We Take the BMW M550i xDrive from L.A. to Vegas, the Long Way
There are gems on the roads less traveled on the way to Sin City.
If you make a list of the world's most boring road trips, Los Angeles to Las Vegas must be included. Every day, countless drivers hit I-15 and blast through the desert as quickly as possible, tuning out the world until Sin City looms large in their windshield.
I was determined to find a better way.
Time with our long-term Four Seasons BMW M550i was rapidly drawing to a close, and my wife and I decided to take the Rocket Couch on one last tour. Our goal: get off the beaten path and explore places that don't make it into Frommer's.
Our first stop was Norton Sales in the North Hollywood area of Los Angeles, the place to go when you're ready to make that sci-fi movie you've always dreamed about. Essentially a museum for the aerospace industry, Norton is bursting with space-age control panels, rocket-grade plumbing, and a couple of spare rocket engines. The owner plans to turn the store into an actual museum, so best to go now while that oxidizer and pneumatic test station are still for sale.
Disappointed that a Mercury capsule mock-up wouldn't fit in the BMW's trunk, I pointed the M550i toward Sylmar, which even the denizens of L.A. 's San Fernando Valley regard as The Sticks. We were seeking out one of the best-kept secrets in the car-museum biz: The Nethercutt.
It's almost impossible to understate just how magnificent the Nethercutt's 250-plus-car collection is. Here you'll see perfectly restored examples of marques you've only read about: Dort, Winton, Graham, Alco, and Gobron-Brillié, along with models from Packard, Bugatti, Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza, and Rolls-Royce.
Most cars are on display at the Nethercutt, but to get the full experience, you must call ahead for a tour of the Nethercutt Collection, housed across the street. The Collection's centerpiece is the Grand Salon, a marble-lined replica of a pre-Depression luxury car showroom built to house the collection's crown jewels.
Museum founder J.B. Nethercutt collected music boxes, orchestrions, and a massive Wurlitzer theater organ. As part of the tour, you'll get to hear them play—you haven't lived until you've seen a mechanical rotary violin in action. There are other collections: radiator ornaments, French furniture, and back-seat passenger grab handles (no, really). Did I mention the Canadian Pacific Royal Hudson steam locomotive out back?
Best yet, admission to the museum and the collection is free, as the family fortune funds the museum. (The Nethercutts are the owners of Merle Norman Cosmetics.)
From Sylmar, we headed east through the foothills that give the I-210 freeway its name. Our plan was to take Angeles Crest Highway to Big Pines, but fire, rain, and rockslides had closed the through-road. Still, we had a fast BMW, and we weren't going to miss out.
A mix of wide, fast sweepers and tight, technical turns, the roads that snake through the Angeles National Forest are the perfect place to let a BMW be a BMW. Why on earth would anyone take the freeway when there are roads like this? I switched the adaptive suspension to Sport and let the M550i's 456 turbocharged horses run free. As we rocketed from corner to corner exploring the limits of the M550i's exquisite poise and grip, I was reminded of why we fell in love with this car in the first place.
We played in the forest for a while before heading back to the 210; bummer it was only a diversion, but we had places to go—specifically, the unofficial McDonald's museum.
Situated on Route 66 in San Bernardino, this is the spot where Ray Kroc first encountered Dick and Mac McDonald and their fast-food restaurant. You'd expect McDonald's to embrace this vital part of its history, but the site is in fact preserved by a fast-food rival named Albert Okura, founder of the 25-store Juan Pollo chain.
The museum—which shares space with Juan Pollo's HQ—houses an impressive collection of artery-clogging artifacts ranging from the original McDonald's menu (PB&J with french fries, 20 cents) to decades of Happy Meal toys. For better or for worse, the Golden Arches are woven into the fabric of human experience, and everyone is bound to find something familiar and forgotten.
We piled back into the 550 and followed California 18, the Rim of the World Highway. The four-lane section isn't much for speed, but views are spectacular. Nearing Crestline, we headed north on the 138, a lovely two-laner perfect for loosening the car's reins. Next stop: George Air Force Base.
George was declared surplus after the Cold War, and although the airfield remains in use, the residential section was closed in 1992 after it was discovered that five decades' worth of jet fuel, solvents, and other chemical nasties had penetrated the groundwater. The houses, apartment buildings, and rec halls stand empty, slowly yielding to wind and weather. But a few of the buildings are still in use. Signs on side streets recommend against trespassing, but the main roads remain open, leaving you free to drive through its post-apocalyptic landscape. Considering George's prominent role in the Cold War, it seems fitting that it now shows us what life might have been like had someone pressed The Button.
After George, we were ready for something a little happier. Lucky for us, it was just a 15-minute jaunt up Route 66 to Elmer's Bottle Tree Ranch. What, you ask, is a bottle tree? It's a welded steel structure with a bunch of bottles on it.
Why anyone would make a bottle tree—let alone a couple hundred, set them up in the front yard among some well-weathered antiques, and let the public in for free—escapes us. But it's hard not to love the place. Despite being a natural-born cheapskate, I was only too happy to pitch some money into the wishing well. Elmer, wherever you are, I love you.
Route 66 continues northeast to Barstow, and from there it's a quick drive to Calico Ghost Town. Unlike Elmer's, this is a proper tourist trap—eight bucks a head to walk around an old silver mining town and buy your share of Western-themed claptrap. We loved it at first sight.
Founded in 1881, Calico was packed solid by 1887 and abandoned by 1904. Walter Knott, founder of Disneyland rival Knott's Berry Farm, bought and restored Calico in the early 1950s; massive empty parking lots hint at a possible second theme park. Instead, Knott gave Calico to the County of San Bernardino, which runs it to this day. Activities like gold panning and a train ride keep the kids amused, and there are some real gems (pun intended) among the independently run shops.
From here to Las Vegas, drivers have two choices—the I-15 or the access road beside it. We took the latter, because just a dozen miles from Calico is the Lake Dolores Waterpark. Originally built as a private resort, Lake Dolores featured water-slides descending from a human-made hill. The park closed in the 1980s then reopened briefly in the late '90s as the Rock-a-Hoola Waterpark. Subsequent attempts to revive the park failed, and it's been abandoned ever since.
Although the driveways are blocked, we saw no signs forbidding trespassing, so we invited ourselves in. Vandals have torched many of the buildings, and those that remain are iridescent graffiti murals. The waterslides are gone, but the concrete trench of the lazy river remains intact, baking silently in the desert sun.
A little farther up I-15 we reached the exit for Zzyzx Road. I've always wondered where it led, and the answer turned out to be better than I expected. A couple of miles down a passably paved road is California State University's Desert Studies Center, formerly known as the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa.
In 1944, Curtis Howe Springer—doctor, radio preacher, and huckster par excellence—filed a mining claim at Soda Springs, a former stop on the railroad that served Death Valley's mines. He built a spa, which he called Zzyzx ("The last word in health resorts!") and bused in L.A. residents to enjoy healthy foods and hot-spring-fed pools.
It turned out Zzyzx's health foods weren't as healthy as advertised, the mineral spring water was actually heated by boilers, and Springer—who was neither a qualified doctor nor an ordained minister—was squatting on federal land. In 1974 the government kicked him out, but the art deco-ish buildings remain, as do the abandoned mineral pools, palm trees skirted in marcescent fronds, and an old swing set fronting a creepy lagoon.
We passed through Baker, stopping to snap an obligatory photo of the World's Tallest Thermometer. From this point on there's not much to see—it's as if the universe decided to save its oddities for Vegas proper—so I let the BMW's adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist do their things.
Although most head straight for The Strip, not us; I wanted to see the National Atomic Testing Museum, a reminder that gambling isn't the only thing that put Vegas on the map. The museum deals primarily with the atomic testing that took place in Nevada, and it's a treasure trove of Cold War-era artifacts. You'll leave wondering if neon is the only thing that makes Las Vegas glow at night.
We had time for one more stop, so we headed for a nondescript industrial building on East Tropicana—the Pinball Hall of Fame, 10,000 square feet of beautifully restored pinball machines from the 1950s to 1990s. There's no admission fee; just start popping quarters into the games and go to town. It was the perfect ending to an easy four-hour drive turned two-day adventure. One thing's for sure: It wasn't boring, and the M550i proved a perfect car to explore the long way.
Where We Went
Norton Sales Aerospace Props
7429 Laurel Canyon Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91605
The Nethercutt Museum
15151 Bledsoe St.
Sylmar, CA 91342
Historic Site of the Original McDonald's
1398 N East St.
San Bernardino, CA 92405
George Air Force Base
Victorville, CA 92394
Elmer's Bottle Tree Ranch
24255 National Trails Hwy.
Oro Grande, CA 92368
Calico Ghost Town
36600 Ghost Town Rd.
Yermo, CA 92398
Lake Dolores Waterpark
72 Hacienda Rd.
Newbury Springs, CA 92365
Desert Studies Center
49441 Zzyzx Rd.
Baker, CA 92309
Pinball Hall of Fame
1610 E. Tropicana Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89119
National Atomic Testing Museum
755 E. Flamingo Rd.
Las Vegas, NV 89119
OUR 2018 BMW M550i xDrive
|PRICE||$73,095/$86,685 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||4.4-liter twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/456 @ 5,500-6,000 rpm, 480 lb-ft @ 1,800-4,750 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||16/25/19 (city/hwy/combined)|
|L x W x H||186.3 x 76.2 x 65.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.9 sec|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|