Halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas on Interstate 15 sits a grove of decaying palm trees, rusting metal and trash rotting in the sun. It’s a jarring sight. The stretch of highway near Barstow is bleak, desolate and always just a little bit too quiet, save for the occasional laughter from the backseat of a car filled with club kids on their way to Sin City that punctuates the miles of empty road.
What is it? Or rather, what was it?
Lake Dolores was originally opened in the 1950’s by a guy named Bob Byers who named it after his wife. It was fed by the Mojave Aquifer and acted as a fun oasis in the desert, or at least a nice stop off for summertime travelers headed in either direction on 15. Vegas didn’t have a waterpark at the time so it seemed like a good idea. There were diving boards, a lazy river a zip line and basically a bunch of really awesome but really, really unsafe stuff that would never fly these days.
In the 1980’s, business declined and it closed and then reopened as the Rock-a-Hoola Waterpark which failed quickly because apparently no one in the 90’s was that enthusiastic about 50’s nostalgia (If only Mad Men had come out like, just a little earlier…). It was sold and then reopened again as Discovery Waterpark which again, shut down pretty quickly. Some rumors have it that the place was doomed financially (and maybe karmically if you believe in that stuff) after the paralysis of an employee who was severely injured while having some after dark fun on the slides. After the final shutdown, most of the attractions were sold in piecemeal to Cultus Lake Park near Vancouver.
I saw it first on a trip to Los Angeles and knew I’d be back someday. The place stuck in my head and months later I was on my way. The drive was long and inspired the kind of thoughts you can only have when traveling through the Mojave Desert which are mostly references to the Manson family, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Hills Have Eyes. The actual sight of ruin isn’t marked of course, because it isn’t open anymore and you have to get off on a frontage road where you can drive a bit and then walk in. I passed by it a few times before I figured this out which probably says more about my inability to function without Google Maps than anything else. Signs indicated that trespassing wasn’t allowed and the little bit of research that I’d done beforehand indicated that there may or may not be some sort of ominous figure with a hammer or an ax roaming the property and acting as a guard. I guess I should mention that I don’t officially endorse going here but I also don’t endorse not going here, if you know what I’m saying.
A massive sign reading “Waterpark” loomed above busted turnstiles and I thought, well, I guess this is happening.
A lot is missing from Lake Dolores (like water, for example) but you can still crawl down into the dried up lazy river or peak into long closed burger joints where broken cash registers still stand. There is a lot of graffiti, some of it artistic, some of it eerie. It’s just as post-apocalyptic as you’d like it to be and if you’re someone who likes to think about zombie invasions, a stroll through here will give you a lot to contemplate. Watch out for broken glass, sharp pieces of metal and the cool sense of dread that will inevitably set in upon you with the setting of the sun. I was lucky to be there during the magic hour when the light was at its most yellow and the empty Lake Dolores felt especially haunted.
There are staircases that I’m guessing used to lead to the top of slides, like the Big Bopper, which was the crown jewel of the park. Now they lead to nowhere and from the top of them you can look out into the desert and almost hear summertime laughter, water splashing and a hopeless voice insisting that yes, of course Lake Dolores will reopen someday.