Trip reports

Gifts from the desert (Mojave break, part the last)

“For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars.” — Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain

Eight days of sunshine and warmth and desert exploration. Hikes along desert rivers, through sere canyons, over bighorn-sheltering ridges, among wind-softened boulders, circling palm oases. A national park, several preserves, some local treasures. I had my typical vacation feeling: “I could do this forever. I could live here.” Sure I could. I just need to win the lottery first. Enough daydreaming. It was time to head home.

That meant a five-hour drive back through the Mojave to the Palm Springs Airport, and we decided to drive through the Mojave National Preserve. We’d considered this route on the way to Death Valley, but a (spectacularly uninformed, as it turned out) highway information booth volunteer warned us the roads would be sandy and, if the wind picked up, well nigh impassable. But on the way to the national park, we passed one end of the road to the national preserve, and it was a) paved, and b) clear. That settled it. We were definitely going back this way.

Kelso Depot, a Mission Revival style former Union Pacific stop for resupplying settlers and miners in the area, is now the Preserve’s fine visitor center. (Lauren Danner photo)

At 1.6 million acres, there was no way we were going to get more than a taste of this park. On the way in, we saw an enormous golden eagle sitting on a rock outcropping right next to the road. Of course by the time we grabbed the camera it had taken off, probably thinking, “Great. More !#$%* tourists.” We headed first to the Kelso Depot Visitor Center, a beautiful, repurposed Union Pacific railroad building from the late 1800s. The tracks still operate and freight trains still thunder past. After watching the short orientation film — these are worthwhile at almost every park — and checking out the small but excellent gift shop run by the Western National Parks Association, we consulted with the ranger. Could we squeeze in a hike? Absolutely.

We first drove to Cima for views of the largest, densest Joshua tree forest in the world.

Coming from the Pacific Northwest, I hadn’t thought of Joshua tree forests as “dense” until I saw this one at Mojave National Preserve. (Mr. Adventure photo)

We turned south and drove six maintained miles on the Mojave Road, an ancient trade and transport thoroughfare used by native peoples, missionaries, mail wagons, and settlers. The road is about 150 miles long, but most of it is accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles, so it was pretty cool to follow it in our rental car for a short stretch.

The Hole-in-the-Wall visitor center is the starting point for the Rings Loop trail, a 1.5-mile hike that takes longer than you might expect, partially because it involves some scrambling and partially because it is just so cool. This hike has it all.

The first quarter of the loop featured petroglyphs and long, gorgeous views into the Providence Mountains. I already missed the desert and I was still more than two hours’ drive from the airport.

This white-crowned sparrow ignored us, focusing on its search for seeds and shelter. (Lauren Danner photo)
Desert bighorns were a running theme of this trip. Although we didn’t see any in Mojave National Preserve, this petroglyph is evidence of their long habitation in the area and their importance to native peoples. (Lauren Danner photo)
The Rings Loop trail’s location at the nexus of pinyon-juniper woodland and cactus-yucca scrub makes for excellent plant variety and views to the Providence Mountains beyond. (Lauren Danner photo)

The next part of the trail took us past holey cliffs, formed by volcanic eruptions over millions of years. Air pockets and uneven cooling resulted in the holes, which wind and time have scoured into some pretty large caverns, and gave the area its name: Hole-in-the-Wall.

Volcanic cliffs take on a Swiss-cheese appearance, but their crumbly nature makes them risky for climbing. (Mr. Adventure photo)

The cliffs bend inward, enticing hikers into Banshee Canyon and another, very different environment.

Eroded volcanic cliff walls lead into Banshee Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)
Looking west from inside Banshee Canyon. It’s getting narrower… (Lauren Danner photo)

Banshee Canyon was purportedly named for the screaming sound the wind makes when it howls through the narrow slot. Interesting, but not nearly as interesting as what lay ahead on the trail. To get to the top of the canyon rim, we had to climb using rings pounded into the walls. It’s probably not for those who don’t like tight spaces or hauling themselves up slippery surfaces using rattling metal circles as a ladder, but we loved it.

Foot here, hand there. Mr. Adventure susses the route through the rings in Banshee Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)
Almost there. Coming out at the top of Banshee Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)

From the top of the canyon, it’s a short walk back down the road to the visitor center. Like I said, 1.5 miles doesn’t sound like a lot, but we spent a full hour enjoying this wonderful trail.

What a day! We would have loved to spend more time in Mojave National Preserve. The Hole-in-the-Wall campground looked great, and we missed entirely the sand dunes at Devils’ Playground on the west side. With its many ecological habitats reflecting the overlap of the Mojave, Sonoran, and Great Basin deserts, the preserve is a treasure that deserves more time.

Since you might be wondering: the difference between a national park and a national preserve is one of allowed uses. National parks prohibit most human uses, while national preserves tend to be more flexible. Depending on the enabling legislation, hunting, fishing, grazing, and mining may be allowed. In Mojave National Preserve, pets are allowed, as is seasonal fishing and hunting, and some grazing. The preserve was created as part of 1994’s California Desert Protection Act, which also upgraded Joshua Tree and Death Valley to national parks from national monuments. And although it isn’t one of the “big 59” national parks, Mojave National Preserve equals its neighbors for scenic splendor, geologic wonderment, wildlife, and ecological diversity. Most important, it’s protected. As of February 2016, the Mojave Trails National Monument nearly doubled the protected area, adding a BLM-managed buffer around the southern half of the preserve. The much smaller Castle Mountains National Monument, a Park Service unit, filled in a gap in the northeast and provided more protection for desert bighorn. Both areas were created as part of the triple play legislation that also added the Sand to Snow National Monument we enjoyed earlier in the trip, and deserve our heartfelt #thanksObama.

“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.” — Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, 1961-1969

After a last, wistful look, it was time to hit the road. A coyote trotted across the dirt road as we pulled out of the parking lot. We crossed Interstate 40 and followed old Route 66 for a while (my friend Jeff has great photos of this stretch and of the Mojave National Preserve), then turned south again to the airport.

We landed in the rain and reality of the Pacific Northwest, already looking forward to our next desert adventure. In the meantime, though, this has been your Mojave break. We hope you’ve enjoyed it, and we’ll resume regular programming next week.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
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