Palmdale, California

Southwestern Gateway into the Mojave Desert

View from Lamont Odett Vista Point

This is the view from Lamont Odett Vista Point off northbound Highway 14 as it descends out of the Angeles National Forest, down the Soledad Pass into Palmdale, entering the Western Mojave Desert. In the foreground is the California Aqueduct with Lake Palmdale behind it. Vista Point is less than one mile from where Highway 14 crosses the San Andreas Fault.

Palmdale is a city located near the Mojave Desert’s westernmost point and is one of only two cities in the Mojave Desert within Los Angeles County – the other is Lancaster. The western region of the Mojave Desert is known as Antelope Valley and encompasses parts of Kern, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties.

Where to Stay - Maps and hotel locations.

Palmdale is 62 miles north of downtown Los Angeles 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.

Highway 14 road cut in Southern California exposes rocks squeezed by the San Andreas Fault (Photo: Horst Rademacher). Public domain photo: UC Berkeley Seismology Lab

Highway 14 road cut in Southern California exposes rocks squeezed by the San Andreas Fault (Photo: Horst Rademacher). Public domain photo: UC Berkeley Seismology Lab

Running along the north base of the San Gabriel Range, traveling in a southeast-northwest direction is the notorious San Andreas Fault. Both the California Aqueduct and State Highway 14 cross the San Andreas Fault in Palmdale. Tectonically speaking, points north of the fault line in Palmdale are built on the North American Plate with points south of the fault in Palmdale residing on the Pacific Plate.

The western edge of the Mojave Desert is easily identifiable on this US Geological Survey Earthquake Map in the form of a “<” created where the Garlock Fault meets the San Andreas Fault.

The westernmost corner of the Mojave Desert forms a distinct contour similar to the shape of the mathematical “less than” sign (<). This is where the Garlock Fault meets the San Andreas Fault. The geographic feature is a handy navigational clue for pilots flying into Edwards Air Force Base or Fox Airfield.

The Garlock Fault runs southwest-northeast, forming the Tehachapi Mountain Range, establishing the Mojave Desert’s northern boundary along its western most point. At the meeting of Garlock Fault and the San Andreas Fault is Tejon Summit. Seventy miles north of downtown Los Angeles, the Tejon Summit is 4,160 feet above sea level. A line drawn due east from this point splits the Mojave desert in two, marking the northern border of Los Angeles County and the southern edge of Kern County. The 5 ½ mile stretch of Interstate 5 north of Tejon Summit is known as the Grapevine, or, Tejon Pass. The Grapevine is notorious for treacherous winds any time of year, and sustained winds of 40 mph with gusts over 70 are not unusual.

Population / Elevation
152,750 / 2,657 feet above sea level

Weather / Climate
Due to its location at the base of north-facing foothills of a mountain range, any day in Palmdale may be a windy day, more so than other locations in Antelope Valley. Whether it be a sustained, yet slight breeze of 8 mph, or one with steady wind of at least 25 mph with gusts twice that speed, wind is the norm in Palmdale.

Navigating southwest from Palmdale, the city is closer to the Pacific Ocean – Santa Monica – than it is to downtown Los Angeles. Cool ocean air flowing in from the Pacific warms quickly once it is over land. 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. Before reaching Palmdale the air travels up and over the Sierra Pelona Range, cooling once again as it gains elevation before dropping down to the valley floor at Palmdale.

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 falling to the mid-60s overnight, an average low temperature below that experienced in the central or eastern portions of the Mojave Desert.

Where to Stay - Maps and hotel locations.

History
What is known today as Palmdale – incorporated in 1962 – was first officially established as “Palmenthal” on June 17, 1888. No one really knows why the area was named Palmenthal, but local folklore has it the name originated from settlers who, arriving from the US midwest in April 1886 (and never actually having seen a palm tree), mistook the Joshua tree for a palm tree. These founders were of German and Swiss descent, so they named the area Palmenthal – German for Palms Valley.

By 1899 only one original Palmenthal family remained at the settlement, all others having gone bust during a severe drought beginning in 1894. Farming was essentially abandoned and the town center shifted a few miles west, relocating beside the Southern Pacific railroad tracks on a line providing service between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Agriculture became king of the valley only when a reliable water source became available in November 1913, with the completion of William Mulholland’s California – Los Angeles Aqueduct. The water conveyance system greened Los Angeles County on both sides of the San Gabriel Mountains.

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."

Eight years into reliable water delivery from the north, in 1921, the first major road linking Palmdale 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.

Route 6

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 the Sierra Highway, the main north-south Palmdale roadway. The section of road between Bishop and the sea lost its US 6 designation in a 1964 highway renumbering project. Today, US 6 history through Antelope Valley is kept alive by U.S. Route 6 Tourist Association: www.route6tour.com

Nature, Wilderness & Recreation Areas

Poppy Reserve

 

The 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 drive from Palmdale.

Vasquez Rocks Natural Area is less than 30 miles from Palmdale and is accessible from Highway 14. Vasquez Rocks gets its name from a late 19th century notorious California bandit named Tiburcio Vásquez who avoided capture by authorities in 1873 and 1874 by hiding in the rock formations.

These rock formations were created by rapid erosion about 25 million years ago during a geological process called “uplift” – a vertical elevation of the Earth's surface in response to natural causes, such as an earthquake. The formation was later further exposed by activity along the San Andreas Fault.

Vasquez Rocks

 

Vasquez Rocks has been used repeatedly by the entertainment industry since first featured as a backdrop in 1935’s “Werewolf of London.” Credits include the original series Star Trek episode “Arena” where Captain Kirk rolls a boulder onto a Reptilian alien called a Gorn. Television shows filmed at Vasquez Rocks include The Fugitive, F-Troop, The A-Team, Roswell, Friends, NCIS, MacGyver, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Outer Limits, and Bonanza. Movie credit include Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, Hot Shots! Part Deux, The Flintstones, and Blazing Saddles. Michael Jackson’s music video "Black or White" includes a scene where he’s dancing with Plains Native Americans at Vasquez Rocks. Commercials filmed on location include Taco Bell, Bank of America, Pacific Bell, Pepsi, and Nike.

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, 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

Antelope Valley Indian Museum is a State Historic Park less than 30 minutes from Palmdale and houses objects created by the American Indian cultures of the western Great Basin, California, and the Southwest.

The property includes a self-guided nature trail, a picnic area, outdoor ceremonial arena, and 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 available.

Thirty-six miles south of Edwards Air Force Base, Palmdale is part of what is known as “Aerospace Valley.” All six Space Shuttle orbiters - Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour – were built in Palmdale by Rockwell International. Edwards Air Force Base served as the main landing strip for early space shuttle missions and as a back-up landing site later in the program’s tenure.

Previously named Muroc Army Air Field and renamed Edwards Air Force Base in 1947, the base is home of the Air Force Flight Test Center. Edwards Air Force Base is where the sound barrier was broken by Chuck Yeager in the X-1 aircraft that same year - 1947. The facility was featured in the film “The Right Stuff.”

Today, the base still serves as the location for military aircraft tests, 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 Palmdale skies as they take off or land at Plant 42.

Joe Davies Heritage Airpark displays a collection of aircraft flown, tested, designed, produced or modified at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 located in Palmdale. On display is a 1:8 scale model of a B-2 Spirit bomber created especially for the airpark. Actual aircraft on display include the U-2 spy plane, C-46 Commando, F-101 Voodoo, F-100 Super Sabre, F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief, F-14 Tomcat, F-16 Fighting Falcon, B-52 Stratofortress, F-4 Phantom II, T-38 Talon, A-4 Skyhawk, C-140 Jetstar, and an F-86 Sabre.

Nearby Cities & Towns
Distance from Palmdale

City of Lancaster – 9 Miles North
Rosamond (Kern County) – 22 Miles North
Mojave (Kern County) – 35 Miles North
Tehachapi (Kern County) – 54 Miles North
California City (Kern County) – 47 Miles North
Quartz Hill – 10 Miles West
Lake Los Angeles – 19 Miles East
Littlerock – 11 Miles East
Victorville (San Bernardino County) – 52 Miles East
Barstow (San Bernardino County) – 82 Miles East
Acton – 12 Miles Southwest
Agua Dulce – 21 Miles Southwest
City of Santa Clarita – 37 Miles Southwest

      
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