Mojave National Preserve

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Mojave National Preserve—The Complete Desert Experience, But No “Must-See” Attraction

Jan 11, 2004
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Pros:towering sand dunes, craggy scenic mountains, caves, history, convenient to get to

Cons:underdeveloped tourist attractions, overdeveloped by natural resource exploiters, weather extremes

The Bottom Line: You’ll have a great trip to the Mojave National Preserve, but you probably would have had an even better trip if you’d gone to Death Valley


Introduction

The Mojave National Preserve is a complete desert experience. Whatever you expect from a desert visit, the preserve has it.

Sand dunes? Check.
Cactus and Joshua Trees? Check.
Interesting geologic features? Check.
Temperature extremes? Check.
Big elevation changes? Check.
Petroglyphs and Native American artifacts? Check.
Beautiful sunrises and sunsets? Check.
Abandoned mines and ghost towns? Check.
Cattle ranches? Check.
Desert tortoises? Check.
Bumpy dirt roads leading to nowhere? Check.
Detritus of rampant environmental abuse? Check.

The preserve has one feature unusual among the major desert parks: convenience. Nestled between two major interstate freeways (I-15 and I-40), the preserve is less than 3 hours from Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Palm Springs. Indeed, you probably have seen the preserve even if you didn’t know it. If you’ve ever driven between LA and Las Vegas, the preserve is the dramatic mountains on your south between Barstow and the state line (Primm). If you’ve ever taken the 40 between Barstow and Needles, the preserve is the dramatic mountains on your north. Among desert destinations, this one is particularly convenient to get to.

This convenience comes at a cost. The preserve has been a transportation corridor for centuries, which has resulted in major roads (i.e., the 10 and 40, and before that Route 66 and the Mojave Road), transcontinental railroads and commercial and military flight paths running through the area. The ease of transportation has also brought people, usually looking to get rich quick at the expense of some natural resource, and this portion of the desert has been worked much harder for longer time periods than Death Valley has. Thus, the convenience means the preserve doesn’t quite have that “in the middle of nowhere” feeling I normally get from the desert. Even though I had the preserve virtually to myself on my visit, I still didn’t feel “alone” because I was never far from manifestations of civilization. Worse, I was rarely out of earshot of mechanical noises, between the cars on the roads, the train whistles and the airplanes overhead. If you’re looking for isolation, you can do better than the preserve (try Panamint Mountains in Death Valley).

The preserve fares poorly when compared to more famous desert destinations like Death Valley in two other ways.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the preserve lacks a “must-see” attraction. For a while, the preserve’s biggest landmark was the “loneliest phone on earth” (see http://www.deuceofclubs.com/moj/mojave.htm), which took off in popularity after being hyped on the Internet. The marketing was fatal to the phone, which was removed in 2000, taking away the closest thing the preserve had to a killer attraction. There are still plenty of other compelling attractions, but none of them have a “wow” factor like the lowest place in the hemisphere, or the hottest place on earth, or the elusive desert pupfish, or Scotty’s Castle. In other words, the preserve doesn’t have the cachet of Death Valley.

For some, the lack of a killer attraction makes the preserve even more attractive. Certainly it lessens the crowds, as I found out on my Christmas 2003 visit, when I practically had the park to myself (the cold weather helped too). But there may very well be some substantive reasons why Death Valley is so popular and well-known and why the Mojave National Preserve comparatively isn’t.

Second, the preserve lacks the branding that comes from venerability. Founded by a Clinton proclamation in 1994, the preserve has had less than 10 years to develop an identity. A few decades from now, the preserve will be a well-known institution, but for now, it’s too young to have the brand cachet of a park like Death Valley. It’s also too new for the National Park Service to have figured out what to do with visitors. Although some tourist attractions have been developed, the preserve still feels like an NPS work-in-progress.

The newness also means that the preserve hasn’t left its roots behind, and much of the preserve remains a “working” desert. Natural resource exploitation, such as working mines and cattle ranches, continues to take place throughout the preserve, and a fair amount of land within the preserve is privately owned. Between mining booms, the railroads and the military, at various times the preserve has supported many thousands of residents, and it shows.

Visiting the Preserve

Despite these limitations, I still commend a visit to the preserve. Let me offer some specifics about visiting the preserve.

The preserve is a 1.6 million acre behemoth. Most of the attractions are accessible via one of three major north-south routes.

Kelbaker Road/Cima Road (and the connector Kelso Cima Road) runs on the west side of the preserve. It connects such landmarks as the Granite Mountains, the Kelso Dunes, Kelso, Cima and the Teutonia trail. Cima offers effectively the only “services” in the preserve, a tiny convenience store.

Black Canyon Road runs through the middle of the preserve. It connects such landmarks as the Providence Mountain State Recreation Area and Hole-in-the-Wall. All three of the developed campgrounds are located off this road. The north end of the road is a well-graded dirt road.

Lanfair-Ivanpah Road runs on the east side of the preserve. It goes through the heart of Lanfair Valley, which has many private ranches and homes and provides access to the New York Mountains, Goff and Route 66. Much of the road is a well-graded dirt road.

Some tips about driving. There are no automotive services within the preserve—no gas, no repair stations. Watch your gas because driving distances in the huge preserve are far. Note that gas prices can be outrageous: I paid $2.79/gallon in Fenner. If your car breaks down, you could really get in trouble, so you should avoid driving a mechanically unsound car if you can.

The roads are generally good. The paved roads are excellent and the graded dirt roads are passable by passenger cars (I ran into a few washboards, especially on Cedar Canyon Road). Many other dirt roads are fine for passenger cars, and 4WD is not always required. However, roads that look good can quickly deteriorate, and watch out for sandy conditions on the shoulders than can get you stuck (as I almost did). The various NPS maps generally tell you what to expect on the roads, although I found that no map was 100% accurate.

It’s impossible to talk about any visit to the preserve without discussing weather. Summer can be furnace-hot and winter can be very cold. I got snow during my Christmas trip and temperatures dipped into the 20s at 3500 feet. If it’s not snowing, rain can produce floods and muddy road conditions, Summer monsoon thunderstorms are possible, especially in the mountains. Appropriate dress and precautions are warranted in every season. Wear sunscreen and drink lots of water.

There is no entry fee to the preserve.

Attractions

Some of the major attractions include:

· Kelso Depot. The Union Pacific railroad built a major 2 story Spanish architecture building in Kelso, which is otherwise a virtual ghost town. The impressive building is quite unexpected given its remote setting. The NPS is in the process of converting the depot into a visitor’s center, and it will be a fine destination for that. (For now, though, it’s fenced off).
· Mitchell Caverns. I describe the caves in my companion review at http://www.epinions.com/content_125690744452.
· Kelso Dunes. Among the tallest in the world, topping out at around 700 feet, the Kelso Dunes are also known for the “singing” sound they make as visitors cause mini-avalanches with their steps. I loved looking at the animal tracks and wind patterns in the sand. The dunes are nestled among the Granite and Providence Mountains, making for pretty scenery. However, I must confess that the dunes at Death Valley near Stovepipe Wells were prettier to me. The Kelso Dunes are basically a single tall ridgeline of dunes and lots of very short mogul-like dunes covered with vegetation, while the Death Valley dunes covered a larger area of unvegetated major sand dunes. Nevertheless, I thought the Kelso Dunes were one of the best attractions in the preserve. Three tips for your visit: (1) sunrise and sunset are the best times to visit because the long shadows provide the best contrast, (2) try to use other people’s footsteps as “steps” to get up the dune; and (3) to get to the top of the highest dune, shoot for the saddle to the right of the peak and then work your way up the ridgeline as opposed to a frontal assault on the dune’s face. My roundtrip to the top of the dunes took about 2 hours. Note that access is via a well-graded dirt road easily passable by 2WD passenger cars.
· Hole-in-the-Wall. An especially pretty part of the preserve, Hole-in-the-Wall is accurately titled. Gas bubbles in the cooling lava created holes in the rocks, which have been expanded and reshaped by erosion. The rock walls look like swiss cheese, and you can find many rock arches and other interesting rock formations. You can follow a drainage from Hole-in-the-Wall down a dryfall via the “Rings Trail,” which has several metal rings you can use as foot- and handholds on the sheer cliffs. Tip: I found that putting my hands and feet in the rings was really hard, but standing on top of the metal shanks made the descent really easy. The Rings Trail is one way to access the trail to Mid-Hills. This is the one area of the preserve I felt I didn’t spend enough time exploring.
· Route 66. Historic Route 66 skirts the southeast portion of the preserve. It’s fascinating to see the old establishments built up to cater to the drivers and to see old towns like Goffs, Essex and Amboy that have clearly seen better days.
· Goffs and Lanfair Valley. The Lanfair Valley was homesteaded after a small railroad company started regular train service through the valley. I read an interesting article online about how a number of African Americans homesteaded land in the valley in the 1910s and 1920s, partially because this was one of the few places they could get land. They tried dryfarming but most (all?) gave up because the valley just doesn’t get enough rain. However, a lot of the valley remains privately owned; in some cases the unused land has passed from generation to generation. There’s really not much to see in the valley but I enjoyed snooping around nonetheless. Mostly I was surprised at how many people live there. Goffs was the commercial and educational hub of the Lanfair Valley, and the old Goffs schoolhouse has been turned into a fascinating-looking museum that I would have liked to visit. Unfortunately, it’s only open one day a month.
· Fort Piute. A historic fort built to protect the Mojave Road at the east end of the preserve. 4x4 is recommended to get here, so I couldn’t go.
· Amboy Crater. Not technically in the preserve (it’s about 20 miles south on BLM land), the Amboy Crater is a 250 foot high volcanic cinder cone. It’s a nice stroll through a moonscape to get to the crater, and the crater’s insides reminded me of Haleakala. The BLM guide said a crater visit can take three hours; admittedly I was walking fast, but my roundtrip walking time was 75 minutes. To get inside the crater, go to the right of the cone and there is an easy-to-climb gap (you can’t see the gap from the parking lot). I tried to follow the “trail” but quickly gave up. Just go in a straight line; it’s hard to get lost.

Some of the best parts of the preserve are essentially undocumented. For example, I took a dirt road from Kelbaker Road to the Vulcan Mine, a wartime iron mine operated by Kaiser. After about 5 miles, I was deep in the heart of a Providence Mountains canyon, with great views of the Kelso Dunes, the Granite Mountains, interesting mining ruins and a huge hole in the ground. In other parts of the preserve, spelunkers can find undeveloped caves, and petroglyphs can be found throughout the preserve if you know where to look.

This highlights one of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects of the preserve. It has many secrets that are hard to find and easy to miss. I would love to visit the preserve with someone who knew the secrets and could take me to them. Without that, the preserve can be inaccessible and can seem less interesting than it really is.

A note about kids activities. I don’t think the preserve is especially kid-friendly, but the sand dunes, caverns and Hole-in-the-Wall all struck me as good kids destinations.

Hiking

There are only 2 official trails in the preserve.

First, the Teutonia Peak Trail starts at a turnout on Cima Road a few miles north of Cima. NPS claims the trail is 4 miles RT but I think it’s less. My total time on the trail was less than 75 minutes, and I’m not that fast. The trail is well-signed and a pretty easy hike. The trail runs through a thick forest of Joshua Trees and cattle range to the top of Teutonia Peak. At the top, you get a birds’ eye view of the Cima Dome, an ancient lava flow that is of geologic interest, but wasn’t all that visually interesting. The peak offers nice views of the New York, Providence and Ivanpah Mountains, although the view is partially obscured by massive unclimbable boulders at the peak. This is a pleasant but not earth-shattering hike.

Second, the Hole-in-the-Wall to Mid-Hills Trail runs between the Hole-in-the-Wall and Mid-Hills campground. On the south side, you can access the trail via the Rings Trail (discussed above) or you can just park on Wild Horse Canyon Road (dirt). The trail runs 8+ miles each way through cattle ranges, desert drainages and ridgelines The trail isn’t particularly steep anywhere but you’ll get over 1500 feet of elevation change each way if you complete the trail. The trail was well-signed.

Overall, I was disappointed with this hike. Hiking from Hole-in-the-Wall, the trail starts off really strong as I descended the rings through the towering canyon. The trail climbs up and over a narrows, with great views of interesting rock formations, and after the narrows walks through a scenic and relatively green part of the preserve. After leaving that quasi-riparian area, the trail becomes rather boring, going up a pass, through a small valley, and then over another pass into Mid-Hills. You do get a few nice views of Table Mountain and the New York Mountains along the way, but a lot of the trail is mired in monotonous desert scrub, and the trail ends with a whimper at visually uninteresting Mid-Hills. Plus, I could constantly hear trains chugging up the Cima grade. If I were to do it over again, I would turn around about 2.5 miles into the hike (when I reached the first dirt road after going through the narrows). After that, the trail is more ennui than scintillating.

Although not an official trail, I would add the Kelso Dunes trail as another major trail. It’s 3 miles RT to the top, and it’s foolproof even without signage.

There are two official trails in the state park (discussed in the companion review), so by my count there are 5 “real” trails in the preserve.

However, the hiking options are limitless. Pick any dirt road winding into the mountains and you’re off. (Good maps are key). The official NPS map shows a trail at Quail Basin, which follows a dirt road into the south end of the Providence Mountains. The NPS guide recommends 4x4 to get to the trailhead. Caruthers Canyon in the New York Mountains gets written up occasionally as one of these types of hikes (I had difficulty finding the right road, and I turned around after coming within a hair of getting stuck in sand). I also saw a write-up of a trail to Silver Peak in the Granite Mountains, which follows a dirt road up Cottonwood Wash.

Or, go cross-country and hike to the destination of your choice. Note that the mountains are pretty rugged and everything takes much longer than you want/expect. You should bring the 10 essentials for any cross-country hiking. Never enter abandoned mines.

Camping

Unlike Death Valley, which has 2 huge campgrounds that are basically hardpan parking lots with 1,000 spaces each, developed campsites are pretty limited in the preserve. There are three developed campgrounds: Mid-Hills (26 sites), Hole-in-the-Wall (35 sites) and the state park (6 sites). Mid-Hills requires you to drive a well-graded dirt road, but it wasn’t nearly as scenic as I thought it would be. Hole-in-the-Wall is pretty scenic but this is also where all the RVs camp. The best (and cheapest) campground is at the state park. See my companion review at http://www.epinions.com/content_125690744452 for more details.

You can also backcountry camp wherever you want, and you can camp along the roads any place there’s a firepit. I did the latter and had no problem finding lots of firepits. (I camped off Black Canyon Road and near the Kelso Dunes). The NPS newspaper gives some specific suggestions, but just about every dirt road spur has a firepit at it somewhere, so you have tons of choices. And the price is right.

Conclusion

On my three-day trip to the Mojave, I saw all the major attractions I wanted to see, yet somehow I feel like I really didn’t see much of the preserve. There are so many things to do—like exploring anonymous dirt roads, checking out various mines and ruins, and cross-country hiking through the mountains—that are time-consuming and higher risk of striking out, but with potentially spectacular rewards. Perhaps some day I’ll get to them. Until then, all other things being equal, I’d rather spend more time in Death Valley than at Mojave.

The official NPS site is at http://www.nps.gov/moja/.


Recommend this product? Yes


Best time to go: December-February
Recommended for: Anybody
Review Topic: Overview

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