A road trip to Vegas can be truly wild, but not in the way you'd expect. The history of the West — from cowboys to mobsters to Mormons — can all be experienced on a leisurely weekend ramble from Los Angeles to Sin City. And worry not, there are enough tales of desperados and dreamers to satisfy even the most restless gambler.
We begin our journey at an unassuming off-ramp on the I-15, approximately two hours from downtown Los Angeles. Our first stop is the Harvey House and Railroad Depot at 685 N. First Ave., also known as Casa del Desierto, in the dusty desert town of Barstow, once a major transportation hub of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Built in 1911, this building, which rises like a grand mirage in the worn-down desert, was one of entrepreneur Fred Harvey's famed one-stop hotel-restaurants, where lovely ladies — as portrayed by Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury in 1946's The Harvey Girls — entertained weary travelers. Today, it is on the National Register of Historic Places and houses both the eccentric Route 66 Mother Road Museum and the WARM Railroad Museum.
A short jaunt 14 miles north on I-15 brings us to the delightfully kitschy Calico Ghost Town. Now an expansive county park, Calico was founded around 1881, after a large silver strike in the hills above brought hundreds of rough-and-tumble miners to the area. Mostly abandoned after the mines tapped out, the town was restored and reimagined in the 1950s by Walter Knott, of Knott's Berry Farm fame. Take a stroll down "Main Street," visit the historic silver mine, ride the train or do a ghost tour; every option promises that you'll be sucked into fantasy land in no time. And don't miss the fascinating Calico graveyard, where historic and modern-day desperados are buried. If you're knackered after all this fun, spend the night at the Calico campsite or in one of its rustic cabins or bunkhouses.
Hop back in your car, loaded with old-fashioned candy and drinks from the Calico General Store, crank up some Willie Nelson and get back on I-15 north. In about an hour, you'll reach the exit for Zzyzx Road. Take it, and drive the 5 barren miles into the Mojave National Preserve to the fabled ruins of Zzyzx at Soda Springs. Here, you can picnic among the palm tree–strewn ruins of legendary patent-medicine huckster and Christian evangelist Curtis Howe Springer's 1944 Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort. Walk and nap (but beware of scorpions!) by the dilapidated fountain in the middle of the man-made pond called Lake Tuendae. The site is now the home of Cal State's Desert Studies Center.
On the road again, head toward Vegas. When you finally get there, drop your things off at your room at the El Cortez Hotel & Casino, in downtown Las Vegas. Opened in 1941, it was once owned by legendary gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, it retains a certain guys-and-dames, slick Vegas-noir charm.
From there, take a quick drive to the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historical Park. That's right, less than a mile from the hedonism of downtown — at Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue — stands a historic fort built by Mormon missionaries in the 1850s. The first structure constructed by Anglo settlers in Vegas, the fort served as a stopping place for Mormon pioneers traveling from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. Stroll the sunbaked fort remains, the museum and the stockade. There are still more than 100,000 Mormons in the Las Vegas area today.
For something entirely different, schedule (in advance) a one-hour guided tour of the brilliant Neon Museum at 770 N. Las Vegas Blvd. This expansive boneyard of historic neon from local casinos and other Vegas structures will make you feel like you've done acid — don't do acid, kids — or stepped into the final carnival scene of Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai. Next stop is the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, aka the Mob Museum, at 300 Stewart Ave. This slick, interactive museum is worth the visit and includes such macabre artifacts as the bullet-riddled St. Valentine's Day Massacre wall.
After all this history, give in to drinking and gambling at the Golden Gate Casino at 1 E. Fremont St.; this is Vegas after all. Just kidding, in typical Vegas sleight-of-hand, you'll still be exploring another historical site. Opened in 1906, the Golden Gate is the oldest casino in Las Vegas.
THE ROAD TO VEGAS
Getting there: Take 1-5 north to 1-15 north and follow signs from there.
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What to do: Take a trip to Vegas' tiny Burlesque Hall of Fame at 1017 S. First St. If science and large-scale destruction are your thing, the National Atomic Testing Museum at 755 E. Flamingo Road in Vegas is for you. If you love hiking, head to the Las Vegas Springs Preserve at 333 S. Valley View Blvd., where you can explore the botanical garden, walk acres of nature trails and learn about the area's rich history, complete with a re-created Wild West street. It's also home to the Nevada State Museum, which offers exhibits on regional and natural history, including a mammoth skeleton.
Where to eat: Try Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House at 6250 Rio Vista St. in Vegas. Opened in 1955, this Wild West–style, fine-dining restaurant serves just what you'd expect: massive steaks, including the 32-oz. Diamond Jim Brady.
Where to stay: Try the historic Golden Nugget on Fremont Street. One of Vegas' oldest casinos, it was built in 1946 by corrupt former LAPD cop Guy McAfee. Appropriately, on display in the Nugget is "the Hand of Faith," said to be the largest gold nugget in the world, discovered in Australia in 1980.
Wild card: On your way home, take a 33-mile detour via US-93 south to the awe-inspiring Hoover Dam. Built during the Great Depression, this modern engineering marvel was constructed by thousands of down-on-their-luck Americans, who stayed in Las Vegas and a site-adjacent squatters camp during its construction.