Mojave National Preserve Trip Report (Part 1)

April 4th, 2009
Part 1

There’s a good chance that if you’re a Southern California driver and old enough to gamble (or maybe not), you’ve driven to Las Vegas. Every Saturday, thousands of drivers jump in their cars and eventually drive on Interstate 15 towards Sin City. As they say, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but eventually they all drive home with more or less money. I too  have been to Vegas on this notoriously congested freeway. On the way out there, I’m usually thinking about how much fun I’m going to have and where I’m going to have it. On the return trip, I’m usually thinking about how I spent too much or drank too much or did too much of too much. Rarely am I concentrating on the scenery.

This is probably why I’ve never heard of the Mojave National Preserve until recently. The Mojave National Preserve (which I’ll refer to as “Moja” for the remainder of this post) is a large piece of land outlined by the Nevada border to the east, Highway 40 to the south, and Interstate 15 to the north. When the land was protected in 1992 by the Desert Protection Act, it became the third largest national parkland outside of Alaska. It is so big in fact, it has a state park within it (Providence Mountains State Recreation Area)

Keeping my New Year’s resolution to visit the Mojave every weekend in the month of April, I decided to spend the first weekend of the month in Moja. I started my weekend at 4:00 am in the morning, hoping to stay in front of the inevitable Vegas traffic. With a couple of stops for fuel and food, it took me about three hours of traffic-free driving to get to the southern entrance of the preserve at Kelbaker Road.

Researching and planning your trip to Moja is highly recommended. The park is so large, it’s important to have a good idea on what you want to see. With 2,500 sq. miles (6,475 sq. km) of land, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see it all in one trip. I would eventually cover over 200 miles of roads in and around the park during the weekend.

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Above: General route of my weekend trip.

The first stop on my trip was the Kelso Dunes. Kelso Dunes is one of the largest dune fields in the western US, but that fact was lost to me when standing in the desert. The Mojave Desert is so vast, it is difficult to get a sense of the size of natural features – like mountains, valleys, or sand dunes – since there isn’t any man made objects to compare them to. If it wasn’t for the placard near the dunes’ trail head, I wouldn’t have even fathomed that the sand laid out in front of me covered more than 45 square miles. Nor would have I known that the tallest dune stood 600 feet – 60 stories – above the desert floor!

On my hike, I kept hearing what sounded like a low flying propeller plane. It wasn’t until later that I learned that the deep hum was the sound of the sand moving on the dunes, a completely natural occurrence found at only a few dunes in the world.

After a hike on the dunes, I continued north to Kelso Depot, the center of Moja. Kelso used to be a bustling desert oasis during World War II, when iron from Kaiser Steel’s nearby Vulcan Mine was shipped out of the desert by train here to be used in steel manufacturing for the war. When the war ended and rail traffic was reduced, the town dried up. Now, the highlight of the town is a single building: the Kelso Depot.

Built in 1924, the Kelso Depot is a beautifully kept train station surrounded by dark green grass and healthy palms: quite a shock to the earthy palette of the surrounding desert. Over the years, the building has served as a train station, restaurant, reading room, ticket and telegraph office, and housing for railroad employees. Visitors today will find it beautifully renovated, inside and out. The NPS Visitors Center includes a museum exhibit, a bookstore, and a few rooms furnished just as they were in the early years of the depot. They also have a 40-seat theater where you can watch a 12-minute movie on the park. I know I scoffed at those who watched a similar video playing at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, but with a park this big, I needed some visual assistance on what to see. Unlike the ancient video playing at the poppy reserve, this movie was fairly new and had a high production value. Plus, if it wasn’t for the movie, I would have never of known about the lava tubes of Moja!

A few million years ago, the Mojave Desert looked a lot different. Angry volcanoes spewed rock and lava. Large lakes were full of life and surrounded by vegetation. If you squint your eyes, you can still see this ancient landscape, especially in the area known as the Cinder Cone Lava Beds. About 15 miles (24 km) northwest of Kelso Depot, you’ll find over a dozen ancient cinder cones jutting out of the landscape. The blackened lava can be over 45 feet thick in some areas. A short hike into this area and you might think you’re in Tolkien’s Mordor. My quest was less noble than Sam and Frodo’s: find the lava tubes I learned about in the visitor’s center.

Even though I had three different maps and a GPS unit, I still spent over 20 minutes trying to find the unnamed, unpaved road that would lead to the lava tubes. Eventually I would find it and slowly navigate the rocky, uneven road with my Dodge Neon. I highly suggest to take a 4-wheel drive vehicle to Moja, not necessarily because roads are impossible otherwise (they could be after storms), but because it will allow you to see more of the park in a shorter amount of time. It took me more than 30 minutes to make it up the 6-mile road in my car. Once at a small parking area, it’s an easy 300-yard hike up to the entrance of the lava tubes.

Entering the tubes have been made easier in recent years thanks to the installation of a sturdy metal ladder with hand rails. After climbing down the 15-foot ladder, I carefully navigated the lose rocks until I reached the floor of the cave. From here, I had to shuffle 30 feet through the narrowest point of the cave, measuring about three feet tall and 10 feet wide. Although I brought my camera, camera bag, and tripod, I had forgotten the most important item: a flashlight. Nonetheless, I was able to make it through after a brief rest as my eyes adjusted to the dark.

After crawling through the opening, I would emerge into a place I consider the most magical place in the Mojave Desert. The main portion of the lava tube opened up into a room about 60 feet long by 40 feet wide. At certain times of the day, a glorious, brilliant beam of sunlight will shine into the cavern. I was lucky enough to have over a half hour of solitude in the room before other visitors would arrive.

I left the lava tubes and drove back onto Kelbaker Road, continuing north. It was now around 2pm and I was hungry, so I drove 19 miles (30 km) to Baker, California for lunch. After lunch, I headed 26 miles (42 km) east on the I-15 to re-enter the Mojave National Preserve on Cima Road.

The last major stop of the day would be a three-mile hike on the Teutonia Peak Trail, one of only seven maintained trails in the park. The first half mile of the trail appears to be an old road with two well-pronounced tracks. After a mile through open flatlands of Joshua trees, the path narrows and heads up towards the summit ridge. I was hoping to find an expansive view looking westward for the sunset, but the ridge only reveals a field of boulders among granite and monzonite outcroppings. I sat on the ridge and watched the setting sun change the colors of the desert from greens and browns to shades of orange.

Since this park is a preserve managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and not a “National Park” per say, camping is allowed just about everywhere. The National Parks Service suggests finding a spot that has been previously camped in. I didn’t look too far before finding the perfect campsite, complete with a boulder granite outcropping and a fire pit.

To be continued…here!

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