DESERT VIEW TOWER: EAST COUNTY'S HISTORIC HIGHWAY STOP

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By Hayden Parsley

January 29, 2015 (Jacumba Hot Springs)—Take a trip into California’s past at the Desert View Tower, a quirky and whimsical relic of the past that is still open to the public in San Diego’s East County.  Located just off Interstate 8 at the In-ko-Pah exit, the tower is poised on a rocky overlook surrounded by desert on all sides.

Built in the 1920s by Bert Vaughn, a real estate tycoon who owned much of Jacumba,  this 70-foot watchtower has become a tourist attraction and a local landmark on the outskirts of the small town today known as Jacumba Hot Springs.

Originally built to commemorate the area’s rough, pre-highway history, the tower houses a small museum filled with artifacts and oddities of California’s history including our region’s Native American, Spanish, and pioneer past. The top floor of the tower is an observation deck with a coin fed telescope that provides a breathtaking view of Imperial Valley and the Anzo-Borrego desert (though now somewhat marred by a wind farm).

In 1950, a gift shop was added around the base of the tower. This shop still operates today and is filled with an all around eclectic mix of items such as geodes, gems and minerals, vintage post cards, historic and travel books on our region, arts and crafts items such as hand-made Tecate tiles, onyx bookends, musical instruments, carved animal sculptures and more.

Roaming this area of the tower are the owner’s many friendly dogs that add to the rustic charm of the location. You can also get a workout pumping a player piano while listening to old-time tunes. 

While I was there the wind was gusting. It was a bit chilly and I wished I had a bigger coat when I reached the top. The owner says this is atypical though and that it is warm and sunny most days, but you may wish to bring a jacket when you visit.

The proprietor, Ben Schultz, has many colorful stories of East County’s history, culture and colorful characters, having operated the site for many years.

Boulder Park at the Desert View Tower was created in 1933 by an unemployed engineer,  Merle Ratcliff, who was out of work during the great Depression. He sculpted  reptiles and fanciful animals out of the huge stone boulders.

The tower site also includes man-made caves that you can explore.  I didn’t get a chance to tour these – which will be an adventure for another time.

For more photos and information, you can visit the Desert View Tower on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/desertviewtower .