If you are like most people, you have heard of the Mojave Desert, but your association might be limited to images of barren landscapes dotted with military bases. The Mojave definitely represents some of this, but it also has so much more. The Mojave Desert is a massive area encompassing large portions of California, southern areas of Nevada as well as small sections of Utah and Arizona. It’s expansive area includes Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.
All these years in California I have heard about the Mojave Desert but didn’t really know what or where it was. I had vague inklings that it was out in the middle of nowhere on the way to Las Vegas, and that it pushed its way into portions of Joshua Tree National Park, but that was the extent of my knowledge.
On our recent trip to Death Valley, passing the Mojave National Preserve on the way home, our interest in the park was kindled. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop, but I promised my son I would get us back there soon. Less than a month later and there we were, checking off another national park (preserve) as well as finally checking out the JUCY mini-RV!
Having already visited both Joshua Tree and Death Valley, two of our favorite parks, we were excited to venture into the more unknown Mojave National Preserve. The Mojave National Preserve is smack dab in between Death Valley and Joshua Tree, therefore it isn’t too surprising to find that it has qualities of both parks, however with a unique feel of its own.
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About the Preserve
The first thing you might notice about the Mojave Preserve is the lack of signage. This was my first question to the rangers at the Kelso Depot. I was told that in 1994 when this park became a preserve, it was actually written into the legislation to remain a place of self-discovery with unlimited opportunities for adventure and exploration. The mindset was to get back to the basics, showcase the old pioneer days and how this land felt for people making their way across in days long gone. How cool is that?
[quote]A place for self-discovery, adventure and exploration[/quote]
The park ranger was very proud of the fact that this park will never have fancy boardwalks or look like California’s other famous parks. Having visited so many national parks myself, I see the benefit of having places like the Mojave National Preserve. It was pretty special for my son to be able to get off the beaten track and explore on his own without feeling like he was breaking any rules. It also perfectly coincided with his weekly assignment from the Wild Explorers Club that asked him to get off the beaten trail and explore where others haven’t been. (If you don’t know about the Wild Explorers Club, check it out. It’s a fun, interactive way to keep your kids engaged in the outdoors.)
Being a place so open to self discovery means that you need to spend some time there to really get a feel for all that exists. However, it’s not easy to do this considering the window of opportunity to visit the Mojave is often very small. Winter months can bring brutally cold temperatures and the summer brings oppressive and dangerously high temperatures.
This is exactly why it had remained lower on our to do list for so long. It felt too daunting. And thats where we come in to help guide you a bit so that you can visit without all the guesswork.
[quote]In a year of winter rain, don’t miss the spring wildflowers blooming across the desert.[/quote]
What to Do
The Mojave National Preserve is a vast park, with a lot of uncharted territory. This is good and bad for some people. There are many marked trails and sights to see during your visit, but don’t get trapped into thinking that is ALL there is to do. Below are a few of the trails/sights we checked out during our weekend visit. But don’t forget to get off the beaten path, take a dirt road turn off and explore on your own. This land is your land to discover.
The Kelso Depot is steeped in a rich railroad history, but now it serves as one of two Visitor Centers for the Preserve. This is the main visitor center that houses a theater to watch a film about the park, exhibition areas providing more information about flora and fauna in the park as well as a gift shop. The area outside the depot also houses old buildings from way back when as well as a tiny jail used to incarcerate rowdy drunks, which was hilarious! Kids will enjoy hanging out at the depot waiting for cargo trains to pass by, which they do fairly frequently.
This is the first stop for many people at the park. The massive dunes can be seen a good distance away as you approach. You may not even realize that what you are looking at are the dunes, as they resemble the size of the mountains all around. From the trailhead (located on an unpaved, but well maintained dirt road) it is approximately a 3 mile hike to the top and back. How this is calculated I do not know, as we spent a long time weaving this way and that enjoying our time on the dunes. When you get to the higher dunes, listen for a ‘booming’ sound as the sand moves down the hill. The hike up is long and hard, but running and sliding down is quick and easy!
Hole-in-the-Wall (Visitor Center, Nature Trail & Campground)
Hole in the Wall is a visitor center, nature trail and campground. At the Hole-in-the-wall visitor center, kids can touch and play with rocks, skulls and animal pelts and learn more about the park. There is also a short 1/2 mile nature trail with signs displaying the different plants in the area that leaves from the parking lot. Very close to the visitor center is the Hole-in-the-Wall campground, one of only two established camping areas in the park.
Rings Loop Trail
The Rings Loop Trail is a popular attraction at the Mojave National Preserve that begins at the Hole-in-the-Wall Visitor Center parking lot. Walking along this 1.5 mile trail, you will pass petroglyphs as well as see how this area (Hole-in-the-Wall) got it’s name with the abundance of pock marked rocks looming around you. Have fun listening to your echo before heading into the narrow Banshee Canyon to the rings. The canyon section of this hike is very narrow and somewhat steep, so visitors will need to use metal rings mounted in the rock wall to help them up or down. Note: If you do not have a great deal of upper body strength, it will be best to attempt this trail counter clockwise, which will allow you to descend down the metal rings rather than try to lift your body up them. It is also quite narrow in spots in case of issues of claustrophobia. This is a super fun trail that everyone will enjoy mastering!
We did not get to go to the Lava Tube because heavy rains prior to our visit made the 5 mile dirt road impassable in our low clearance vehicle. Park rangers suggest that even in drier times the road is not great for low clearance vehicles, however we have heard people going there in little sedans. So, it is up to you! But be aware it is not a high traffic area which means you could be waiting a long while if you get stuck!
The lava tube is about 400 feet long with differing heights inside. You climb down a steel ladder into a hole that was left by lava passing through eons ago. This is pretty cool if you have never been inside of a lava tube. If there is a ranger led hike here at any time during your visit, go with the guide to learn even more about the tube. For more details on how to get there, check out this post on California Through My Lens. Bring a flashlight!
Teutonia Peak Trail
The Teutonia Peak Trail takes you through the largest and densest Joshua Tree forest in the world. Interesting that it is here in the Mojave Preserve rather than in Joshua Tree. Being no stranger to the Joshua Trees, we still found this trail quite interesting. You might begin to wonder if you have been transported to Joshua Tree, however there are tons more trees here than we have seen in Joshua Tree. The trailhead is off of Cima Road across from the Mojave Cross. The trail is a rocky/sandy path that gradually moves you uphill to a rocky peak providing vast views over the Cima Dome and the desert below.
This is something you wouldn’t really know was there unless you were looking for it. From the top of the Teutonia Peak Trail, you will have a good view over this weird rounding of earth along the horizon. It sort of looks like you are looking through a fisheye lens. Nothing spectacular, but pretty cool to see in person regardless.
- There are no shops inside the preserve. You will need to bring lots of food and water as there is none for sale in the park. Always carry plenty of water and snacks even when out for a ‘quick’ walk.
- If you plan to camp, bring cash and small bills to pay for your spot.
- Fill up your tank before entering the park. If you arrive from I-15, Baker is the closest point for gas before entering the park. If you have an extra gas can, fill it up just in case as well. You will need enough gas to get in/out of the park as well as for your explorations.
- The park is massive, which means you will be doing a lot of driving if you want to experience several areas of the park. If there has been rain recently, the dirt road cut-through from Kelso Depot to Cima could be closed. If this is the case, you will need to drive 60 miles from Kelso Dunes area to Hole-in-the-Wall via I-40.
- Many of the roads are dirt roads that can become difficult to drive in small cars. We were in a mini-van and were fine, but make sure to ask the park rangers about the road conditions before venturing out.
- Signage is poor in the park. Pick up a park map and keep it handy for your visit. You will need it as there is no phone service.
- Make sure to have all the necessary supplies for variable weather including hats, layers, sunscreen, etc.
- Bring in all supplies for camping, making fires, etc.
- If you plan to stay the night, check out our guide on where to camp in the preserve. There are only 2 establish campgrounds, but plenty of roadside campsites.
For some the desert looks barren and lifeless, but the Mojave actually has a wide array of plant and animal life. There are more than 300 kinds of birds, 50 different mammals, 36 types of reptiles and over 900 species of plants. The flora and fauna that have managed to flourish here despite the extreme forces of nature and harsh conditions, really are something to marvel at.
Although not as well known as it’s neighbors, the Mojave National Preserve deserves a second look while passing by on the interstates!
Have you been to Mojave? If so, let us know your thoughts, tips and secret trails!
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