Ridgecrest will soon have a larger place on the map — and with it an opportunity to draw in more visitors to its corner of the High Desert, thanks to the designation of a new California Welcome Center.
The designation, granted in 2019, links Ridgecrest to other Welcome Centers across the state. As part of the benefit, the center will carry promotional material and information from its sister centers — and in return, those other Welcome Centers will carry information on the surrounding Ridgecrest area.
The designation is part of the effort by Visit California — the state’s tourism marketing agency — to expand tourism in the state. In 2019, more than 1.1 million guests visited the centers, gaining information on local and regional sites.
“The welcome center acts as a concierge service to travelers but also market and send travelers to the other welcome centers,” says Kari Crutcher, marketing coordinator for the Ridgecrest Area Convention and Visitors Bureau/ Ridgecrest Film Commission, the agency that markets tourism for the Ridgecrest area and assists with filming permits and locations.
The state in 2019 decided to expand its network of centers, which are independently operated under a set of state criteria, and the RACVB decided to put its name in the hat. As a benefit, it receives all the marketing the state puts out for free.
And it puts Ridgecrest on the map to draw more tourism.
“One of the challenges Ridgecrest has is it doesn’t have name recognition to travelers,” Crutcher says. “If you’re traveling from Ontario to Mammoth Lakes, you might see a sign for Ridgecrest but unless you been to Ridgecrest, you probably wouldn’t know what it is.”
The city is located near State Route 14 and U.S. Route 395 but remains well away from the highway interchanges on the floor of the Indian Wells Valley.
The welcome center designation would provide more visual cues and signage directing people to Ridgecrest.
“Having us as part of the family and network will really put Ridgecrest on the map,” Crutcher said. “The exposure we will get as far as marketing and tourism will be the most valuable thing.”
It opens up the fact that the region is home to museums, off-highway vehicle opportunities, hiking and a valuable stopping point on the way to Death Valley National Park should visitors access it via State Route 178 through Trona.
It would also provide material on signature events, including the annual Petroglyph Festival, which highlights some of natural and Native American history unique to the region.
The designation has traditionally led to a significant increase in the percentage of travel- generated employment for each region represented. This effect has led to documented positive impacts in secondary spending and employment, as each region increases its share of California’s in-state travel spending.
With the designation comes an opportunity to expand its footprint. The RACVB plans to set up a new location for the Welcome Center in a vacant building at 880 N. China Lake Blvd. in a former Goodwill Store building.
“It will be a spacious visitors center area with a few different attractions that visitors will be able to use,” Crutcher says, including a virtual reality program. The RACVB and film commission offices will relocate to the new building and a portion dedicated to a community resource space.
“While we’re going to promote the area, we’re also going to bring it inside and have more fun with it.”
“One of the features we plan for the virtual reality program will be for the petroglyphs in our area,” Crutcher says.
The Ridgecrest area is home to the Little Petroglyph Area and the largest collection of petroglyphs in North America. However, public access is limited due to its location aboard the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake ranges; only U.S. citizens can take tours arranged privately through the Navy base or through the Maturango Museum and limited by the number of people in the spring and fall months.
Access can also be a problem because reaching the canyons require a sizeable hike.
“We’re going to bring that petroglyph experience to the Welcome Center, so that they can be much more accessible,” Crutcher says.
The center expects to open between mid-spring and early summer 2020.
The former Goodwill store location in Ridgecrest will open in spring or summer 2021 as a California Welcome Center. PHOTO BY AARON CRUTCHFIELD