Home Feature Articles Newberry Springs, California: Sightseeing in a suburb slowly being swallowed by sand

Newberry Springs, California: Sightseeing in a suburb slowly being swallowed by sand


There are times and places where it’s safe to switch lenses and expose your sensor to the elements. This was not one of them. Best to leave the interchangeable lenses in the camera bag and reach for the fixed-focal-length Leica Q. This is the story of our visit to Newberry Springs, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. There was lots of sand to be seen, on the ground and in the air, but not a spring in sight.

I recently described a visit to a region in California that was suffering from a chronic lack of water. In this article, I will describe a region where the problem is not a shortfall, but a surfeit of a different, naturally occurring resource.

A Movie in the Mojave

The Californian High Desert lies hundreds of miles away from the beaches and the big cities. It’s a land of sand. Lots of sand. It is also home to a collection of small towns, some of which have an intriguing history.

Newberry Springs, East of Barstow, is one of those places. It is just an average town, located west of the Mojave Desert National Preserve, on the renowned Route 66. You might drive past it on your way from California to Las Vegas, Nevada or Flagstaff, Arizona.

It is located in one of the most arid regions in the state, literally on the edge of the Mojave Desert. The summers are scorching hot and the winters enjoy plenty of cold nights.

Newberry Springs’s claim to fame is that the movie, Bagdad Café, by Percy Adlon, was filmed there in 1987. It starred Marianne Saegebrecht, CCH Pounder and Jack Palance. In case you were wondering, there is no spelling error in the name. It is intentionally spelled differently from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Bagdad Café is an English language German film set in the former town of Bagdad, California. The German title is “Out of Rosenheim”. The town fell into disrepair and was eventually abandoned after being bypassed by highway 40 in 1973. Its eponymous café disappeared with the town, and so The Sidewinder Café in Newberry Springs, fifty miles west, was used instead. In light of the movie’s success, it was subsequently renamed Bagdad Café. It is still in Newberry Springs and explicitly identified on Google Maps.

Lots of sand

North of Newberry Springs runs the Mojave River, almost always underground. This was our destination. Our objective was to see the homes steadily being reclaimed by the desert.

Back in the 70s, a group of settlers tried to establish a community at the river bank. That’s right, at the river you can’t see. However, they were taking on the challenges of life at the edge of a desert, and all the risks that come with such terrain.

We know that in deserts, sand is often one of the predominant features, although strictly, the climatological definition of desert depends on the growth of any plants. Okay, we agree on semidesert.

So, with all that sand and wind, things inevitably took their course.

The prevailing winds, which are primarily westerly, transport sand across the plain. It just keeps on scurrying across the desert, propelled by the breeze. Until, that is, it runs into a wall, where it builds into drifts.

A Newberry Springs neighbourhood

It seems the inhabitants of the houses exposed to this relentless onslaught resisted for a long time. I am sure they battled furiously to prevent their homes being buried under the sand. However, as ‘The Borg’ would say, resistance was futile. Eventually, the fight was lost, and the houses were abandoned.

It was an odd experience, tromping through piles of sand, witnessing first-hand the power of Nature to reclaim its territory. Even though our visit was brief, the sand got everywhere: hair, ears, etc. We weren’t kidding about the dangers of even a quick lens change. Thank goodness for the Leica Q.

Not all of the buildings sank into the sand. Some of the properties in this part of Newberry Springs were visibly inhabited and fenced. Since some people in the US can react unpredictably to “trespassing”, we remained very cautious and so limited our exploring.

Furthermore, some of the half-buried roads were not even passable for our 4WD-car. How stupid would it be to get stuck in the sand with a rental car in the middle of nowhere? This is another reason we did not visit all of the buried houses.

Of course, the light wasn’t the prettiest in broad daylight either. We were more interested in documenting this strange place.

And then you see children’s toys in the sand. How sad and touching.

For Urban Explorers and fans of Lost Places, these houses are certainly worth a visit. Be sure to choose your preferred lens before you get there though, and leave it firmly fixed to your camera.

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  1. Newberry Springs claim to fame for me is Huell Howser’s California Gold episode on it. My family references it so much, and we laugh every time we drive by.

  2. Liked your impression of the area around Newbury Springs.
    I had the pleasure to grow up in what was then simply
    Newbury in the fifties. I visited the area two years ago and found
    It to be quite congested in comparison to the fifties. My father
    Purchased a have section for a total of $2300.00
    It was a great place to grow up. Many things city kids could not dream of doing.

  3. As a resident of Newberry, the previous comment was accurate. It’s a beautiful little town, with peace and quiet. We have many lakes here, all of which are private. Economically you can see the difference between those with money and without it, but most of us love our little town. I moved from the city to get away from the hustle and traffic, and now wouldn’t leave if you paid me.

  4. Good morning from Newberry Springs, CA,

    I have been a desert dweller most of my life, 20 years off the grid.
    When writing a story about a real place for others to read, accuracy is important.
    Your article about Newberry Springs is about as accurate as writing about one piece of a soccer ball.
    I’m assuming you came on a day when the weather was erratic, not unusual for any desert.
    The Mojave Desert’s facets are vast and beautiful.
    You chose to write about the booger in it’s nose. Try spending some real time in the desert. I don’t know where you were raised or live. Your perception is jaded.

    • Good day from Palatinate,
      I’ve obviously stepped on some toes publishing above article. That was certainly not intended.
      We’d read about the place and thought it would be worth a visit on the way to Death Valley NP in March 2023, things tourists do. Leaving I-15 at exit Harvard Road, southbound, passing the river valley, taking a left on Palma Vista Road and so on, takes one to the houses at Javelle Street. That’s were most of above images were taken. So far to accuracy.

      We are sure, my wife and I, that Newberry Springs is a place to live in the high desert. In fact, the Bagdad Cafe image was taken in August 2023, when we came through again.
      To answer the question, where I was raised; at the Baltic Sea on an island, 200 yards from the beach. We always had more sand than money in the house. And yes, I know sand, dry, wet, hot, cold, frozen, snow covered, mixed with ice, rippled, squeaking when walking on bare feet, blowing, drifting.

  5. You didn’t cover the secret of Bewberry Sori gs! The fabulous tournament ski lakes! They can be rented by the day, and are well maintained. Loads of fun in the middle of the desert. C.

  6. To both of you: thanks for clearing up the infrared issue; I’d never before understood the why’s and the how’s.

    Best to both of you,


  7. Hello Dirk. Having seen and enjoyed Wes Anderson’s quirky movie Asteroid City last week I was well primed for your article. Evocative. Thank you.
    The infrared converted Nikon has provided images with a special look. I’ve recently played with Macfilos contributor John Shingleton’s Digilux1 with its original infrared filter. It gives very strong filtering and IR cast, but the subtle hue of your Nikon results are very different (as might be expected). Impressive experimentation.

  8. Thanks for this post about a place I think few of us will ever see.

    It’s odd — I’m not a B&W person, but my fave picture was the one at the very beginning ( a movie in the mojave). It gives a great sense of the majesty of desert and sky.

    • Hi Kathy,
      the B&W image at the beginning is an infrared one, just converted to B&W. Clouds and structures are much better visible in IR.
      In case you come by there it’s worth a short visit, otherwise no.
      Greets dirk

  9. Thanks for this article, Dirk, and I loved all the shots particularly the IR ones.

    I think “Abandonment” is a fascinating theme in this modern world where we build new and leave the old behind to decay and eventually disappear as it’s taken over by nature or simple disassembled and removed.

    • Thanks for the reply.
      I’d say that “Abandonment” is more typical in the US than in Europe. There is much more left as it is, whereas on the old continent is way less room and space to let things decay. Maybe nature is just a bit quicker to hide things due to more precepitation over here.


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