packaging, and five lounges, in Needles. One of the lounges, Kush on 66, is a complex with three distinct divisions serving the industry.
On the left is the dispensary where a guard stands at the door, per California law. The space is a well-lit store with knowledgeable salespeople ready to answer your questions. If you want to browse on your own, you may be surprised to see several clear smell boxes waiting for you to choose the terpene notes of pine, blueberry, or lemon that you might enjoy. You make your purchases here.
Then, you can head to the adjacent space, which is the lounge. Join your friends at the bar, or find some tables for easy conversation. Are you getting the munchies? No problem, order something and it will be delivered, so you don’t miss a beat of the conversation.
The third section of the complex is a deli with a large patio where people can sit and enjoy the desert’s summer weather. You can find hamburgers and mac & cheese on the menu.
Hotels In Needles
Best Western Colorado River Inn
My accommodation was at the Best Western Colorado River Inn, strategically located between Route 66 and Interstate 40, bypassing the city’s original Route 66. I was surprised to walk into the lobby to find a fully-refurbished, modernist-like space with a lovely seating area and a breakfast bar that was a setting for planning journeys throughout the city. All the rooms are being refurbished. Even so, there certainly is nothing that would prevent me from staying there again. The rooms are immaculate, with oh-so-comfy beds.
Once thriving places, like Fender’s Resort, have been remodeled without losing the hotels’ décor that people would find if they stopped in Needles in the 1940s. The adjacent RV park has excellent facilities and beautiful trees, and is steps away from the Colorado River.
Restaurants In Needles
Wagon Wheel Restaurant
If you want to see a comprehensive collection of memorabilia, you will want to stop at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant for a meal. While I had lunch there, my favorite was breakfast while watching locals come in, greet each other, and slip into a booth for a breakfast meeting.
Chilling Point Restaurant