Desert View Tower

A Way Station for Travelers

Desert View Tower

The Desert View Tower stands like a monolith looking over Interstate 8 between San Diego and the border of Arizona. Poised at the top of the only pass around between the two areas, it is a stony memorial to the pioneers and road workers who traveled this route many years ago.


Settlers from the east first began to move into San Diego County in the 1880s. Many came from Arizona by way of the Yuma Crossing. As part of their trek, they journeyed along wagon roads that followed the traces of old Indian trails, traveling through the only pass in the area available to lead them to the coast. A stage station at Mountain Spring, not far from the present location of the Desert View Tower, provided an ox team to move the wagons and coaches up the steep grade of the pass. The original trail is barely visible now. 

In 1900 the first roads began to replace the original trails, and a wooden plank road was built to cross the sand near the Imperial Sand Dunes. The Plank Road, as it came to be called, turned out to be only a temporary solution to the dilemma of travel over the sand, and a new, permanent paved road was built by 1926. Bert Vaughn of San Diego is credited as the developer of the new road; he also owned most of what is now the town of Jacumba. For a time, the tower advertised Vaughn’s bar, located below it, now completely gone.

View from the Tower's Top

The wood used to build the Desert View Tower was salvaged from the old Plank Road. Constructed by the workers who built the new road, the tower was intended as a monument to the early pioneers. It was finished by 1928.  The stone tower’s walls are four feet thick and three stories high. 

From the tower, sections of the old road are still visible, broken through by Interstate 8, which was built in 1965. Usually interstates stay away from older roads, which frequently have had homes and businesses built up nearby. As this was the only possible way through the pass here, engineers and their crews blasted right  through the older road to build the new interstate. 

Piles of rocks and boulders surround the tower area. Some have been carved into sculptures of animals and reptiles, and painted with faces and other details. Coiled serpents, stony buffalo and unexpected giant rock lizards populate the place. Called Boulder Park, the folk art imagery was created by an unemployed engineer named Merle Ratcliff in 1933.

Boulder Park
Fanciful Stone Lizard
Stone Sculpture Peers Out from the Rocks

Dennis Newman bought the tower from the Vaughn family. Newman added the round lower floor to the tower in 1950, intended as a gift shop and museum. Ben Schultz, who first saw the tower when he was 4 years old, bought the tower in 2002 from Jane Knapp, who had purchased it in 1979. Over time the tower and its owners collected a lot of historic information and artifacts showing the life and times of the people that lived and worked in old California.  There is a small fee for viewing the tower and Boulder Park, and there are a variety of articles for sale in the gift shop. The tower has a circular staircase with 65 easy steps to the top. There are no elevators, but the view is good from the ground floor as well.

View from tower
View from the top

How to Get to the Desert View Tower

From San Diego:

Take I-8 E for about 63 miles. Take the exit toward In-Ko-Pah Park Rd. Turn right onto In-Ko-Pah Park Rd.


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