The Dying City of Needles, California

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

The adrenaline rush from exploring Amboy had ended, and I was ready to grab a bite to eat and then hit the hay. Since Roy's Cafe no longer had a functioning kitchen, I hadn't eaten since Twentynine Palms.

I stopped at Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Needles, which had good reviews on Yelp. At 9 pm I was the only guest, but I didn't mind the quiet. The place had a charming, comfortable atmosphere with walls covered in humorous signage and Route 66 memorabilia. The waitress was a sweet older blonde woman with a twang in her voice. She called me "darlin'", which I found endearing.

After a delicious meal I considered getting a room, since I'd spent every night in the car. A lot of the motels had flashing signs advertising rates as low as $38.95 per night, but the reviews on Yelp were all fairly negative. I drove past a few that had closed and now sat abandoned, so I made a mental note to explore them in the morning. I ended up parking at a truck stop for the night.

In the light of morning I got a better look at the city of Needles, and was astonished by the number of abandoned buildings.

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Named for the nearby pointed mountain peaks, Needles was founded in 1883 to support the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The city's location along the Western bank of the Colorado River, which serves as the California/Arizona border, was once its major draw. As in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, it was an important stopping point for travelers entering California in search of opportunity during the Dust Bowl era. Like the Joad family, thousands stopped in Needles for gas and supplies before crossing the Mojave Desert.

Its proximity to Arizona has since become a major factor behind the town's downfall. With corporate taxes and building regulations being significantly higher in California, many large businesses such as Walmart, Kmart, and Home Depot have chosen to open stores in Bullhead City, AZ, only a 20-minute drive from Needles. And for savvy travelers who know that gas is often a dollar per gallon cheaper east of the Colorado River, the decision to stop for fuel and lunch in Bullhead City instead of being gouged in Needles in a no-brainer.

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Other factors contributing to the decline of Needles include extremely high poverty (nearly 29% of the population lives below the poverty line), crime rates well above the national average (including violent crime), higher than average unemployment rates, and a lack of clothing and grocery stores. Also during summer months, Needles is often the hottest city in the United States, and sometimes the hottest on Earth.

I spent hours walking around Needles, spotting abandoned homes,

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

an abandoned burger joint,

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

a theater that still had promotional signs for a movie that came out more than 4 years prior to my visit, 

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

And quite a few abandoned motels.

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

One of the motels was not fenced off, so I decided to have a peek inside. 

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Needles has a small historic district,

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

Including a museum that, peculiarly, also serves as a thrift store. Maybe they sell the old exhibits?

Urban exploration of the dying town of Needles, CA along Route 66

I finally got back on the road and headed into Arizona, where I spent a crazy week exploring old minestrading posts, ghost towns, and many other very interesting abandonments. I even had a few run-ins with local law enforcement. 

I can't wait to tell you all about it!

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35 comments :

  1. Depressing. Should be a law against the corporate tax killing this town. :/
    -Darol

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a shame. The government could negotiate tax incentives that would encourage companies to move in. I'm not sure why that isn't happening.

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    2. This has been tried, and rejected by our state government, more than once.

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  2. I was hoping for a short video about Needles?

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  3. I grew up in needles in the 70s and 80s great place to live. It's terrible how it has gone so far downhill. My parents still live there.

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    Replies
    1. It's sad to see so many abandoned businesses. They've done a great job at keeping the graffiti away though. You and your parents must have seen the town go through some major changes over the years.

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  4. My husband grew up there and my mother-in-law still lives there. We visit Needles often and I was so excited to see you visited. It's too bad you didn't get a chance to visit the "big green house". From what I've heard, it used to be a brothel, complete with a bunch of tiny "visiting" rooms and hidden doorways. I've even heard it has a smuggling basement although I'm not sure about that one. I've always wanted to see inside- my late father-in-law owned his own plumbing company in needles and was able to do work on the house years ago. It was purchased and restored recently and now serves as a haunted house at Halloween. Needles is such a history-rich town and it's so sad to see what it has become.

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    Replies
    1. The big green house sounds like a really interesting place! I would've loved to check it out. I love places with secret doors and unique architectural characteristics. They always have fascinating histories.

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    2. The big green house does have a tunnel into the basement, you could here water dripping in it if i remember right. There was waiting benches outside each bedroom. I've been it that house numerous times. I do believe yes its haunted.

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    3. Jessie and Harry Dolans used to own the green house... it does have tunnels.

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  5. Do a google image search for needles California green house and you can see it! I also just found out that paranormal investigators discovered a ghost (if you believe in that kind of thing...)

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  6. It was devastating to see your account of my old home town. My grandfather built the Colorado River Motors garage in the 30's. My mother, father and I all graduated from high school in Needles. The town's decline is indeed due to California issues..taxes, regulations and sending homeless to live there. So sad when so many other towns are booming after capitalizing on the Route 66 heritage.
    Escapee

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It sounds like your family has a robust history in Needles. You must have a lot of happy memories there. I hope the town experiences a revival soon!

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  7. Sadly this town won't revive anytime soon. Since your visit/story, the Taco Bell has closed, just this week they announced Denny's will be closing by the end of the month, The Dollar Tree store has closed, there have been rumors that the 99 cent store will be closing before the end of the year. They are however building a Dollar General when there is one less then 5 miles from here, but won't put a grocery store in town.

    The city knows that there are people in town without transportation, yet they don't push for a grocery store, it was nice when Bashas was here. The only good thing about Bashas closing was now San Bernardino County doesn't drop bus loads of homeless people off in the parking lot in the middle of the night like they used to do. Most of the homeless people now go to Set Free Church (the old Baptist church) to get back on their feet or off of drugs and get out of here or until they can find another town to get sent to through the church to get closer to other drugs and crime.

    The town dying is not just because of the taxes, it is also because of the DRUG problem in this town, with drugs comes thieves, vandalism and other crimes. The empty houses are also because a bunch of the owners live further inland in Anaheim, LA, Long Beach, etc. and are charging those rents on some of the places in town. No one in town is going to be able to afford $1200 a month for rent in this town.

    The town is dying fast and I don't see any come back from where it's at now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sad to hear that businesses are continuing to close and things aren't getting any better. I hope someone comes up with a plan to revitalize the town before it's too late, if it isn't already too late.

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  8. Fantastic photos and great blog! Great work mate. Myself and three friends from Edinburgh cycled for charity from Los Angeles to New York. We stayed an extra day in Needles due to the heat of the desert forcing us to take a rest day and rejuvenate before cycling through Arizona. We were very gratefully comped a free room for the extra night stay which was very kind of the owners as the cycle was in aid of a cancer charity. It`s sad to see the continuous decline over the years. Fingers crossed one day things move in the right direction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That must have been an amazing journey! And what a great way to support such an important cause. Thank you for sharing your memories of Needles.

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  9. Yes, but this is not a new story. When I was young, one did not go into Old Sacramento day or night - now you can't find a place to park. San Francisco Victorian mansions were going for a song. And many old Gold Country towns were in shambles. Now you couldn't buy an SF Victorian for millions, and you can't drive Highway 49 on a nice weekend. Needles has in fact begun to turn around - the restoration of the El Garces would be an accomplishment anywhere. Spike is being honored. And there are moves afront to otherwise bring the town back to healthy life. You can also buy a nice home in a nice neighborhood there - with a pool - for less than 150k. I'll bet Needles becomes a destination for tourists in the not-too-distant future.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad things are turning around. I'd love to see Needles become a thriving travel destination. It always amazes me that places can transform from incredibly run-down and scary to revitalized and expensive within the span of a decade or two.

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  10. What the fu___ is wrong with .ca. Such a history and a major stop on a long long drive. Doesn't need to be this way we need industry out here you stupid fu__$ go ahead and live in Your rat race fake piece of shot lifestyle

    ReplyDelete
  11. I live in Needles and see how much CA really cares about it. Simply put, they don't. There was talk about Needles becoming a part of AZ or NV at one time. It would have been nice to see that happen.

    We moved here a little over a year ago. My hubby and I were able to get a cute little turn key house for 30K. It beat trying to buy in Riverside, CA or surrounding areas. We made the move because hubby lost his engineering job of 17 years. Everywhere in So Cal was wanting to pay less than he could make as an appliance repair tech with Sears. He took that job and we eventually transfered out here. My in Laws have vacation/retirement property in the area so it was an easy move to make.

    Cost of living is much better. When hubby got a new govt. job in Laughlin things greatly improved for us. Finding real full time work is tough for the tri-state area. Almost all available regular jobs are part time. There's nothing but retail, casino, food, automotive and medical for the most part. Almost all the jobs are going to be in Bullhead or Laughlin too.

    I love the old buildings but hate they are boarded up and abandoned. Seeing the poverty in the area saddens me. There's a serious drug issue here as well as Bullhead City, AZ. As the other poster mentioned, a lot of places have closed since your article. However the corner gas station pictured has since opened as well as the Dollar General. The Burger Hut is supposed ot be reopening. The Old Trails Inn is actually rental cabins/houses. Housing prices have started to go up a little too. There's even a couple million dollar estates up for sale in Needles.

    We do get snow birds (People from the cold/snow areas) that stay at the Marina during the winter but that doesn't help the economy too much since we have to go to AZ for pretty much all shopping. We get river people in the summer who come out too. Summer holidays get pretty busy around here.

    It does get pretty hot in the summer but it's certainly not as bad as I thought it was going to be. We almost never have to run heat in the winter which is a bonus. Since it's so dry a swamp cooler keeps our house cool enough for most of the summer. We do have to use our A/C between mid July and mid August. The humidity gets too high for the swamp cooler. The winds can be a pain. It doesn't matter what you do, dusting is a weekly chore at least.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Congratulations on getting such a great deal on a home. It's amazing how ridiculously high home prices have risen in the LA area. I'm glad your hubby was able to get a government job. It sounds like Needles has treated you well so far. I hope the economy picks up there.

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  12. Fellow Colorado River city to the south Blythe also have most of these terrible issues, although there are more services including grocery stores. However the complete shopping needs for some people are still fulfilled by out of town shopping in places at least one hour away from Blythe, and that's longer than the trip to Fort Mohave and Bullhead City from Needles. In my opinion it has a poorer cultural situation because there's nothing very iconic there like Route 66 in Needles. I hope Blythe gets cleaner and attractive like in its heydey some five or six decades ago. Right now some areas are a mess.

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    Replies
    1. I haven't been to Blythe, but I'll make a point of stopping there next time I'm in the area. I've heard there are some good hiking trails there.

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  13. Hi, thanks for the great story on Needles CA. We just bought a home here in Needles and I gotta say I was sceptical at first due to the way things looked but I just couldn't pass up the price. I think the way the town looks and has become is because of our City leaders. They need to offer more incentives for businesses​. They also need to implement some kind of drug intervention program for the kids in the schools. I do not live here full time, but I do plan on retiring here. If the change doesn't start right away I'm sure the town will continue to look the way it is.

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    Replies
    1. Congratulations on your new home! Hopefully the city will implement programs like those you've suggested. I'd love to see this city thrive.

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  14. I have relatives that live there. I read from other viewers here about the drug problem, it is terrible I have family in the Set Free church drug problem and one who has made it out of there is now drug free. He is living with another relative. All on fixed income. There are no jobs in town. Most people work in Laughlin at the casinos. I've always called Needles the armpit of Calif. it gets so hot there in the summer it's like hell. There is no public transportation. My brother has to bumb rides to get to medical specialists in Apple Valley and Barstow. It's really sad. The medical care in Needles is poor quality, in that they can't treat anything major. I hope it rebuilds. I can't see my family moving anywhere because it's to expensive.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Google the name Rick Daniels aka Needles' City Manager who is paid a hefty $300k a year and you'll understand why the town is dying. His and the city council's bright idea now is making the historic little town the Marijuana capital of the state with cultivation buildings and several locations within the downtown area to purchase Marijuana products. So sad that this diamond in the rough city is going to hell in a handbasket.

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  16. The coastal elites who run this state view California locations such as Needles, the Central Valley, and the Imperial Valley as "flyover country", just as they do most of the middle of the U.S.

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  17. Well its still pleasant, I moved here and married my Husband, his whole family is from here sad thing that happen, was I-40, detoured business around Needles instead of down Rt. 66.. as of so many years before. I love the little town.. God Bless , we see more construction now.

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  18. I remember when needles was a bustling town. 2 car dealerships, a large number of residents, 3 auto parts stores, etc... One of your pictures is of a fenced off gas station with a carwash next to it, i was about 8 or 9 years old when I helped my dad build that carwash one summer about 30 years ago. It really is sad to see it go down hill as much as it has. And yes there is a substantial drug problem there. Actually, the reason its called Needles, is because no one there is literate enough to spell "hypodermic"....

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  19. NEEDLES BEGAN TO REALLY DIE IN THE EIGHTIES WHEN THE CITY FATHER'S VOTED TO KEEP BIG BUSINESS OUT FOR FEAR THEIR LITTLE BUSINESSES COULDN'T COMPETE. SO ALL THE BIG BUSSINESSES WENT INTO BULLHEAD CITY.I LIVED THERE ALSO SO LET THE TRUTH BE KNOWN. IT WAS THE BIG FISH IN THE SMALL CITY THAT RUINED THAT TOWN.

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  20. The tunnels under the green house were used to hide the Chinese illegal workers. Our friends lived in that house for awhile. I never got the sensation of it being haunted when we visited with our friends. Not once did our friends say they thought the house was haunted.

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  21. I pass through there every month or so and have watched Needles decline, it's a ashame watching the businesses disappear. if things come back to life I'll be happy for the town folks

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