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Nestled in a back corner of the Mojave, about 15 minutes outside Victorville, sits an eccentric and creative “bottle tree ranch”. Mere feet from the iconic Route 66 Highway, aka “the Main Street of America” or “the Mother Road”, Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch is a sight to behold. You absolutely cannot miss it, even if you had no clue that it was there.
The closest “town” is Oro Grande, which is technically an “unincorporated territory” in San Bernardino County. Fewer than 1,000 people call this place home; although Victorville is only roughly 5 to 10 miles away (depending on which side of Victorville you go to), it is still rather remote. When people think of California, they think of large cities with no boundaries, endlessly bleeding into each other, never knowing when one ends, and another begins. The area in which Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch exists is the exact opposite. It’s basically as remote as it gets for Southern California.
Located at 24266 National Trails Hwy, Oro Grande, CA 92368, the hours are basically nonexistent. That’s not to say that you can visit whenever you like – just that it’s impossible to find the correct, current hours. If you Google Elmer’s, multiple sites will tell you all different times. Yelp says the ranch is open from 12pm to 11:30pm. Google Reviews claims it’s open from 7am to 6pm. The Facebook page (which for some reason makes it aggressively clear that the page is NOT managed by the ranch), says, “The Bottle Tree Ranch does not have official hours, but if you stop by in the daytime on a weekday or weekend, the gates will probably be open…”. The blogger “California Through My Lens”, who visited the ranch and spoke to Elmer himself, says it’s open from “sunrise to sunset”. The ranch’s official website, http://thebottletreeranch.com/, simply says, “Elmers Bottle Tree Ranch is now open! Please continue to observe the social distancing guidelines, stay safe and enjoy your visit!”. All these pages have one thing in common; the ranch is open daily.
I’m not sure what happened, but we stopped by on a Sunday at 12:30pm and it was NOT open. There was a large padlock with a thick chain firmly linked and locked on the front gate, and not a soul in sight to unlock it. We were forced to observe the coolness from the outside, and it really was super cool and fun looking, but unfortunately, we couldn’t do more than that. After snapping some pics, we left, and headed to Oro Grande to shop for a while (more on that in a bit).
Around 1:30pm, we headed back to the ranch because a man at one of the shops overheard my conversation with the shop owner regarding the ranch. He told me they had just passed the ranch and it was open. I asked him if he was sure because we had literally just come from there, but he insisted it was open. He kept saying “there were a bunch of people out front”. I asked him repeatedly if there were people inside, and I’m not sure if it was a misinterpretation due to both of us wearing masks, or if he was just bs’ing me, but he kept answering “yes”. I wasn’t optimistic because I had a feeling he was wrong, as we had just been there about 30 minutes before and there were people out front, but the gates were firmly locked. As it wasn’t that far, I decided “heck, why not? This is what we came for after all” and we drove back.
The gates were still firmly closed and locked.
The ranch is the brainchild of Elmer Evan Long, who regrettably passed away in June 2019. According to the official website, “He created an amazing place that became a thing of wonder and a destination for people all over the world. His family will do everything in its power to preserve and protect his legacy after his sudden passing. He is greatly missed and will be forever remembered for the love fostered with family, friends and stranger alike brought together by his amazing creations”.
Elmer’s love for antiques and glass bottles began as a child, a hobby and love passed down to him by his father. He spent countless hours combing the desert with his father, looking for anything cool, quirky, interesting, or unique to take home. After his father passed, Elmer was left with his immense collection of antiques, oddities, and bottles, and no idea what to do with it all. In 2000, he created his first bottle tree, and the rest is history.
Although we unfortunately could not go in and walk amongst the bottle trees, it still really was a sight to behold. When I looked at pictures online, I figured deceptive camera angles showed it bigger than it was. I (wrongly) assumed it was just a handful of bottle trees and other antiques and would not be that impressive (perhaps Noah Purifoy jaded me…). However, as soon as we arrived, I quickly saw that I was very wrong. It’s much larger than I thought, although not that large. The bottle trees seem endless, and the sheer number makes it all the more beautiful and intriguing.
So, if you’re ever taking a Route 66 tour, or happen to be in this barren, Californian neck of the woods, please don’t hesitate to stop by Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch. The gates might not be unlocked and open, but it’s still worth the stop if you’re nearby. While getting in seems to be a game of Russian Roulette nowadays, you just might get lucky!
As mentioned above, Oro Grande isn’t technically a “real town” but an “unincorporated area”. It’s rural, barren, and small, yet charming and quaint. It fully reminds me of the Wild, Wild West. I got strong “Calico Ghost Town” vibes (Calico Ghost Town: Welcome to the Wild West.), although unlike Calico, it’s still an active community. I almost certainly got these vibes because Oro Grande was, in fact, an old western mining town at one point, although the area’s history dates much further back.
The history begins with the Native Americans, as they had settlements in this vicinity far predating the white settlers and miners who flooded the area in the late 1800’s. The town is located on the Mojave River, and native American tribes would use it in tandem with the Colorado River to connect the southwest tribes with those on the coasts. This was originally called the Mohave Trail but later became a part of the Old Spanish Trail after Spanish padres, soldiers, American fur trappers, and new Mexican traders all used it at various points in history.
After it became part of the Old Spanish Trail, the United States of America finally acquired California after the Mexican American War, which is when the Mormon pioneers began using it as a “wagon road” from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. Finally, in 1859, a man named Aaron G. Lane established a ranch and store for weary travelers, on what would become Lane’s Crossing. This was the first official settlement along the Mojave River.
As is the story with nearby Calico, eventually in 1873, someone discovered that the land was rich with ore of gold and silver. This led to the creation of the Silver Mountain Mining District, with later discoveries in 1880 of even more gold and silver leading to the creation of yet another mining company, the Red Mountain Gold and Silver Mining District. This is when construction began of the much-needed mining town, Oro Grande. It was named after the first mine found in the area, the Oro Grande Mine.
Eventually other materials were discovered or made (limestone quarries, lime for cement, actual cement, and marble). To this day, there are active mines in the area owned and operated by the Oro Grande Mining District.
Oro Grande has a handful of shops, mainly antique stores and art studios. These include Antique Station, Shelley’s Shop Around the Corner, Lona’s Treasures, Oro Grande Market and Liquor, Tradin’ Post, One Man’s Junk, Marcia Moon Shop, Dream Den, All Aboard Antiques & Unique, and 7 Design Studios.
We visited two: Shelley’s Shop Around the Corner and 7 Design Studios.
The first was Shelley’s Shop Around the Corner, which is 100% an antique store, and can be somewhat overwhelming. There is a lot of stuff. Located at 19270 National Trails Hwy, Oro Grande, CA 92368, it’s only open on Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. It’s set up inside of an old home, and one could easily spend an hour inside if they were hellbent on carefully rummaging through all of the layers of antiques and random items.
There is sooo much stuff that I was petrified that my 4-year-old was going to accidently bump into something old or breakable, sending it cascading down into other old and breakable things, and before I knew it, I was on the hook for $500. It was pretty hard to enjoy the place or take my time perusing the items when on constant high alert with a pre-schooler.
I was able to find an interesting and unique vase that I think will look awesome with some dark flowers in it. So, I call it a win.
If you’re really into antiques, go here!
7 Design Studios was the exact opposite of Shelley’s and way more my cup of tea. Located at 19248 National Trails Hwy #1A, Oro Grande, CA 92368, it’s open Thursday through Sunday from 11am to 5pm. It’s billed as an “art studio”, and it’s just that. It’s a studio/shop owned and run by one lady, who is also the artist, selling watercolor paintings, alien knickknacks, alien blacklight painting, GoT memorabilia, handmade windchimes, vintage clothing, jewelry, and much more. On the shop’s front window, it says, “Dragons, Faeries, Gnomes, Aliens, Crystals”. So, you get the gist.
The owner was wonderful and super helpful. Her pricing was very fair, especially for homemade art. I love buying homemade art, but often prices seem a bit too high. Here, I was very pleasantly surprised by her pricing. I bought a beautiful watercolor painting that is going to look amazing on the wall of my new home!
I would highly suggest visiting 7 Design Studio as well.
Also – there are two restaurants in Oro Grande: Cross Eyed Cow Pizza, which is located at 19242 National Trails Hwy, open daily from 11am to 7pm (expect on Friday and Saturday; it’s open until 8pm), and Iron Hog Restaurant & Saloon, which is located at 20848 National Trails Hwy, open one single day, Monday, from 10am to 2pm.
Even though the bottle tree ranch was closed, our trek out to that corner of the Mojave was not a total waste of time. Seeing the ranch from the road was still fun and something cool to marvel at, although it would be disingenuous of me to say that going inside wouldn’t have been better or more worth the drive. The small village of Oro Grande is fun to spend an afternoon, as it really does transport you back to the “olden days” of the Wild West. So, if you feel the need for some western flavor but don’t want to drive the extra hour to Calico or deal with those crowds, and like to support small businesses and local artists, definitely give Oro Grande a visit! As for Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch… “may the odds forever be in your favor”.