Travelogue: Needles, California

The first travelogue for Electric Route 66 is a trip that actually predates the web site: in September my wife and I had a Sunday afternoon and evening available to visit Needles, California; the urge to road trip with our new car was irresistible! Our main goal was to visit Rosie at Fender's River Road Resort, and get this great Route 66 location set up on PlugShare. Whatever Route 66 sights we could take in around Needles would be a bonus.

It's about 125 miles to Needles from our home base in northwest Las Vegas. This is an easy trip in a Tesla such as our Model 3, but for other types of electric vehicles it can be more problematic. The Mojave Desert is a difficult area for EVs because of the small settlements, and large distances between them. For a shorter range EV it's a good idea to top off at the edge of the nearest 'civilization' before heading in.  While it's over 100 miles from our home, it's only about 90 miles to Needles from the edge of the Las Vegas valley, or from Boulder City. Kingman, AZ is only 50-60 miles away and Laughlin, NV is just 25-30 miles. For a shorter range EV coming from Las Vegas it may be needed to do the trip in a couple hops, from Henderson or Boulder City, NV, to Laughlin where you can top off at one of the casino charging stations. There is also a PlugShare-listed RV park on the way in Cal-Nev-Ari.

For our trip I fully charged the car at home, so it had about 300 miles of range before heading to Needles down US 95. The drive was uneventful on this mostly two-lane highway, punctuated by few settlements. The largest town on the way is Searchlight, which is home to only a few hundred people but does have some traveler amenities - a Denny's inside Terrible's Roadhouse (formerly the Searchlight Nugget), and a McDonald's at Terrible's Casino and Chevron station. It strikes me that this would be a great place for a DC fast charging station, being in between Las Vegas and Laughlin. About a dozen Terrible's gas stations in Las Vegas have installed EVgo fast charging stations, so the companies should already have the relationship and knowledge needed to expand this partnership to Searchlight. But nothing yet, alas!

First Route 66 stop: Fender's River Road Resort
Fender's is a small RV park and motel at the western edge of Needles, whose front door is Route 66 and back door is the Colorado River. Rosie Ramos is the great resident manager and Fender's is becoming known as the best place in the area for hard-core Route 66 roadies to stay the night. Once known as the Lad Motel, Fender's has a single row of motel rooms, as well as a clubhouse with RV'er amenities and a motel suite on the second floor.
The entrance to Fender's River Road Resort.

Fender's River Road Resort clubhouse.

Part of Fender's charm is their classic neon motel sign. Built when Fender's was still the Lad Motel, it is currently in need of some TLC, and Fender's has a non-profit fundraiser in progress to cover the considerable cost of restoring the sign to working order. You can visit their web site to donate, and get a cool vintage-styled commemorative key fob.
Fender's classic neon sign and license plate tree.


Without a base of knowledge about EVs, Fender's had not yet tried to attract any EV travelers. Previous EV visitors have thus been rare (shout out to Jerry Asher in his Tesla Model X and Nissan Leaf, who preceded us by a couple of weeks!). But as an RV park, their existing hookups were all they needed. In just a few minutes we helped Rosie through the steps of registering Fender's on PlugShare, and listing the amenities on site for travelers. We then became Fender's first official PlugShare Check-In.
Charging at Fender's just steps from the Colorado River, using the Mobile Connector that came with our car. Always bring your connectors!


Around Needles
With our primary mission accomplished, it was time to head down Route 66 to take in a few sights. We didn't really have a lot of time as it was already late afternoon. Needles isn't a big city; about 5,000 according to Wikipedia, and on a Sunday afternoon it seems even smaller. But it's certainly worth a stop for any Route 66 traveler, with murals spread throughout the town, the nearby Colorado River, and some nice buildings and businesses from the heyday of the railroad and Route 66 in the first half of the 20th century. Some of these stops are in use; others are not.
No gas for sale at the old 76 station; luckily we didn't need any!
The Texaco was likewise closed, but full of Route 66 spirit.
The infamous K Street underpass, with its frightening 8 feet of clearance. EVs: Yes. RVs: NO!
In Charles Schulz's Peanuts comics, Needles was home to Snoopy's brother, Spike.
Behind this service station lies the 1920s-era Carty's Camp, seen briefly in the 1940 film, "The Grapes of Wrath".
The classic neon & incandescent sign of the 1940s-era 66 Motel, which is now residential.


The 1908 El Garces Hotel, a railroad Harvey House built in 1908, sat unused for nearly 3 decades and lost one wing to the wrecking ball. But it is so imposing that even this misfortune left it no less impressive. Through years-long efforts, the exterior was restored and the lower floor remodeled and reopened as an intermodal transportation facility and event venue in 2014. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The original alignment of Route 66 through Needles was in front of El Garces, on Front Street.

El Garces and its adjacent Santa Fe Park.
BNSF's West Needles cantilever signal - the last between Albuquerque and Los Angeles - was moved to El Garces in 2015.


The Claypool Building on Broadway was built in 1930, and served as a hardware and department store for over 70 years. After the store's closure in 2002 the building was restored, and reopened in 2009 as a facility for Palo Verde College.
The beautiful art deco Claypool & Co. building, now a center of learning.


A short distance from the Claypool is the Needles Theatre, also opened in 1930. A fire in the 1990s forced the theatre's closure and a lack of funds has kept it that way. But the exterior and marquee have been restored, with the hope that the interior can be brought back to life as well.
Needles Theatre, inactive but still photogenic.


Another Needles landmark lies at the corner of Broadway and A Street. The large wagon made by the Studebaker Wagon Co. was designed to transport borax, and was used in the film "20 Mule Team" in the 1940s. It has been in Needles since 1947, and owned by the city since 1962. It serves as a welcome sign for the city's downtown area.
The Needles borax wagon, a western welcome for over 50 years.


California/Arizona State Line
As the day waned, we decided to head out of town to the state line while some light remained. The Park Moabi exit from I-40 allows access to a few nice stops along old alignments of Route 66. The 1916 Trails Arch Bridge originally carried the National Old Trails Road, and later Route 66. It now carries a gas pipeline and is off-limits to the public, but you can get close enough for a good view. Nearby is a very old billboard with stone supports, promoting Route 66. The origin of the billboard is uncertain, but the oldest known photos from the 1930s depict the billboard advertising Sunfreze Ice Cream, a brand of California's Arden Farms.
The 1916 Trails Arch Bridge. A newer gas piepline (with towers) sits in front of the old bridge in this view.
The Route 66 billboard, California-facing side. This billboard dates back at least to 1934.
The old billboard, Arizona-facing side, seen from the original 1920s alignment of Route 66.
This 1940s railroad bridge replaced the 1890s Red Rock Bridge (which was demolished in 1978).


Dinner and a Charge
With daylight nearly gone, we headed back to Needles. We picked up Rosie at Fender's, as well as traveling Route 66 road master Greg Gaszak, for dinner at the Wagon Wheel, a classic Route 66 restaurant. After putting away a great meal, Rosie agreed to take our Tesla Model 3 for a spin. We try to offer up our car for test rides and drives to friends, because the best way to show people just how compelling EVs are is for them to drive one themselves! It is great fun to watch them experience the silence, effortless torque, and instant acceleration, just as we did the first time we drove an EV.

After dropping off Greg at Fender's for the night, Rosie accompanied us to the Needles Supercharger for a quick look at DC fast charging. We didn't need a full charge to drive home, so we stayed only 10 minutes or so, adding nearly 100 miles of range in that time. Needles has one of the smaller Tesla stations, with just 4 superchargers. They are located at the Shell gas station just across Route 66 from the Wagon Wheel. The Shell station also has a Subway and a Dairy Queen, while still more restaurants are nearby. This is very convenient for any Tesla driver that needs a charge and a meal before heading west across the desert. The route westward from Needles is one of the longest legs between Supercharger stations anywhere on Route 66, with a gap of nearly 150 miles from Needles to Barstow. This is easily achievable in a Tesla unless you are towing something with a Model X, but for a non-Tesla EV the distance is more daunting, with few settlements and almost no places to charge. Even Needles itself has limited charging; with the addition of Fender's there are still just 5 charging stops in the area listed on PlugShare. This area from Needles to Barstow will be a focus of my efforts to get locals on board with providing EV charging in the coming months. If you are a business owner in the Mojave, or know any, and would like to help electrify the desert, let me know!
A parting shot at Fender's before heading home.

With a 90 minute drive home looming, we had to say goodbye to Needles and Rosie's hospitality, and hit the road. The new Supercharger station at Railroad Pass casino near Boulder City was to be a backup charging spot if we ended up short of range, but it was not needed and we arrived home with 26 miles of range remaining.

I hope you enjoyed this inaugural travelogue; there will be more to come!

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