Mojave National Preserve – Family Fun off the Grid

Genie Davis June 7, 2012 1 Comment


We’re intrepid desert explorers. In fact, I was off-roading in Death Valley when I was pregnant with my daughter, and perhaps it was that experience that led to a life long love of California desert views and trips with expanses of sand and parades of cactus included.

The Road Untraveled – Mojave National Preserve

One place we’d always passed through was the Mojave National Preserve. You drive past it heading to Las Vegas on Highway 15; you stop at its edge for a slice of strawberry short cake at Bun Boy, reputedly home to the world’s largest thermometer in Baker, or go for some hummus or tabbouleh at Mad Greek in the same town. At the other end of the preserve, Highway 40 heads east out of Barstow.

The Preserve is little visited, at least compared to other desert parks and preserves, from Joshua Tree to Death Valley. And yet, it’s the third largest park land in the U.S. And it’s close enough to Los Angeles that you could explore briefly as a day trip, or as a stop on that Vegas drive. But the lure of its vast emptiness drew us to actually explore the preserve itself, and spend the night there, not as a way station, but as a destination in itself.

We were rewarded by grand views of mountains, empty desert dunes, possibly as many Joshua Trees supplicating skyward as those within the national park.

If you enter through Barstow, from the west, you’ll find the visitor center, with maps and information about the vast preserve. It’s a good place to gas up and grab some grocery store snacks or some of the fast food ubiquitously offered from every Barstow highway exit. Road food from another era is available in tiny nearby Ludlow, at the Ludlow Café. The diner offers up a nice slice of pie, and thick grilled cheese sandwiches.

Dunes and Depot

The Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve

The Kelso Dunes

Less than a half hour away is Kelbaker Road, your entrance to the preserve. Another twenty minutes will take you to the Kelso Dunes. Strikingly tall and beautifully vast, you can climb them, photograph them, roll down them, or listen to the wind create a musical hum from the crests of these dunes, some of which tower up to six hundred feet. Vaster and taller than the dunes in Death Valley, come in the morning or late in the day to avoid the harshest reflection of the sun off the shiny golden sands.

We spent a very long time with the cardboard from a couple of flats of water, sledding down the sides, and then we consumed most of the water we’d displaced, too. The usual caveat applies even more dramatically here – stock up on water and keep it in your car at all times – you won’t find a convenience store this side of Baker.

There’s really only one lunch stop in the park, and it’s near the dunes.  Kelso Depot was once the place for train travelers to dine as they traversed the country. When I was last there years ago, it was boarded up, a spot for photography and wind blown memories my small children found ‘spooky.’ Today, reopened and re-imagined, the depot’s elegant Spanish style houses a lunch counter called the Beanery, open until 5 pm daily, with sandwiches, soups, salads, and ice cream. My son made quick work of a chocolate Coke.

Also in the Depot, there’s an art gallery, currently housing a youth arts project called Crazy Cactus. You could also call the exhibit colorful cactus, and it was an enjoyable visit. Train watchers can still watch freight trains rumble through, but no more passenger trains stop here.

Just off Highway 40 at Essex Road, you’ll find a visitor center with staff ready to direct you to some family-friendly trails, such as a stretch of the Barber Peak Loop – too long for little feet if traversed in full, but definitely worth a mile long stroll.

Spending the Night

Nipton, Mojave National Preserve

Our Desert Hotel in Nipton

Now you could head back to any number of chain motels in Barstow, or the rudimentary digs available in Ludlow. But instead, try Nipton. This is a ghost town being renovated and restored, a work in loving progress. The first structure to receive a face lift is the Hotel Nipton. With four rooms, it’s more of a bed and breakfast than a hotel, but it’s a pleasant one. The sitting room for all guests is comfortable and relaxing, the rooms offer double beds and twin beds, and a bathroom down the hall. Morning brought a basic continental breakfast delivered to our rooms.

The views of the desert, a lovely garden, and the peace and quiet of the charming ghost town, will more than offset the small sized rooms. If you’re bothered by the sounds of the nearby trains, there are ear plugs. We loved watching them go through, and it didn’t bother us beyond a few moments awakening to hear them rumble in the night. My kids found train watching and star gazing wonderful, and we would go back in a heart beat. The only problem we had was the lack of dining options: the store has limited sandwiches and cold drinks. Next time, we’ll come prepared with a cooler full of snacks, and go ahead with an extra ice cream from the Beanery in the afternoon.

So the next time the desert calls, answer with the Mojave Desert Preserve. You may be some of only a few people picking up on the beauty of the place.

avatarAbout the Author:

Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling.

Tags: , , Travel Excursions
One Comments to “Mojave National Preserve – Family Fun off the Grid”
  1. avatar Cliff Bandringa says:

    All the roads in the Mojave National Preserve are definitely the road less traveled, both paved and dirt. With all that traffic on I-15 and I-40, it’s a joy to visit the roads and the wonderful sites a short distance without the chaos of the freeways. The Preserve has great camping and Nipton is a great rustic B&B to stay at. If you’d rather stay in a more posh place, Primm isn’t too far away – it’s a great jumping off point to anywhere in the Preserve.

    We invite you to watch our brief tour of the Preserve that gives the viewer an idea of where the different attractions are located. It’s always a good idea to plan out your trip to such a large place depending on what your interests are. Link to tour:


    Cliff Bandringa