If you are looking for an outdoor destination that offers plenty of diversity, Mojave National Preserve in California won’t disappoint. Established in 1994, it’s less than two hours from Las Vegas and covers 1.6 million acres — handy, big enough to be uncrowded and not too cold for winter comfort.
While you can’t see all of the park’s highlights in one day, you’ll have time to climb sand dunes, go underground in a lava tube, hike a couple of short but interesting trails and tour the fascinating Kelso Depot.
The depot is the best place to start a visit, for it serves as the preserve’s main visitor center. Formerly a Union Pacific train station, it was completed in 1924 in the charming mission revival architectural style. Besides being a place to board a passenger train or pick up freight, the depot provided housing, food and even recreation for Union Pacific Railroad employees in the days of steam trains, when railroading required more personnel than it does today. After closing in 1985, the depot fell into disrepair, but it has been meticulously renovated for its new purpose and reopened in 2005.
Although the last passenger train came through here in 1997, freight trains rumble past about once an hour, and the station platform, now separated from the tracks by a safety fence, is a fine place from which to observe.
Besides railroading, the depot has wonderful exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the area, including the Chemehuevi and Mohave Indians, ranching, mining and military activity. There’s also an art gallery, a bookstore and The Beanery, a lunchroom where visitors can buy a basic but well-prepared meal. Before leaving the depot, be sure to get a map of the preserve, so you can easily find other attractions.
About 10 miles south of the depot are the Kelso Dunes, third tallest in North America at 600 feet. They sprawl over 45 square miles, and when the moisture content is just right, they “sing” or “boom” as the sands rearrange themselves. Many people run up and down the dunes alone or in small groups; others join a 30- to 45-minute tour, guided by the park ranger who waits at the dunes parking area at 11 a.m. every Saturday through April.
One of the preserve’s best adventures lies at Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark about 15 miles northwest of the depot. Besides seeing dozens of cinder cones deposited by prehistoric volcanoes, you can explore a lava tube, a natural tunnel left behind when molten rock cooled long ago. You enter via sturdy metal stairs through a collapsed-wall ceiling of the tube. Once inside, you go left and then head down a gentle but rocky slope and underground. You have to duck-walk for a few yards so you don’t hit your head, but once inside the main room, you can easily stand up. A few holes in the “ceiling” allow a little natural light to enter, but it’s handy to bring along a headlamp.
Another favorite area is Hole-in-the-Wall, about 30 miles from the depot. Its most interesting feature is the Rings Trail down a steep but short slot canyon; in two sections, you descend by grasping metal rings bolted to the walls. The first section has four ringbolts and the second section six. Once through the slot, you will be in Banshee Canyon. This wide canyon has an eerie appearance with weird-looking formations, some of which appear to be watching you.
About 18 million years ago gas became trapped in the leftover ash of volcanic eruptions. Years of rain and wind eroded thousands of holes in the formations. Wind whistles and moans in the hollows, suggesting the sad call of the banshee of Irish lore. A small visitor center and a good campground are here, but it’s more than 4,000 feet high, so prepare for temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than in Las Vegas.
Another great trail is the Rock Spring Loop, about 15 miles northeast from Hole-in-the-Wall. You get a lot of pleasure for your shoe leather along one easy mile. Here you will find a historic stone cabin, a canyon with a perennial stream, dozens of American Indian petroglyphs and remnants from a 19th century Army post.
Do all that in one day and you’ll have tasted the park’s diversity but not consumed it. Hang onto that map; you’ll probably be back for another helping.