A trip through California's vast Mojave Desert, which takes up one quarter of the state, is an intensely rewarding experience, especially if you've never been in a large desert area before. Unless you happen to be passing through on your way into or out of California, you'll need to detour to see it, although it begins within a one-hour drive of Los Angeles.
Before you set out, pack extra water, food and emergency supplies for you and your car—service stations are few and far between in some areas. But there are special rewards for making the effort, particularly in spring following a year of heavy rain, when the desert bursts into a spectacular bloom of wildflowers.
The following circuit is best seen over three days, perhaps more if you linger in Death Valley National Park.
Begin your desert tour by heading east from Los Angeles on Interstate 10 then taking Highway 62 to the town of Joshua Tree; turn north in town to visit Pioneer Town, a former Hollywood stage set that today functions as a lived-in "stage set," complete with working saloon and hotel.
Turn south and tour Joshua Tree National Park, with its fantastical landscapes of boulders and eponymous trees. Be sure to visit the Cholla Gardens—named for the many cholla cacti—before exiting the park to the south onto Interstate 10. A short distance east, stop at the General Patton Memorial Museum at Chiriaco Summit. Dedicated to the World War II general, it has an astounding collection of WWII memorabilia. http://www.generalpattonmuseum.com.
A short distance east, turn north on Highway 177 to return to Highway 62 then turn west for Twentynine Palms; the Joshua Tree Visitor Center is beside the Oasis of Mara. Turn north onto Amboy Road, which will take you to the historic Route 66—the "National Trails Highway." Follow this route east to its junction with Kelbaker Road, which leads north into the 1.4 million-acre/567,000-hectare Mojave National Preserve. http://www.nps.gov/moja/index.htm.
This large stretch of the Mojave Desert is a fascinating area with volcanic features (cinder domes and needles), mountains, plateaus, massive sand dunes, and lots of cacti, yucca and sage. Along the way, you can pause to study ancient Indian petroglyphs on the rocks, as well as abandoned mines. But be sure not to enter the mines, as they're extremely dangerous.
If you plan on visiting the preserve, keep in mind that Baker, on the north side of the reserve, is the only town adjacent to the parkland's perimeter, and the only service station is there. Be forewarned that if you stray from the main road, you may need a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
At Kelso, you can visit an old rail depot that has been beautifully restored and now serves as the park's visitors center, with fascinating exhibits plus a yesteryear American diner-cafe. Just south are the Kelso Dunes, California's second tallest mountains of golden rose-quartz sand rising more than 600 ft/180 m. They—like other dunes in the Mojave—are booming or singing dunes: When sand slides down the steep slopes, the entire dune vibrates—an unforgettable booming rumble. (Only hikers will experience this sensation: It's about a two-hour hike up and back, trudging through sand the entire way.) http://www.nps.gov/moja/planyourvisit/kelbaker-road.htm.
A side excursion is worth a detour along Interstate 40 to reach the stalactites, stalagmites and stone curtains of remote Mitchell Cavern State Reserve, Southern California's only caves developed for visitors. Guided tours—the only way to see the caves—are offered mid-September to mid-June, but call ahead as the caves are periodically closed to visitors. Each tour takes about one and a half to two hours. If you're planning to camp, we suggest the nearby Hole-in-the-Wall campground, where strange whistling sounds are produced by the wind blowing through holes and cracks in the nearby mesas. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25146.
Fill up with gas and supplies at Baker then continue north on Highway 127 56 mi/90 km to Death Valley National Park; the park entrance is at Shoshone. From there, Highway 178 leads north through the heart of the park, taking in most of the places of interest.
Exit the park westward on Highway 190, which will eventually take you to Panamint Valley Road near Panamint. Go south via the scenic Panamint Valley, being sure to detour at the signs for Trona Pinnacles—an ordinary sedan can traverse the 5-mi/8-km unpaved road to reach these fascinating formations. At the junction with Trona Road, turn left for Randsburg, one of California's best-preserved gold mining towns. Calling itself a "living ghost town, the aging buildings on Butte Avenue still serve as saloons and antique stores. Although it has a general store, most visitors drive to Ridgecrest for groceries and other supplies.
From there, Redrock-Randsbridge Road leads west to the junction with Highway 14; immediately north, the highway leads 3 mi/5 km to Red Rock Canyon State Park, with its bizarre rock formations dating to the Ice Age. (The opening archaeological scenes of the movie Jurassic Park and a number of other movies and TV shows have been filmed in this area.) http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=631.
After visiting Red Rock, backtrack on Highway 14. (If you're seriously interested in wildlife, detour at California City to visit the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, a critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise (most easily observed in spring). You have to be very patient (and lucky) to see one of California's state reptiles. http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/ridgecrest/deserttortoisenaturalarea.html.
Farther south on Highway 14 is the uninspiring town of Mojave, the unloading point for all that borax from Death Valley in times gone by, but today a center for aerospace research and development.
To the southeast is Edwards Air Force Base, which used to be the primary landing site for the space shuttle. As a working military base, civilian access is limited. Currently the Air Force Center Museum at the base is off-limits to the public, but various military jets are on display outside the entrance gate 5 mi/8 km east of Rosemond.
Continuing on Highway 14 will eventually take you back via Lancaster into the northern portion of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Along the way, in springtime, detour west from Lancaster to visit the astonishing Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, ablaze in March and April with the state flower. Check the weather before you set out, since the flowers close up during cold or windy days. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=627.
Also nearby is the Antelope Valley Indian Museum, to the east of Lancaster. It's a 1928 homestead carved into the bedrock of Paiute Butte and is dedicated to all the Great Basin Native American tribes. Open limited hours, so plan ahead. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=632.
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