Needles Experience

People come to Needles, Calif. for two reasons, the railroads and the Colorado River, but they soon discover there is so much more to the area.
The city is rich in railroad history dating back to the early 1900s, when the El Garces Harvey House train depot was completed in 1908, and employed the infamous Harvey Girls as waitresses. Over the years the station fell into disrepair after it closed, but was then resurrected and reopened again in 2014, when renovations were complete for public tours.
El Garces continues to symbolize survival and hometown pride in its small-town setting — a small town that continues to march on through difficult economic times. The community is one of long-time residents who wouldn’t think of living anywhere else, of activities for all ages, amenities to accommodate everyone, and neighbors who know and help their fellow neighbors.
Some of these long-time community members volunteer in the Needles Regional Museum, across the street from El Garces, to keep the history of the area preserved and available to visitors who are curious about life here so many years ago.
Many of the artifacts on display tell their own stories, however, the stories of life in Needles are even better when delivered by the volunteers themselves.
Owen Long remembers when a portion of the movie “Convoy” with Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw was filmed on a bridge in the area that is no longer there.
“The scene where the truck goes over the side of the bridge was filmed here,” he said, pointing to an old photo on the wall. “It was like a lot of bridges around here, it washed away because there wasn’t solid bedrock to support it. We had a lot of fun at that bridge when we were kids. We’d swing from the bridge, swim, drink beer out there and have parties.”
In that same photo he points to the reason for the name of the town.
“You see these jagged mountains, these are the Needles Mountains, and that’s where the city got it’s name.”
Mike Thornton, also on duty as a volunteer when we were there, is one of the tour guides for El Garces, with direct ties to its past.
“My grandmother was a Harvey Girl,” he said. “Do you know what was expected as a Harvey Girl? They had to be impeccably dressed with clean white aprons. If they spilled anything on their clothes, they had to go upstairs to the dormitory and change uniforms. If they were caught chewing gum, they were fired. If they missed curfew more than three times, they were fired. If they were married, they were financially fined because they signed contracts to work as Harvey Girls. They received room, board, uniforms, tips and made $17.50 per month.”
Long said exhibits are regularly changed because the museum has a lot more artifacts than room to display them in the old J.C. Penney building where they are housed. The thrift store, also manned by volunteers, is located right next door and funds raised supports the museum.
Because the building is old and keeping it air-conditioned isn’t economically feasible in the summer, the museum closes for June, July and August.
Right now, the museum is open Monday-Saturday (10 a.m.-2 p.m.), and it’s at 929 Front Street, which is across the street from Santa Fe Park and El Garces.
Tours of El Garces are $5 per person and reservations can be made by contacting Heidi Smith at 760-326-2344.
Once a railroad town, always a railroad town. Catching a train is still possible in Needles. The train station, at 149 G St., is a platform only, meaning no tickets are available for purchase here and no amenities like restrooms, baggage check service or wi-fi. The railway is operated by Amtrak and passengers either buy their tickets online at Amtrak.com or by calling 800-872-7245. It is still a relatively inexpensive mode of transportation if you prefer leaving the driving to someone else.
Santa Fe Park is where many community events are held throughout the year and is open to the public year round. Needles maintains a number of parks for public use, including the Needles Skate Park, and the Dog Park for those of the furry, four-legged variety. The Aquatic Center is a popular place for all ages to cool off in the summer months. It opens beginning Saturday, June 2, with lessons, open swims, and exercise classes. For more information and a schedule, contact the Needles Recreation Department at 760-324-2814.
There’s also the River’s Edge Golf Course, at 144 Marina Drive, for those who want to get in a few rounds early in the morning before temps really heat up. The 19th Hole Bar & Grill is a quiet place to grab a beer after the game, or have a bite whether or not a person plays golf at all. Right next to the golf course is that other reason people come to Needles, water.
And if it’s the river people are interested to know about, a good portion, and a pretty part of it is easily accessible at Jack Smith Park, right next to the golf course.
With triple-digit blistering temperatures already making a daily appearance in the Colorado River region, water lovers soon will be flocking to the river in droves with pop-up tents, boats, personal watercraft, RVs and more. The attractive park can accommodate a lot of people with RV spaces, slips for boats and a boat launch ramp. There are shaded picnic tables, grassy areas and an off-river swimming area for small children. Day use fees vary between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
While there might be a wait time to launch, it might be a shorter time than trying to launch in places like Laughlin or Katherine Landing, and Needles is closer to one of the most scenic slices of the Colorado River — Topock Gorge, where wild burros and desert bighorn sheep are often spotted. Not far is the popular party spot, Pirate Cove Resort.
Looking for spots to cool off in addition to the river? Stop in at the Dairy Queen on the West side of Needles, at 2451 Needles Highway, inside the Shell gas station. It is near one of the city’s oldest and well-established eateries, the Wagon Wheel. Other popular eateries include the Giggling Cactus, River City Pizza Co., and Porky’s BBQ & 66 Bar.
If you’re looking for funky and out of the way libations, the Riverfront Café might be the place to cool off and chill out. Located further up-river from Needles, traveling toward Laughlin, the café, at 3521 Needles Highway, is accessible by car and by boat.
For more information about Needles, contact the Needles Chamber of Commerce, 100 G Street, or call, 760-326-2050. Current hours are Monday-Friday (9 a.m.-3 p.m.). The chamber will change to summer hours the last week of May to Monday-Thursday (9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.).