A Day in the Mojave National Preserve

I took the 90 minute drive back to the Mojave National Preserve from Twentynine Palms on Wednesday. The views along Amboy Road were not as spectacular as Tuesday, as it was a little hazier. But I was still able to snap a few nice pictures along the remote desert road, mostly as I got closer to the Mojave.

Amboy Road
Amboy Road

Lava Tube

My first stop would be the Lava Tube in the northwest portion of the Preserve. The rangers that I talked to the day before assured me that I would be the only one to visit the Lava Tube on that Tuesday, as it is not the most accessible place within the Mojave. Taking Kelbaker Rd out of Kelso Depot, I used my handheld GPS unit to locate Aiken Mine Road, the dirt road that would take me through the lava flows. I did not see a single other car driving on Kelbaker Road, in either direction.

Aiken Mine Road was dusty and there were some deep pockets of loose dirt, and I was glad to have a four wheel drive vehicle.  Large cinder cones appeared on both sides of the road as a cloud of dust kicked up behind me. I saw a lonely horse corral, more just an old wooden fence and a small fire ring. Aiken Mine Rd curved to the right and a smaller one way dirt road moved straight. I stayed straight and arrived at the end of the road a short time later, a small open area with a room for a few cars.

Cinder cones and lava flows
Cinder cones and lava flows

I stopped the car and stepped out into astounding silence. This was true desert solitude. I grabbed my pack and put on my boots. I closed up the car and started to walk along a rough patch of road. Up ahead, a curious jackrabbit watched me for a while before disappearing into the roadside brush. I reached a small metal sign next to cairn, pointing me to the lava tube. A few hundred feet later, I reached the top of the tube. Another jackrabbit watched me from nearby, seemingly unconcerned as he chewed on some grass.

A ladder led into the darkness of the lava tube. I looked around me, turning all 360 degrees. Not a sound. I couldn’t be sure, but most likely not another person within 10, 20, 30 miles of me. And I was about to climb a ladder into the unknown. I dropped my trekking poles at the top, took a deep breath, and climbed down. I climbed into the cave even further as I sang to myself to calm my nerves. I ducked and moved through a narrow passage, about 10 feet long, arriving eventually into a brightly lit room.

Lava tube
Lava tube

Two holes in the ceiling allowed the late morning light into the room. It was beautiful and I walked around and took photos for a few minutes. I think the light in the latter parts of the day would have been prettier, but it was still lovely.

 

I climbed out and noticed a large chuckwalla sitting on the edge of one of the openings of the tube. He sat still long enough for me to grab one picture, and then scurried into the darkness and out of sight.

Chuckwalla

I walked back to the car and and took a deep breath. I was glad that I had made the trek and climbed down, but also glad that there would be no more remote caves today.

Cinder Cone
Cinder Cone

Cinder Cone

I drove back out on Aiken Mine Road, stopping a few times to take pictures of the huge cinder cones. I reached Kelbaker Road again and turned left to head back toward Kelso. I stopped at Kelso Depot and used the restroom and snacked on some trail mix and fruit. The visitors center was closed and only a few cars came and went, looking at the map and using the restroom.

Kelbaker Road
Kelbaker Road, looking toward the Marl Mountains

Teutonia Peak

The sky started to cloud over a little bit as I made my way toward my destination, Teutonia Peak. I made my way down Kelso-Cima Road, the Mid Hills to my right, with the New York Mountains above them. Trains tracks and the Kelso Wash paralleled the road. A  handful of cars passed going the other way and a little bit of drizzle fell on my windshield. The weather had called for some clouds, but no rain. I watched around me nervously as the sky became grayer and rain in the desert can change things quite quickly.

I arrived at a split in the road in the ghost town of Cima. Morning Star Mine Road continued to the right but I made a slight left to take Cima Road. Cima Road cuts through the largest forest of Joshua Trees in the world. The Ivanpah Mountains rose in the distance on right side. The scenery was dramatic for someone on their first visit to the area.

I arrived at the trailhead for Teutonia Peak and was relieved to see two cars in the parking lot. The rangers I had talked to the day before had assured me it was one of the most popular hikes in the park and often received visitors, even on weekdays in the winter. Hiking by myself, I was content to run into a few others on the trail.

I filled up my water bottle and strapped on my bag and walked over to the map and interpretive sign at the trailhead. As I read, the owners of the two other cars appeared off the trail. Two groups of European tourists. They waved and said a polite hello and disappeared down the road. I wouldn’t be seeing anyone else on this hike.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree

The trail does not feature blazes but is obvious as it winds through the forest of joshua trees. The skies continued to be grey, but it just drizzled every once in a while, nothing worse. A worn out dirt road led off to the right to the sight of the former Teutonia Mine.

The trail was flat but I took my time taking in the sight of so many joshua trees. The grade eventually increased as I started to climb up toward the peak. I was almost at the top and stopped to take some pictures. And even only 2/3 the way to the top, there was plenty to take in. Cima Dome and the Ivanpah Mountains including Kessler Peak were both visible. Cima Road was obvious and I could see my car about a mile away. Even stopped for 20 minutes, I saw one car head up the road.

Cima Dome
Cima Dome
Ivanpah Mountains and the joshua tree forest
Ivanpah Mountains and the joshua tree forest
View from Teutonia Peak
View from Teutonia Peak, New York Mountains in the distance
Self portrait
Self portrait

While moving around taking some photos, I backed into a small cactus, an experience I do not recommend. I sat on a rock for a few minutes pulling needles out of my legs.

The trail continued uphill a little further and weighed heading on or just turning back. I was a little tired and for the first time felt a little bit intimidated by the landscape. The wind picked up a little bit, and I had to put my hoodie on for the first time on the trip.  The solitude bothered me for really the only time on the trip standing there. I had tried to convince a few friends to take this last minute trip with me, but was unsuccessful. It was there I wished that any one of them could be standing there with me.

It was moving into the later hours of the afternoon and I assumed that there would be no one coming up the trail behind me on that day. The trail started to head over some really rocky sections, nothing I couldn’t handle or hadn’t experienced 10 times worse in Pennsylvania, but enough to not make me want to keep climbing.

Big boulders and a lone joshua tree
Big boulders and a lone joshua tree

I turned around and started to head back to the car. The thoughts of my next destination were already starting to infiltrate my head. I walked back through the joshua trees, taking some more photos but moving a little bit quicker than I had on the way up.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree
Kessler Peak
Kessler Peak

I arrived back at the car and dumped my bag in the back and flicked on the stereo. I turned the volume up and listened to a mix that my friend Damian had made me for the trip. I sipped my Gatorade and ate an entire Trader Joe’s Salty Chocolate Carmel bar – easily the best candy bar that they make.

The grey clouds were starting to be pushed out by lighter white ones from the west. I tore off down Cima Road again, ready for the hike I had been looking forward to the most, the Kelso Sand Dunes. I raced past the town of Cima again, but immediately slammed the brakes and stopped in the middle of the road. I flipped the car into reverse and peeled out and spun back into the parking lot in Cima. (I’d normally never drive like that, but I felt confident that there was no one around.) I wandered around the abandoned buildings of Cima, particularly enamored with the old Union Pacific Train Station.

Cima California
Abandon Union Pacific Building, Cima California

I got back in the car and spun the wheels and kicked up a ton of dust in the parking lot. What are rental cars and dusty desert parking lots for? I flew down Kelso Cima Road again, cruising past Kelso Depot and turning on to Kelbaker Road. The Kelso Sand Dunes rose in the distance to my right. I turned right onto Kelso Sand Dunes Road and was shocked to catch up to another vehicle making its way up the road.

Kelso Sand Dunes

I reached the parking lot and parked next to the car that had been in front of me. Two women emerged and I was happy to see that one of them was the ranger that I had talked to yesterday. Her name was Linda and she was hiking with her friend, also named Linda. Ranger Linda was from Washington State and was actually employed at Mount Rainer National Park. She was on a three month temporary transfer to the Mojave National Preserve.

We set off down the trail toward the sand dunes and I asked if it would be okay if we hiked together for a while. I explained it had been since the morning that I had had an actual conversation with someone. And that conversation was just with the guy at the shop where I had grabbed breakfast in Twentynine Palms. They were happy to have me tag along and we continued on together.

It was great to have a ranger to hike with. She pointed out the tracks in the sands of the various insects as well as reptiles that lived in the sand dunes. She also knew all about the various plants that we came across, noting that they had just a little rain in the week before, turning a number of plants that had been brown to green.

Footprints in the sand
Footprints in the sand

There was no official trail once we reached the actual sand dunes. There were obvious tracks from others that had hiked up. Many people took one or two paths up, but footprints led off in every direction. We set our sights on the highest sand dune.

The grey clouds and had completely cleared from over our heads but still lingered to our east. Above us, fluffy white clouds dotted blue sky and the sun broke out to our west. As we climbed higher, the views became more dramatic. The late afternoon sun shone on the sand dunes, lighting them in gold. The jagged mountains to our south, the Granite Mountains, looked more impressive from a higher elevation. Shadows from the clouds drifted across the Providence Mountains to our east. Ranger Linda pointed out the opening to the Mitchell Caverns, which are temporarily closed.

Shadows over the Providence Mountains
Shadows over the Providence Mountains
The largest sand dune, our destination
The largest sand dune, our destination

We reached the ridge of the sand dunes after about 1.5 miles of walking. Slow walking at that, hiking uphill in sand is not something that can be done quickly I don’t think. We sat down and looked out over the views.

The Granite and Providence Mountains were still visible, but two new additions to the sights were also now visible, the Devil’s Playground and Kelso Mountains. Sand dunes stretched as far as we could see looking north/northeast. Linda pointed northeast and said that on clearer days, you could see all the way to to the dry Soda Lake and the town of Zzyzx. The peaks of Old Dad Mountain and Kelso Peak could be seen in the distance.

There was a slightly larger dune to the right of where we stood. I gave Linda my good camera and asked her to take my picture when I climbed to the top.

Climbing to the top
Climbing to the top

We lingered a little bit longer as the sun started to set to our west. Linda speculated whether we would get a “fiery sunset” or if the clouds would be too high. We started to head back downhill toward the cars.

The Kelso Dunes, and many other sand dunes around the world, are known for the booming noise that they make when large amounts of sand are pushed down hill. We all ran and jumped a little while as we headed down, and got a low rumble from the dunes.

Low sun on the dunes
Low sun on the dunes
Granite Mountains
Granite Mountains
Providence Mountains
Providence Mountains

We chatted about past hiking and the places that we had been. The Lindas had never been to Pennsylvania and I assured them we had plenty to see and a lot of great hiking.

We reached the cars as the sun was pretty low in the sky. We would not be getting a fiery sunset tonight, but it was still very pretty as the light started to fade. I thanked my new friends for letting me tag along and we headed down the road together.

Sunset

Sunset
Sunset

We turned on Kelbaker Road. The light grew dim and I drove with the windows down, letting the breeze into the car. I honked as the Lindas pulled into Kelso Depot and I continued on Kelso-Cima Road. The last light lingered to the west for a long time as I sped along the deserted roads of the Preserve, turning on Morning Star Mine Road and then Ivanpah Road. I pulled over to the shoulder a mile or so short of Nipton Road. I turned off the car and the headlights and was impressed with the darkness. The lights of Primm and Las Vegas were visible in the distance. The sky was dark and the last sunlight clung onto the dark sky to my right.

I started the car and sped back toward civilization.

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