Desert View Tower
We didn't realize when we planned a visit to this dusty "scenic viewpoint" that we'd score decent kid points. As in "Why are we stopping at this stupid boring place oh look let's climb those boulders YAYYYY!"
Along border-straddling Interstate 8, between San Diego and El Centro, Desert View Tower has been an enduring attraction. Yea, there's a gaudy Indian casino miles west near Alpine, down in a ditch near the Reservation, but DVT is still the rest stop of choice.
Bert Vaughn, who owned the town of Jacumba, built the stone lookout between 1922-28. Its 70-foot-high tower was dedicated in memory of the area's rough pre-highway days, when the journey between Yuma and the Pacific Ocean took a month across blasted moonlike terrain.
Over the decades, the Tower has enjoyed periods of prosperity and complete neglect, managed by a succession of owners. The gift shop was added around the base in 1950, during one of the boom times.
Today, the $2 combo ticket ($1 for kids) admits one to the three-floor "museum," view from the hurricane deck, and Boulder Park..
The museum is basically whatever happens to be hanging on the walls as you climb to the top of the tower. A sparse and yellowing collection of prints of paintings depict the Old West, the Revolutionary War, and randomly celebrated astronauts and military units. Historic black and white photos provide glimpse of the Tower under construction.
The top deck affords a vantage of I-8 winding down to the arid valley floor. No panaviewers, though each window is labeled to identify landmarks shimmering in the distance.
Tourists who carry their own binoculars might spot the US Border Patrol apprehending illegal immigrants streaming across a nearby crossing in the mountains. Prime your camcorders if you leave via east I-8 -- you might witness parades of the recently arrived escorted along the shoulder. No stopping allowed!
The real attraction at the Desert View Tower is Boulder Park, a jumble of rocks weathered by wind into caves and craggy walkways. Kids adore this area, and scramble with sugared-beverage abandon up the switchback path over friendly-looking precipices and outcroppings.
The Depression-era carvings strung along the path are a bonus: animals, faces, and folk creatures inspired by the natural shapes in the rocks. Out-of-work engineer W.T. Ratcliffe sculpted the quartz granite boulders without any particular theme in mind -- supposedly for a dollar a day and a jug of wine -- but he likely knew kids would love the rocky maze. The carvings and tower are registered as an official California Historical Landmark (#939).
We watch as a half dozen children -- who met just five minutes earlier but now seem like lifelong climbing buddies -- scale the summit. Knuckles scrape on craggy escarpments, heads conk on low ceilinged passages. At the top of the rocks the view is funny, providing a vantage almost as high as Desert View Tower.
Soon the area's famous high winds kick in. Children lose their confidence and start wailing for parental rescue teams....