As of August 2018, the Desert Inn is closed.
We will update this story when there is information on the fate of this historic property.
This article was first published on Nov. 15, 2010 .
Once upon a time, many moons past, a chain of Turnpike billboards would beckon you to get off Florida’s Turnpike at Yeehaw Junction to buy gas and get your discount coupons for Orlando’s attractions.
“We Pay Your Toll” was the standing offer repeated on sign after sign along the Turnpike.
Times have changed.
The billboards are gone, and the coupons can now be found on the internet or at the Turnpike’s Fort Drum Rest Area (Turnpike MM 184)..
But nostalgia still holds court at the legendary Desert Inn, which dominates the busy corner of State Road 60 and U.S. 441, just west of the Turnpike.
Cowboys once herded cattle to greener pastures through this crossroad, and Florida Crackers snapped whips on mule-drawn freight wagons loaded with lumber. Today, 18-wheelers packed with oranges and grapefruit scream through the intersection.
The Desert Inn dates to the 1880s as a trading post. No roads, just trails. The current building was built in 1898. The 1930s brought paved roads, and the intersection earned the nickname “Jackass Crossing,” a nod to the cowboys and lumbermen who relied on mules for working cattle and hauling timber.
Easy travel brought a bordello to the Desert Inn, and a few cabins were built out back to accommodate the occasional tourist trickling west toward the Gulf Coast.
When Florida’s Turnpike cut through in the 1950s, state legislators changed the name from Jackass Crossing to a less-offensive Yeehaw Junction.
The 1898 Desert Inn still stands, still serving travelers and cowboys as a restaurant and a bar, and you’ll find a ramshackle 11-unit motel out back: “Clean rooms with showers – $45. No reservations, no refunds.”
I’ve been stopping at the Desert Inn for years to grab a bite to eat on my way to Tampa Bay. The menu has changed a little under new management, but you wouldn’t really notice — unless you were hankering for a turtle burger.
But you can’t go wrong with the juiciest, tastiest beefburgers on the planet, and the fries are freshly cut, not frozen. (One change: Burgers now served on ciabatta rolls.)
The complete menu is “raht behind ya on the board, honey.” Crunchy fish sandwich; Fried Green Tomato, Fish & Chips…
The horseshoe-shaped bar, wooden booths, witty signs and oddball knick-knacks are classic Old Florida, including the carved Indian couple with their papoose.
Cowboys who work nearby ranches continue to be regulars, as are truckers and tourists. It’s a must-stop for bikers cruising across the state through cow country.
One minute the bar is full, empty the next.
Even without the coupons, Turnpike travelers would be well-served by skipping the Fort Drum Service Plaza for a taste of Old Florida at the Desert Inn.
More about the Desert Inn
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