The Mojave National Preserve is that area that many of us have driven past, but never stopped into. It is that large area of land south of Las Vegas, NV; north of Interstate 40; and west of Bullhead City. If you have ever driven south out of Las Vegas on I-15 on the way towards Barstow, CA, you have driven along the western edge of the Preserve. Just like a National Park, a National Preserve is managed by the National Park Service but a Preserve may allow some additional uses like hunting as an example.
The Preserve was established in 1994 as part of the California Desert Protection Act, which was also responsible for establishing Death Valley National Park and The Joshua Tree National Park. At 1.6 million acres, it’s the third largest portion of land within the National Park system.
We had always been curious about this piece of land, having driven around it in all directions over the years, so it was time to do some exploring! We had some time in January and while we knew the weather would be challenging, we planned to spend at least a few days inside the Preserve to see what we could see, and to maybe even spend some time traveling the famous “Mojave Road”. As it turned out, the timing was also prefect for a couple of our friends to join us on our Adventure…perfect!
We planned to leave Las Vegas early on a Tuesday morning and drive to Baker, CA (yes, the place that is home to the worlds largest thermometer) to meet up with our two friends in their well built 4 door Jeep Wranglers. There is NO fuel inside the Preserve, so we also filled up and made sure we had a little extra fuel just in case. Please fill up with gas BEFORE you enter. Park headquarters in Barstow, California is 60 miles from the Preserve and the main visitor center, Kelso Depot, is located inside the Preserve but has no fuel. We chose to head towards Essex, CA for fuel as it’s the closest option along I-40 once you are in the middle area of the Preserve, but that would be on day three!
There are some really cool places within the Preserve that we had either heard of or seen pictures of that we wanted to visit for sure: The Cinder Cone Lava Beds; Kelso Dunes; the Mitchell Caverns; and the Cima Dome area. There are also “easy” ways to get around in the Preserve, which by that I mean some paved roads, but we would try and stay off of those roads as much as possible. For the first time in a long time we really had no hard set “plan”. We had places and areas we would try and get to but we would take our time doing so and if we got sidetracked…well…that was perfectly fine too!
Heading east out of Baker, CA on Kelbaker Road (which is paved) we almost immediately took a right and dove out into the desert dirt roads. We took routes that “appeared” to be roads via satellite imagery and used Gaia to do all our navigation. I had dowloaded a few layers of maps of the area before we left Las Vegas, not knowing if we would have much cell service while within the Preserve, which was very beneficial. Not knowing road conditions, real distances or where we would even be spending the night made it a true Adventure, but we were all very prepared, had an open mind and knew it would most likely be cold at night, mild during the day with slight chances of rain/snow each day. We had food, fuel, water and each other…what else could we need?
We drove south, down and around Old Dad Mountain and back up through Jackass Canyon with some sun, some clouds and some great scenery! We crossed back over Kelbaker Road and followed the Aiken Mine Road up to our first Point of Interest, the Cinder Cone Lava Beds and the Lava Tubes.
We grabbed some lights and headed down into these amazing formations!
As we realized how much time we had spent exploring these awesome caverns, we started to think about where we might spend the night…especially with some newly formed storm clouds moving across the area. We could have easily spent a few more hours around this area and there are many disbursed camping areas along the washes as well, but we decided to jump back on the paved Kelbaker Road and headed for the Kelso Depot Museum and Visitors Center. A small train depot that began in the 1920’s, Kelso was home to over 2,000 residents that worked the borax and iron mines in the 1940’s. It became the Visitor’s Center for the Preserve in 2005 and is currently closed for repairs but should reopen sometime soon. We made a left at the Depot and headed up the Kelso Cima Road with my sights set on the Mid Hills Campground.
We were dodging the rain and some wind while trying to make camp with some daylight left…but that would not be the case. We were also gaining a significant amount of elevation as the storm clouds rolled on through. From Kelso to the Mid Hills Campground we gained about 2500 feet, arriving at an elevation of 5600′, into the dark and unknown camping area of the NPS. We were pleasantly surprised to find spacious campsites, fire rings, pit toilets and some great views of the night sky. The clouds had started to clear away and even with a bright moon it was still pretty dark outside. I grabbed my small iPhone tripod and tried to capture a few night shots. Each of these images was taken with about a 30 second exposure. It was getting late and we were all pretty tired, so after some warm food and a quick fire to take the chill off, it was time to prepare for the next day.
Not really being able to see where we were camped…boy were we surprised the next morning as we woke up to some amazing views! Stay tuned for Day Two of our journey through the Mojave National Preserve!