Up The Road: Mojave Desert National Preserve

Apr 25, 2018

Mojave National Preserve
Credit Tom Hilton

Another great place to taste Southern California’s amazing desert is 1.6-million- acre Mojave National Preserve, bordered by I-40 in the south and I-15 in the north, stretching east from Baker to Highway 95 and Nevada near Nipton.

(To seriously digress: Nipton is an 80-acre mining town bought last year for $5 million, by American Green, to make into a marijuana mecca. You know, “buds ’n’ breakfast,” an adults-only destination. But cash was short, so in February 2018 Delta International Oil & Gas bought the joint. Pot-themed resort plans won’t go up in smoke, folks say, but some worry about drilling in and around Nipton’s deep- water aquifer. Get the latest when you go.)

Anyway: This sublime slice of desert delimited by freeways is affectionately known as “The Lonesome Triangle”—just look at a map—though it was lonesome out here long before there were freeways.



Kelso Depot, Mojave National Reserve
Credit Ken Lund


In a sense, the entire area is a historic thoroughfare. Petroglyphs and other signs of early humans in the East Mojave date from at least 11,000 years ago. In more recent times native peoples, Mojave and Paiute traders alike, trekked back and forth across the desert to engage in California’s earliest coastal commerce. The most credible predecessor of present-day freeways was created from this original Native American trading route—the Mojave Road, first dubbed the Old Government Road, which ran from Prescott, Arizona, to somewhere south of L.A. But before that came Spanish explorers, traveling to San Francisco from Mexico in 1776, and Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith, and other early 19th-century American explorers and traders.

The Mojave Road was also a freeway for camels. In one of the oddest chapters in the history of the West, from 1857 to 1860 Jefferson Davis attempted to introduce camels as desert-hardy American pack animals—a business venture that might have succeeded had it not been for impatient teamsters (camels can be uppity) and the onrushing Civil War. Camels were already California history when Davis became president of the Confederacy.

Kelso Dunes
Credit Ryan Padilla

Get oriented to the Mojave National Preserve at the spectacular two-story Kelso Depot Visitor Center on Kelbaker Road, built by Union Pacific in 1923. You’ll get introduced to a few preserve highlights from Kelbaker, including the Mojave Cinder Cones, also known as Cinder Cones Natural National Landmark, a very young volcanic formation atop older lava flows, and the Kelso Dunes, California’s second tallest dune system, “singing sand dunes” wonderful for dune walks. When this golden-rose-quartz sand slides down from a dune’s peak, the entire dune vibrates and then sounds off—a reverberation something like that of a Tibetan gong. This effect is rare, but scientists finally figured it out: Dunes sing when winds blow over sand grains—but only those covered with a sticky silica gel—causing the grains of sand to rub against each other and vibrate, like a bow on violin strings, all that sand together producing a weird range of “song.” To the southeast are the Providence Mountains, where a visitor focal point is Mitchell Caverns State Reserve, limestone caves open for tours.

Then there’s Mid Hills and Hole-in-the-Wall, offering pine-scented mountain air, camping, grand desert views, and an 8-mile hike with petroglyphs and a ceremonial Native American “birthing hole” (for spiritual, not actual, births). On the way, easier to see from a distance because of its size, is Cima Dome, home to one of the world’s finest, and largest, forests of Joshua trees, a distinct species.

Lava tube, Mojave National Preserve
Credit John Fowler

But there’s more—much more—since 2016, when another 1.6 billion acres of desert and wilderness just south, west, and east of the preserve were protected as the Mojave Trails National Monument. Next time.

Until next time, this is Kim Weir for Up the Road and North State Public Radio. For photos and information links, go to my-NSPR-dot-org.