I don’t know about you, but when I think “Volcano”, I don’t think desert. But, more often than not, there’s evidence of volcanism in the deserts of Southern California. From the Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/3/1/ubehebe-crater-death-valley-national-park.html) to Banshee Canyon in Hole-in-the-Wall (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/1/10/ring-loop-trail-mojave-national-preserve.html), there’s remnants of ancient volcanoes and their eruptions. To me, one of the neat things about these ancient volcanoes is the different types of rocks they leave behind, and the different types of terrain that they have produced. The other great thing about these areas of volcanism is that they provide great opportunities for exploring.
The Cinder Cone Natural Area is one of these volcanic areas that is basically designed for exploring. Stretching for miles and miles, the area is located directly off Kelbaker Road in the Mojave National Preserve. The area has over twenty cinder cones, and large ancient lava flows. It is a place where you can wander around marveling at the various rocks, or, if you wish to off-road a little bit, an area where you can head out to discover lava tubes and discover what lies within them.
Directions: The Cinder Cone Natural area is located sixteen miles South of Baker. From the I-15, exit Kelbaker Road, and follow it for sixteen miles south south-east. At sixteen miles, you will notice a black basalt line to the East, delineating some of the lava flows present in the area. At this point, you can either pull off the road, and hike approximately one to two miles to the base of the lava flows, where you can explore from there, or you can take one of the many dirt pullouts and off-road on one of the trails to the base of the lava flows.
Do note that the area is full of soft sand, and I would recommend that you have either all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive should you attempt to off-road in this region. When I was there, I drove out on one of the off-road trails toward the base of the lava flow in a non-4WD/AWD vehicle, and quickly realized that I would be better off hiking than becoming potentially stuck and stranded. If you want to explore lava tubes, you’ll want to follow Kelbaker Road nineteen miles south from Baker, until you reach the Aiken Mine Road. Once you turn onto the Aiken Mine Road, it is approximately four miles to the East on an unpaved sandy off-road trail.
Tips: Travel in the Mojave National Preserve is not without risk as there are large expanses without basic services, including water and gasoline. Moreover, while the National Park Service maintains the roads to the best of their ability, they are a bit rougher than you would expect in certain places. As noted above, if you are planning on going off-roading, be sure to have a vehicle that can handle the challenges of the terrain. It is also important to note that there is limited to no cellular service within the Preserve, and in many areas, GPS units do not function well. Plan accordingly, and make sure to have the proper equipment, including maps and plenty of water when you head out to explore.
More Information: http://www.nps.gov/moja/planyourvisit/upload/Cinder_Cones_SB_Bl_LowRes.pdf, http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/usgsnps/mojave/cinder1.html, http://www.nature.nps.gov/nnl/site.cfm?Site=CICO-CA, http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2004/1007/volcanic.html