Leonie Sherman
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Delightful desolation in a forgotten corner of Southeastern California

By Leonie Sherman • Photos by Rebecca Smith

The author about to climb the Kelso Dunes at sunset (Rebecca Smith).

Tucked away in a forgotten corner of southeastern California, spanning the desolation between US interstates 40 and 15, halfway from Sin City to the City of Angels, north of Joshua Tree and south of Death Valley, the Mojave National Preserve is as noteworthy for what it lacks as what it contains. No gas stations. No convenience stores. No hotels. No restaurants. No bars. No supplies. No entrance fees. No public showers. No roving bands of jargon-and-beta-spewing climbers. No ranger camp-fire talks or guided strolls. No hordes of selfie-stick-wielding drive-through tourists. As Ed Abbey says about his favorite haunts, “There’s nothing out there. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the world.”

The world of Mojave National Preserve includes a wealth of superlatives: the world’s densest Joshua Tree forest, California’s second biggest sand dunes, the most difficult limestone climbing in the nation, the third largest unit managed by the National Park Service in the contiguous US. From the park’s eastern edge the largest thermal solar plant in the world is visible, responsible for the deaths of an estimated 6,000 birds annually.

The 1.6 million acre preserve encompasses an astounding diversity of animals, plants and habitats. Desert tortoises, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, three kinds of rattlesnakes, mountain lions and bighorn sheep all call this place home. Pinyon pines, junipers, Joshua Trees, creosote, cholla, ocotillo, and barrel cacti thrive here at elevations ranging from 800 to almost 8,000 feet. Sand dunes, alkali plains, ancient basalt flows, desert washes, cinder cones, enchanted volcanic canyons and granite peaks invite exploration and contemplation.

The preserve’s nine mountain ranges include the two and a half mile long Beale Mountains, one of the nation’s smallest, as well as Clark Mountain, which Chris Sharma put on the map when he bolted the country’s most challenging limestone climbs there. If you’re just passing through and wondering what to do, consider the words of long-time Yosemite ranger Carl Sharsmith. When questioned by a tourist about what he would do if he had only a single hour for exploration, he replied, “Ma’am, if I were in that position I’d sit down and have a good cry.”

Granite outcroppings beg to be explored (Leonie Sherman).

So forget about driving through and plan to stay at least one night. The preserve hosts two developed campgrounds. Sites are on a first come, first served basis and cost $12 per night. The Hole-in-the-Wall campground sits at the base of a volcanic rhyolite cliff at 4,400 feet; several popular trailheads are close by. The Mid Hills campground is 1,200 feet higher and many of the sites are tucked into the shade of pinyon pines and junipers. Camping at the Kelso dunes is popular and over 700,000 acres of wilderness offer unlimited primitive camping options.

The entire preserve is home to the threatened desert tortoise. For tens of thousands of years these creatures roamed the harsh landscape, surviving summer temperatures over 140 degrees and freezing winter nights by spending 95% of their lives in burrows. This subterranean inactivity preserves precious water, but puts a crimp in their social lives; as a result reproductive rates are low.

When highways and humans intruded on the preserve a profusion of ravens followed, attracted by new sources of food and water. The savvy corvids prey heavily on vulnerable juvenile tortoises, whose shells don’t fully harden for the first four years of their lives. The Desert Tortoise Juvenile Survivorship program, located near the preserve’s northeast entrance, nurtures young tortoises until their shells harden to reduce predation. The least a visitor can do is tread carefully to avoid caving in a burrow, and drive with caution.

Even if you’re not fortunate enough to see an elusive desert tortoise or a fully curled bighorn ram, you’ll leave with memories that inspire you to return. Booming vibrating sand dunes at sunset. The echo of a haunting melody in a lava tube. Scrambling up a windy desert peak. Strolling through a Joshua Tree forest. Meandering up a vast desert wash. Bouldering on granite outcrops. Pioneering routes on fragile volcanic rhyolite.  Crawling around searching for the tiny elusive desert night lizard. It’s impossible to take the measure of the place or exhaust the thrill of discovery here in a day, or a week, or a month, or a lifetime. But one can always try.

The author illuminated in a subterranean lava tube (Rebecca Smith).

Paul Carlson attempting to climb out of a subterranean lava tube (Rebecca Smith).

Rebecca Smith climbing the ring trail (Leonie Sherman).

Kelso Train Depot and Visitor Center in the Mojave National Preserve (Rebecca Smith).

Kelso Dunes at Sunset (Rebecca Smith).

Paul with beam in mouth inside Mojave Lava Tube (Rebecca Smith).