Mojave National Preserve; Exploring One of America's Last Wild Frontiers
"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit" - Edward Abbey
Living in San Diego, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas can leave you feeling constantly inundated with people and craving an escape. There are ways to get away from it all, but a weekend to Joshua Tree, Big Bear, or even making the trek up to Yosemite is nearly as popular as heading to The Gaslamp District, Huntington Beach, or a night on the strip. Even the adventurous photographer looking to get an isolated shot will find themselves lined up tripod to tripod, jockeying for position.
Enter one of the best-kept secrets in the USA - Mojave National Preserve. Often incorrectly referred to as Mojave Desert (the smallest of North Americas deserts which still covers 47,877 sq mi and includes the MNP, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and all the way over to Zion). MNP had 542,527 in 2012 as opposed to the 3,996,017 visitors to Yosemite the same year. Part of the reason no one goes here is due to poor marketing. Even Google directs you to a map of Mojave National Preserve when you search for "map of Mojave Desert". Even though they are very similar, it sounds much nicer when a friend asks you to go to Joshua Tree, whereas the Mojave Desert doesn't sound so enticing. Another reason the number of visitors is so low is likely due to false assumptions of deserts being a featureless flat landscape. It's still a desert, with temperature swinging to extreme highs and lows, but along with being widely generalized as "the Mojave Desert" rather than a Preserve and the misconception about what is there, here are a few other reasons why you can have amazing experiences and most often have them all to yourself.
It's a National Preserve, Not a National Park
This slight difference in title makes a gigantic difference in the accessibility and freedom of the lands. In a park, you will often be met tons of adventure, but will experience limitations via crowds, rules, and designated camping areas. Albeit put into place for good reason the nature of the national park can stifle the spirit of adventure or worse yet ruin the experience of nature altogether when people don't know how to properly interact with nature. The greatness of MNP is the lack of regulation and the general maturity of those who do travel here when it comes to practicing good leave no trace principles. Nationally Preserved land can be owned privately so it may not be 100% accessible, but has regulations on what can be built and occur there. What happens to the land is really in the name: A preserve protects the land, and a park makes it into a destination for visitors. The preserve atmosphere means there are no road signs, few attraction signs, fewer park attendants to point you in the right direction (or tell you where you cannot go) - all things which it possible to truly adventure in the wilderness.
Mojave National Preserve is a Wide Open Adventure Playground
When most people hear the word desert they get a stereotypical image in their head. There is some flat barren parts in Mojave National Preserve in MNP but it all leads to through and to some of the most diverse landscapes the world can offer in one location. You can start the day in Banshee Canyon before heading North the Cima Volcano Cones where you can explore lava tubes, and back down to hike the Kelso Dunes to watch the sunset, painting the wide open skies and sand of the meandering dunes vibrant pinks and oranges. There are also hundreds of miles of trails and 4-wheel drive roads, mountains, springs, and an elevation change of 7,049 feet (Clark Mountain stands at 7,929 feet and an area near Baker is only 880 feet above sea level). If you're well equipped you can drive to remote areas to camp or hike in and hike out pretty much anywhere as long as you are careful. Even car camping is legal on any one of the numerous unmarked roads and pullouts, fires permitted with a "request" to have fires contained in a ring, however I have seen many areas with stone rings put into place. There are some roughly developed campgrounds with bathrooms (Hole in the Wall Campground and the even more rustic Mid Hills Campground), but my personal favorite spots are the giant boulders in behind a small windmill right next to the entry road for Mid Hills campground, a secret spot (send me an email if you're very interested) tucked away in Banshee canyon, the pull off on the road just past Hole In The Wall Campground, just outside the lava tubes, and, for those not afraid of a sandblasted windy night, the top of Kelso Dunes.
The Wildlife Exceeds Expectations
One of my favorite features of the park is its non-human inhabitants. There are an amazing number and diversity of tough animals. I've personally seen coyotes, rattlesnakes, tons of birds, lizards, desert iguanas, and one of the crown jewels of MNP - the endangered desert tortoise. On my last trip I saved a desert tortoise from the road (watch your speed and the road while driving, these little guys often die while searching for puddles). The tortoise I encountered looked like a pothole but I noticed its head move and drove over top of him before turning around to carry it to the side of the road he was pointing to. The proper way to carry a tortoise is firmly on the sides of the shell with as much of your hand below its belly and then leave it in a cool place a ways off the road. Don't stay too close for too long or the tortoise may pee in defense, which sadly is a potentially life threatening unnecessary loss of fluids. There are also deer, mountain lions, bobcats, owls, and cattle. The plant life is also extremely diverse and thriving with trees, bushes, cacti, flowers, and ironically, more Joshua Trees than Joshua Tree has.
This preserve is the historic home to the Chemehuevi people and a trading grounds for the Mojave Tribe and many others. Europeans eventually came to trade and ended up building a railroad which is still active. You can visit the historic Kelso Depot for a movie on MNP, museum features, art exhibits, and a little know-how from the ranger behind the front desk. There are historic sites that are deteriorating and hieroglyphics in various locations around the preserve.
The Colors and Stars
There is something about the expansive skies and landscape that lights up in the same uniqueness as that over the ocean or a mountain range. Most nights start with a spectacular light show via the sunset which is just an introduction to a night filled with billions of stars without much light pollution at all. You'll fall asleep to a nice breeze, the sound of a coyote in the distance, and thoughts of wilder times on this All-American frontier.
*This trip can be for the weekend hiker but is not for someone looking for a well-developed tourist experience. If, however, you are in need of an unrestricted adventure, this is your place. Make sure to pack tons of water because there is not a lot around to readily refill.