MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, California — Unlike many other old trails through the American West, the hot and lonely Mojave Road remains much as it was when wagon trains rolled through in the 1860s and 1870s.
The dusty, mostly unpaved road bisects the Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6 million-acre expanse of beautiful and potentially dangerous desert in southeastern California. Visitors won’t find service stations or convenience stores in the preserve, which is more than twice the size of Rhode Island. So gas up and buy plenty of drinking water before venturing in.
The preserve is bounded on the north by Interstate 15 and on the south by Interstate 40, which lies along the path once taken by historic Route 66. But the Mojave Road remains untamed, a particularly inhospitable branch of the Old Spanish Trail that linked Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles in Spanish colonial times.
Exploring the more remote reaches of the preserve and the Mojave Road requires a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. But a magnificent tour of spectacular desert scenery was doable even in my low-slung rental car, which was up to the task of traversing many miles of unpaved but mostly well-graded road at the preserve’s heart.
The best time to visit is October through May, as summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. During my December visit, the desert temperatures were even a bit chilly, at least until the sun had risen high.
About 20 miles of paved road took me from I-40 north through sere expanses of creosote
bush scrublands. As the elevation rose, I began to spot tall and distinctive Mojave yucca, resembling a ragged hobo with spiky punk hairdos.
The road turned to dirt at Hole-in-the-Wall, one of the preserve’s two visitor centers, where a ranger briefed me on some of the sites reachable by a desert dilettante driving a Kia Rio. One of the best, the Rings Loop Trail, required no more driving at all: The trail is one of four that begins just outside the visitor center.
Just a mile long, the trail makes an irregular circle through the desert past ancient petroglyphs etched into huge boulders, attesting to the long human habitation of this seemingly hostile place.
The season was still too early for desert wildflowers, but I did see a surprisingly colorful variety of flora — cactus, yucca and sagebrush — and views that extended for miles to the Providence Mountains and Piute Range.
After looping through a bit of flat scrubland, the trail proceeded into Banshee Canyon, a wonderfully weird geological feature carved by nature with thousands of Swiss-cheese-style holes, perfectly sized for inquisitive hands. But considering the abundance of wildlife the desert harbors, including the Mojave rattlesnake, I easily put that temptation behind me.
At the end of the box canyon came the outlet — a narrow, vertical crack in the rock leading to the trail above. Reaching the trail meant navigating a stairway of metal rings mounted on spikes firmly (I assume) embedded into the face of the rock.
Somehow I had missed the sign warning hikers about the ring climb, so it was a surprise, and a moderately challenging scramble up, using the spikes as steps and the rings as handholds.
Acting on the ranger’s advice, my next stop was 20 miles through the desert to Rock Spring and another loop trail there. The trail begins at Rock House, built by a World War I veteran to help him recover from inhaling poison gas during the war. (He lived 25 more years.) It was later the lonely habitation of artist Carl Faber, who sold his work to determined admirers and the sparse trickle of passing travelers.
Along the trail is the remains of an old mining operation and a historic marker denoting the site of Camp Rock Spring, a 19th century Army post that guarded travelers and mail on the Mojave Road.
I found an incongruous and optimistic willow tree near the spring site, but no flowing water, which left my mouth feeling a bit gritty. The hike wasn’t long, but I was glad I’d taken water, although the liquid was warm.
From Rock Spring, I drove an especially rutted and potholed length of the Mojave Road, seldom breaking 10 mph. I turned at Kelso-Cima Road, part of the main north-south route through the preserve. I followed the well-paved two-lane road and the adjacent Union Pacific Railroad tracks into the ghost town of Kelso, site of the preserve’s other visitor center, located in the magnificent 1925 Kelso Depot.
The Spanish Mission Revival-style train station, beautifully restored and preserved, is an incongruous sight in the desert. The depot once housed railroad-employee dormitories, recreational areas and a restaurant. Now it’s a museum and small gift shop. It also gave me a welcome opportunity to refill my water bottle and use the restroom to wash off some desert dust.
As I continued north out of the park, I passed through an otherworldly landscape of cinder cones and lava beds before the pavement crossed the dusty Mojave Road one last time.
The dirt road, looking as if it had been scratched, indifferently, into the landscape by a giant with a stick, continued into the distance until dust and heat lines radiating up from the desert floor blurred it into the horizon. I had plenty of (warm) water, but I still felt parched.
The landscape changed abruptly when I finally hit civilization and the town of Baker.
I knew I would miss the lonely, beautiful desert. But before I merged onto I-15 for my 70 mph, 45-minute zip up to Las Vegas, I stopped in at a convenience store and treated myself to an especially delicious ice-cold soft drink.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveStephens.