With 2016 shaping up to be a superbloom year but my academic-life time off coming a few weeks off the peak for Death Valley, J and I decided to take a road trip to the Mojave desert. Did you know that Mojave National Preserve has taller sand dunes than Death Valley and more Joshua Trees than Joshua Tree? Yeah well you’re welcome.
Oakland, CA to Lebec, CA
303 driving miles / 0 hiking miles
We drove down the 5 from Oakland to Lebec and crashed at a Motel 6. It was.
Lebec, CA to Antelope Valley to Mojave NP
281 driving miles / a few wandering miles
We were a bit lazy getting going and made a little detour to Frazier Park for breakfast at The Red Dot Vegetarian Kitchen, which turned out to be super great five stars one hundred emoji would definitely visit again. Then we hit the road south towards Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. Soon we had a glimpse of the poppy bloom lighting up the hillsides like nature’s Cheeto dust. (Man it is no fun typing sentences like that in 2017.)
I’d seen some beta online that the best bloom was happening near Elisabeth Lake, so we turned off the 138 towards Three Points and cut through the hills along Pine Canyon Road. We pulled over here and there, and spent a bit more time fawning over a particular swath that was peacocking pretty hard.
Next it was on the road again, stopping whenever the desert offered up anything especially weird, which is to say every few miles or so. Turn a corner, what’s that? Airplane nose? Guess we gotta stop.
And now that there? A “ranch” growing trees of recycled bottles? It’ll only take a moment.
We followed 40 from Barstow but opted for historic Route 66 for a ways. It was definitely historic, as in there ain’t shit but shambles left there. Make sure to gas up both the car and your American pride before taking this trip down the sad road of The Way We Were.
We cut back up to 40, backtracked a bit, and turned north towards Hole-in-the-Wall in Mojave National Preserve. We planned to spend the night in the campground there and we managed to roll up just in time for sunset among the blooming yuccas.
Mojave NP to Kelso Dunes
42 driving miles / 4 hiking miles
We packed up camp at the Hole-in-the-Wall campground and drove over to park in the parking lot of the Visitor Center so we could do a quick hike on the 1.5 mile Rings Loop Trail. Wildflowers were blooming and, as promised, the walls had holes. There’s one section where we got to climb some rings that were bolted to the canyon walls playground style.
Our plan for the afternoon was to make our way over to the Kelso Dunes, which we wanted to hike around sunset. We opted to drive up Black Canyon Road so we could drive through the Joshua Tree forest along Cedar Canyon Road. Both of these roads are well-graded dirt roads and the Honda Fit had no trouble cruising along. The other option is to backtrack to 40, which is probably the smart thing to do if it’s been raining.
On this part of the trip we got to experience one of my favorite things of the desert: its endless, almost oppressive, expansiveness. We could see for miles and miles in every direction, and there was barely a sign of human impact. Just a few dirt roads cutting across the scrub. We turned towards Kelso, which has a small visitor center where we stopped for a bit of shade, and then headed out to the Kelso Dunes.
Camping in Mojave National Preserve is legal just about everywhere. You can just pull over on the side of the road and sleep in your car if you like. Though they do prefer for you to use established (though by no means developed or maintained) sites that are scattered around. There are some of those about a mile beyond the main Kelso Dunes parking area, on the right side of the road, so we headed over there to claim one and relax a bit before hiking up the dunes.
The dunes are the most interesting to photograph in the morning or evening due to shadows and such, so we waited a bit before beginning our hike up the dunes. And holy hell what a hike it was—the tallest dunes rise 650ft above the surrounding desert floor and every step forwards results in a half step sliding backwards. Still, it was amazing to make it to the top and see just how far the dunes stretch.
We hung around at the peak of the top dune for a while before bounding back down, which was equally as much fun as the ascent was difficult. By the time we reached the car, our boots were overflowing with sand.
After this gorgeous sunset, we made Thai peanut noodles on my alcohol stove and then huddled under blankets we’d laid out on the sand, taking shots of bourbon from a flask and pointing out the constellations among the zillion stars we could see.
Kelso Dunes to Rainbow Basin
130 driving miles / 6 hiking miles
We hit the road around mid-morning, heading back out of the Mojave to Rainbow Basin but stopping at the lava tube along the way. Honestly, the lava tube was a little underwhelming. The internet is full of instructions on the perfect time to get there so that the light shines through and yadda yadda yadda, so we planned our timing accordingly. I mean it’s fine or w/e but it’s basically just a hole in the ground.
We got to the campground at Rainbow Basin in the late afternoon and went for a short hike up the wash at the head of the campground. An array of pastel colors evidenced strangely mineralized rock and we saw a dead bird. Supposedly there are tons of fossils around here, but you need a permit to hunt them.
There was even an unadvertised hole in the wall. Bonus!
Back at the campground, we cooked an awesome dinner of chana masala and sauteed veggies over the fire. The campground at Rainbow Basin seemed like it was built really recently and it had a nice view. The downside was that most of the sites were completely exposed and lacked any semblance of privacy. There was a solid contingent of beer-totin weekenders there, but it wasn’t noisy or trashed.
Rainbow Basin to Oakland
410 driving miles / 0 hiking miles
We drove the weird one-way dirt road through the basin on our way out. It was colorful.