Desert Escapes

Mojave National Preserve

   

The 1.6 million acres of southern California's Mojave National Preserve embrace jagged granite peaks of 8,000 feet, sparse creosote lowlands of 1,000 feet, and, best of all, desert solitude so profound that the skittering of a fat chuckwalla lizard can startle you from deep revelry. Got in the shoulder season—late September through December—and you'll have perfect weather for hiking, mountain biking on jeep roads, and car camping beneath huge starry skies.
Pick up a map at the preserve's Baker Information Center (760.733.4040) on I-15, about 70 miles east of Barstow, then head south 43 miles on paved Kelbaker Road through veritable forests Joshua Tree to the turnoff for the 45-square-mile sandbox known as Kelso Dunes. Scramble up 600-plus-foot sandy peaks for a great view of the Providence Mountains and listen for an acoustic effect of the wind that sounds like a quiet timpani roll.

For solitude, clatter down any dirt road and camp for free anywhere that's been used before (rangers can suggest spots). Two developed camps ($10), both with water and toilets, are accessible via dirt roads. In warm weather, choose 5,600-foot Mid-Hills Campground, with sites shaded by scraggly pinon and juniper groves. Hole-in-the-Wall, eight miles south, is 1,200 feet lower and several degrees warmer, and features Swiss cheese rock formations that make for easy scrambling. Forge a 21-mile mountain-biking loop between the two campgrounds: ride craggy Wild Horse Canyon Road in one directions and Black Canyon Road in the other, or hike the eight-mile trail between them.
Be sure, one hot afternoon, to head south to Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains, where the stalactite-filled chambers are always cool (call 760.928.2586 for tour information). Finally, splurge for at least one night in Hotel Nipton, just northeast of the preserve. The four-room circa 1904 abode oozes quirky historical ambience, with dark tiled floors, old black-and-white photography on the walls, and a lobby brimming with desert-themed reading materials. Doubles with shared outdoor hot tubs provided front-row seats for the nighttime star show.

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