Gateway to Death Valley: The Broken Dreams of Baker, California

Deep in the heart of the Mojave Desert lies Baker, California, a desolate little town along the I-15 freeway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Best known as home to The World's Tallest Thermometer, Baker has become infamous for its many abandoned businesses.

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker California

On the final day of my epic road trip through the abandoned places of the Western United States, I crossed into California. After spending a night in the ghost town of Cisco, Utah, I took in the beauty of Utah's picturesque Dead Horse Point State Park and Arches National Park. As much as I'd love to share my pictures and tell you how incredibly beautiful these places are, I'll resist the urge, since this is a site devoted to abandoned places, not gorgeous natural phenomena.

If you've ever driven along I-15 between Los Angeles to Las Vegas, you've probably noticed the monolithic thermometer standing tall over Baker, California. You may have even stopped in Baker to refuel, grab a bite to eat, or snap a picture or two of the towering attraction.

Baker began in 1908 as a station of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. It later became a town and was named after Richard C. Baker, a borax and railroad magnate. Located at the southern end of Death Valley, Baker is nicknamed "The Gateway to Death Valley"

The World's Largest Thermometer was created by Willis Herron, who owned many businesses in Baker and, at one point, was said to have employed half of Baker's population. Hoping to draw more visitors into Baker, Herron partnered with Young Electric Sign Co. in 1991 to build the 134-foot monument. Its height was chosen to commemorate the hottest day ever recorded, July 10 1913, which reached a scorching 134 degrees Fahrenheit in nearby Death Valley.

World's Largest Thermometer in Baker, California

The enormous thermometer cost $750,000 to build, and was blown over by high winds before it was officially lit. It was quickly rebuilt with a sturdier design.

Willis Herron suffered health problems and sold several of his business endeavors to Matt Pike in 2005 before passing away in 2007. In 2012, Pike turned off the thermometer, citing an $8000/month electric bill and inaccurate temperature readings.

When Willis Herron's widow Barbara learned that the beloved landmark was being considered for demolition, she repurchased and refurbished it. On July 10, 2014 the official re-lighting was held.

Next to the thermometer sits the abandoned Bun Boy Restaurant, which was also owned by Willis Herron and purchased by Matt Pike in 2005.

Abandoned Bun Boy Restaurant in Baker California

The restaurant originally opened in 1926 and Herron became an investor in 1950. Matt Pike bought Bun Boy restaurant in 2005 and turned it into a Bob's Big Boy franchise. The restaurant closed in May 2013 after Pike faced legal trouble for not paying franchise fees.

Bun Boy now sits abandoned with a weathered Bun Boy sign out front. It is unclear whether the name changed before it closed in 2013, or if it was briefly reopened under the Bun Boy name after its time as a Bob's Big Boy.

Abandoned Bun Boy Restaurant in Baker, California

I was able to capture a few pictures of the restaurant's interior through a window. It is remarkably clean and the tables still have their settings. The property is currently for sale.

Abandoned Bun Boy Restaurant in Baker California

Abandoned Bun Boy Restaurant in Baker, California

Abandoned Bun Boy Restaurant in Baker California

Across the street is another abandoned building bearing the Bun Boy sign. I wasn't able to determine whether it is a previous location or perhaps a business office. If you have any information, please let me know in the comment section at the end of this article.

Abandoned Bun Boy Restaurant in Baker, California

Next door is another abandoned building, which once sold artwork. 

Abandoned Building in Baker California

Beside the Bun Boy Restaurant sits the abandoned Bun Boy Motel, which appears to have closed around the same time as the restaurant. The Yelp reviews of guests who had stayed there are quite negative.

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker, California

Abandoned Bun Boy Restaurant in Baker California

Abandoned Bun Boy Motel in Baker, California

The motel lobby is in rough condition. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought it had closed many years earlier.

Abandoned Bun Boy Motel in Baker California

A block or two down Baker Blvd stand the remains of another abandoned motel, Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel. The Tiki-themed establishment opened in 1957, when there was still a demand for lodging for travelers crossing the desert.

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker, California

Economic hardship following the Great Recession and increased competition from Casino hotels in Nevada forced Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel to close in 2009. Its closure left only one motel still in business in Baker. 

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker California

Yelp reviews here and here paint a picture of the establishment's decline as well as the attention it has attracted since its abandonment. 

The main building, though gutted, still has a beautiful curved ceiling that appears structurally sound. 

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker, California

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker California

The courtyard, decorated with palm trees, looks like it was once an excellent place to relax with a drink by the pool.

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker, California

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker California

Unfortunately the property is strewn with trash. 

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker, California

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker California

The rooms were sturdily built and are probably structurally sound, if you look past the graffiti and vandalism. 

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker, California

Abandoned Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker California

Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel is currently listed for sale here.  

Across the street stood another vacant restaurant. 

Abandoned Building in Baker, California

Abandoned Building in Baker California

Abandoned Building in Baker, California

According to the sign on the door, there were plans for reopening, but I'm not sure if they ever came to fruition.

Abandoned Building in Baker California

Abandoned Building in Baker, California

Someone painted a Banksy-style image on the back of the building. I thought the man looked like a thin version of Dick Cheney, but it's actually Mark Rothko.

Abandoned Building in Baker California

I got back on the road and made one last stop on the way home, they mysterious Zzyzx Healing Center. Come back next week to see pictures and read about the site's strange history.

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11 comments :

  1. Boy, there was some talent to paint that last picture.
    Sort of strange how places can be so popular at one point and fall into such decline. Frankly, though, I can not relate how anyone would EVER settle an area that could come even close to 134 degrees. Blech! I'll take my mid-70's in the summer anytime!!
    Have a great weekend

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    1. I don't blame you. I prefer the dry heat in the Southwest to the humidity of my hometown in WI, but 134 degrees is insane. Thank goodness L.A. doesn't reach such extremes. Enjoy your weekend too!

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  2. wow. the restaurant looks pretty clean tidy for an abandoned. this is great picture. thanks for sharing it!

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    1. Thank you! I'm always amazed when places remain clean despite being abandoned. I notice it happens a lot with restaurants, probably because they usually have many windows, and trespassers would be easy to spot.

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  3. So sad to see such decline in Baker. I lived there as a kid. Arne's Royal Hawaiian was a nice motel at the time - nothing fancy. Around 1973, the owners expanded the motel. This was the same time the Barstow Unified School District allowed a high school to be built in the town. Before this time, high school students either boarded out during the week with families in Barstow (60 miles away, and over 100 miles from the farthest homes in the district), or drove to Shoshone High School (45 miles north of Baker). There was a time when the school wasn't ready and the motel rooms were not furnished. The unfinished rooms were used as temporary classrooms for a brief time. We also got to use the motel pool as a P.E. location.

    The second Bun Boy building you talked about was a business office.

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    1. Thank you for the info! Such a long commute to school every day must have been awful. Pretty neat that the motel rooms and pool were used when the new school wasn't ready. I love when communities come together to creatively solve problems.

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  4. Hi Jim, name is Monica. I just stumbled upon your website, and instantly became enthralled by it!
    We visited Baker on our way to Vegas in August 2004. It was unintended, since we actually had reservations at a hotel in Death Valley, to which we were driving from Yosemite. At one point, we encountered roadblocks and some signs informing motorists that Death Valley was closed; we would later learn that this had been due to disastrous flash flooding. So, paper map in full display (remember, this was 2004!), we took a breathtaking, 300-mile detour that had some surprises in store, such as Calico... After touring the famed "Ghost Town", we realized that we would not make it to Vegas that evening (plus, we didn't have reservations for that night), so we decided to wing it. We stopped in Baker, no doubt attracted by the light of the World's Tallest Thermometer, and walked into the Royal Hawaiian, which had an enticing "Vacancy" sign. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we had no problem in booking a room. Come to think of it, we may have been the only customers... The room was in the main building, as I believe at that time the single-story "motel" portion was no longer functional. It was incredibly spacious and fabulous in a 50's-60's kind of way: leaf-green (and well-kept) thick carpet, a black & white TV set, and the kind of mid-century chairs and tables that now go for $100s in flea markets and auctions. We even swam in the pool, under the stars. The water was pristine, and warm. It must have been quite the place, back in time.
    The morning after we had breakfast at the Denny's nearby; looking at your pictures, it seems that it has also closed up since.
    Thanks Jim!
    Monica.

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    1. Hi Monica,
      Thank you for sharing your memories of your time in Baker, CA. It sounds like you had a really nice stay at the Royal Hawaiian. How neat that you got the whole place to yourselves! Enjoying a nighttime swim under the stars sounds so nice.

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  5. Hi there....enjoying your site. However, I would have liked to encounter more info on the actual history of Baker as a main stop on the so-called "Arrowhead Trail". Someday, I plan to drive (either alone or with someone, if I can FIND someone, that is!) the entire route from Barstow to Vegas on the "original" remnants of the old auto-trail. There are quite a few old maps available online which give some fair details into the route, which is basically (with a few changes in alignment) identical to the 15, which I've traveled many many times since 1975 when my grandparents retired to Vegas for a few years. I'm particularly interested in the variations of the "91" designation. At one time just prior to 1926, when the Arrowhead Trail became an official numbered route, the original highway actually bypassed Baker on the way to NV and went through Silver Lake instead, slightly to the north and now completely gone I gather. I have spent hours and hours poring over maps, tracing various dirt roads from Barstow north in order to recreate this earlier alignment, and it is STILL slightly mysterious. Maps show various "hot/warm springs" as sort-of guidemarks for the trail(s), but since the roads are all dirt, and I would assume in rather poor condition, I've been hesitant to plan any [winter] trips out there in that vast desert wasteland! But thanks for the site anyway! Didn't know that the Bob's/Bun Boy is now closed.

    Sincerely,
    Matt

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    1. Your trip down Arrowhead Trail sounds like fun. It is a real challenge to try to figure out exactly where the original routes ran. Good records are hard to find. I've also found that the land has sometimes been sold to private owners.

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