Mojave National Preserve, California, USA
I don’t know if you’ve ever done the drive between Las Vegas and Los Angeles before? Over the years, I’ve done it a few times for different reasons and, you know what, it’s really easy.
But easy doesn’t make for interesting. It’s a boring drive, sitting on an interstate highway most of the time, changing lanes and overtaking trucks for hours, staring out at the desert and the occasional collection of service stations and fast food joints.
So this latest time, I thought I would try something a bit different. I wanted to stop for a bit, see some nature, and make the trip a bit more fun.
I think I found the perfect solution.
The answer lies within a vast tract of protected land called Mojave National Preserve.
What is Mojave National Preserve?
Mountains rise up from the shrub land of the desert; Joshua Trees reach up to the sky on the horizon; and great sand dunes shine in the sun as their form slowly but constantly changes shape.
Mojave National Preserve feels wild – with few visitors and dramatic terrain. It also offers a wonderful variety of natural adventures across its 650,000 hectare site (the third-largest location in the contiguous states of the US National Park System).
It was established in 1994 and you get the feeling that not too much has been done to the land since then, bar some main roads connecting the different entrances. Even the other roads that take you off to different features in the preserve are unsealed, adding to the sense of adventure (or, in my case, an almost stranding… which I’ll explain shortly!)
After the flashy neon glitz of Las Vegas or the concrete labyrinth of Los Angeles, this is the perfect organic antidote.
Driving between Las Vegas and Los Angeles
The fastest route between central Las Vegas and central Los Angeles takes about four hours and skirts around the edge of Mojave National Preserve. To cut through the middle of it only adds an extra thirty minutes to the drive. So, even if you spent a few good hours exploring what’s available, you can easily do the drive within a day.
It certainly makes the whole experience of getting between the two cities a lot more enjoyable and adds another destination to your trip. I think that, especially if you are spending most of your time in cities, it’s nice to stretch the legs and get amongst nature for a while.
Things to do in Mojave National Preserve
There are quite a few things you can do in Mojave National Preserve but many of them will require longer than a few hours and will need a bit of preparation (or, at least, a car with 4WD capability).
I’ve marked my suggestions on the following map and I’ll give you my thoughts below.
If you’re planning to just drive through the preserve on the way between LA and Vegas in a day, then I would recommend the following three activities. They are a couple of the highlights, give you a good sense of the range of nature, and are easily accessible.
Teutonia Peak Trail
If you’re coming from the north, the first stop I suggest is the Teutonia Peak Trail (if you’re coming from the south, this would be your final stop). This is a great hike that is only about 5 kilometres return, and can be done within about an hour or so.
The trail takes you through the largest and densest Joshua tree forest in the world, past some old mine shafts, and up an easy mountain. Walking up the final stretch to Teutonia Peak, there are beautiful rock formations and amazing views across the preserve.
One of the great things about this walk is that you are surrounding by Joshua trees (which I think are so cool) without having to do the extra long detour down to Joshua Tree National Park.
At the southern end of the park is the most interesting part of the preserve (in my opinion), the Kelso Dunes. The whole dune field is actually massive and stretches out over about 120 square kilometres. But the most obvious patch of them is where the road will take you.
There is a 5 kilometre return trail that will take you to the base of the sand dunes and then up to the top. Although, in reality, you’ll find that the trail splits into multiple paths and you can use whichever ones you want to climb up to different points along the dunes.
It is much harder walking up sand than a normal track so it may take a couple of hours to get all the way to the top and then back down again. But it is such a fun experience and a really beautiful spot.
Kelso Ghost Town
In between the two hikes I have recommended above, you’ll pass through the small ghost town of Kelso. There is a visitor centre here with information and a small shop. It has limited opening hours, though, so don’t rely on it for anything.
Kelso was founded in 1905 and reached its peak in the 1940s when it had about 2000 residents because of the nearby mines. You can still see a couple of the old buildings here and the railway still passes through.
If you have a bit more time, there are two other things I would recommend. You will also need a 4WD vehicle (or similar) to access these locations, though. I can tell you that from firsthand experience because I tried to drive along the unpaved road in my rented sedan and got stuck in the sand (although managed to get myself out – phew!).
Mojave Desert Lava Tube
In the western part of the preserve is a lava tube, the cool tunnel that is left in the rock from when molten lava has passed through. You can climb down into it and head along the tube, which is about 150 metres along. It’s a great spot for photos because of the holes in the ceiling that let the sunlight shine through.
As I’ve mentioned, there is a very rough road that is about 8 kilometres long, so you’ll probably only want to do it in a good car (and make sure you have plenty of water with you, in case something goes wrong).
In the eastern part of the preserve is another information centre and campground called Hole-in-the-wall. This is the jumping off point for a few different hikes. There’s a short one that just gives you some details about the desert plants you’ll find here. The slightly longer Rings Loop Trail is 2.5 kilometres return and is quite fun because you’ll go through a narrow canyon, using rings to help you climb up. And then there’s a long Barber Peak Loop Trail, which is about 10 kilometres and takes you past cliffs and interesting rock formations.
If you’re coming from the main part of the preserve, you can only get there on a rough road (which I got stuck in for a bit) so I wouldn’t recommend doing that in a normal car. But you can access the area on a paved road by using a different southern entrance into the park. You’ll find it hard to have the time to do all of this in just one day, though.
Plan your trip to Mojave National Preserve
I’ll put some of the specific information you may need in the info box below. But I also want to give you a few of my other thoughts to help you with your planning.
You may find that you spend a bit longer in the preserve than you expected. Don’t worry – there is affordable accommodation quite close, if you then don’t want to finish the whole drive. If you’re heading towards Las Vegas, then I would suggest staying overnight at one of the casino hotels in Primm – the rooms are very cheap on weekdays. If you’re heading towards Los Angeles, then Barstow is probably the first convenient stop you’ll come to.
It’s worth noting that the Mojave National Preserve is not the only thing you could do on a drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Palm Springs also makes a nice stop (especially overnight) and it has nice hotels and restaurants.
I also really love Joshua Tree National Park and there’s lots of great things to see and do there. If you’re interested, check out my guide to Joshua Tree National Park. However, visiting this park will take up a lot more driving time so you couldn’t do that in just one day.
There’s also a fantastic park right near Las Vegas called Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. I actually think the selection of hikes here are better than Mojave and you can do more in a shorter time. So, if you’re interested in nature, another option would be to spend half a day (or a full day, if you can) at Red Rock Canyon and then just do the drive without stopping.
Hopefully you’ve found this guide helpful. Please let me know in the comments below if you have any tips from your own experiences. Every time I head to California, I see a bit more of the nature and I’m always blown away. This was no exception.
All the things you need to know
You can see it on a map here.
However, the Kelso Depot Visitor Centre is only open from Thursday to Monday from 1000 - 1700.
And the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Centre is only open from Friday to Sunday from 0900 - 1500.
Have a look at Primm Valley Resort, Buffalo Bills Resort, or Whiskey Pete's Hotel.
On the Los Angeles side, the most convenient place to stay is Barstow. There are lots of motels here for travellers.
Probably the best affordable option is the retro-styled Route 66 Motel.
For a more comfortable experience, I would recommend the Ramada Inn.
And I think you'll probably find the nicest option is the Holiday Inn Express.
There are also no petrol stations so you should have at least half a tank before going in (more, if possible). The distances in the park can be a bit longer than you might expect.