How to See Mojave National Preserve in Just One Day

mojave national preserve

mojave national preserve

A Day In Desert Paradise at Mojave National Preserve

Most travelers traveling through the Southern California desert down Interstate 15 are usually headed towards the fabulous Sin City. Or better known as the famous Las Vegas.

Along the hours of driving through what seems like endless desert, most pass a hidden prize located right off the main highway.

You can enter this place from multiple locations along the 15 freeway, but for us we traveled from the city of Baker going north, took Kelbaker Rd going east, and BOOM – we soon enough were in the beautiful Mojave National Preserve.

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Located right in between Barstow and Vegas, Mojave National Preserve is only about an hour away from each of these popular destinations. It’s also a nearby neighbor to the popular Joshua Tree National Park, which is about an hour south of the preserve.

This 1.6 million acre park is definitely a lot of ground to cover in one day.  We would recommend it as a weekend getaway with at least two days to see what the preserve has to offer.

If you only have one day, it’s definitely still worth the trip!

Nathan and I are huge desert lovers. After having our first road trip together traveling along Route 66 from Santa Monica, California to Albuquerque, New Mexico, we both immediately fell in love with the beauty and tranquility of the desert.

The Mojave National Preserve has been a place of interest on our list for a long while. We were both so happy to finally be making the journey out! This is just one of our 8 best desert spots in southern California that we’ve discovered so far.

Know Before You Go!

Few things to prepare for when visiting:

  • There is no food or water in the preserve – make sure you eat before or bring the right amount of food, snacks, lunches for epic picnics, or whatever you need to survive the day!
  • No gas stations located within the preserve – fill up in local towns outside before venturing in! If you are heading towards Vegas I would recommend stopping in Baker as they have many gas options as well as food options if you want both.
  • Most of the roads leading to the best parts of the preserve are not paved and can be pretty bumpy. All the roads are fit for a small car. No need for a truck or SUV.  If you are the adventurous type,  just pretend you’re Indiana Jones heading off to some big adventure in the desert and the bumps soon become part of the fun!

Kelso Visitor Center

Before we ventured deeper into the Mojave National Preserve we stopped by the Kelso Depot Visitor Center. Located right on the intersection of Kelbaker Rd. and Kelso Cima Rd, this place is not hard to miss.

This was probably one of the most unique visitor centers I have seen! What was once known as the Kelso Depot for the Union Pacific Railroad, is now the Mojave National Preserve Visitor Center.

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Beautifully located alongside the railroad tracks, this unique structure combined with the gorgeous desert scenery really put me back in time. I could easily imagine this space as a bustling station with busy trains.

Inside there are informational exhibits that teach you about the preserve. I always find these great to read before entering any park so you at least have some knowledge of some of the crazy things you will find along the way.

Rings Loop Trail

If you only have one day and don’t want to sacrifice all your time to a single hike, I highly recommend doing the Rings Loop Trail. To us, this was one of the best short hikes in the preserve with the most reward.

The Rings Loop Trail is a short 1.5 mile loop trail with little elevation gain. It isn’t until the last section of the trail that you encounter some minor bouldering.

Overall though, easy trail for most!

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To have the best, most epic trail experience, take the trail-head on the left side of the parking lot from the left of the small visitor center to where you would be circling clockwise around the loop. 

TRUST – this allows you to enter the canyon from the front along with climbing up and out of the canyon instead of down. Going up the rings in my opinion is more fun than climbing down.

Into The Desert We Go!

If you hike clockwise, the trail starts you off walking through a beautiful desert valley. Taking in the views and the fresh air in this area is a serene and amazing experience.

Continuing down the trail you quickly come up on the massive canyon produced by volcanic activity.

As we walked up towards the canyon entrance, I was awestruck with its massive walls and beauty. Something I would never expect to see randomly placed in the desert. 

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The canyon walls are covered with pockets and holes of all sizes. A result of trapped air pockets in cooling lava produced by volcanic activity over a million years ago. Wind and water later shaped the canyon you see today.

This is our world right? Sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel.

After venturing through the canyon a bit, you reach the infamous rings along the canyon wall.

This was my favorite part of the hike.

Climbing up the rings was not hard, but it is a bit of a tight squeeze passing through the walls. A couple sets of these and some minor bouldering and huzzah! We were out of the canyon!

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Make sure you drink enough water throughout your hike. Especially during the hot seasons as the climbing can quickly take it out of you.

Very quickly I felt lightheaded and woozy in the span of 10 min from this short climb. Maybe it was from the few drinks I had the night before? Or maybe I am just terribly out of shape?!

Either way, stay hydrated and take your time in the desert!

Epic Little Hike within Mojave National Preserve!

If you are looking for a quick 1-2 hour hike with gorgeous views of the desert valley and canyon then the Rings Loop Trail is the hike for you! Despite how short the hike is, the Rings Loop Trail has become one of my favorites!

For a more historical hike in the preserve, we were considering the Rock Springs Trail recommended by California Through My Lens. Short and sweet like the Rings Trail, we will have to fit it in next time we visit!

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Kelso Dunes

As you drive towards the center of  Mojave National Preserve, the first thing you will see are The Kelso Dunes.

Holy cow these things are huge! The dunes rise over 600 feet tall and are among the tallest sand dunes in all of North America!

If we had more time we would have loved to hike all the way to the top of the dunes for a spectacular view. Unfortunately, due to the sun setting, we were unable to make the trek. Maybe if we found a camel, but no such luck.

Heading out to the dunes from the parking lot is a bit of a walk. Trudging through the soft sand slowed us down even more!

Despite all this, the view facing the dunes was incredible. I felt like I was on a different planet!

White Sands National Monument in New Mexico also has a very similar unworldly feeling from the seemingly endless white dunes. But for the tallest sand dunes in North America, Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado definitely takes the cake.

Exploring all these magnificent dunes has been such a treat. Who knew there were so many epic sand dunes in the United States?

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Since we weren’t hiking up the dunes, Nathan brought his Dragon Staff to get some flow time in around the dunes.

Like us, if you cannot make the hike up, take the time to find a nice place to sit and listen to the quiet and stillness in the air feeling the warm soft sand under you. The peace and tranquility found at this location is something you don’t come across every day. 

Mojave Lava Tubes

As the day neared its end, we had one last stop to make and one we could not miss. The incredible Mojave Lava Tubes!

To get here, you drive down another dirt road and park at the trail-head called Lava Tube Trail. This is at the end of the road.

Bring a flashlight, just in case! You technically could do it without one, but it would be helpful to have one handy.

At the start of the trail-head, take a short walk up the hillside and make a right on the first path that appears. Continue walking up and you will see on your left a large hole in the ground.

DO NOT TRY TO ENTER FROM THIS HOLE!

It is a straight drop down into the lava tube. Unless you have unbreakable bones, I would recommend a different entrance.

Keep walking a bit further and you will come across a large second hole. You will know this is the entrance based on the nice, helpful ladder to lead you down.

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After climbing down, you have to crouch a bit to get through into the tubes.

Don’t fret though! Once past that, you are directly in the lava tube.

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When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing to be standing where lava once flowed underneath the Earth’s crust. Imagining how much heat and pressure used to be present is insane!

If you are visiting the Mojave National Preserve I would say it is a must see to check out the Mojave Lava Tubes.

Besides the feeling that you are entering into the pits of hell towards eternal damnation, the lava tubes ended up being a pretty amazing place!

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One of Our Best Desert Trips to Date!

As the sun began to set, we were given the gentle reminder that it was time for us to start heading home. I left still feeling like there was so much more to see and to take in, but that’s all the more reason for a second trip!

For most traveling down Highway 15, the Mojave National Preserve can be a missed gem, but if you have the time either on route or heading home from Vegas, take some time to visit and let yourself get lost in the beauty of the California desert.

Other Nearby Desert Adventures

If you want more adventures like this, be sure to visit the incredible Red Rock Canyon State Park, only 2 hours west of the preserve! Add it to your itinerary if you got the time.

A closer (and more obscure) destination is off of Zzyzx Road, right on the border of the preserve. Explore an abandoned healing center full of unique history alongside beautiful desert scenery. Also right next door is a unique volcano hike known as Amboy Crater. Just 30 minutes south of the preserve.

Looking for a place to relax and eat? Visit the nearby living ghost town of Oatman, Arizona. Located about an hour east of the preserve just down the Interstate 40!

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Have you ever been to Mojave National Preserve?  What other amazing sites and hikes did you see? We’d love to hear in a comment below!

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About the Author

Shelby Kirk is the co-founder, editor, and author of We Who Roam. With a strong love for nature and adventure travel, she hopes to inspire others to get outside and explore our natural playground that we call home.

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