We visited the Mojave National Preserve in southern California as part of our Spring Break Road Trip with the intent of camping one night and doing a day hike or two. Although our stay was brief, this 1.6 million acre park more than exceeded our expectations.
Established in October of 1994, the park is the third largest unit in the National Park Service. It is composed of 3 of the 4 North American deserts: the Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin. You’ll find canyons, sand dunes, cinder cones, forests, wildflowers, mesas, mountains and remnants of the area’s history in mines, homesteads and abandoned military outposts. There is even a ghost town! Mojave National Preserve is always open and the visitor’s centers have varying hours.
The preserve ranges in elevation from 800ft (Baker) to over 7900ft (Clark Mountains) and is populated with seeps and springs that give life to the hardy vegetation that has found a home in the desert. Some areas see up to 9 inches of rain while some see less than 3 per year. Temperatures vary from 20 degrees in the winter to over 105 degrees in the heat of summer. Animal life is subtle here, clinging to what little water and shade the desert has to offer. You are more likely to see the desert tortoise crossing the road, another reason to take it slow on those open stretches of highway.
It is home to the largest Joshua tree forest and other well-known features like Hole-In-The-Wall, Cima Dome, Marl Mountains, Kelso Dunes and Mitchell Caverns. Depending on how much time you have to visit, there are several ways to enter and leave the preserve and you can plot out the places you want to visit. We choose to enter from the south and Kelbaker Road and exit to the north so as to complete a loop back to Las Vegas and the airport.
I would like to have visited the Mitchell Caverns but they were closed during the time we were in the preserve. This had us choosing a different route through the park and stopping at places along the way. We had a chance to visit 3 attractions: Kelso Dunes, Kelso Depot Visitor Center and the Teutonia Peak Trail.
The Kelso Dunes, also known as the Kelso Dune Field is a 45 sq mile extension of the larger Devil’s Playground that most likely developed about 25,000 years ago and can be found 3 miles off the Kelbaker Road. Although no longer accumulating new sand, the dunes are made up of quartz and feldspar sand in a variety of phenomena: migrating and vegetation-stabilized dunes, sand sheets and sand ramps. It is wedged between the Granite and Providence Mountain ranges. You can witness the “booming” or “singing” effect the sand makes as it shifts slowly under the hot sun. It is closed to off road vehicles but open to hikers who want to climb its 5 stacked sets of dunes to a 650ft high point with views of surrounding mountains and deserts. This was a great way to end my trip with a little exercise and expansive views! Click on picture for gallery…
Built in 1924 by Union Pacific, the Kelso Depot was home to a restaurant and boarding home until 1985 when it closed entirely. However, in 2002 it was rescued by residents and renovated, opening as a visitor center in 2005. It is now owned by BLM and home to the NPS, who offers information on the preserve, a 20 minute movie on the Mojave and a gift store. The renovated boarding rooms offer history on the trains and those early settlers to California. There are bathroom and a picnic area. You can also see fun artifacts like the Kelso prison on display. The bathrooms inside are much nicer than the ones by the parking lot, so it pays to stop by 10-5pm, Th-M when the depot is open. It sits in the town of Kelso, 35 miles from I-15 and 22 miles from I-40. Call 760-252-6108 for current information. My favorite part was that they had cards that identified all the wildflowers I had been seeing on my trip and the movie made me want to come back and explore more of the preserve. Click on picture for gallery…
The Teutonia Peak Trail sits on the edge of the Cima Dome and is a 3.3 mile in and out hike off of Cima Road through the world’s densest Joshua tree forest and 700 ft up to a peak that sits at 5755ft with views of the Cima Dome cinder cone and surrounding mountains like Kessler and Kokoweef Peaks and the aptly names Striped Peak. The beginning is flat as you weave between the Joshua trees, barrel cactus, cholla, yucca and bitterbrush to the foot of the peak. From here you take several tight switchbacks up to a ridge and then turn and follow it NE to ledges below the true summit. To climb the granite blocks to the summit requires class 5 climbing skills but the ledges provide amazing views so there is no need to reach the top. Click on picture for gallery…
There are a few other established hikes available in the preserve with lengths ranging from .25 to 9 miles and 100-2700ft in elevation gain. Some I might check out next time but I am more likely to go backcountry and no permit or registration system is required. Besides hiking, there are also hundreds of off road trails for your 4×4 vehicles, the rangers offer educational programs and guided walks and there many historical sites and markers for those history buffs out there.
Camping is available in Mojave with two first come, first serve campgrounds and a reservable large group and equestrian campground. There are no utilities or running water. You can also camp along the roadside in available areas that the NPS lists on their website. Their website also shares maps and guides to the park in multiple languages so you can plan your own visit.