South of the I-8 freeway on a surviving stretch of the old US-80 highway, Jacumba (pop. 561) is a former spa and resort town where Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and countless others soaked themselves silly in the free-flowing natural hot springs. Established in 1852 as a station on the stagecoach mail route across the desert, Jacumba had its heyday during the 1920s. While little remains apart from the water, it makes a great place to stop. The mineral-rich hot springs still flow into outdoor pools and private hot tubs at Jacumba Hot Springs Spa & Resort (44500 Old US-80, 619/766-4333, $25 per day), which includes motel rooms for$99 and up, a good on-site restaurant, and a popular “locals” bar.
Southern gateway to the splendid 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one of the largest and wildest desert parks in the country, the Jacumba area is also home to one of the great road-trip stops in southern California: the Desert View Tower (619/766-9139, daily 8:30am-dusk, $6.50). The four-story cut-stone structure was built in 1923 to commemorate the pioneers who struggled across the arid desert.
Inside the tower, a small but interesting museum displays a haphazard collection of desert Americana, such as Navajo blankets and Native American artifacts, with similar items on sale in the gift shop. At the top of the tower, an observation platform offers views across 100 miles of desert landscape, sliced by the I-8 freeway. (You can also see places where the excavations for I-8 have left sections of the old US-80 roadway stranded on artificially constructed mesas, 50 feet or so higher than the modern freeway.)
Across the parking lot from the Desert View Tower, a hillside of quartzite granite boulders has been carved with dozens of three-dimensional figures. Most of the figures are of skulls, snakes, and lizards—with real lizards sometimes racing each other across the rocks. The whole ensemble was created during the Great Depression by an out-of-work engineer named W. T. Ratcliffe.
The Desert View Tower stands at a cool 3,000 feet above sea level, seven miles east of Jacumba, on the north side of I-8 at the In-Ko-Pah Road exit; billboards point the way. For more information on visiting Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which covers some 600,000 acres of desiccated desert, contact the ranger station (760/767-4205) in Borrego Springs.