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A peaceful interlude at the Mojave National Preserve

Situated between Interstates 15 and 40, the preserve boasts solitude, Joshua tree forests, snow-dusted peaks and desert horizons, and it may be our best-kept secret.

January 08, 2012|By Mark Vanhoenacker, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A Union Pacific freight train is an hourly sight — and sound — in the Mojave National Preserve. The wind-carved singing Kelso Dunes are in the background.
A Union Pacific freight train is an hourly sight — and sound —… (Mark Vanhoenacker )

Reporting from Mojave National Preserve, Calif. — For a nation in perpetual motion, to cross the lands that make up the Mojave National Preserve has long meant only one thing: You are very nearly somewhere else.

For westward-bound travelers, whether they came through open wilderness, along the now-overgrown Mojave Road or later by the legendary lanes of Route 66, this most American of deserts was little more than an obstacle to more promising lands. Long before them, Native Americans traded regularly across these harsh miles, as enamored as everyone else with speed. Tribal legend has it that top runners needed only a few days to reach the coast.

Today, the Mojave is ringed by the circuitry of a restless nation. Interstate 15, the preserve's northern border, is more parking lot than road, a blinking artery of brake lights shimmering late into the desert evenings. To the south, great fleets of trucks sail day and night along Interstate 40 in the shadow of Route 66, the mythic furrow through American consciousness once known as the Mother Road.

Enormous freight trains also rumble at all hours across the Mojave's vastness. And above, the skies are grooved by the high-desert contrails that Joni Mitchell sang about, descending through the blue toward Los Angeles.

Amid all this is the Mojave National Preserve: beautiful, empty and — unless you're within earshot of the railroad — as quiet as the ages. To feel so far off the path while so close to some of the country's best-beaten ones is both a miracle of conservation and an accident of politics. In 1994, after years of wrangling, three new desert designations were formalized: Joshua Tree and Death Valley became national parks, but Mojave was granted only preserve status.

It's an inferior category of protection; hunting, for example, is permitted. But a happy irony of Mojave's lesser designation is that the preserve, unlike its A-list siblings, barely registers on tourists' radar. Even seasoned Southwest travelers may not realize what they're missing: 1.5 million acres of solitude draped across vast forests of Joshua trees, snow-dusted peaks and measureless desert horizons. If the national park was America's best idea, the national preserve — and this one in particular — may be our best-kept secret.

Despite those many acres — Mojave is the third-largest National Park Service parcel in the lower 48 — it's easy to make or break a journey here. Heading east from Los Angeles, a good first port of call is Barstow, home to the preserve's visitors center and the inaugural miles of I-40. There's a regularly stolen sign at the interstate's start, pointing out the 2,554 miles between here and the North Carolina coast. The next Starbucks isn't quite that far, but consider some preventive caffeination in Barstow.

As soon as you get on 40, jump off it again at Exit 7 for a quick look at Daggett. Visit the Desert Market (35596 Santa Fe Ave., Daggett, Calif.; [760] 254-2774) for drinks, a chat and the chance to marvel at the remnants of the next-door Stone Hotel, where John Muir once stayed. Just east on Route 66, take the turnoff for the Daggett Pioneer Cemetery, where you and some central casting-caliber tumbleweed can wander among wind-swept graves.

From here head east — quickly on the interstate or slowly on what's left of the Mother Road, which bumpily parallels its multilaned successor. You'll pass Newberry Springs, where cult classic "Bagdad Cafe" was filmed.

Next is Ludlow, where the American roadside diner finds perhaps its purest, most deeply fried incarnation at the Ludlow Cafe (25635 Crucero Road, Ludlow, Calif.; [760] 733-4501). For those with heavy eyelids, there's also the Ludlow Motel (make reservations and check in at the Chevron station across from the motel and cafe, [760] 733-4338). It won't win any thread-count awards, but it's inexpensive, clean and, in road-trip terms, as pitch-perfect as the diner next door.

About half an hour east on 40, Kelbaker Road brings you into the preserve itself. Sixteen miles in is the turnoff for Kelso Dunes, 50 square miles of sand and little else. Some dunes are more than 600 feet high — worth singing about, and so they do, rather spookily, when the mood strikes them or a hiker kick-starts a cascade of sand. Wind-carved and yellow, these are the dunes of movies. It's easy to imagine C-3PO staggering over a crest, and several European hikers I met here half-joked that this was the only corner of the Southwest that looked like "real" desert.

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