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Mojave National Preserve

In southeastern California, an area called the "lonesome triangle" delivers mountains, mesas, buttes, canyons, an ancient lake, and volcanic relics.

Joshua trees in Mojave National Preserve, image
Photo caption
Joshua trees reach for the sky along Cima Road in Mojave National Preserve.

Forget what you know about national wilderness when going to the Mojave National Preserve in southeastern California. The visitor who comes undistracted by prior notion is best prepared to reap its reward.

The Preserve is a wedge-shaped piece of the greater Mojave Desert, also referred to as the East Mojave. It is sandwiched between two Interstates, I-15 in the north, I-40 in the south. It's sealed in the east by a stretch of U.S. 95 completing the fabled "lonesome triangle."

Generally, it's the "lonesome" aspect with its corollary ruggedness that attracts those who go and repels those who don't. You could count me among the former late last April. I'd been rewarded by Persian carpets of wildflowers on previous spring visits to desert parks-Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Anza-Borrego.

But nature didn't compute as I had and it would be my first visit to a desert without a prolific bloom. So, I took my own counsel, dropped prior notions, and had a desert adventure of a new kind.

The things to do and see in and around the Preserve are spread helter-skelter and less well-marked and signed than in Death Valley and Joshua Tree. The latter both became national parks through the same 1994 California Desert Protection Act that changed the Mojave from Scenic Preserve to National Preserve.

My visit fell during the period when Desert Act opponents in Congress, who didn't like transferring the Preserve from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service, voted to give the Preserve only $1 of its $600,000 budget. (The Preserve has since received its allotted monies, much needed to help its stewards protect the resources of this national treasure.)

Fortunately, the East Mojave didn't require a single red cent to carry on wildly during my visit. With or without Congressional approval, its dunes shift, its distance shimmers. Mountains, mesas, buttes, canyons, volcanic relics follow their own clockwork. The big sky roils with cloud drama, the light burns hard on creosote, cactus, agave, and yucca spears. The pinyons and junipers stand their high ground. The world's largest Joshua tree forest remains poised in the Ivanpah Mountains like a furred flock of extraterrestrial beasts. And California's state reptile, the threatened desert tortoise, treads its now protected habitat-a live one sat symbolically on President Clinton's desk as he signed the controversial legislation.

A Mystique Preserved
An ancient lake, Manix, once inundated the East Mojave. It receded into Pleistocene memory and the Mojave was criss-crossed by more human history and pre-history than a week's visit would permit one to investigate. Piute, Mojave, and Chemehuevi native peoples once flourished impressively in this harsh environment, leaving thousands of artifacts and rock art.

Trade-oriented Indians and proselytizing Spanish missionaries beat frequent paths along the still-unpaved Mojave Road. So did stagecoaches, wagon trains, prospectors, rail workers, the U.S. Army, and mail. General Patton left tank tracks and '60s military maneuvers left scars and trash, the sort of heedlessness now curbed by new sensibilities. Silenced rail towns and miners' quarters remain as unwitting monuments to a past bustle. The Union Pacific Railroad still crosses the desert.

Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath did as much as the above to preserve the Mojave mystique. The terror of the desert's boiling asphalt for Dust Bowl migrants who streamed through in the '30s can still be imagined-even with today's yellow call boxes every mile on the interstates.

Turn North at the Light
I arrived at the Mojave Preserve in a rented four-wheel-drive packed with two ice-filled Styrofoam coolers, firewood, and food for a week of camping. In Barstow I stopped briefly at the California Desert Information Center, then turned toward the light that is unfiltered by farm, factory, or car exhausts.

Past Ludlow, the last relatively developed area, the land began to percolate up into red and brown foothills and assume an expansive look with low-growing, widely spaced desert scrub.

At a small green sign I turned north off I-40 and 25 miles later was at my home for the next three days, Hole-in-the-Wall. At 4,100 feet, it's one of two developed campgrounds in the Preserve. Only two of its 35 sites were claimed, one by an RV. The other campers were a bewildered party of Japanese tourists in a minivan, trying vociferously to figure the workings of an American campground.

Days later, I'd learn that while American tourists avoid the blistering desert of summer, Germans and Japanese continue to arrive. The Germans come to get their kicks in American cars on the big stretch of historic Route 66, south of I-40, and the Japanese to see the terrain that starred in so many John Wayne films.

"As the smallest North American desert, the Mojave seems to have exerted an outsized influence on the public imagination. This might be due to its geographic situation between the infamous urban poles of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a location that has surely made it the most filmed desert in the world.

In the heyday of the cinematic Western, the Mojave was the most prolific location, and today it's impossible to watch television for an hour without seeing a commercial that was shot there-on a dry lake bed, in a Joshua tree forest, in front of a run-down gas station or café. The products advertised in this setting, I've noticed, run overwhelmingly toward cars, blue jeans, and beer.

It's safe to say that, as far as popular American imagery is concerned, the sere visage of the Mojave Desert is considered somehow definitive."

-David Darlington, The Mojave: A Portrait of the Definitive American Desert (Henry Holt)

Mischievous gusts of wind tried to play soccer with my anchored tent through the first night. But morning brought the stillness that feels like a revelation in the desert. The symphonic trills, chirps, and songs of birds and insects were the only "voices." Early sun textured and warmed the pocked, orange cones of the Providence Mountains just northwest of camp.

Later that day, I discovered the clever, short trail through that volcanic maze. Half of it is vertical with iron rings for hand and foot. You descend-unless you have vertigo-into Banshee Canyon or the box canyon, Wildhorse.

The rings trail is well-marked and easily found just past a modest visitor center at Hole-in-the-Wall.

Since the Preserve has no centralized attractions, it's easy to clock too many miles, as I did my first day, including 50 miles out of my way to get gas.

I started at Mitchell Caverns on a tiny island of state land within the Preserve, about 15 miles from Hole-in-the-Wall.You can find potable water and developed camping here, though it's exposed to the infamous winds. You're on the eastern slope of the Providence Mountains and the heady views sweep the desert floor and mesas-to Arizona on a clear day.

As I awaited my tour, a flashy orange oriole came feeding outside the visitor center, a consolation prize for the gray-green desert's lack of bloom this year.

Even if you've seen your share of limestone caverns, the two here, El Pakiva and Tecopa, are worth the refresher course if your guide is Ranger Tom Thompson, the self-proclaimed MacNeil-Lehrer of guides.

As we entered the cave, he told us about three rare species of arthropods inside. "They're energy recyclers," he explained. "They eat bat guano. So we're not to disturb them or we'll be knee-deep in doo-doo." His knowledge of earth and life sciences extended to the desert. I had wondered about pink bands of rock in the mountains, rhyolite it turned out, and he detailed the vulcanism that led to their placement.

From there, I drove a long horseshoe pattern to get to the Kelso Dunes. An interpretive plaque says the dunes make a booming sound you can hear and feel. They get help from four winds. Piled on a mountain at about 700 feet, the dunes are blown over from the Mojave River Basin, many miles to the west. Winds from the north, south, and east gang up to match forces against the west wind, driving the dunes and grasses in a circular pattern. The rotating grasses, as well as snakes and rodents, leave tracks and designs in the sand.

About ten miles north of the dunes on Kelbaker Road is the Kelso Depot. Kelso began to take shape as a town in 1906 when the railroad between L.A. and Salt Lake was completed. It thrived during World War II with nearly 2,000 inhabitants. Now, mainly Union Pacific rail workers live there. The handsome 1924 Spanish Mission-Revival hotel once offered lodging, restaurant, and offices to rail employees. Desert visitors gathered there until 1985 when it was closed and almost demolished, but for the outcry of local citizens. I was heartened to hear that the Park Service has plans to restore and turn the elegant building into a visitor center.

A Thriving One-Horse Town
Over the next days my preferred higher ratio of hiking to driving turned to its opposite, an easy thing to do on the dusty back roads of the Mojave.

The Preserve's main roads, Essex, Kelbaker, and Kelso-Cima, are paved. But it is netted with many others, ranging from 2WD-manageable unmaintained dirt to roads of gravel, sand, and ruts more suitable for tanks.

Black Canyon and Cedar Canyon roads put me in view of a profile of dinosaur spines that turned into one of several mountain ranges trending north to south. Cima Road took me on a clear wind-polished day through the gangly-limbed Joshua trees; past Cima Dome, a 75-square-mile thrust of molten rock eroded into rounded symmetry; past the darkened Cima Store with its posted sign angrily repudiating the Desert Act.

Ivanpah Road deposited me onto Nipton Road, where I stopped for supplies at the general store in the small town of Nipton. A seedy, trench-coated man lumbered across the road near a wooden sign that read, "Welcome to Brackett, business opportunities available."

Some drifter? Drawn to a cusp between the last free range and civilization?

No. It was Kurt Russell being filmed in Breakdown. The film crew, who were holding traffic and a Union Pacific train at bay, no doubt doubled Nipton's population.

The storeowner told me to get out of the store quickly or be stranded inside until the shoot was done. Outside, I mistook the pony-tailed, black-leather-clad bikers for part of the set. They were spectators heading east on noisy hogs to Searchlight, Nevada, the nearest big town, about 15 miles away on U.S. 95.

The storeowner was also the town's owner. Jerry Freeman bought Nipton 12 years ago and has been slowly fleshing out his plan to make it a desert resort supportive of artists. The small restored adobe Hotel Nipton fronted by cactus-rock garden looked so inviting I decided to forego one more night in my wind-kicked tent.

The wooden-porch hotel was built in the early 1900s. I checked into room #3, Clara Bow's favorite. In the '20s, when she wasn't filming she raised cattle near here. The room was cozy-big enough for a double bed, table, and chair. The bathroom was down the hall. I slept soundly. In the morning I soaked in the hotel's outdoor hot tub taking in the waves of desert-an arid sea-rolling south to the New York Mountains.

A self-guided tour takes you through the town "where the past is present"-to a railroad box car, blacksmith shop, hay barn, trading post and town hall, pond, gallery, cistern, and more.

Rimming the Preserve are several small towns with decaying motels and gas pumps, extinct towns, towns for sale. It was a surprise to find one as compact, pleasant, and well-situated as Nipton.

Hiking at last
I drove back to Barstow along I-15 to meet my brother and a friend who'd camp with me my last two days. The drive took me past the Clark Mountains, which hold the 8,000-foot highest point of the Preserve and Baker, which boasts the Mad Greek and Bun Boy eateries and the world's largest thermometer (134 feet). The main visitor center for the Mojave is at its base. Also en route was Calico, the liveliest little ghost town-lots of guns popping, outlaws falling, and piano playing.

Back at Ivanpah Road we found our way to Caruthers Canyon in the New York Mountains. After five days amid low-growing shrub, the junipers and pinyons seemed statuesque. Their beauty was made more so by the presence of only two other campers.

After pitching camp at what we thought to be the best site we started hiking up canyon and found even better ones-inc.aspluding a site with a fire grill. Where the canyon narrowed we found the carcass of a mine shaft, a mess tempered somewhat by the historic dimension it had gained.

If the wind was arrogant at my previous camp, it was outright diabolical this evening. It gathered a head of steam up canyon, then charged our tents like a locomotive every fifteen minutes. It bent the pole of my brother's $300 tent. (I've since learned that the Mojave wind is at its worst in fall, spring, and whenever a weather change is in the making.)

Next evening we moved to Mid-Hills, the Preserve's other developed campground. Here the wind behaved, but it had blown in a few partying campers. Our solace was this fragrant pinyon pine juniper woodland, and a great hike.

From these sagebrush heights we followed an eight-mile (one-way) hike down Wildhorse Canyon. We had to pull out our compass and topo a few times in vague washes, but it was quintessential Mojave. Desert varnish glazed the mountains in view and occasional red, yellow, and magenta flowers burst from hedgehog, beavertail, cholla, and prickly pear-some blooming cactus after all. I also spotted an odd caramel hunk of rock on the trail, which I later learned was a rare type of obsidian used for arrowheads.

At the end of the trail, when we thought we were lost, I recognized the back of the rings trail from my erstwhile Hole-in-the-Wall. We hoisted ourselves up and lazily hitched a ride back along Black Canyon Road with Park Ranger Julia Cronk.

On our last day we tested the mettle of the rented Nissan Pathfinder, Mojave-style. Powerline Road was a roller-coaster of ungraded ruts, capable, if caution were cast to the wind, of rolling a 4WD. As we breasted Foshay Pass I kept my eye on the buff-colored horizon, the Kelso Dunes pleated by the morning sun. It took just about forever to reach them.

Photography courtesy of InyoCima/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in January 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.