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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Best Kept Secrets of California's Mojave

You would never know it was even out there! You'd probably speed right by it on the way to your favorite destination in the desert. Just minutes away from 2 well-traveled California interstates, can be found some unique "day-tripping" spots - hidden gems often gone unseen in the Southern California high desert!
"The Mojave" - for the typical traveler this is a place often viewed as a wasteland with little or nothing to offer. We often speed down this desert's highways in an effort to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Living in Southern California, I was one of them. Often, I'd find myself trying to break the sound barrier driving 90 m.p.h. through these open stretches of road! That is until I discovered that this supposed "wasteland" was hiding some very beautiful sights, the majority of which most folks don't even know exist! My Oatman, AZ post from last week is a great example of how taking the time to explore can really lead to a nice payoff when on a leisurely road trip. These hidden places of beauty I'm highlighting today are located within an area known as the "Mojave National Preserve" - a vast piece of land which lies between Interstates 15 and 40 in the eastern high desert of Southern California.

Mitchell Caverns

Here's a great option I highly recommend for those commuters driving the I-40 segment of the Mojave. Roughly 100 miles east of the city of Barstow (or 65 miles east of Ludlow, CA) is the Essex Road exit. Just 16 miles north on this paved road, at an elevation of 4300 feet, you come upon what's known as Mitchell Caverns. These are amazing underground limestone caverns located within the Preserve where tours are given year-round. Much like New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns, these caves contain unique geological formations such as stalactites (dripstone deposits extending downward from the ceiling), stalagmites (dripstone deposits building upward from the ground), and other oddly-shaped, beautiful formations. (see photo above for a glimpse) The caves are a constant 65 degrees inside throughout the year - even on the hottest of summer days when it can be 110 degrees outside! The caverns were well known to the Chemehuevi Indians, a place they considered sacred and called home for more than 500 years. A large number of artifacts were found in these caves as well as the remains of prehistoric animals, including an ancient sloth. When you get here, pull into the park's visitor's center and prepare yourself for the ranger-led tour which lasts about 1 1/2 hours. The tour is not at all strenous, but still, be prepared to walk. There is a half-mile walk from the visitor's center to the cave's entrance and another half-mile walk on the tour on somewhat uneven ground. So, in other words, if grandma is with you on your road trip, you may want to save this adventure for another time! There is a fee for the tour - $5 for adults and $2 for those under age 16. While it's free for those under 6 years old, it's not really recommended for children that young. In my opinion, this visit, and the tour, is well worth the small price! Here's a peek of the inside:

Hours: Labor Day weekend through Memorial Day weekend - tours (Monday through Friday) are at 1:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday tours @ 10:00, 1:30, and 3:00
Summer: tours are weekends only @ 1:30 pm


For those of you adventurous types who have vehicles capable of driving the well-maintained dirt roads within the Preserve, I recommend you check out this popular hiking area and campground, appropriately known as Hole-In-The-Wall. Besides being able to camp here, there are 2 really cool trails to hike on. There is an easy 1/2 mile (round trip) nature trail and a more challenging 1/2 mile loop trail. These hikes take you through a bizarre rocky landscape which was created millions of years ago. The most popular of the 2 trails is known as the "Hole-In-The-Wall Rings Trail". The rocks and cliffs around here literally have holes in them! In ancient times, a nearby volcanic eruption occurred which blasted out tons of gas and ash. When the gas cooled and the ash dissipated, it left behind these porous holes within the walls of the cliffs and rock formations. As you hike the trail through these canyons, there are heavy metal rings anchored into the rock to use as hand holds to ease your passage through some of the narrower and steeper sections. There is a bathroom, information center, and picnic area located at the trailhead. No fee is required for hiking around, so have fun and check it out! Here's a look at some of the rings within the walls:

Should you decide to camp here, there are picnic tables, fire rings, and pit toilets. The campground has 35 sites for RV's and tents and lies at about the 4,400 foot elevation. Due to extremes in weather during summer and winter months, it is recommended you visit during the fall or spring time periods when the temperatures are very comfortable. Bring plenty of gear, food, and water! Campsites are about $12 per site last I checked, $6 for seniors (which I'm sure are in the minority!). This also makes an excellent base camp for exploring Mitchell Caverns which is located just a few miles away.


From I-40: Take the Essex Rd. exit (as you would to go to Mitchell Caverns) and drive 10 miles to the junction with "Black Horse Canyon Rd." - Take Black Horse Canyon Road north (unpaved, but in good condition) for another 10 miles and you're there!

The Mojave National Preserve has so much to offer! This huge area of open space can easily be accessed from I-15 or I-40 via the well-paved Kelbaker Road which connects these 2 highways. Be safe with your travels and come prepared with the essentials - hiking gear, food & water, a cell phone, and a well-maintained car. Always let people know your plans when venturing into these isolated locations! Researching this area will reveal a lot of these hidden desert gems, including: the largest Joshua tree forest in the world, huge sand dunes, a recently-restored railroad depot (Kelso Depot) and even some (hopefully extinct) volcanoes you can hike on! Here's a few teaser photos to spark your interest:

Enjoy your desert travels!