​​​​​The Desert Bar opens for the season soon. Here are 6 facts to get you excited about the bar before you drive there. Paige Schwahn/The Republic Wochit

People tackle a road rough on tires and suspensions to reach this bar in the mountains outside Parker.

PARKER - It lies at the end of a suspension-challenging dirt road through uninhabited desert, appearing almost as a mirage amid barren foothills.

The oasis finally reveals itself to motorists coming around that last bend. Every weekend, fall through spring, hundreds go out of their way to spend a few hours in this unlikely spot of hot food, cold brews and cool surroundings.

Welcome to the Desert Bar, Arizona’s most unusual watering hole, a solar-powered, alcohol-fueled harbor that is as remote as it is popular. As summer dwindles, taking its torrid temperatures with it, the bar re-opens for the season noon-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 1 and 2.

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The Desert Bar has evolved from a five-stool operation to a tourist-friendly destination that causes minor weekend traffic jams. This weekend- the last weekend in April- marks the last time you can visit for a beverage until October.

The bar was conceived, designed and constructed by a man whose ideas usually exceeded his building skills. But if he learned anything while growing up on a Wisconsin farm, it was how to get things done regardless of obstacles.

Story Chapters

'Proceed at your own risk'

'This is where it all began'

'Who are you going to serve, jackrabbits?'

'I take drinking to excess very seriously'

'We knew we'd have to visit each year'

'This was my dream, my hope'

Nor is Ken Coughlin done with his 33-year-old project. The 71-year-old owner of the Desert Bar sees more work ahead, visions that over time will be set in concrete.

This season he hopes to finish a wall along the lower level, a project that will allow him to extend a patio for additional outside seating. that follows the cut of a desert wash. When that's done — and Coughlin is rarely in a hurry — he'll have spotted another opportunity for improvement. Like Disneyland, the Desert Bar will forever be a work in progress, as long as the owner finds someone to carry on once he's gone.

Knowing only that he wanted to host a far-flung bar when when he bought the land sight unseen in 1975, even Coughlin finds it hard to believe how well things have turned out. Not just for his multilevel bar and grill, but also for his work-in-progress house just across the road. With each sunrise and sunset, his appreciation of the desert (and its weekday solitude) grows.

But on weekends from October through April, Coughlin looks forward to the approaching clouds of dust that tell him he's not the only one who enjoys a bar at the end of five miles of bad road.

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The Desert Bar: Arizona's most unusual watering hole

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When this bridge was built in 1991, it crossed a desert

When this bridge was built in 1991, it crossed a desert wash. A lower patio was eventually added, with a kitchen leased by the owners of a Lake Havasu restaurant.  Scott Craven/The Republic

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The Desert Bar: Arizona's most unusual watering hole


'Proceed at your own risk'

Finding the Desert Bar is easy. You just need to know where to look. (Google and Apple maps can show you the way.)

The destination is less than 10 miles from Parker, in western Arizona, but the journey begins on Cienega Springs Road, an unpaved spur heading east off State Route 95.

It was a tricky turn until this year, when crews finished a $1.9 million, six-month project to widen and add a turn lane to the T-intersection, a testament to the bar's popularity.

Less than a mile down the graded dirt road, a sign warns of what's to come:

“Primitive road, no maintenance, proceed at your own risk.”

Those destined for the bar either have traveled this way before or have heard about the conditions from others. No turning back now.

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Cienega Springs Road twists along the path of least resistance, rising slightly as it heads northeast, following the contour of the hills.

The road's perils reveal themselves at 5 mph. Sharp-tipped rocks thrust from the ground like shrapnel. Ruts and potholes slow most drivers to a crawl, as if navigating a minefield.

Those adequately prepared for the perils are on dirt bikes or within sturdy, high-clearance vehicles, the road no match for agility and steel.

But the unforgiving terrain convinces drivers of sedans that when it comes to their mode of transportation, they’ve chosen poorly. Speeds rarely break into double digits, making one mile feel like 10.

The Desert Bar (Nellie E Saloon)

What: Bar and grill nestled in the foothills of the Buckskin Mountains in western Arizona. Mixed drinks, canned beer, burgers, hot dogs, chicken and barbecue sandwiches. Cash only.

When: Noon-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from October through April.

Where: From Parker, take State Route 95 north for about 5 miles to Cienega Springs Road. Turn right and go 5 miles to the Desert Bar. Cienega Springs is unpaved and not regularly maintained. Carefully driven sedans can make it. You may be more comfortable in a high-clearance vehicle.

Details: 928-667-2871,thedesertbar.com.

The trail rounds a bend where hills have parted, revealing a small valley popular with campers or people needed a short break from the rough terrain.

Finally, something rises in the distance. Tall, linear, definitely man-made.

Other details become apparent. Angled roofs. Steel beams. A low-slung building perched on a ridge.

And to the left, amid parked cars, a church spire straight out of an Addams Family cartoon.

Before the mind is able to reconcile the appearance of that dark wooden tower, it focuses first on parking as cars weave among spaces marked by strips of fire hose or canvas affixed to the earth with metal bolts.

Most new arrivals climb out of vehicles coated with dust and head toward a covered, wooden pedestrian bridge spanning the bar’s lower patio. (This area was a wash about a decade ago.)

The bridge leads to the Nellie E Saloon, named after the mine that first drew people to this part of the desert.

Inside, bartenders crack open beers three and four at a time, sliding cold cans across a bar that Coughlin built three decades ago. At the back of the saloon, patrons line up to buy T-shirts, proof that they made it here.

Outside, patrons relax under shade structures supporting the solar panels that power the bar. It's a far cry from the early years when Coughlin hauled ice from Parker and last call was when the sun set or the ice melted, whichever came first.

On the outdoor stage, a four-piece band cruises through a country tune, a mild but steady breeze keeping the heat at bay. Other patrons enjoy the music atop nearby cliffs, sipping beer from slowly warming cans.

Few notice a small, three-sided structure that seems placed as an afterthought. It appears to serve no purpose other than blocking the otherwise pristine view from the Desert Bar’s unique women’s restroom.

Yet the unassuming building is the X where this spot began.

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'This is where it all began'

It was 1983, and even before the Desert Bar hosted its first customer, Ken Coughlin realized his mistake.

It was, if nothing else, a teachable moment. The next time he built a bar (and there would be a next time), he’d be sure to include a way to get behind it besides vaulting over the counter.

The error didn’t stop him from throwing open the doors to his new venture, even if technically it didn’t have any doors.

The memory of his early days at the Desert Bar often surface when Coughlin walks by the three-sided structure. His outpost has evolved into a multilevel entertainment destination, yet he can't bear to part with this tangible reminder of his roots.



 

“This is where it all began,” Coughlin says, patting the splintered countertop. “Little worse for the wear, of course. It’s been a long time.”

The story starts in 1975, when a 31-year-old Coughlin ran a snack bar near the Colorado River in Parker.

A year earlier, the Wisconsin native moved to Southern California, seeking the partying life. A trip to Parker quickly convinced Coughlin he preferred desert to beach. He settled along the Colorado River and rented a snack stand.

Greg Short, whose parents leased the space to Coughlin, said it was clear that their tenant had aspirations beyond running a sandwich joint.

“He was always building stuff, adding on,”  said Short, now a contractor who has poured much of the concrete at the Desert Bar. “Once he even built a volleyball court over the river. Pretty sure he was ordered to tear it down, since I don’t think it was quite legal.”

Coughlin realized he liked the desert enough to put down roots. Knowing that much of the land was publicly owned, he visited the county seat to pore over maps, searching for a privately owned parcel to buy, away from everything and perfect for settling down.

“In between all the government-owned land, there was a chunk that was privately owned,” Coughlin said. “It was shaped like an island. I looked up the owner and made a call.”

It wasn’t long before Coughlin owned 71 acres of, well, he had no idea. The property may or may not have had access to water or the electrical grid. He didn't know whether the road could handle anything more than a dirt bike.

It didn't matter.

"I knew that somewhere in those 71 acres, there had to be a  few I could live on," Coughlin said.

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'Who are you going to serve, jackrabbits?'

He continued to run his sandwich shop, expanding into beer and liquor when he acquired a liquor license. Every now and then, he’d make a run up to his property, taking a seat in the vast emptiness and dreaming.

“I’d sit and think, ‘OK, a bar can go there, the parking lot there,’ ” Coughlin said. “I had this design in mind, not really knowing when I’d do anything. Just that someday, I would.”

When the lease on his sandwich shop ran out in 1979, it was time to focus on his patch in the desert. A soon-to-expire liquor license provided just the right inspiration.

“I appeared before the (liquor) board to tell them what I had in mind,” Coughlin said. “One of them said, ‘Who are you going to serve, jackrabbits?’ But I got approval.”

Work began in the early 1980s with the necessities. Coughlin installed a septic system. followed by restrooms built of rocks scavenged from the desert.

"No bathrooms, no visitors," Coughlin said. "You have to start with necessities."

Roughly a dozen friends showed up for the bar’s soft opening, enjoying cold beer resting in ice trucked from Parker. The crowd was about the same for the grand opening.

Word spread over weeks and months of this odd little bar serving beer and cocktails in the middle of nowhere. There were only two ways to find it: get directions from a previous customer or stumble across it while riding in the desert.

Everything changed in the mid-1980s, Coughlin said, when the so-called “Little Bar in the Hills” was featured on a Phoenix travelogue, “On the Arizona Road” with Bill Leverton.

“It blew up after that,” Coughlin said. “Nothing was the same.”

In 1988, Coughlin opened the Nellie E Saloon, about 10 times the size of the original. It had everything his first bar didn't — an expansive concrete floor, pressed-tin ceiling and handcrafted bar that was easy to get behind.

Over the years, the Desert Bar has added a grill, a patio, the bridge and various shade structures. Coughlin carved out the wash, making room for a second patio and a kitchen. He installed solar panels that provide all the power the bar needs to keep the lights on and the beer cold.

A well now provides the water Coughlin once had to deliver via antique firetruck (now parked outside and in no shape to deliver anything).

The Desert Bar has tiptoed toward civilization, but it's not there yet. Trash collects in a trailer, which Coughlin hauls to a landfill once or twice a month. He drives to Parker daily to pick up supplies, from cleaning products to tools to food-service necessities.

And on a recent morning when an employee failed to show, Coughlin had to juggle the lineup, filling in behind the bar and at the very busy T-shirt counter.

But on most weekends, Coughlin relies on an experienced staff happy to have part-time jobs supplementing incomes as teachers, hair stylists and retail clerks.


'I take drinking to excess very seriously'

While customer service is a priority — regulars attest to the friendly nature of the staff — there is one infraction for which Coughlin has zero tolerance.

Any customer showing a lack of sobriety is not to be served. A twisting, turning, five-mile road is tough enough to negotiate when level-headed. Employees are stationed at exits to keep an eye on things and make sure no one leaves with alcohol.

“I take (drinking to excess) very seriously,” Coughlin said. “I’m more stringent than any other bar owner I know.”

Deputies of the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office concur. The office reports few problems beyond the occasional accident along the dirt road.

“They’re one of the better bars we’ve dealt with,” Lt. Curt Bagby, the sheriff's public information officer, said. “I wish we had more like them.”

The easygoing nature of the Desert Bar may foster the casual, not-very-hard drinking atmosphere. After the effort expended to get here, most people just want to relax and soak in the scenery.

No wonder the first cars arrive even before the bar officially opens at noon.

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'We knew we'd have to visit each year'

At about 1 p.m. on a Saturday, Murray and Linda Jorgensen were ready to head back to Lake Havasu City. They strapped themselves into their two-seat off-road vehicle, the one they hauled all the way from Manitoba, Canada, largely for this trip.

For five years, the couple has made the Nellie E part of their six-week winter stay. When he heard about the bar from friends, Murray said, he thought they were setting him up for a wild Canadian goose chase.

“The way they described it was this place in the middle of nowhere and sort of hard to find,” he said. “But after our first time out, we knew we’d have to visit each year.”

Strong word-of-mouth has turned the Desert Bar from hidden gem to hopping joint. The bar often hosts hundreds of visitors each weekend, numbers reduced when rain turns the rough road into a soggy mess.

First-timers pause in the parking lot to snap photos of the tower, which has hosted many weddings over the years.

Soon the crowd inside the saloon was three deep at the bar, ordering beer, wine and mixed drinks.

Lines formed at the two snack bars. Upstairs, customers waited for burgers and hot dogs. The kitchen downstairs, leased by the owners of a Lake Havasu restaurant, offers a more expansive menu with pork and chicken. (Coughlin takes a cut of sales.)

By 2 p.m., every table on the shaded upper level was occupied, with a handful of couples dancing near the stage. More than 100 people relaxed on the lower patio, many huddling under sun-blocking umbrellas.

Snowbirds comprise the majority of visitors from January through March, Coughlin said. Business is a bit slower in October and November, peaking during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, the only time of year the bar is open outside of Saturdays and Sundays.

What visitors have in common is a desire to get away, if only for an afternoon. Those who check their phones will see that there's no service. Nor is there a single TV. Entertainment is live music and lively conversation.

Exactly the way Coughlin envisioned.

“You’ll never find a TV here,” he said. “You don’t drive five miles on a dirt road to find what everyone else has. Nearly everyone respects that. I don’t get many complaints about no TVs.”

Shortly after 5 p.m., as a low sun painted the hills with a reddish glow, just a few dozen people remained.

Chris Ockershausen tore open boxes of light beer and refilled the cooler, being sure to put the fresh cans on the bottom.

Ockershausen started working at the Desert Bar 20 years ago, when it was roughly half the size. It had a quirky charm back then — that of an insiders’ oasis — now concealed by growth and popularity. But Ockerhausen couldn’t imagine being anywhere else on a winter weekend.

“I’ve never worked for someone more dedicated to a vision,” said Ockerhausen, who runs a water-ski school on the Colorado River during summers. “It’s amazing how far this place has come.”

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'This was my dream, my hope'

It wouldn’t be long before he hiked across the road to his home, a work in progress that could be right out of “Better Homes and Deserts.” Fifteen minutes before closing, the band had packed up and only a few cars remained in the parking lot. Employees not cleaning up relaxed outside the saloon, Coughlin among them.

The solar-powered house with satellite TV, island kitchen and incomparable views is a far cry from the mobile home that occupied this spot for years.

Success has its rewards, even as Coughlin refused to divulge any information that might indicate the bar’s financial impact.

But it’s hardly been an overnight success. Memories of the five-stool bar he’d vaulted over hundreds of times are still fresh after three decades.

And now he can relax after a busy day, enjoying a view of the foothills and the road that leads people to his life’s work.

“My reward for all the hard work is I get to look at it, this bar I built,” he said. “This was my dream, my hope. Now I get to enjoy it every day. There’s nothing better.”


The Desert Bar (Nellie E Saloon)

What: Bar and grill nestled in the foothills of the Buckskin Mountains in western Arizona. Mixed drinks, canned beer, burgers, hot dogs, chicken and barbecue sandwiches. Cash only.

When: Noon-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from October through April. 

Where: From Parker, take State Route 95 north  about five  miles to Cienega Springs Road. Turn right and go five miles to the Desert Bar. Cienega Springs is unpaved and not regularly maintained. Carefully driven sedans can make it. You may be more comfortable in a high-clearance vehicle.

Details: 928-667-2871, thedesertbar.com.

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