There’s a calming feeling for me, being out in the desert. The sky stretches from horizon to horizon, blue broken up by sparse clouds beckoning the mind and spirit upward. Few other people have crossed my path since exiting Interstate 15 in Baker, California, and the cares of the world seem far beyond my sight. The air is dry and fresh, filled with the sounds of buzzing insects and a soft breeze rustling the leaves of the scrub brush.
To so many people, desert – especially one like the Mojave – means a lack of life, a vast emptiness to be simply traversed or avoided entirely. To me, the desert is nourishing, filled with life, beckoning to be explored. Mojave National Preserve exists for those who, like me, are able to find wonder in the desert.
The definition of a solitary road
Mojave National Preserve was created by an act of Congress in 1994, protecting more than 1.5 million acres of what we call the “high” desert, as the parkland extends up to over 8,000 feet at the top of the New York Mountains (so named for their perceived resemblance to the skyline of Manhattan, though other than being the tallest things around, I don’t see it). That huge acreage makes Mojave the third largest national park by area in the lower 48, and one of the largest chunks of the dream to have a constant national park from “snow to sand,” extending from Yosemite in the High Sierra Nevadas down through Joshua Tree and the Sonoran Desert.
Kelso dunes, one of the park’s most impressive features
For now, though, Mojave is just a huge sentinel in the California desert, protecting an environment many see as indestructible, but in reality is shocking in its fragility. As climate change brings warmer temperatures, the high desert will become a place of refuge for plants and animals no longer capable of inhabiting lower elevations. The Joshua tree, for instance, will at some point in the sadly not-too-distant future not be able to exist in its current namesake park, but will be able to survive here. So, too, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, eagles, and more, will find the lands of Mojave National Preserve to be key to their survival. These species can already be found in the higher elevations of the park, occasionally venturing down in search of a meal.
A magnificent Joshua tree stands with a cinder come in the background, a remnant of the area’s volcanic past.
The park is as diverse in landscape as it is in flora and fauna. The Kelso sand dunes exist in harmony with the mountains, ancient cinder-cones, and rock formations home to ancient petroglyphs. My guide for the day is David Nichols, the park archaeologist of Mojave National Preserve for more than a decade. He guides me down a dirt road (most roads here aren’t paved, though the “main” dirt and gravel roads aren’t a bad drive, even in my old Toyota Corolla), and onto an overgrown track that my poor car had no business being on, but somehow emerged from largely unscathed. Here in the middle of the desert, he points out rock art dating back to the year 700, thankfully well off anything resembling a beaten path for its own protection.
Worth the drive, though it was harrowing.
David and his team are currently cataloguing all of the petroglyphs in the park, including these, for application to be listed in the national register of historic places, which will make protection easier. (That doesn’t stop people from – illegally – using the art as target practice; bullet holes are sadly not uncommon among the petroglyphs.) Today they are using a kite-mounted camera to get an aerial view of the area for mapping purposes. (Drones are not allowed in any National Preserve, although the Preserve status versus a full National Park does mean that hunting, ranching, and mining are permitted.)
A bullet hole in a petroglyph
It is amazing that people have been living out here for well over a millennium, subsisting on local foraging and hunting, and water from springs that emerge from the desert but never reach the ocean. Even today, as many as 100 people (other than park staff) reside within the park boundaries, David being one of them. He tells me that he grew up coming here as a getaway from Los Angeles, and loves the wildness that the desert offers. Despite iffy internet service and lack of nearby infrastructure, he wouldn’t live anywhere else. While I don’t know if I could permanently settle here, I can certainly appreciate the sense of wilderness that the Mojave evokes.
My time in Mojave National Preserve is brief, as it’s roughly three hours each way from my home in LA. I marvel from a distance at the Kelso dunes, pass by the Kelso depot (the train lines are still active, but only freight, and the old depot is now the visitors center for the park), and wander a bit down a slot canyon at Hole-in-the-Wall before meandering back to the highway, this time at Interstate 40. The vast expanse of protected desert in my rear view mirror, I ponder the significance of the day and the area.
While certainly not as jaw-droppingly breathtaking as Yosemite, Mojave National Preserve is no less important in the role it plays, guarding a varied environment and its denizens from the intrusions of human “progress.” Here, unique plants and animals – and human history – come together in a way that isn’t often possible in today’s world. The Mojave protects some of these vulnerable species from climate change, and the sheer size of the park assures that some diversity will remain. It is remote, with only a single paved road that connects both the I-15 and I-40 sides (though as I mentioned, many of the dirt roads are fine for a small car), and I am grateful for that since the desert is so vulnerable to human interference.
Plus, you might just have a scene like this nearly all to yourself!
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