Without a question, the Mojave National Preserve is one of the wildest units in the National Park system, as it spans over 1,600,000 acres of the Mojave Desert. In this vast area, visitors will find abandoned mines, abandoned homesteads, memorials, and a variety of other things. The park also has a number of rock art sites, ranging from the easy to find (along the Rings Loop Trail), and difficult to find, requiring four wheel drive, exploring and directions. In between the easy to find, and the hard to find is the rock art site commonly called "Seventeen Mile Petroglyphs". The site is named for the nearby Seventeen Mile point in the park; and does have some rock art. Having said that, the site is somewhat difficult to locate, and the rock art along the wash in part, has been defaced, or supplemented by additional drawings, leaving the visitor to wonder which drawings are real, and which are modern. Having said that, attempting to find the rock art is a great adventure for those visiting the Mojave National Preserve for a first time, or repeat visit.
For those that have never visited a desert, there is a popular perception that such areas only have miles and miles of flat, featureless terrain. In reality, however, deserts have a huge variety of terrain, ranging from mountains, sand dunes, slot canyons, sunken basins, and a variety of things in between. One of the most interesting things about deserts is that many of them provide evidence of dormant volcanism (such as the Ubehebe Crater), and active volcanism (such as the Mud Pots in the Salton Sea). In the Mojave Desert, there are a number of locations that one can see evidence of dormant volcanism, from the Cinder Cone area within Mojave National Preserve, and the Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark.
While the entirety of the Eastern part of California is full of amazing places to adventure in, one of my favorite spots is the Mojave National Preserve. Like Death Valley, Mojave National Preserve has a number of different types of desert terrain – dunes, slot canyons, and long lost underground springs. It also has an area that can only be described as one thing and one thing only: a volcanic wasteland.
Rock formations in the Cinder Cone Natural Area
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 to Banshee Canyon in Hole-in-the-Wall , 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.
Rock formations in the Cinder Cone Natural Area
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.
If you've been around California, you know that there's a few places where the sand talks. Yes, that's right: the sand talks. In certain places as the sand saltates against your legs you can hear the whispering plink plink plinks of it bouncing off of your body. In other places, when you're out in the deep mountains of sand, you can also hear the dunes speak you with a deep bass timbre, in rumbling chords that go booooom ssssssss booooom. One of the best places to experience this phenomena is the Kelso Dunes, in the Mojave National Preserve, or as some people call it, Tatooine. The Kelso Dunes were one of the locations where the original Star Wars was filmed; and if that wasn't enough of a reason to visit, it is also world-renown for the booms of its singing sand.