March 26, 1995

New Life for the Lonesome Desert

The East Mojave Was Recently Designated A National Preserve, But Even So, Few People Have Discovered Its Subtle, Silent Pleasures

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve.
John McKinney
Los Angeles Times

NIPTON, Calif. — "Boom, boom!" shouts Sophia, my 3-year-old daughter, as she slides down the steep southeast face of the Kelso Dunes. "I have never seen more sand in the whole world!"

As we near the top of the dunes, our footsteps cause mini-avalanches and the dunes sha-boom sha-boom for us. Geologists speculate that the extreme dryness of the East Mojave Desert, combined with the wind-polished, well-rounded grains of sand, has something to do with their musical ability. Sometimes the low rumbling sound reminds me of a Tibetan gong, but on this particular day the sound is like a '50s doo-wop group.

Except for the musical dunes, it's absolutely quiet here. We have a 45-square-mile formation of magnificently sculpted sand, the most extensive dune field in the West, all to ourselves.

We're surprised at such solitude, even in the spring, prime time for visiting Southern California's newest desert preserve.

Two decades of park politicking finally ended in October, 1994, when Congress passed the controversial California Desert Protection Act, the Sen. Dianne Feinstein-sponsored bill that transferred the East Mojave National Scenic Area, administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, to the National Park Service. The act created two new national parks, Death Valley and Joshua Tree, and established the new Mojave National Preserve.

My wife, Cheri, and I, longtime desert lovers, figured (with more than a little apprehension) that the Mojave's elevated national profile would attract hordes of sightseers.

Wrong! During a visit here last week, there was only one other family making their way toward the dunes and fewer than a half-dozen campers in each of the campgrounds on a Monday. To many Southern Californians, the East Mojave is that bleak, interminable stretch of desert to be crossed as quickly as possible while driving Interstate 15 from Barstow to Las Vegas. Few realize that I-15 is the northern boundary of what desert rats have long considered the crown jewel of the California deserts.

About 17 million people live less than four hours from here, but not many city dwellers can locate the East Mojave on a map. They may be surprised to discover that the new preserve is quite accessible; on the south, it's bordered by another major interstate, I-40, and on the east by U.S. 95 (and the Nevada border). Just south of I-40 is one of the longest remaining stretches of old Route 66. Still, the area bounded by these three highways has long been known as "The Lonesome Triangle," and will probably keep this nickname for many years to come.

With few campgrounds and fewer motels--without even a visitors center--this land is a hard one to get to know. But it's an easy one to get to like. Its 1.4 million acres include the world's largest Joshua tree forest, wild burros and grazing cattle, spectacular canyons and volcanic formations, stalactites and stalagmites in vast underground caverns, back roads and footpaths to historic mining sites, tabletop mesas and a dozen mountain ranges.

This diversity--everything that makes a desert a desert--is appealing, but its silence is what draws us. It's a call of the wild that can't be heard, only felt. And in spring (the other prime time to go is autumn) temperatures are mild, the Joshua trees are in bloom and the lower Kelso Dunes are bedecked with yellow and white desert primrose, pink sand and verbena.

So where is everybody?

My family and I have an intense history with this part of the Southern California desert. The quietude of the dunes this time was in complete contrast to my first visit here eight years ago. On Thanksgiving weekend in 1987, I toured the East Mojave on a press trip with then-Sen. Alan Cranston, who had just introduced his California Desert Protection bill in Congress.

One of the bill's provisions would transfer administration of the East Mojave Desert National Scenic Area, as it was then called, from the bureau to the national parks. The measure was controversial, to say the least. Outspoken park supporters and equally outspoken park opposers badgered Cranston and anyone who would listen. By the time I started hiking up Kelso Dunes, I had thrust upon me a day pack full of position papers, from the Sierra Club to the mining industry, from the Wilderness Society to off-road vehicle boosters.

A similarly besieged magazine editor with a name tag that read Cheri Rae joined me to escape the political din. "All that arguing about a land nobody's seen," she commented. "I'll bet if more people experienced the magic of this place, the East Mojave would become a national park."

I agreed. While the East Mojave often made the news on environmental issues, these headlines offered few clues as to its beauty and recreational possibilities. That day Cheri and I began a relationship with the East Mojave that continues to this day. We explored the desert from Aiken Wash to Zzyzx, and fell in love.

McKinney writes the weekly hiking column for this section. He is the co-author, with Cheri Rae, of "Walking the East Mojave: A Visitors Guide to Mojave National Preserve."