Mojave National Preserve Overview

Some dismiss the desert as a wasteland—a waste of space where nothing and nobody can exist for long. Mojave National Preserve in southeastern California is not exempt from this perception. Its inclusion in the park system back in 1994 was strenuously opposed by groups convinced the area's empty tracts were better suited to 4-wheeling and mining than being set aside for quiet recreation.

While stereotypes die hard, even the most cursory look behind the preserve's seemingly austere exterior reveals a land brimming with an incredible variety of flora and fauna. From creosote bush-dominated flats in Mojave's low lands to pinyon pine and juniper woodlands in the higher elevations, the preserve's plant community includes 70 percent of the vascular plants known to California deserts. More than 300 different species of animals and 200 species of birds have been spotted within its borders.

Mojave's 1.6 million acres were set aside to protect one of the most diverse desert environments in the world—a meeting of the Mojave, Sonoran, and Great Basin deserts. Inside its borders you'll find everything from sand dunes and volcanic cinder cones to Joshua tree forests and seven mountain ranges. The Piute Range in the southeastern corner of the preserve contains the region's only year-round stream. Because of the perennial supply of water, there are numerous archaeological remains found in this area. In fact, "Aha Macav" (Mojave) means "the people who live along the water"—the Mojave Indians inhabited the land running along the Colorado River, depending on the waterway to irrigate their crops.

If you're looking to get away from it all, Mojave is the place. Almost half of the preserve (nearly 700,000 acres) is designated wilderness, and the preserve remains remarkably undeveloped. Other than Mojave's two established campgrounds, the only tourist amenity in the preserve is a visitors' center off Interstate 15—no entrance booths, no new hotels, and no gift shops to spoil the desert solitude. Neither cars nor bikes are allowed in Mojave's designated wilderness acres, so the only tracks you'll see there should be human ones... unless they're from bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyote, desert tortoises, or rattlesnakes—among other critters native to the area.

Camp in the Desert
Bounded by Interstates 10 and 40, and the Nevada border, the Mojave National Preserve is often called the "lonesome triangle" because of the few people found in the area—thus campers can find peace and quiet without needing to trek into the middle of nowhere. The preserve has just two developed campgrounds: Hole-in-the-Wall is named for the small pockmarks where volcanic gasses became sealed inside the debris; Mid Hills is nestled in pinyon pine and juniper trees near 5,600 feet—a cool respite from the desert floor below. For a serious desert-camping experience, try Mojave backcountry camping: Backpackers and hikers may camp within the preserve as long as they go at least half a mile from any developed area or road and a quarter of a mile from water sources. Backcountry campers should be aware that map-reading skills are essential, as few trail signs exist, and campsites should be made outside of drainages or dry washes, because flash floods can sweep through with little notice.

Play in the Dunes
Mojave's famous 500-foot Kelso Dunes are the second highest—and probably the most popular—sand dunes in California. A sunset or sunrise climb brings out the golden brilliance of the dunes, the sand tinged with pink and black from bits of rose quartz, feldspar, and black magnetite. A hike up offers climbers a view of neighboring peaks—including the Granite and Providence Mountains. The return trip is its own reward—a thrilling tumble down the sand, which may set off small sand avalanches; the sliding action of the dry grains sometimes creates a strange, deep tone, much like the drone of a far-off engine.

Hike the Highest Point
Mojave National Preserve has only two established hiking trails. The trail from Mid Hills to Hole-in-the-Wall runs for eight miles (one way) through pinyon pine and juniper woodlands, Great Basin sagebrush, blackbrush scrub, and several cactus gardens; this scenic stretch includes breathtaking views of Mojave's stately mountains. Although the trail is signed, it requires a keen eye to stay on course as it enters and exits washes. The second path, Teutonia Peak Trail, wanders through the world's largest Joshua tree forest, atop Cima Dome. Once a molten bubble of volcanic rock, Cima Dome now stands as a gently rounded granite mass, rising nearly 1,500 feet above the desert floor. Trekking along on Cima, you won't even notice that you're atop the 70-square-mile dome, so gradual is the slope. Only from Teutonia Peak—the highest point in the preserve—will the elevation gain become apparent, with a view of the desert on all sides and a cooling breeze on your skin.

Explore the Volcanic Landscape
Mojave National Preserve serves as a showcase of ancient and modern geologic processes. About 18.5 million years ago a powerful volcanic eruption blasted outward from nearby Woods Mountains. Propelled by the force of rapidly rising and expanding gases, a ground-hugging cloud of ash and rock fragments spread out at near supersonic speeds across the landscape. Some of the rocks thrown out by the blast measure about 40 to 60 feet across—the largest ejecta ever documented. Hot, suffocating ash buried every living thing in the path of the blast. Nearly 232 square miles were covered with ash and rock fragments so hot that they welded together after reaching the ground. The toasted and fossilized remains of birds, mammals, and plants lie entombed beneath the volcanic tuff that forms the colorful cliffs of Hole in the Wall.

Hit the Historic Highway
Wilderness notwithstanding, Mojave National Preserve has about 1,200 miles of road—enough scenic driving to keep intrepid desert explorers going for some time. The quality ranges from paved two-lane roads, to well-maintained dirt roads, to extremely bumpy 4-wheel-drive routes. One of the most popular routes is the historic Mojave Road. The United States acquired California along with the rest of the Southwest following the Mexican/American War, and the Mojave Road was part of a trail that connected the military barracks in Wilmington, California, with the new town of Prescott, Arizona. The portion of Mojave Road that runs through the preserve enters on the east at Piute Springs and exits on the west at Soda Lake, passing by the remnants of historic army posts along the way.

Enter a Natural Refrigerator
Actually part of the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, Mitchell Caverns is surrounded by Mojave's wilderness. The caves once served as shelter for early Native Americans, and archaeologists discovered Chemehuevi Indian caches, tools, and fire pits in the area. Today, many people visit Mitchell Caverns to admire the intricate dripstone formations (speleothems) that decorate the interior walls. These decorations—stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone, rimstone dams, helictites, and cave corals—formed during the development of the caverns' subterranean maze, as dripping water redeposited previously dissolved limestone. Besides these beautiful rock formations, Mitchell Caverns has the additional enticement of moderate temperatures year-round—an oasis in the desert.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »