There may be no better example of a destination watering hole than the one on the site of the abandoned Nellie E Mine outside Parker, Arizona. Ken Wardlow’s Desert Bar is in such a remote location in the Buckskin Mountains that just getting there is an adventure. But it’s no secret to communities up and down the Colorado River from Blythe to Lake Havasu, whose residents party there every Thanksgiving weekend, or to the snowbirds who come from all over the country in January: Pull into the parking lot and you will see license plates from Alaska, Illinois, Washington, Oregon and Nebraska. The accents you hear of German gentlemen cooing over showy 1,000 horsepower ATVs will confirm that this place is an open secret among Europeans, too. Then you enter the bar and meet 300 new best friends.
In 1983, Ken Wardlow had three things: a piece of property he had owned since 1975, a liquor license and a great imagination. He built a 12-by-12-foot shack with three walls and called it the Nellie E Saloon. Customers with a thirst for its Wild West aura began coming in droves, and by 1989 the shack had been replaced by a solid structure. It has been growing organically every year since. Now known as the Desert Bar, it’s a three-level complex with tin roofs, multiple seating areas, bars, kitchens, bandstands and a dance floor that you reach by a covered bridge spanning an actual gulch. It has no address other than its coordinates (34 degrees 12.05.14 North, 114 degrees 08.55.87 West), and it relies on its own wells, solar panels and twin cooling towers. In short, it is entirely off the grid.
The Desert Bar’s curiosities don’t end there. It is rarely open — only on weekend afternoons, before sunset, mid-autumn through mid-spring (that is, when the average temperature hovers below 100 F). To reach it, you have to join the line of Jeeps and pickups that creep along five dusty miles of primitive road. (Unless you have a quad, dune buggy, side-by-side or dirt bike, do not accept the challenge of the treacherous back way. Better to enjoy that drama through some daredevil’s head cam on YouTube.) So why is this bar so wildly popular? Well, there’s cold beer and lemonade that’s squeezed to order. There’s perfectly prepared American comfort food like hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken sandwiches to energize you for the journey home. You can indulge your secret longing for a basket of deep-fried pickle spears, or go all the way with the fritto misto of pickles, onion rings, mushrooms, jalapeños and freshly cut fries unfairly known as the “junk basket.” Try it, just the once…
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But in the end it’s the atmosphere, not the menu, that makes all the difference. As the regulars arrive, they grab the shaded table they will occupy until sunset, while the newcomers wander around in awe. Cameras and cellphones capture the abandoned cars and fire trucks strewn around the property, the three bars, and the open-air ladies’ room constructed of rusting metal plates. Women — and, if the coast is clear, the occasional man — linger in here taking photos of the 30-mile view through the glassless picture windows. Hands down, the most-photographed structure is the trompe l’oeil “church.” Constructed from steel plates in 1991, it contains just one room under the three-story, copper-topped steeple, lined in stamped tin with two arched openings. And yes, destination weddings take place there regularly.
The words that customers use over and over to describe The Desert Bar are “fun” and “unique.” For the first-timer, two miles on the bone-rattling road to its door are enough to make you question all the praise. But once you see that steeple up ahead you know it is going to be worth the trip. Fun? Just walk up into the hills behind the bar and listen to the buzz of conversation and laughter filling the canyon. Unique? Without a doubt. Guaranteed you have never spent a Sunday Funday in such a hospitable bar surrounded by such inhospitable mountains.
Main photo: Fresh-squeezed lemonade at the Desert Bar in Parker, Arizona. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel