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Take the Interstate to One of the Largest Units in the National Park System

Red Spires of Castle Peaks, Mojave National Preserve. NPS photo

Red Spires of Castle Peaks, Mojave National Preserve. NPS photo

Most people making the drive between Las Vegas and Los Angeles are in a hurry to just get across the desert. As a result, they miss an easy opportunity to visit the third largest unit in our national park system outside of Alaska. Even more surprising, given the size and rugged nature of this park, is the fact that it's bordered by not one, but two Interstate highways: I-15 and I-40.

Perhaps it's fitting that Mojave National Preserve was established on October 31, 1994, because tucked away in its 1.6 million acres are some surprising treats for visitors.

The convergence of the Great Basin, Sonoran and Mojave desert ecosystems in this park allows visitors to experience a wide variety of desert plant life in combinations that exist nowhere else in the United States in such close proximity. This is a land of mountain ranges, sand dunes, great mesas and extinct volcanoes. Elevations in the park range from 880 to 7,492 feet, resulting in an unusual variety of plants, animals and climate.

Features in the Preserve include the Kelso Dunes (the third tallest in North America), perhaps the finest Joshua tree forest in the world, and volcanic formations such as Hole-in-the-Wall and the Cinder Cone Lava Beds. Providence Mountain State Recreation Area (Mitchell Caverns), the University of California’s Granite Mountains Natural Reserve and California State University’s Desert Studies Center at Soda Springs are located within the park's boundaries.

This is a large and diverse park, but if you have even an hour to spare, you can at least sample some of Mojave National Preserve's spectacular scenery. The park has even suggested a quick I-15 Scenic Tour.

This park certainly deserves more than an hour's visit, and there are plenty of places to go on a day trip. If you want to camp, the park describes your options:

Mojave National Preserve is a camper’s paradise. Developed campgrounds, roadside camping, and backcountry camping offer opportunities for individuals and groups of diverse ages, interests, and skills.

For those who want to venture into more remote sections of the park, there are over a thousand miles of dirt roads open for exploration by 4-wheel drive vehicle. Keep in mind that driving off-road is not allowed, get current information on road and travel conditions, and be sure you are equipped for travel in isolated locations. This is no place for the unprepared to be stranded, especially in the heat of summer. At lower elevations, temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit typically begin in May and can last into October.

In milder weather, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking. One example is the Teutonia Peak Trail, located along the paved Cima Road. From this vantage point, visitors can observe Cima Dome, which boasts the largest, densest Joshua Tree forest in the world. If the weather has cooperated with adequate winter and early spring rains, the park can also be a fine location for wildflower viewing.

Most parks boast a feature or two with an unusual name, but it's hard to beat one of my favorites in the Mojave: the Zzyzx Road. The palm trees and water at the end of this gravel road aren't a mirage!

Mojave National Preserve is located east of Barstow, Calif., between I-15 and I-40, and about 60 miles southwest of Las Vegas. You'll find driving directions and maps on the park website, and you can contact the park staff for more information.


I used to be stationed near here when I was in the Air Force. This is an incredibly beautiful landscape. It is a very worthy addition to your travel plans!

Fred - Thanks for the comment! Sounds like you're an "alumni" of Nellis AFB.

I spend several years at Lake Mead, so have some appreciation for that part of the country as well - at least the portions away from Las Vegas :-)

Take spare gas if you want to explore the preserve.-- we did and it is a fantastic area. We found no gas between I 40 and I 15 and there is plenty of trails to use it on.

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