May 25, 2008

Mojave National Preserve an enjoyable way to experience the desert

Margo Bartlett Pesek
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Midhills campground

The Mojave National Preserve remains an underused outdoor resource for Southern Nevadans. Despite its proximity to this rapidly growing population center, the huge region of desert and mountains just across the California border, draws most of its visitors from points more distant in Southern California. Quite a few desert-loving foreigners also find their way to this preserve, but visitor volume never spoils the silence and solitude most travelers there to enjoy.

From Las Vegas, a drive of one and one-half to two hours, takes visitors to the interior of the Mojave National Preserve. Roughly bordered by Interstate 15, the Nipton-Searchlight Road, U.S. 95 and Interstate 40, the preserve sets aside an enormous triangle administered by the National Park Service. A few paved roads and 2,200 miles of other roads and rough tracks access the sprawling preserve, but more than half of it remains roadless.

The Mojave National Preserve contains enough variety in landscape to provide year-round recreational opportunities. When summer's heat makes its lowest elevations uncomfortably hot, visitors enjoy cooler temperatures in more mountainous parts of the preserve. Winter brings occasional snow to the higher elevations, but moderate temperatures down lower. Springtime often greets visitors with joyously colored wildflower displays, while autumn provides weeks of mild days and nights with a chilly edge.

If visitors from Southern Nevada have just a day to spend in the Mojave Preserve, they can sample its highlights on a loop trip to old Kelso Depot, an historic railroad structure now serving as an interpretative center, and nearby Kelso Dunes, mountainous sands among the highest in the nation. Head south on Interstate 15 past Primm to the Nipton Road exit. Drive four miles to the Morningstar Mine Road. Follow this paved road south 22 miles to Cima, Calif., then 19 miles to Kelso. The restored depot welcomes visitors daily. The dunes lie a few miles south, reached on foot from a parking area just off the highway. Return by taking Kelbaker Road from Kelso 34 miles through a forest of Joshua trees on Cima Dome to Baker, Calif., just 100 miles from Las Vegas on I-15.

Those with more time to spend should consider staying overnight or longer within the Mojave National Preserve. The preserve includes two developed family campsites, access to another at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area within the preserve, a group site suitable for horses and several undeveloped primitive sites. The National Park Service also allows backcountry camping just about anywhere, so long as the site lies half a mile from a road and a quarter of a mile from any water source.

If you are not in an RV or pulling a trailer, you can use the Cedar Canyon Road from a few miles south of Cima. The first few paved miles give way to a graded road. Swept by wildfire three years ago, the area continues to recover. Rough or sandy in places, this road heads east through foothills to Black Canyon Road. Turn there to reach near Mid-Hills Campground. The 26-unit campground situated in a woodland of pinyon and juniper partially burned. Campers find cooler temperatures at 5,600 feet. Bring firewood from home and be very careful of fires.

Hole-in-the-Wall Campground, the group and equestrian campground and an information station lie a few miles south of Black Canyon Road. Campers find a 35-unit main campsite and two walk-in tent sites at Hole-in-the-Wall. At 4,400 feet, temperatures are about what they are at Red Rock near Las Vegas. Fees at both developed campgrounds are $12 or $6 for those with park passes. One of the preserve's main trails connects the two developed campgrounds, an eight-mile trek. Ask at the ranger stations about other hiking trails.

Providence Mountains State Recreation Site offers a six-unit campsite, hiking trails and tours of Mitchell Caverns. It lies five miles off Black Canyon Road a few miles south of Hole-in-the-Wall. A modest entry fee, camping fee and cave tour fee apply. Those with RVs and trailers should approach this area from I-40 to the south. Access I-40 from the road through Kelso, I-15 at Barstow to the west or U.S. 95 to the east.