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The largest, most protected desert in the world is located east of Los Angeles and most travelers miss it. The Mojave National Preserve resides along Interstates 15 and 40, and can be explored in a few hours by car. Here you can see wildflowers, Joshua Trees, desert animals like Jack Rabbits, as well as cinder cones and lava flows. Here’s why the richness of the Mojave Desert is worth the detour. Definitely consider taking in this beautiful scenery next time you’re planning a trip to California or Las Vegas.
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The Mojave National Preserve – The World’s Largest Protected Desert is Free
Mojave National Preserve Details
The Mojave National Preserve is free and open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. You will find a handful of paved roads and more rugged trails. The roads are sun-baked so they can be rough in areas.
The Mojave National Preserve is located between Interstates 15 and 40 in Southern California. Baker, California, is the nearest town with services like gas and lodging. The closest airport is in Las Vegas, Nevada, 90 miles away. The Mojave National Preserve is approximately 200 miles east of Los Angeles.
You might be surprised to discover the Mojave Desert is greener than its neighbor, Death Valley National Park. Here you’ll find pinyon-pine speckled mountain peaks and creosote bushes thriving in the valleys. You might even spot a bighorn sheep or coyote. The Mojave National Preserve is located conveniently along Interstates 15 and 40. You can take an easy side trip to grab a glimpse of the Mojave desert which is located east of Los Angeles.
Read More: Guide to National Parks
History of Mojave National Preserve
The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 established the Mojave National Preserve. This act also expanded and upgraded Death Valley and Joshua Tree from national monuments into national parks.
There are four deserts in North America. The Mojave Desert is the transitional desert landscape in-between the Great Basin Desert, the high desert, to the north and the Sonoran Desert, the low desert, to the south. The remaining desert is the Chihuahua Desert, near Big Bend National Park in Texas.
The most dominant feature of the Mojave Desert is the Joshua Tree. Did you know the Joshua Tree is not actually a tree at all? It’s a species of yucca . The Joshua Tree is a favorite with kids because of its comical appearance. The best place to find them is near Cima Dome.
What can I do at the Mojave National Preserve in Two Hours?
Mojave National Preserve is conveniently located between two major interstates. It’s an easy side trip when traveling to or from Los Angeles or Vegas.
Drive across the Mojave National Preserve using Kelbaker Road or Cima Road. You’ll get an appreciation for the Mojave Desert. A stop at the Kelso Depot is a must for the train lovers in your family.
Things for Kids at Mojave National Preserve
My kids love animals and animal spotting in the Mojave National Preserve is easier than most wooded parks. Jack rabbits and coyotes are the easiest to spot along the paved roads in Mojave. Animal spotting is a great family activity because it keeps my kids looking out the windows instead of their screens.
Stop off at the Kelso Depot Visitors Center. It has an interpretive area, restrooms and water fountains in a restored railroad depot. Pick up a free Junior Ranger booklet and complete it at the old diner’s counter, located inside.
Read More: Junior Ranger Guide
Kelso Depot Visitor Center
In 1905, Union Pacific completed the Salt Lake-Los Angeles train route. To get LA-bound trains up the two-percent grade of the Cima Summit, helper engines were required. The Kelso Depot provided a service area for Union Pacific and the vital water needed for steam engines.
Kelso saw rapid growth over the next few decades as train workers and later miners moved to the area. Union Pacific wanted a depot that rivaled Santa Fe Railroad’s depots, like the Fred Harvey properties of the Southwest.
Union Pacific closed its operations at the depot in 1985. The National Park Service bought and renovated the building. Tour the exhibits or earn a Junior Ranger badge at the visitor center.
The Kelso Depot Visitor Center is free and open Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
You can also stop at the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center and find restrooms and park rangers. The Mojave National Preserve Headquarters in Barstow offers information as well.
Hiking Trails in Mojave
Lake Tuene Nature Trail
An easy .25-mile walk at the Zzyzx parking area.
Teutonia Peak Trail
Offers a hike through the largest Joshua Tree Forest in the United States.
Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail
This is an easy .5-mile walk.
Rock Springs Loop Trail
This offers a one mile hike from Rock House pass a 1860s military outpost.
If you’re visiting in the spring, you might get lucky and see some wildflowers. If California had a rainy winter, then wildflowers can blanket the ground during the spring.
Camping in Mojave National Preserve
You can find primitive campgrounds in Mojave. Primitive means pit toilets, and no showers or utility hook-ups. Sites do offer fire pits and picnic tables. Campgrounds are first-come, first-serve and are $6 to $12 per night.
Offers water at the campground and its elevation is 4,400 feet.
Mid Hills Campground
No water is available at this campground. Its elevation is 5,600 feet.
Black Canyon Equestrain and Group Campground requires reservations.
Providence Mountains State Recreation Area
This California State Park area is within the boundaries of Mojave and is home to Mitchell Caverns. Tours through the limestone caverns are available (admission additional).
Providence Mountains State Recreation Area is 16 miles northwest of 1-15 off Essex Road. Admission is $10 per car.
More About Protected Deserts and Monuments
Three national monuments in the Southern California desert offer protection. The Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park and the several national monuments comprise the largest desert conservation area in the world, protecting critical ecosystems between existing parks, like wildlife and plants
The Castle Mountains National Monument extends the protection of the Mojave National Preserve. It’s surrounded on three sides by the Mojave Preserve and borders the Nevada state line.
The Sand to Snow National Monument is the most biodiverse area in Southern California. This monument encompasses Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California, to the valley floor of the Sonoran Desert.
The Mojave Trails National Monument connects the land between the Mojave National Preserve to the north and the Joshua Tree National Park to the south. It encompasses 1.6 million acres to allow wildlife more protection during migration.
What else do I need to know before I visit the Mojave Desert?
- Don’t rely on technology for directions in the Mojave National Preserve but pick up a map at the Visitors Center in Kelso or park headquarters in Barstow.
- Carry extra water year-round.
- Flat tires are common on unpaved roads so be prepared.
- Many of the roads within the Mojave Preserve are four-wheel drive roads so they will be unsuitable for passenger cars.
- Find lodging available in nearby towns.
- Nearby Attractions include Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark–See a 250-foot high volcanic cinder cone, lava flows and collapsed lava tubes. Located south of Mojave Preserve and managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
- There are three three poisonous rattlesnakes varieties in the Mojave Desert, so be careful!