July 31, 2012

Photo Essay: Desert Center Ghost Town (Updated for 2021)

[Last updated 7/24/21 1:19 PM PT]

Some might argue that Desert Center is not a ghost town.

Sure, it has the Chuckwalla Raceway, and a senior living community with a golf course.

But it can only boast about 100 residents.

As one of the few stopovers available off the 10 freeway between Indio and Blythe, it could have a lot of business from drivers just passing through. But all of the services—gas stations, cafes, of which there used to be plenty—have closed. [Ed: The cafe closed earlier in 2012, the same year of my visit.]

I stumbled upon it after exiting Joshua Tree National Park from the southernmost end at Cottonwood Springs. I intended to take the 10 east to the 117 and make my way back up north through Rice and into Twentynine Palms.

But on a stormy day like today, the 117 was closed to traffic because of flooding. So I had plenty of time to explore what is left of Desert Center.

Desert Center was founded by "Desert Steve" Ragsdale, a preacher and cotton farmer who stumbled upon the remote area on his way to Los Angeles and decided to relocate his family there in 1921.

Two decades later, Desert Center still didn't have very many residents, until General Patton established an Army air field nearby. After World War II, the Kaiser Steel Eagle Mountain Mine became one of the largest open-pit minining operations in the world until its closure in the 1980s. (This is the same Kaiser that ultimately created Kaiser Permanente managed healthcare.)

A nearby prison also closed in 2003.

So what's left? Some state employees who work at a CalTrans maintenance facility, as well as...

...some relics from Kaiser Steel...

...some signs of the past...

...plenty of junk...

...and lots of former services.

Ragsdale was an opportunistic entrepreneur, and an avid advertiser of the services his town once provided, which included a number of cabins for rent.

At one point, there must have been enough local families to warrant having a school, which is now also closed.

The rain had stopped outside, but it was still raining inside the school.

Perhaps more livelihood lies beyond Ragsdale Road, Desert Center's "main street" which Ragsdale himself used to tout as 100 miles long.

I couldn't take the Desert Center Rice Road up to the Twentynine Palms Highway today to find out. But if I were to guess, I'd say I saw most of what there is to see.

Update 7/24/21—The unincorporated community of Desert Center has been sold to a new owner outside the founding family and is currently in escrow. Many structures are expected to be demolished. 

Nearby ghost towns:
Rice, CA and Dale, CA
The Salton Sea (Salton City, Bombay Beach, etc.)


  1. Wow!!!

    When you have a chance, read about the history of "Pioneer Town" in Yucca Valley. A crazy place (it was).

    1. It was a kind of company town for cast & crew of Westerns, right? I've been - I do enjoy Pappy & Harriet's - and I've actually stayed there at the Rimrock Ranch Cabins. Woke up in the middle of the night with a start, freaked out that the cabin door was open. I hope to hike the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve (which has been closed due to fire recovery) on Saturday morning...

  2. I once lived in the white cabin next to the one pictured burnt down. I've talked with Desert Steve when I was just a kid several times. I remember him asking me why wasn't I afraid of him. My Father told me that Steve wouldn't harm me and that it would be good for me to talk to him anytime I saw him out setting on the porch of the cabin he was living in the summer we lived in Desert Center. My Father worked at the Eagle Mountain mine. My reading that Steve moved away from DC in 1950 makes me wonder if maybe he wasn't back in DC in around 1961 to maybe work on his metal head stone. I would go speak with him but Stanly's boys (whom I hung around with - Sid & the other one) wouldn't get near him. Doc Quinn - 903 495 4483

  3. Also, when I was a kid that summer in Desert Center, I pumped gasoline out of the gas pumps pictured here when I would just for the fun of it help the guys that worked at the Standard Service Station that was a part of the Cafe and shop. The shop was on the west end, the station in the middle and the cafe on the east side of the structure. The swimming pool was on the east end of the cafe. Desert Steve and his wife were separated. Steve had the west end of town and his wife had the east end of town. Stanly's boys (Sid & ?) lived over by their Grandmother and I never went on that side of town much and don't remember ever meeting her. - Doc Quinn