West Coast Road Trip 2018 – Day 4: Driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas

Even though we had our car for a couple of days already, this is where the actual road trip began. The obvious route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is not the most captivating, but we tried our best to make the drive as enjoyable as possible.

The  New York-New York Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip at night time.
The New York-New York Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip at night time.

Malibu Cars & Coffee

Before we left for this vacation, I spent some time researching dates and locations for cars and coffee events. These are meetups where car enthusiasts get together early in the morning to look at and talk about the fancy, cool, rare, expensive or otherwise interesting cars they brought. Fortunately, there was one on the exact date we were supposed to leave LA and head for Vegas. Unfortunately, it was pretty much in the exact opposite direction, on the other side of the city. Because the drive coming up was not going to be the most interesting one on our overall trip, and because the event started pretty early and we would have plenty of time, my wife (then still girl friend, more on that in a later post) agreed to still going, despite her lack of interest in cars.

The event took place in Malibu Bluffs Park, right on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, west of Santa Monica. To get there, we decided to drive through Topanga State Park, the most eastern part of a mountainous forest area between highway 1 and 101. The winding road between those highways is a relaxing drive with beautiful views, right up until you get to the ocean. From there, it’s a 10 minute drive along the Pacific Highway to get to the Malibu Bluffs parking lot. That lot is reserved for the participating cars, so if you drive a not so fancy car like our rental, you’ll have to park it along the long driveway leading away from the event location.

Even though it was early in the morning (the meetup starts at 7:00 AM), there were a surprising number of people and cool cars. A large variety of makes, models, special editions and custom creations was on display and some of those cars were pretty expensive. On one side of the parking lot, there was a food truck serving good coffee and tea. Shortly before leaving, one of my favorite cars (a Lamborghini Huracán, see below) pulled up, immediately drawing a crowd. While its owner went to get some coffee, he mentioned he just got the car the day before. He drank his coffee and left again, after which we also got back to our car and started our journey towards Las Vegas.

The drive to Vegas

If you want to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, you basically have 3 options: drive around the Angeles National Forest west and north of it (highway 14, probably less traffic but a bit of a detour), south and east of it (highway 210, shorter but higher risk of city traffic), or directly through it (highway 2, scenic but long). We decided to go with the (hopefully) fastest option of highway 210 to the east and then north on I-15.

Mormon Rocks

Our first stop was at the Mormon Rocks, sandstone rock formations next to Cajon Junction on the I-15 just outside of the Los Angeles area. You can see the biggest rocks from the highway, but we decided to have a quick stop and enjoy the view from the top of a hill across from the fire station. The name commemorates Mormon settlers traveling through Cajon Pass from Salt Lake City, Utah in 1851. The Historic Route 66 and a very active train line run through this area.

Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch

Further along that Route 66 you’ll find Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, a small fenced in desert area full of metal frame trees holding colored, empty glass bottles. It is also littered with historic items of all kinds, decorated with bottles as well. The whole thing does not make a lot of sense, but it’s an interesting sight where you can take a small break from driving. There is no entry fee.

The bottle trees and other peculiar items at Elmer's Bottle Tree Ranch near Oro Grande.
The bottle trees and other peculiar items at Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch near Oro Grande.
McDonald’s Barstow Station

Barstow Station is close to the junction where Interstate 40 starts, going off of the I-15. It’s named after the town it’s in, which is approximately at the halfway point between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. That makes it a popular stop for people traveling between the cities, including for a whole lot of tour buses. We stopped here to grab lunch, which we wanted to do at the McDonald’s there, because it has some train cars as part of the restaurant. That’s all show from the outside though, because they don’t have a train car interior and are just an extension of the usual McDonald’s restaurant design. We decided to go to Popeyes next door, but there are many other food options as well, such as a Subway, Panda Express and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Have burgers and fries inside the train cars at the McDonald's at Barstow Station.
Have burgers and fries inside the train cars at the McDonald’s at Barstow Station.

Normally, the drive from LA to Vegas along this route takes around 4 and a half hours, but we got stuck in a traffic jam caused by an accident pretty soon after leaving Barstow. Getting to our next stop in Baker usually takes an hour, but it took us almost 3, standing still in the blistering heat most of that time.

The World’s Tallest Thermometer

There’s not much to say about this. It’s a thermometer. It’s tall. It makes it easy to see the temperature while driving through Baker. Considering this is close to the Mojave Desert, it’s usually pretty hot. The 111 degrees Fahrenheit in the picture below comes down to almost 44 degrees Celsius.

Check the insanely high temperatures on the world's tallest thermometer in Baker.
Check the insanely high temperatures on the world’s tallest thermometer in Baker.
Alien Fresh Jerky

Alien Fresh Jerky is right across from the tallest thermometer. You can’t miss it, because it has a giant sign in the shape of an alien robot in front. The store itself looks like an alien spaceship, complete with an alien patrol car with aliens inside in front. Inside, they sell all kinds of jerky, most of them with an alien/space theme to them. The funniest one is definitely the invisible alien jerky, which is basically an empty bag…

You can get dozens of types of jerky at Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, including one that's invisible!
You can get dozens of types of jerky at Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, including one that’s invisible!

Arriving in Las Vegas

From Baker, it’s still around an hour and a half to Vegas. We had the occasional slowdown of traffic, but nothing as bad as before. Seeing the city’s hotels and casinos appear on the horizon and driving into town is always a weird and exciting feeling.

Our hotel: The SLS Las Vegas

I’d say that when you arrive in Vegas by car, you should drive along the Strip to get to your hotel, because it’s quite the introduction to the city. But because it was getting late in the afternoon and we had to pay another visit to Hertz, we decided to bypass the Strip to get to our hotel: the SLS Las Vegas (now re-branded as the Sahara Las Vegas). It is (or now was) a super modernly styled hotel on the north end of the Strip. It has light-up furniture, industrial materials, bold accent colors and lots of mirrors, including a big one on the ceiling above the bed. It’s a little bit outside of the busiest area of Vegas, which makes it slightly cheaper than the hotels that are closer. It’s still within walking distance, but if you want to skip longer walks in the extreme heat, you can pay to take the monorail from the station that’s pretty much attached to the hotel.

Hotels in Vegas are relatively cheap (compared to Los Angeles or San Francisco, for example), because they just want to host you and hope that you will spend/lose money at their casino. Don’t be fooled by the lower prices though, because almost all hotels will charge a separately listed resort fee, which may or may not include additional costs for internet and parking. All in all, it’s still cheaper to stay in Vegas than in many other big American cities.

Car trouble continued

Throughout our stay in Los Angeles, we spent a lot of time on the phone with Hertz’s customer service, in addition to trying to get our reserved convertible from the original rental location and LAX. While customer service told us we could pick up a convertible from any Hertz location, as they were the ones who failed to provide one, actually getting one proved very difficult. After some long phone conversations, including with Hertz’s road side assistance, someone was finally able to reserve a convertible at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. When getting in touch with that location before heading there, we could only get an answering machine, so trying to swap our car at the Vegas airport was still going to be a gamble.

When getting to their office there, nobody knew anything and we were denied a convertible. When confronting the supervisor with the fact that convertibles were still available from their location on the Hertz website, he pretty much confirmed what we suspected to be the case at LAX as well. Their garages were full of convertibles, but they were going for a premium price due to several big sports events taking place in the area. So while customer service tells you every Hertz location is obligated to set things right if they can, they actually won’t, because it hurts their bottom line.

Just when we were about to give up, the supervisor decided to call his manager, who reluctantly agreed to swap out our Nissan Altima for an almost brand new Chevrolet Camaro. We were delighted! Our efforts to turn this vacation, which started with frustration and disappointment, into the road trip it should have been from the start had finally paid off! We immediately put the top down and drove back to our hotel along the Las Vegas Strip in style, ready to enjoy Vegas and the rest of our journey like we initially intended to.

After a lot of hassle and frustration, we finally got the convertible rental car we booked from the airport in Las Vegas!
After a lot of hassle and frustration, we finally got the convertible rental car we booked from the airport in Las Vegas!

Missed opportunities

We bookmarked way more things ahead of time than we were able to do during our drive to Las Vegas. Here’s a quick overview of the things we missed out on:

  • Angeles National Forest: This mountainous forest area directly north of Los Angeles has a pretty long and windy road going through it. We thought it would take up too much time to follow that all the way, so instead we drove around the area on the east side.
  • Zzyzx: The deserted health center makes this settlement on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve an eerie place. The 7.2 KM/4.5 MI road leading up there from Interstate 15 is not completely paved and we didn’t want to expose our rental car to the unpaved parts.
  • Mojave National Preserve: Even though the Mojave Desert (south of Las Vegas) does have its pretty sights, it didn’t rank very high on our must-visit nature areas list. Because we already lost so much time being stuck in traffic, we decided to not take the detour and just skip it.
  • Del Taco: For some reason, the oldest location of this American-Mexican fast food chain comes up a lot as a suggestion if you Google for stuff to see or do along the route between LA and Vegas. It’s in Barstow, where we decided to go to the train car McDonald’s instead.
  • Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner: A classic American diner just east of Barstow, built in 1954 and reopened in 1987. Its decor and menu reflect the look and food of the 50’s. The couple that runs the place also put their collection of movie and TV memorabilia on display.
  • The Mad Greek: The Mad Greek is a family-owned business serving iconic Greek food like gyro shawarma, souvlaki, zaziki and spanakopita, next to a wide variety of more American breakfast, lunch and dinner options. It’s in Baker past Barstow, so we already had lunch before we drove through there.

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