Art, Culture, Industry & Innovation
Lancaster is a city located near the Mojave Desert’s western most point and is one of only two cities in the Mojave Desert within Los Angeles County – the other is Palmdale. The western region of the Mojave Desert is known as Antelope Valley, or the High Desert, and encompasses parts of Kern, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties. Lancaster remained an unincorporated community in Los Angeles County until 1977 when it incorporated as a city.
Lancaster is 72 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. It's the northern most city in Los Angeles County, and is geographically isolated from suburban Los Angeles by the San Gabriel Mountains of the Angeles National Forest – a transverse range (east-west orientation). The north slope of the approximately 40 mile long San Gabriel Range marks the southern border of the Mojave Desert, and its southern slope the Los Angeles Basin.
Note: Learn more on the geography and geology of Antelope Valley by reading the city write-up on Palmdale, here at DesertUSA.com.
Much of the city's infrastructure is solar powered, including City Hall, local schools, and even the minor league baseball stadium. In 2013, Lancaster became the first city in the U.S. to require solar panels on all new homes. This assists in making the community more carbon neutral, dovetailing with the city’s goal of becoming the first Net-Zero municipality in the U.S. – i.e. producing more clean energy than consumed.
Population / Elevation
159,523 / 2,359 feet above sea level
Weather / Climate
Due to its location near north-facing foothills of a mountain range, any day in Lancaster may be a windy day. Whether it be a sustained, yet slight breeze of 8 mph, or one with steady wind at least 25 mph, wind is the norm in Lancaster.
Resting between Antelope Valley and the Pacific is the Sierra Pelona Mountain Range of Angeles National Forest. With peaks ranging in elevation between 3,900 to 5,800 feet above sea level, cooler ocean air drawn inland toward Lancaster is warmed once above land. But before reaching Lancaster the air travels up and over the Sierra Pelona Range, cooling again as it gains elevation before dropping down to the valley floor.
After the hottest of summer days the natural southwesterly on-shore flow delivers cool air to Antelope Valley after sunset, and despite a July and August average high temperature of 97 degrees, residents can consistently expect the mercury to fall to the mid-60s overnight, an average low temperature below that experienced in the central or eastern portions of the Mojave Desert.
What is known today as Lancaster was home to the First Nation, “Indians”, people known as Paiute. Like all Great Basin First Nation people, the Paiute were masters at exploiting a harsh environment. Their ancient foraging way of life persisted virtually unchanged until the late-1800s. Like others living in this arid region of extreme temperatures, the Paiute lived a life of cyclic wandering. Family groups built brush-covered shelters in key locales, taking advantage of the seasonal availability of wild seed, roots, small animals, and insects until the influx of settlers with their large scale farming and cattle ranching drove away game, reducing the Paiute ability to hunt, as well as to gather natural foods.
This patch of desert became permanently settled by non-First Nations people with the 1876 arrival of Southern Pacific Railroad tracks linking San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Lancaster stop included a station house, section gang housing (gang is the term that was used for a group of railroad workers) and locomotive watering facilities.
Until the mid-19th century the hills and flatlands of the Antelope Valley were home to roaming herds of pronghorn antelope. Eradicated by habitat loss to farming, the pronghorn became scarce by the mid-1880s. In his 1906 book, California's Mammals, author Frank Stephens wrote: "In 1877 I saw two dozen antelope near Perris. In 1878 I saw one near Riverside. Today (1906), there are very few in southeastern California."
How the area came to be officially known as Lancaster is a mystery. Speculation ranges from the theory that it was christened by settlers hailing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to the idea that it was titled due to a railroad station clerk's surname of Lancaster. Some claim the name Lancaster was arbitrarily placed on the sign at the town railroad stop by Southern Pacific and that's how it was known henceforth.
By 1885, Lancaster had grown from being a railroad water-stop in the Mojave Desert, seemingly in the middle of nowhere but actually just shy of Los Angeles, into a community. The year saw the town’s first weekly newspaper with publication of the Lancaster News. Lancaster’s exceptional growth continued through the wet years. Agriculture became king as farmers planted and sold wheat and barley by the thousands of acres. These same farmers faced economic ruin with the onset of the decade-long drought beginning in 1894 – a situation not remedied until completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913.
The Western Hotel (1876) is the oldest standing structure in Lancaster and is listed with the California Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) as California Historic Landmark (CHL) #658. In 1992 it was converted to a museum under the California Historic Site program. The museum is open 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. on the second and fourth Friday and Saturday of each month.
Located on the eponymously-named Lancaster Blvd. just two blocks from the rail depot – today served by L.A. County Metrolink passenger train service to and from downtown Los Angeles – the hotel served as an active commercial, social and cultural center for the fledgling town. Between 1905 and 1913, construction crews of the Los Angeles-Owens River Aqueduct stayed at the Western Hotel.
After falling into disrepair in the 1970s, the hotel was condemned, then saved only due to efforts by Lancaster residents, who formed the Western Hotel Historical Society. Host to displays of historical artifacts from the Museum of Art and History's permanent collection, objects on exhibition range from First Nation stone tools, to old mining equipment, and photographs of downtown Lancaster over the years. Period specific mock hotel rooms and an outdoor garden are open to the public.
Rapid population growth in the early part of the 20th century led to many changes. Lancaster youth, along with those of surrounding areas, began studying locally with the 1912 completion of Antelope Valley High School (AVHS). The institution is noteworthy for being the first in California with a dormitory to accommodate students living dozens of miles from town. Among famous alumni of AVHS is legendary musical artist Frank Zappa, graduating in 1958.
While the nation was suffering through the Great Depression in the 1930s, Lancaster again experienced economic growth, benefitting from the construction of Muroc Air Force Base 32 miles to the north in Kern County – renamed Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB) after World War II. Edwards is home to numerous firsts in aviation including the breaking of the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager in a Bell X-1A in 1947. The facility was featured in the film The Right Stuff. EAFB hosted a limited number of landings of the Space Shuttle in the 1980s and served as the back-up landing sight later in the shuttle’s tenure.
Today, the base still serves as the location for testing military aircraft, many produced in Palmdale-based facilities such as Lockheed-Martin, Northrop and Boeing. It is not uncommon on any given day to see modern, cutting edge, high tech aircraft such as the F-35, or B-2 bomber flying Lancaster skies.
Lancaster was the headquarters of the "Flat Earth Society" from 1974 through 2001 under the leadership of Charles K. Johnson. Officially called “International Flat Earth Research Society of America and Covenant People's Church in California,” the Flat Earth Society grew from a handful of members to over 3,500 adherents under Johnson’s presidency.
Eight years into reliable water delivery from the north, in 1921, the first major road linking Lancaster and Los Angeles was completed. Named Mint Canyon/Lancaster Road, it was later designated as part of US Route 6, the Grand Army of the Republic Highway – a transcontinental highway connecting California and Massachusetts.
Originally, the California section of US Route 6 was limited to the eastern portion of the state, beginning in Bishop just 40 miles from Nevada line, making California the state with the second shortest stretch of US 6 among the 14 states the highway enters (Rhode Island at 26 miles being first). During the late 20s and early 30s it was also known as the Roosevelt Highway, after President Theodore Roosevelt.
Commissioned in 1937, the California portion was part of an extension from Greeley, Colorado through the Mojave Desert into Los Angeles, and on to Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean. This brought US 6 designation to Sierra Highway, the main north-south Lancaster roadway. The section of road between Bishop and the sea lost its US 6 designation in a 1964 highway renumbering project. Today, the history of US 6 through Antelope Valley is kept alive by the U.S. Route 6 Tourist Association.
Nature, Wilderness & Recreation Areas
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is state-protected land home to the most consistent blooms of the state flower, the California Poppy. The poppy bloom is seasonal – early February through mid-May – and dependent on an appropriate amount of winter rain. Poppy blooms are accompanied by a variety of wildflowers, creating a mosaic of color changing daily. The Poppy Reserve is a 30 minute ride from Lancaster.
Red Rock Canyon State Park is 52 miles north from Lancaster on Highway 14. The park offers camping, day use, equestrian, and off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation opportunities. It is located at the juncture of the Sierra Nevada Range’s southernmost point and the El Paso Range, and features many vibrantly-colored and dramatically-shaped tributary canyons. A wet winter is followed by a stunning spring wildflower bloom. The area is home to roadrunners, hawks, lizards, mice and squirrels.
Petroglyphs made by Kawaiisu First Nation are visible in the El Paso Mountains along a trade route used by indigenous people for thousands of years. The unique landscape served as guideposts for 20-mule freight wagons in the 1870s stopping in the area for water. According to the California State Park service, around 1850 Red Rock was “used by the footsore survivors of the famous Death Valley trek, including members of the Arcane and Bennett families along with some of the Illinois Jayhawkers.”
Today, the park is home and protectorate for vestiges of 1890s-era mining operations and significant paleontology sites, and has been featured as a backdrop for many movies – Jurassic Park was perhaps the most popular – television shows and commercials, and advertising shoots – print and video.
Camping is first-come, first-served and permitted in developed sites in Ricardo Campground only and costs $25 per night. Overnight parking in the day-use lot is not permitted. Day use recreation offers miles of trails ambling through aesthetically exquisite landscape. The park service reminds visitors to use desert safety precautions by bringing twice as much water as you think you need, and by wearing layered clothing for sudden fluctuations in temperature. All licensed vehicles (street legal and OHV with green stickers) have access to the dirt road system.
Devil's Punchbowl Natural Area is a 1,310 acre park with free parking and hiking located 35 miles southeast of Lancaster off State Highway 138. A nature center on-site provides information about the flora, fauna, and geological features of the park. The park topography includes a deep canyon, cut by the runoff of water from the San Gabriel Mountains, a range with peaks above 8,000 feet. The Nature Center sits at 4,740 feet above sea level. Steeply-titled canyon rocks were formed by uplift along the Punchbowl and Pinyon Faults, combined with pressure from the San Andreas Fault.
Most mammals living at the park are nocturnal, however, the gray fox has been seen at dusk and dawn. A one-third mile trail – "Pinyon Pathway" – is less strenuous than the 1 mile "Loop Trail." This trail has a 300 foot elevation drop into the canyon and then a 300 foot ascent back to the top. A longer trail at 3.7 miles leads to a feature called “Devil's Chair” and is 7 1/2 miles roundtrip, taking about 4 hours.
Saddleback Butte State Park is 17 miles east of Lancaster, at an elevation 3,651 feet. It is home to Antelope Valley Indian Museum State Historic Park. The museum houses objects created by First Nation cultures – American Indian – of the western Great Basin, California, and the Southwest.
The property includes a self-guided nature trail, a picnic area, and an outdoor ceremonial arena. On occasion guest First Nations groups perform traditional dances. An annual opening event each fall features a traditional ground blessing ceremony. On location, First Nation artists sell their work, and food and special activities for children are made available.
The granite mountaintop is an iconic movie, television, music video, print and video advertising backdrop and has often been featured as the backdrop for Super Bowl commercials. Rising thousands of feet above the broad alluvial bottom land of Antelope Valley, the park was established to protect the native Joshua Tree woodlands and other plants and animals once common throughout the High Desert.
Wildflowers display their beauty from February to May. Summer daytime high temperatures average 95 degrees and can reach 115 degrees when atmospheric high pressure settles over the Great Basin. Normal daytime temperatures are pleasant in October and November but may change suddenly. Frost and subfreezing temperatures occur regularly December and January with snowfall possible.
Hiking is accommodated by the Little Butte Trail – 2.5 miles to the peak – or the 2-mile Saddleback Butte Peak Trail, both leading to the summit where a spectacular 360 degree panoramic view stretching over the Antelope Valley, and east across the Mojave Desert awaits.
According to the California Parks and Recreation, Saddleback Butte State Park is home to once-abundant desert species that are in decline due to hunting, agriculture, and increased population. Species calling Saddleback Butte home include the coyote, kit fox, desert tortoise, jack rabbit, cottontail rabbit, ground squirrel, kangaroo rat, many kinds of snakes and lizards, and the occasional badger or skunk.
Sidewinder and Mojave green rattlesnakes come out in warm weather. Avian life includes migratory species and permanent residents such as golden eagles, hawks, ravens, and owls. Smaller birds living at the Butte include rock and cactus wrens, thrashers, blackbirds, horned larks, ladderbacked woodpeckers, sparrows, finches, and loggerhead shrikes.
Fort Tejon State Historic Park is located in Grapevine Canyon. Fort Tejon State Historic Park is served by Interstate 5 and is the main route between California's San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Established in August 1854 and garrisoned by the US Army to “protect and control” First Nations people living on the Sebastian Indian Reservation, and to protect both the “Indians” and white settlers from raids by the Paiutes, Chemeheui, and Mojave “Indians,” it was abandoned by the government in September 1864. The original fort’s restored adobes are on display and army life during that time is featured, along with aspects of local history. A number of beautiful 400 year-old valley oak trees still stand today.
Things to Do
Before visiting Lancaster, it's best to visit Destination Lancaster – the Antelope Valley’s official tourism guide website. Here you will find information on everything from professional minor league baseball games – Lancaster is home to the JetHawks, the Class ‘A’ affiliate of the Colorado Rockies – to the Musical Road.
Located on Avenue G between 30th and 40th Street West, the Musical Road is the first of its kind in the U.S. Initially constructed in a different part of town by Honda for an advertising campaign, the road was relocated away from homes after residents complained of constant noise driven by the road’s popularity with locals.
The road is cut with grooves spaced intermittently in such a way a tire driving over it emits a unique note. Grooves are cut so travelers hear the finale of William Tell Overture if moving at 55 mph. It has been featured in Wall Street Journal, Discovery Channel's Penn & Teller Tell a Lie, WIRED Magazine, NBC News, BBC News, CNET and BBC's Top Gear, gaining it, and the City of Lancaster, international attention.
Several major annual events take place in Lancaster, so check your calendar to coordinate your visit with the activity. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) holds their California Circuit Finals at the state fairgrounds in Lancaster. The Los Angeles County Air Show arrives each spring. This year’s event featured the USAF Thunderbirds aerial acrobats to the delight of thousands of spectators.
The city hosts an annual Poppy Festival each spring at their city park, and in the fall, Downtown Lancaster is closed off to vehicular traffic for the Streets of Lancaster Grand Prix, featuring professional Go Kart racing. This stretch of Lancaster Blvd in the downtown area is known as “The BLVD” and serves as the epicenter for arts, culture, entertainment, shopping and dining. Both the Western Hotel Museum and the Museum of Art & History (MOAH) are located on The BLVD.
It’s positively clear Lancaster has more social activities, art, recreational and cultural experiences to offer than any city in the Western Mojave Desert. An extended stay is necessary to take in a small fraction of offerings and calendaring a return trip to watch or participate in one of the numerous annual special events is a must.
Nearby Cities & Towns
Distance from Lancaster
City of Palmdale – 9 Miles South
Rosamond (Kern County) – 13 Miles North
Mojave (Kern County) – 26 Miles North
California City (Kern County) – 40 Miles North
Tehachapi (Kern County) – 45 Miles North
Quartz Hill – 7 Miles West
Littlerock – 23 Miles East
Lake Los Angeles – 24 Miles East
Victorville (San Bernardino County) – 59 Miles East
Barstow (San Bernardino County) – 97 Miles East
Acton – 21 Miles Southwest
Agua Dulce – 28 Miles Southwest
City of Santa Clarita – 45 Miles Southwest
Where to stay click for list of accommodations with maps.
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