Mojave National Preserve nearby but often overlooked

Vast and varied, the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve offers many recreation options to cool-season visitors.

Just across the state line in California, the preserve is nearby yet remains undiscovered by many Southern Nevadans. The quiet beauty and solitude of its dunes, mountains, mesas and canyons enfold today's visitors just as they did the soldiers, miners, ranchers and railroad men of yesteryear.

From Las Vegas, Interstate 15 and U.S. Highway 95 provide several points of access to this preserve administered by the National Park Service. There is no entrance fee at the preserve. I-15, U.S. 95 and Interstate 40 to the south enclose the huge triangle containing most of the preserve's acreage. A few paved routes and many miles of unpaved roads explore the interior of the Mojave National Preserve. Scenic drives on major roads and four-wheel expeditions using existing back roads are among the preserve's most popular activities. Since no services are available within the preserve, visitors should travel with a full fuel tank, a good spare tire and plenty of water for both vehicle and passengers.

Taking I-15 south from Las Vegas, visitors access the preserve at several points, including Nipton-Searchlight Road, Cima Road, Kelbaker Road and Zzyzx Road. U.S. 95 south provides access from Searchlight on Nipton Road, Goffs Road (old Route 66) and I-40. I-40 connects with several entrance points, including Goffs Road, the Essex turnoff and Cima Road. Major interior roads, some gravel, include Black Canyon Road, Cedar Canyon Road and Lanfair-Ivanpah Road. These roads may be driven in passenger vehicles. Other side road require high-clearance vehicles with four-wheel drive.

After a summer hiatus because of the extreme heat, activities return to normal this month within the preserve. The balmy days of autumn usher in the preserve's season of heaviest visitation, continuing through May. This invigorating time of year invites Mojave Desert visitors to camp, picnic, hike, mountain bike, horseback ride, explore old roads and trails, take photos, stargaze and observe wildlife.

Within the preserve, the restored Kelso Depot on Cima Road provides a major introduction for visitors with exhibits, a film, printed information, a gift shop and an eatery, all open daily. Another information station is along Black Canyon Road near Hole-in-the-Wall, an unusual geological feature. This station stays open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays from November to April and on weekends the rest of the year.

Ranger programs resume for the season on weekends this month. At Kelso Dunes a few miles from the old railroad depot, join a ranger at 11 a.m. on Saturdays for a half-mile dunes walk. At Hole-in-the-Wall at 3 p.m. on Saturdays, learn about ancient petroglyphs during a short walk. Behind the information station at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, enjoy free popcorn and a movie about mining in the Mojave. At 8:30 a.m. on Sundays, join a ranger at the information center for questions and coffee (bring your own). At 9 a.m., take an hourlong walk with a ranger to learn about the preserve's geology.

The preserve contains two developed campsites accessible from Black Canyon Road and Cedar Canyon Road. Located at about 5,600 feet elevation, Mid-Hills Campground has 26 tent sites, about half of them shaded by pinions and junipers. Unpaved camp access roads may be too difficult for many recreational vehicles. Several miles away, Hole-in-the-Wall campground has 35 RV or tent sites. Nearby Black Canyon Group and Equestrian Campground accommodates more visitors. Available on a first-come basis, sites in the two family campgrounds are $12 per night or $6 for those with a federal pass. Groups must reserve sites in the equestrian campground at $25 per night. Also, overnighters may camp free of charge at undeveloped sites traditionally used for camping.

Designated trails of varying lengths help visitors explore Mojave National Preserve. Hikers should obtain maps and advice about routes at the information stations. On-ground trail markers can be sketchy. Hikers have more satisfying experiences when they are prepared and realistic about their abilities.

Margo Bartlett Pesek's Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.