Mojave, December 2004

The long weekend around the holiday offers a perfect escape from the shopping mania in Los Angeles, and we flee to the tranquil beauty of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave National Preserve lies wedged between highways I-15 and I-40 at the border of California and Nevada, and offers a variety of natural wonders, from caves to volcanic cinder cones, the historic Mojave Road, and some of the highest sand dunes in the US. Some roads are (partially) paved; the graded dirt roads are usually in pretty good condition, but we still find a bumpy ride here and there.

For this visit, we decide to enter the preserve from the northeast. From a previous visit , we remember a dirt road that traverses the stunning Soda Dry Lake and then connects with HW I-15. When we ask for directions at a gas station, the friendly folks enquire with a concerned face if we have a 4x4 fit for the rugged roads. I point out the window at our Cherokee and one of the guys says: "Oh, look at all those stickers. They're OK. This ain't their first BBQ!" Obviously our rig still looks impressive although the roof rack has been removed to be modified.




The trail to the dry lake is not marked and has many turnoffs - even the directions to "keep to your right" don't quite pan out every time, but eventually we reach the dry lake just as the sun is setting. We could have made it to the dry lake faster but we stayed ON the trails to reduce impact to the environment. It is a magical experience to cross it bathed in the light of the full moon! Though it almost looks as if we're driving over a snowy plain, the starkness of the surroundings reminds us that survival in this dry area is only for the fittest. We camp on the other side of the lake, and spend a night around freezing temperatures, comfortably warm in our converted "sleeper truck". The next morning, we return to the dry lake to enjoy its glistening whiteness by daylight. Then we carry on east along the Mojave Road, an easy dirt road through spectacular desert terrain. We turn south and stop at the Kelso Sand Dunes to hike up 600 feet to the highest peak. Naturally, the view from up there is phenomenal. Kelso Sand Dunes are amongst only 30 dunes in the world which "boom". The grumbling sound akin to an airplane flying overhead derives from the friction of softer sand rolling down the steep decline over harder layers of sand. No wind blows during our stay so we have to help the booming effect by running down the steep face of the sand dune - our steps seem to thunder!

We continue into the heart of the preserve, enjoying the scenic drive, and take the loop around Hole-in-the-Wall, a spectacular rock formation created by a volcanic blast. As it is late in the day, we set up camp close by. There are several road-side campsites where primitive camping offers the ultimate solitude and wilderness experience. This night is considerably warmer and we awake without ice crystals on our windows!

The preserve is still pretty much deserted the next morning and we enjoy Hole-in-the-Wall all by ourselves. From the overlook, we cherish the view of the narrow canyon pockmarked with holes created by air pockets in volcanic rock and dirt. Then we clamber down into the canyon with the help of metal rings bolted into the wall - it's only a very short drop but makes the experience way more fun! From the bottom of the canyon, you can hike around the mountain back to the parking area. Since we already did that on a previous visit, we check out the canyon floor for a while, then return via the same footholds.

As we're leaving the preserve to head back to LA, we remember the tour at Mitchell Caverns we joined last time: After the guide had explained the difference between stalagtites and stalagmites, he asked: "And what do we call it when a stalagtite and a stalagmite grow together? - We call'em a column."