Today we’re going to explore Mojave National Preserve, one of the best “get away from it all” spots within driving distance of Vegas. Less than two hours away by car, the Mojave National Preserve offers wildlife, wildflowers and a wild mix of natural features in a single national park. With 1.6 million acres, the Preserve is the third largest National Park Service area outside of Alaska (behind Death Valley and Yellowstone).
Leaving Las Vegas
As you can see from the map, Interstate 15 provides the most direct route, with access to the preserve at several points (Nipton-Searchlight Road, Cima Road, Kelbaker Road and Zzyzx (say that five times fast!) Road. Along the south side, I–40 also offers access at Goffs Road, the Essex turnoff as well as Cima Road. (These are all roads that can be driven in passenger vehicles; other side roads may require four-wheel drive).
Prep before you leave. Services are sparse within the nature preserve, so make sure you have an ample supply of fuel, water and a spare tire before you set out.
The preserve’s visitor center on Cima Road is called the Kelso Depot, a restored Union Pacific train station from the 1920s. It’s a beautiful historic spot, and a great place to begin your visit. Here you’ll find exhibits, a film, gift shop and food.
Nearby you’ll find the Kelso Dunes, a deceptively epic spot. From a distance they don’t look like much, but as you approach, the dunes loom larger and more magnificent. They’re actually the second highest sand dunes in California! Once there, you might find yourself feeling like you’re inside your favorite desert movie!
The National Park Service occasionally offers ranger programs that include a half-mile walk along the dunes. If you’re tempted to summit the Kelso Dunes, we recommend it as a great experience, but it’s a much more strenuous hike than you’d guess: you’re basically climbing hundreds of feet of shifting sand. Allow at least an hour.
Cima Dome and Teutonia Peak
Cima is a small town near a big natural feature: the Cima Dome. It’s a dome of solid magma, the remnant of a volcano that has totally eroded away. You can best view the dome from Teutonia Peak, whose trail winds through the densest concentration of Joshua Trees in the world.
Millions of years of volcanic rock formations being eaten away by erosion have created some of the nation’s most spectacular caverns. Gases trapped in the lava as it cooled are revealed as the weather wears away it, creating the holes for which this area is named. This spot is another feast for the eyes, with dramatic and colorful rock formations that sometimes defy belief. Hiking is welcome but avoid climbing: volcanic rock is too crumbly.
Hiking and Biking
Be sure to visit the Kelso Depot or another information station to obtain maps before you set out, but the Mojave National Preserve boasts an awesome array of hiking trails and mountain biking in the backcountry. Note: trail markers can be inconsistent, so make sure you have a good map.
If surmounting Kelso Dunes wore your legs out, you might explore the rest of the Preserve from the comfort of your car, presuming you have four-wheel drive. The historic Mojave Road is a particular favorite and can last multiple days as you tour the backcountry of the Mojave National Preserve.
If you want to extend your day trip, you’ll find both developed campgrounds and other areas traditionally used for camping. The developed campgrounds may cost you, but setting up elsewhere is usually free. One of the nicest developed spots is near Hole-in-the-Wall.
Safety Notes: Stay Hydrated
We already cautioned you to prep well for this trip. The desert environment can sap your body’s moisture faster than you’d expect. Make sure you have more water with you than you think you’ll need. Don’t count on being able to stock up in the preserve itself.
Water in the backcountry is uncommon but available. There’s a cistern at Marl Springs on the old Mojave Road, but you’ll need to treat it. There are other springs around the preserve (all of which will need to be filtered), so if you’re going to be camping, hiking or mountain biking in the more remote areas, do some research online first.
Wind is a prominent part of the weather in these parts. Even on relatively mild days, it can feel like the environment is fighting you. You can still have fun! Just don’t try to tackle too much all at once.