A Day Trip To Desert Center, CA

Desert Center, CA

About 45 minutes east of Indio, in California, is a sleepy little town called Desert Center.  It lies between the cities of Blythe and Indio, at the junction of I-10 and State Route 177.

There are only about 150 residents living in Desert Center.  Downtown there is a post office and a café, a lot of old buildings and a few memorial plaques, giving the city a historical ambience.

Desert Center is a good central location for several places of interest. Just a short drive up the 177, you’ll find a 9-hole golf course at Lake Tamarisk, and the General Patton Memorial Museum is only a few minutes from Desert Center’s downtown.  The newest attraction in the vicinity is the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, where they race everything from Go Karts and motorcycles to Mustangs and Porsche Cup Cars.  The raceway also owns and maintains the Desert Center Airport, which was first built in the early 1940s by the U.S. Army. The raceway is located along State Route 177 just north of the city.


Founded in 1921 by Stephen A. Ragsdale, Desert Center was the only stop with gas and food for 50 miles in either direction.

Landmark talking about Kaiser, Dr. Garfield & Kaiser Permanente.

In the early 1930’s, construction of the Colorado River Aqueduct brought more than 5,000 workers to the region.  The closest medical doctor was more than 50 miles away in the town of Indio.  The need for medical care, and the large number of workers caught the attention of Dr. Sidney R. Garfield, who moved to the area and built a four-bed clinic. Kaiser and several other companies formed Industrial Indemnity to cover the workers’ job related injuries, but they were slow in processing claims. In addition, Dr. Garfield couldn’t turn away the sick and injured who had no coverage, or were not covered for their non-work illnesses. Though the workers promised to pay him, he soon realized that their payday checks were not being used to repay their medical bills. He ran out of money and was preparing to leave when Harold Hatch, an insurance agent, came up with a plan to help the doctor.  Hatch suggested that the insurance companies pay a fixed amount per day up front, rather than paying for specific claims. This system worked so well that Dr. Garfield then offered the mine workers a deal of  5 cents per week to cover all their future health care needs not related to workplace injuries.  The same amount was deducted from their paychecks to cover spouses and children.  The program was implemented, and before long Dr. Garfield’s health care business was thriving.

When the aqueduct project was completed, Dr. Garfield was invited to follow Kaiser to his next project, where he provided health care services with a team of doctors under a similar plan for 50,000 workers.  This program eventually became Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed health care program in the world.

The construction of the Colorado River Aqueduct was the catalyst for another big discovery in the region.  Geologists that had been hired to work on the aqueduct project discovered the world’s largest deposit of iron ore nearby.  Shortly after the discovery, the Kaiser Steel Eagle Mountain Mine opened operations just 13 miles north of Desert Center.  The mine was actively worked to capacity until 1983, when operations were shut down due to a decrease in demand for its products.

After the aqueduct was completed, the population in Desert Center dropped to a fraction of its previous size.  In 1942 the population numbered only 19 inhabitants.  Around this time, General George Patton set up a military training facility to prepare troops for action in the deserts of North Africa.  The camp was only open for two short years, closing when the Allies succeeded in taking control of North Africa. Today you can visit the General Patton Museum and view some of the aircraft that were deployed there.

After the troops left General Patton’s Desert Training Facility, the population once again dwindled to lower numbers. Today there are a couple of trailer parks, a golf course with low green fees (at Lake Tamarisk), a small café and a post office.  The old gas station and diner, originally established by the founder of the town, Stephen Ragsdale, still stands today.  The antique gas pumps show prices of 36 cents per gallon.  Alongside the post office is a rock with a plaque telling the story of Dr. Garfield and how the roots of Kaiser Permanente were started in the town of Desert Center. Another rock bearing a plaque about the Kaiser Steel Eagle Mine sits directly across the street, near a display of an old wagon and a red train car.

A modern project emerging out of this little town’s past is the construction of the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway from the old Army training facility’s airport.  In 2006 the Riverside County Economic Development Agency sold the airport, once a part of General Patton’s Desert Training Center, to the Chuckwalla Valley Associates, LLC.  Part of the deal was that the new owner had to develop the property over time.

Chuckwalla Valley Associates, LLC are maintaining the airport as part of a much larger plan.  They decided to build a world-class road course racing facility.  It’s called the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway (CVR), and plans include a three-course facility with a clubhouse and storage garages for vehicles.  CVR states that the development of the racetrack has had little to no impact on the environment and surrounding area.

The first track has already been built and the racetrack is open for business.  The raceway plans to add the additional two tracks, the clubhouse and outbuilding facilities in phases. Click here to read our story about the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway.


A Day at the Chuckwalla Valley Racetrack in Desert Center, CA

A car speeding along the track.

As a resident of the Coachella Valley, I’m always looking for fun day trips in and around the Palm Springs area.  I had heard that there was a new raceway built out at Desert Center, CA, which is a very small town just 45 minutes east of where I live.  I decided to go check it out, take a few photos of the track and report back to the DesertUSA readers about this exciting new desert attraction.

After doing a little research about Chuckwalla Valley Raceway (CVR), I contacted them to see what day would be best for a visit and I was able to schedule a tour at the CVR on one of their Lapping Days.

CVR is located on State Route 177, just a couple minutes north of the I-10 at Desert Center, CA.  When I arrived at the raceway I was directed to the paddock, a staging area for the cars and drivers.  While I heard a few cars start up and head out to the track, it was much quieter than I expected.  A few screeches could be heard in the distance and the occasional roar of a car speeding along the track by the paddock was audible, but for the most part it was fairly quiet.

Micky Grana talking about some of the school programs at CVR.

As I watched the drivers work on their cars and chat with their friends about their time on the track, I wondered what got them into racing cars?  Was it the rush of going fast or the danger of driving at high speeds around a challenging course?  Or both?  I was about to find out!

Micky Grana, one of the owners of CVR, invited me to take a ride alongside him in a beautiful silver Corvette, which has the reputation of being the fastest car at the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, capable of speeds up to 150 miles-per-hour.  After watching the cars race through the course I was ready to buckle-up and go for a ride.

As I slid on the tight-fitting helmet I felt a little short of air.  It’s a feeling you have to get used to, especially if you’re a little claustrophobic. The good news is that I was able to flip up the shield, which gave me the fresh air I was going to need for this experience.  I joked with Micky about having my Flip video cam and a plastic bag ready to go.  He warned me there was indeed a potential for motion sickness, but I got into the car without a bag.

Micky and me heading out to the track.

While the coasters at Magic Mountain make my palms sweat, three laps around the track at Chuckwalla had my adrenaline supercharged and my hands shaking like crazy.   This made holding the mini video cam a bit of a challenge.  During the first lap, I was acclimating to the car, and to the speed.  The racecourse is 2.68 miles long with a really fun 10+ degree banked hairpin turn placed near the beginning of the track.  As we drove into the first turn the tires screeched and we were literally sliding a bit into the turn.  This happened on every curve, which is part of the racing dynamic.  Once you realize this, you embrace it.  Until you realize this, you feel totally out of control.

Mickey made sure I was okay after the first lap (no signs of me hurling anytime soon) and then he stepped it up a notch for the second lap.  I think my adrenaline shot up at this point; I had more shake going on during the second lap than the first.  It probably didn’t help my nerves when one of the cars in front of us slid off of the track onto the dirt, adding a little extra excitement to the ride.  I just remembered to breathe and enjoy the ride, and the third lap was the charm. My hands calmed, I was able to hold the video camera more steadily, and I held it above the dashboard on the turns.   It was a thrilling experience.

After we exited the track and returned to the trailer, Mickey said he only had the car going at about 70% of its potential.  I can only imagine what it would be like with 30% more speed.  We passed many of the cars that were lapping the track while we were out there — which gives some perspective as to the speed we were going.

A few of the cars lined-up in the paddock.

Chatting with the other drivers, I learned that the value of the cars raced there ranges from $15,000 vehicles up to $200,000+.  I saw Mustangs, a Lotus, Corvettes, Porsches, and several other types of high-performance cars.  Some were street legal and some were not.  They also race motorcycles there.  In fact, Micky has raced motorcycles for 15 years and just started racing cars in April of this year.  Of course I didn’t know that little detail when I got into the car.

I learned that these folks are amazing drivers and they have excellent safety standards.  All of the members and staff I met were very friendly and made you feel right at home.  If you are interested in checking out the racetrack or learning about how to drive racecars, please give the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway a call.  They have all types of training programs, rental cars, and instructors who will make sure you have a safe and fun experience.

If you are one of those people who enjoy the rush you feel while riding the scariest rollercoaster at Magic Mountain or the thrill of extreme sports, you may be just the right candidate to get behind the wheel of a high-performance racecar to take a spin around the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway.

After taking a ride in a lap car I have to recommend it.  It was an experience I’ll never forget and that I would definitely do again.  Add it to your bucket list.  You won’t regret it!

While CVR is a Member Club (similar to being a member at a golf club), they are actively recruiting new students and drivers into their educational program and membership.  They have a motorcycle school and a driving school.  Custom programs can also be organized if you have a group that is interested in learning how to drive racecars or motorcycles.  They even have a program for kids 14 years of age and up using their fleet of Go Karts.

(Video coming soon!)

For more information about the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway  … http://www.chuckwallavalleyraceway.com/

Chuckwalla Valley Raceway

Phone: 760-227-3100

Mailing Address
P.O. Box 307
Desert Center, CA 92239

Physical Address
25300 Rice Rd.
Desert Center, CA

Office Hours

Monday – Sunday
8am – 5pm