Date of our disaster in the desert: April 24, 2017
Updated: April 23, 2020
Table of Contents
Opening Thoughts on Mojave National Preserve
Although our entire time spent in Mojave National Preserve was a disaster, there are still things that we enjoyed about this desert. We may differ in our recommendation of visiting this park, but we are certainly in agreement that Mojave National Preserve is worth seeing if you are already in the area. In fact, Mojave National Preserve is a great day trip that you can take from Las Vegas. As you will find out when you read about our experiences in Mojave, there are certain precautions that should be taken if you do not want to have the same experience that we had in Mojave National Preserve. If you ever find yourself driving on Interstate 40 (on the south side of Mojave National Preserve), then you should take the 15 minutes to drive up and see the Hole-in-the-Wall Canyon. This happens to be each of our favorite sites in Mojave National Preserve. But we’ll get to that in our upcoming Mojave tips and tricks.
Tips & Tricks for Mojave National Preserve
If you’re planning a day trip to Mojave National Preserve then one of the best tips we can provide you is get there early! No, you won’t be fighting off crowds of people to get the best view of the “Hole in the Wall”, but you will be fighting off a heat index of well over 100° F (38° C). The desert cools off drastically at night, but warms up just as quickly as soon as the sun hits it, so our advice is to go in the morning when the temperature is still bearable.
If you decide to go here, please come prepared by keeping our recommended safety precautions in mind. A 110° F (43° C) desert is the last place you want to be stranded. If you do find yourself in an unlucky situation, then you’ll be glad you took our advice.
- Fill up your gas tank BEFORE entering because there is no gas station in the entire Preserve.
- Bring plenty of water and some food (especially if you plan on spending a long time there).
- Wear strong sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. The extreme heat is no joke.
- There is no cell service in the entire park.
- There is very little traffic. Each of these last two points are notable because if you do end up in a stressful situation, it will be difficult to contact someone for help, leading us to our next recommended precaution.
- Tell someone where you are going and plan a time to contact that person once you’ve left the park. It’s always good to do this when going into the unknown, but especially when you know the cell signal could be spotty. If something happens and you can’t contact someone, then your contact person can call for help on your behalf.
- Make sure your vehicle can handle the roads you want to take. Most roads in the park are well paved, but getting to the Hole in the Wall is rough unless you come in from the south.
After reading our own horror stories, we encourage you to visit the official National Parks website for Mojave to learn even more about this incredible place.
Transportation – Getting to and Around the Preserve
Transportation is clearly the theme of this article, as you will discover while you read. Mojave National Preserve is a wildlife preserve located in the middle of an enormous desert in the southeastern part of California in the United States. Because of it’s remote location, you will have a hard time finding any buses or other forms of public transportation to take you there. Therefore, if you plan on visiting, then you will definitely need to bring a car. This beautiful desert is easily accessible within 1 hour if you are staying in Las Vegas or within 3 hours if staying in Los Angeles. Before entering Mojave National Preserve, please be sure you have a full tank of gas. The preserve is very extensive, you will be doing lots of driving and there’s not a single gas station in the entire park. Trust us. You do NOT want to run out of gas here.
Things To Do in Mojave National Preserve
Mojave National Preserve offers a number of sights to see and activities to undertake. One of the most popular activities in Mojave National Preserve is camping. Now, we know what you’re thinking. Why would anyone in their right mind camp in one of the hottest deserts in the United States? We haven’t done this yet, but we’d like to and the answer as to why is simple: one of the clearest nights skies you can see anywhere. Some of the best views of our galaxy can be taken in on a clear desert night.
Here’s your go-to resource on Mojave campgrounds, camping fees and related information.
If you’re not into stargazing, then camping out might not be for you. That’s okay because there is plenty to see within a few hours by cruising through the area. You can either hike up the Kelso sand dunes or take them in from a distance like we did. You can drive down the rocky road to see the “Hole in the Wall”, which is an incredible display of nature’s erosive capacities, or swing over to see the inside of ancient lava tubes where magma flowed as early as 10,000 years ago. You can also make your own road through the desert (metaphorically) on four-wheelers or on horseback.
Mojave National Preserve is not just some wasteland with nothing to see. In fact it is full of life and interesting natural features that will leave you in awe. In fact, the Preserve also encompasses jagged mountains and the famous Joshua trees, which many road trippers take in by making their way to Joshua Tree National Forest. If you don’t have the time or the resources to go over there, you can enjoy plenty of Joshua trees while driving to and through Mojave.
Kelso Sand Dunes
The first location we were able to visit was the Kelso Dunes, which were quite nice to look at, but we didn’t feel like it would have been a good idea to climb them, since they are too far away from the parking lot and the heat was already unbearable. Nevertheless, we took some pretty pictures that really represent the seclusion of Mojave National Preserve. Is this a must-see sight in the park? We don’t really think so because if you’ve seen one sand dune, then you’ve seen them all. Nevertheless, the Kelso Dunes remain among the most popular tourist attractions in the park.
Hole in the Wall
Getting to the Hole in the Wall required us to take our rental car, a Volkswagen Jetta, down a 20 mile road that was so rough, it felt like we were driving over railroad tracks the entire time. I (Ryne) just knew the car was going to fall apart if my jaw didn’t fall off first. If you are going to drive the same way we did, then we highly recommend taking an off-road car that is made for this kind of terrain because we were probably very close to damaging our rental car.
Once we did get there, I (Denise) was positively surprised by the Holes in the Walls. The “Hole in the Wall” is similar to a small canyon that has a special formation. You should really take the time and go down the short hiking trail that leads through it. You can take some different paths, but you must be aware of your fitness level and capabilities, as some paths require some uncomfortable climbing through steep and narrow passages.
Unfortunately, the pictures don’t really represent what you see with your own eyes, so you’ll just have to visit and find out for yourself. We could even spot a rock that looked like a face.
The Hole in the Wall and the nearby chasm are very cool, but the drive getting there was a disaster. For that reason, we decided to take the blacktop road south out of the park when we left, instead of driving back the way we came. That route took us on a different highway back to Vegas (which of course included unexpected road construction). All of our mishaps turned a planned 3-4 hour day into a mostly miserable 8 hour day. Bottom line, if you’re near Mojave National Preserve, feel free to stop by and check things out, but come prepared!
Ancient Lava Tubes
We didn’t actually visit the famous ancient lava tubes that can be found in the park. The very simple reason for this is because visits to the Lava Tube Cave require a tour guide and we just didn’t have time for all of that. If you do have the time, then we think this is worth doing because it’s not everyday that you get a chance to see what the inside of a volcano looks like. Don’t worry, though. These tubes have been cold for around 10,000 years, so the chance of lava suddenly flowing through during your tour is essentially zero. You can find information on tours by visiting the official park website.
Hiking in Mojave National Preserve
As long as you’re prepared and smart, there are a number of hikes you can take while in the park. If you’re not keen to go alone, then you can also contact the visitor’s center (contact info at the bottom) and arrange a guided hike with a park ranger. These hikes even include moonlight hikes, where you can really take in the preserve’s astonishing nocturnal beauty and even learn a thing or two while you’re at it. Again, all of the information can be found on the official website that we link to multiple times in this article.
Going to Mojave National Preserve was somewhat of an impulse decision that almost turned us into buzzard food. To this day, I’m still unsure if the trip was worth all of the headache. Here’s my side of the story:
We left Las Vegas for Mojave National Preserve with the expectation that we would only be gone for about 3-4 hours. On our way, we stopped at a gas station to use the restroom. Someone asked how much fuel was left, when my father said we had 3 quarters of a tank of gas (that’s what I heard, anyway). He was confident that it was enough to get us in and out of the park before needing to fill up again, and so was I (based on the information I had). After driving about 20 miles into the park, I quickly learned that we did not have 3 quarters of a tank remaining when were at the gas station, but rather only 1 quarter of a tank. This was made clear when the gas light came on and emitted the sound of death, indicating “low fuel.” At this point, we were about 15-20 miles from the next symbol of civilization, which was the Kelso Visitor’s Center, located directly in the middle of the entire preserve.
The low fuel light promptly caused panic, annoyance and anger in Denise, whereas I was trying to not show my own paranoia by giving hope that there may be a gas station near the visitor’s center at Kelso Depot. Others in the car were not so hopeful because we were in the middle of the desert and in a national preserve. Of course, their fears were realized when we reached the visitor’s center and there was no gas station. The nearest gas station was 34 miles away and outside of the park. That means we needed to drive at least 50 miles with the fuel light on before we could fill up.
Before leaving Kelso Depot, we found the option on the vehicle console that displayed how many miles we could drive before completely running out of gas. While this was somewhat relieving for me (not so much for her), it was still cutting things close. After driving only 1 mile, the indicator already showed that we only had 35 miles remaining. It seemed like every 3-4 miles the indicator would take 5 miles off of our projected distance capability, putting us under the distance needed to reach the gas station. We were at least 8 miles from the gas station, when the indicator showed 0 miles in the tank. This is when I could really feel the nervousness in the car. The interstate where the gas station was located, while visible, was still a faint outline on the horizon and I just knew we were going to run out of gas and be stranded. Everyone was silent and every change of pace was met with nervous gasps.
About 3 miles from the gas station, the indicator started going into the negative. By some miracle, we made it to where the gas stations were, but there was a stop sign and a red light between us and salvation. To our relief, the car was able to accelerate out of both. We pulled into a gas station, amazed that we had made it this far, when my father realized gas was 2 cents cheaper down the street and proceeded to pull out and drive there instead.
“What?! We’ve driven 4 miles further than we should have even be able to drive and you want to go somewhere else?”, I said.
Thankfully, we didn’t break down in the middle of the road and did make it to the cheaper gas station, where I’m pretty sure the car coughed up dust upon removing the gas cap.
Denise didn’t say a single word during all of this and I could tell just how angry she was. She always warns us that we drive too far before filling up and she was finally right for the first time. At this point, she just wanted to go back to Vegas and skip Mojave National Preserve all together. Of course, we weren’t going to come all this way for nothing, so we did return to the park and ended up having an enjoyable day, viewing all of the interesting natural phenomena.
This trip to Mojave National Preserve was supposed to be very short, since it only takes around an hour to get there from Las Vegas. We stopped at a gas station before entering the park, but instead of getting gas, we stopped to use the bathroom. I thought we’d also get some gas since we only had one quarter of a tank left. However, I didn’t say anything because I’m always the one who they make fun of when begging them to get gas. I suppose it might be an American thing to wait for the gas light to turn on five times, before they finally decide to get some gas, whereas a German thing might be to always make sure to have enough gas, since it is irresponsible and therefore illegal to run out of gas in Germany. Anyway, the important fact is that we did not get any gas and we were about to enter a 1.6 million acre desert.
Obviously, it was bound to happen sooner or later: the gas light turned on and we just reached the center of this dry, abandoned and secluded desert. There were no houses, no towns, no people, just nothing far and wide. Nevertheless, everyone apart from me seemed to be very confident that there is a gas station in Mojave National Preserve. Therefore, we kept going to the closest “town” called Kelso close to the Kelso dunes, only to find out that the town merely consists of one building, the visitor center, and no gas station. Surprisingly for my fellow travelers, we found out that the closest gas station was outside Mojave National Preserve and 36 miles away. I was pissed. We just wasted all this time coming to the Mojave National Preserve, only to leave it again, without even getting to see anything. Long story short, we were on our way to the gas station when the fuel level display showed 0 miles. I repeat 0 miles and we could barely see the town with the gas station on the horizon! My imaginations were going wild at that point and my stress level was at 1 million. I was picturing us stranded in the desert without being able to call for any help (no service) or even to walk to the gas station. What a disaster.
From that point on, the roads and the drive seemed endless; like everything was happening in slow-motion as the fuel-level was in free-fall. Nobody talked since everyone seemed to have fallen in some kind of hypnosis just waiting for the thumb-sized gas station on the horizon to come closer. Miraculously, we reached the gas station while driving with a completely empty tank for 10 minutes. The display was even showing minus three miles when we finally arrived at the gas station outside of the Mojave National Preserve. I couldn’t believe that we had just wasted half of the day only because of gas.
But as my boyfriend has taught me throughout the last two years, it is not worth being upset about something that you cannot change and there is nothing good that comes from it. So I just accepted the disaster and moved on. Fortunately, nothing else happened on that day, which is why we could enjoy the rest of it. Nevertheless, I hope this trip was a lesson for the Cook family to always remember to have enough gas.
Mojave National Preserve Facts, History & Visitor Information
Established on October 31, 1994 and covering 1,600,000 acres, Mojave National Preserve is one of the youngest and largest national parks in the United States. Although a “Preserve” is not a park, Mojave National Preserve and other nature preserves are still maintained by the United States National Parks Service. Mojave National Preserve is located in southeastern California and is just a short drive from locations like Las Vegas or Sequoia National Park.
Although temperatures can reach up into the 110’s degrees Fahrenheit, Mojave National Preserve, like Death Valley, remains a rather popular camping destination. This is likely due to the vast, clear starlit skies that are available at night. Mojave National Preserve boasts a wide range of tourist attractions, but some of these are as simple as the Mojave phone booth. Although Mojave National Preserve is a desert, the acreage encompasses great elevation changes due to the mountains scattered throughout.
- Kelso Visitor’s Center Address: 2701 Barstow Road, Barstow, California 92311
- Park Hours: Open 24/7, 365 Days per Year
- Entry Fee: Free
- Park Contact Info