This guest post is by Monica Chapon, a California-based desert enthusiast:
The Mojave National Preserve must be exactly what the Wild West looked like long ago – raw, rugged, and untamed.
This wild stretch of relatively unknown, protected land sits nestled between Los Angeles and Las Vegas – a dry desert tucked away from civilization.
This preserve covers more than 2,000 square miles, making it the third largest in the US National Park System in the contiguous United States. I’m not sure why, but this vast area is often overlooked and forgotten in favor of Joshua Tree or more popular parks.
From Joshua Tree forests to rugged mountains to sand dunes, The Mojave National Preserve offers so many sights just waiting to be explored.
What To See
Before visiting, be sure to download offline maps, including the official park map. GPS and cell signal are unreliable throughout the park.
Cinder Cone National Natural Landmark
Kelbaker Road meanders throughout the western third of the park. While driving, keep your eye out for jagged red and black rock cones jutting out from the desert floor. These volcanic rock mounds are called cinder cones, and they formed up to 7 million years ago!
The Joshua Tree Forest
The Mojave National Preserve is just over one hour north of the better-known Joshua Tree National Park. The Preserve houses its own large Joshua Tree forest at Cima Dome. In fact, this forest is larger and denser than those found within Joshua Tree National Park!
The Mojave Cross
The Mojave Cross was built in 1934 as a war veteran memorial. Though not the most visually impressive monument I’ve seen, it is a great tribute. Check it out at sunset for a fiery view.
The Kelso Dunes is one of my favorite stops in the park!
The entire sand field is massive, and sits on the southwest edge of the park. The dunes themselves tower over visitors. In some areas they are over 600 feet tall; some of the tallest dunes found in the United States.
There is a hiking trail into Kelso Dunes. It begins low, with desert brush and flat walking areas. The trail gradually dissipates, and hikers can take various routes up and over the dunes.
This is one of the only dune areas in the Mojave Desert that is accessible without a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The Lava Tubes
The Lava Tubes are a must-see sight when possible, but check their status before you drive to the Preserve. Occasionally, this area is closed off to visitors.
To reach the Lava Tube, vehicles need to drive on an unpaved road called Aiken Mine for several miles. The ceiling of the lava tube is collapsed, making it the perfect (albeit somewhat sketchy) point of entry into the tunnels.
Enter at your own risk! The park does not maintain the Lave Tubes.
Hiking Trails in the Mojave National Preserve
Though the Preserve is vast, it lacks a robust trail system. However, a handful of trails are scattered throughout the park. A few of them are standout hikes that are more than worth the trouble.
First, a word of caution.
Part of the beauty of the Mojave National Preserve is how empty and desolate it is. You can visit for a full day and see very few other hikers.
However, this also means that visitors should take caution. Cell service can be weak or nonexistent, and the only gas and service stations are located outside of the park. Make sure your vehicle has a full tank of gas before entering the park.
Also, the Mojave National Preserve gets HOT. It’s remote, it’s rugged, and it is the true California desert. If you are not well versed in desert hikes, be absolutely sure to read up on the appropriate desert hiking gear needed. Dehydration and even death are real concerns on treks like these.
In all of my time in the Mojave National Preserve, I’ve only seen a park ranger vehicle one time. You may truly be on your own. Be smart and prepared, and you’ll enjoy your time here.
If you hike the full trail, you will walk a Moderate 2.5 miles on the sandy surface. If you’ve never hiked on sand before, be prepared for a workout! The summit is tough to reach but the reward is a vast view across the sand dunes.
Hole in the Wall Rings Trail
The Rings Trail is a 1.3 mile Moderate loop through skinny canyons with pock-marked walls. At some points, rock scrambling is required. Make sure you are up for the physical challenge!
The road to the trailhead requires a high clearance vehicle.
Rock Spring Loop
The Rock Spring trail is located near the center of the park, and is a Moderate 1.6 mile loop. The well-maintained trail often hosts colorful wildflowers in spring. There are ruins from an old brick house that are quite fun to investigate.
Where is the Mojave National Preserve?
Mojave National Preserve is located in San Bernardino County, California. It sits very close to the Nevada border, between Interstate 15 and Interstate 40, and is roughly 2.5 hours from Los Angeles.
What is the Mojave National Preserve?
Mojave National Preserve, as well as other preserves in the USA, are similar to National Parks, except that they may allow hunting and fishing on site. The National Park Service manages both types of protected land.
Established in 1994, the Mojave National Preserve is notable for its wide open spaces and few signs of civilization. Scattered across the preserve are remnants of the Gold Rush era, as well as from the Native Americans who lived here beforehand.
This land feels untouched and wild. Many of the roads are unpaved in this 1.6 million acre park, and the fact that very few visitors make their way here adds to the feeling of isolation. Freight trains still rumble through the area, but passenger trains were halted in the late 90’s.
It really is a forgotten piece of desert.
Camping in the Preserve
Two designated campgrounds are situated near the center of the park. Both of them are first come first serve, and cost $12 per site.
The Mid Hills Campground features juniper and pinyon pine trees, and is a cooler spot to camp due to its higher elevation. The unpaved road makes this campground harder to reach, though.
The Hole-in-the-Wall Campground is lower in elevation and has 35 designated sites.
Both campgrounds have pit toilets, potable water, fire rings, and picnic tables. Be sure to bring your own food, as there is none available for purchase inside the park. Click here for more information on camping in the Preserve.
When To Visit
The Mojave National Preserve is in the high desert, with elevations ranging from 1,000 feet upwards to 8,000 feet. Like most of the California deserts, the cooler months are the ideal time to visit for enjoying day-long adventures.
Spring (March – May): Temperatures are mild, typically between 40-85 degrees. Wildflowers carpet the hillsides, giving a bright pop of color to the typically dry landscape. The springtime is an excellent season for hiking.
Summer (June – September): Sweltering heat invades the Preserve, exceeding 100 degrees much of the time. Hiking can be miserable (and dangerous!) at this time of year. Start before sunrise and finish by 10am.
Fall (October – November): The fall months mean few visitors and falling temperatures, back into the 40-85 degree range. The cooler nights make camping more comfortable.
Winter (December – February): Winter can be a breathtaking season in the Preserve, and occasional snowfall can blanket the areas in higher elevation. Though cool and comfortable, the sun will warm you up while hiking. Winter rainfalls may occur, so check ahead to avoid flash floods.
If you’re a first time visitor, I recommend visiting the park across a weekend, preferably in Spring or Fall. You can explore a few hikes, camp overnight, and check out the unusual rocks and trails.
The Mojave National Preserve is an often-overlooked, wild and rugged place where you can experience solitude at its best. It is a tougher drive and a less popular park, but the hidden gems within the Preserve make it so worth the effort! Come prepared and you will have an unforgettable time.
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About the author: Monica Chapon has traveled to 6 continents solo and chronicles her adventures on her blog, This Rare Earth. She can usually be found exploring the deserts of the world, taking impromptu road trips, or performing as an aerialist on silks. Follow along with Monica’s adventures on Instagram.