Cool Things for Southern Californians to Do: Visit Lancaster
by Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells
The Antelope Valley is located at the western edge of the Mojave Desert and its main city of Lancaster has a population of 170,000. Its neighbor Palmdale is nearly as large and the metro area provides support for a thriving culture, especially attractive as the cost-of-living drives so many out of the big cities. With Edwards Air Force Base to the north, the flat high desert has long been a center for developing and testing advanced aircraft and aerospace vehicles, including the space shuttles and pioneering efforts to launch space tourism. In a two-day visit to the area, we could barely scratch the surface of things to do just in the Lancaster area: https://destinationlancasterca.org/ (sign up for emails about things to do and ask for the AVentures magazine, which is also available at the visitor center when you arrive).
We stayed at the Residence Inn by Marriott (see our in-depth review: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/review-residence-inn-marriott-lancaster-california-scott-smith/), which is located in the main entertainment, shopping, and restaurant district on Lancaster Blvd. known as The BLVD (you can see many of the things to do there at in our in-depth review of the hotel). We have reviewed many top Marriotts, but this experience was a first-of-kind for us and surprisingly cost-effective for those who are traveling with a group or staying more than a couple of nights, since each room is a spacious suite with a fully-equipped kitchen.
We were visiting the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=627 to Lancaster’s west at the end of April 2023, just as the “super-bloom” was fading, which is what happens after years of drought followed by lots of rain, causing dormant seedlings to flower. It’s was a steep hike to the top of the nearest hill for the best vista of millions of small flowers, but there were also large ones along the highway leading to the Reserve, where everything from hawks to antelope make their home. You can get information on where and when to see wildflowers in 2024 when it is posted:
Thief and Barrel https://thiefandbarrel.wine/ is not your typical winery, which is why so many other wineries have it produce their private label products. Its sommelier, DiMaggio Washington, retired as an aerospace engineer and has applied his scientific background to wine production. He has been involved in every aspect of wine, from growing grapes and owning a wine bar to doing consulting for other winemakers and teaching courses at college. If you are able to get the backroom tour about the extraordinary details of production, any romantic notions about the wine business will disappear and you will never again think of most bottles of wine being overpriced. Most important, you will leave this winery remembering just how great a glass of the best can taste, says Sandra.
The name of the Antelope Valley Rural Museum https://avmuseum.org/ comes from starting as the Rural Olympics Hall of Fame to honor local athletic champions. But it offers all kinds of artifacts from the region’s fascinating history “from arrowheads to aerospace,” including racing tractors that can go 90 mph and a NASA F-15 cockpit that one can sit in (see photo–the plan is to create a headset providing a virtual reality experience). One exhibit is about the failed experiment in 1857 to use camels to haul away borax, a laundry additive, instead of mules (borax was the subject of the 1952-1970 TV series “Death Valley Days”). There are sections devoted to the early careers of locals who became stars ,like John Wayne and Judy Garland. In the area honoring A.V. military heroes there are videos of World War II battles in the Pacific that everyone should watch.
The Museum of Art and History https://www.lancastermoah.org/ was closed for renovation when we were there, but has reopened and reviews praise its excellent exhibits about local history and artists.
In Palmdale next to each other are two outdoor displays celebrating the many pioneering aerospace achievements by pilots and planes of the Antelope Valley. The Blackbird Airpark https://airmuseumguide.com/aviation-museums/usa/california/air-force-flight-test-museum-blackbird-airpark/ has once-secret Cold War spy aircraft produced by Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” such as the SR-71 Blackbird on the site. The Joe Davies Heritage Airpark https://www.cityofpalmdaleca.gov/205/Joe-Davies-Heritage-Airpark has aircraft
manufactured by Air Force Plant 42, one of the world’s premier production flight test installations in the world, including the B-52 Stratofortress on display.
For lunch at one end of The BLVD, we dined at the casual and popular Olives Mediterranean Cafe https://olivescafe.com/, where we have some of the most delicious hummus, babaganoush (baked eggplant), and pizza (we had the White) we have ever had. We had house-made desserts and listened to live jazz that night at its sister restaurant La Papillons https://lapapillonav.com/ at the other end (just across from our hotel). Since we are on a restricted diet, we talked with other diners about their favorite dishes at what is considered one of the best gourmet restaurants in the region. They recommended the grilled salmon, 32 oz., rib eye steak, and New York penne pasta with gorgonzola sauce.
In between lunch and dinner, we strolled the BLVD, which includes the Performing Arts Center, Smith and Weston’s customized jewelry, Lil Book Bug for used copies, many clothing boutiques, and our favorite, Nantiques Vintage Flair https://nantiquezvintageflair.com/. Nan’s goal is to “keep the past alive through unique vintage and antique furnishings, clothing, and boutique treasures.” When we were there, this included two Egyptian sarcophagi from movie sets, old furs (“we don’t want to promote harm to animals by offering new ones”), everything for the flapper look, memorabilia from Lucille Ball, lots of items once owned by local gal and screen star Lee Meriwether, and shoes from the early 1800s to 1970s.
At the visitor center, pick up the map of the 57 murals in the Lancaster-Palmdale area (especially concentrated around The BLVD), many painted during the September POW WOW! Antelope Valley Walls event https://www.lancastermoah.org/antelope-valley-walls , featuring artists from around the world (see photo). The BLVD undergoes a transformation into a winter wonderland in December. Other times when special events are going on in Lancaster include the Fourth of July fireworks, October with the A.V. Fair and the Edwards Air Force Base air show, and beer and wine festivals in November.