Named for Father Francisco Garces — the first European to cross the Mojave Desert — El Garces was once said to resemble a Greek temple. This Southern California train depot not only welcomed passengers from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line; but it was also a frequent stop for weary travelers along the National Old Trails Highway, which ran parallel to the tracks in many places. In its prime it housed a hotel and restaurant, and in true Fred Harvey style, the renowned Harvey Girls welcomed guests with hearty meals and excellent service.
Sadly the hotel and restaurant closed in 1949 and the depot itself was shuttered in 1988. The building sat abandoned for many years, and subsequently fell into disrepair. Fortunately the City of Needles came to the rescue in 1999, and purchased the building; which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. In 2014 the city embarked on an ambitious $5 million renovation project to restore this Needles landmark to its former glory. Today the finished project transports visitors back to the golden age of rail travel, and makes a nice stop on an Route 66 road trip.
El Garces is easy to find too. Just take the J Street exit from Interstate 40 in Needles and head north. Take the first right on 3rd Street, and then make a left at G Street. The depot is at the end of the street at the intersection of Front Street. You can’t miss it.
There’s accessible parking on the side with level access over to the front of the depot, which is surrounded by tall palms and flanked by stately white columns. Although the building is only open when the Southwest Chief arrives and departs (currently 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.), visitors can still get a look at the restored interior through the large glass windows. And if you are lucky enough to go inside (the doors are on an electric timer), don’t miss the historic photos that line the walls.
There’s also barrier-free access around to the back — track side — of the building, and level access to the back door. A majestic fountain dominates the courtyard near the back door, and it’s a pleasant spot to rest and admire the building. And like the front, large windows line the back of the building, so it’s easy to get a peek inside.
El Garces a definite must-see for train buffs, and as a added bonus there’s barrier-free access to the verdant park in front of the depot.