This is not what a desert in California is supposed to look like. The thought creeps into my head for the hundredth time, and I’m barely halfway up the Pisgah Crater. My drive here, only two miles from Interstate 40 and Route 66, just east of Newberry Springs and about thirty minutes from Barstow, went from stereotypical Mojave Desert scenery (scrub brush, rocks, sand dunes) to black volcanic lava field and cinder cone craters seemingly from one instant to another. It is still dry desert air, but everything else seems out of place.
But it isn’t. Pisgah Crater, while one of the largest cinder cones (volcanic craters) in the Mojave, is far from alone. In fact, this entire stretch of desert, which sits at more than 2,000 feet above sea level, is dotted with these very dormant – though not considered extinct – volcanic craters. It makes the landscape seem almost Martian, and the area has been used for movies needing an other worldly vibe. Volcanic rocks here come in black and shades of brown (and can maybe be red with a bit of tint), broken up only occasionally by bright green plant growth.
Pisgah Crater is a cinder cone, a short, fairly steep, roughly conical hill created as a volcanic vent. It is made of loose rock, held together by gravity, time, and sheer luck in some places. That luck is tested when I decide to follow footprints up one of the sides of the crater instead of the more gently rising path that I frankly didn’t see. (More on this in a bit.) Scampering up loose rock and sand isn’t my forte, though I make it without falling, despite a lack of witnesses to be able to attest to that.
About 20,000 years ago or so, this area was volcanically active. A visitor to the region would have been greeted with plumes of ash, lakes of lava, and a – geologically speaking – rapid transformation of the scenery, with new cones (created as a blockage in an underground lava tube pushes upward to escape) forming frequently, and in turn disappearing with new eruptions elsewhere. The USGS makes sure to tell us that while the area hasn’t been active in more than 10,000 years, it isn’t necessarily extinct, just very dormant. (It is monitored for signs of activity, so don’t worry about an eruption during your visit.)
Pisgah Crater itself rises about 320 feet over the desert, and is accessible via a once-paved road that is totally drivable in my Toyota despite being more pothole than road. From a small parking area (at least Google maps tells me I have arrived, and I just pull off the “road”), one can either scamper up the side of the crater – not recommended – or continue up the tracks of the now purely volcanic gravel road, which skirts the crater and connects to the remnants of a large lava lake. If you go this way, you’ll come to a fork where the path turns left and heads up to the top of the crater. It is a fairly gradual incline, though one needs good shoes since one will be walking on loose gravel and rocks.
Or you can be like me, decide that this track obviously doesn’t go to the top, go the other way, and end up scurrying up loose rock to the top, only to discover the wide trail and take that back down. The choice is yours. (While there were only a couple other people I saw, I did have cell reception the entire way, which made me feel better about the whole situation. I guess that’s an advantage of being within eyesight of a major interstate highway.)
The view from the top is lovely, the Mojave and the changing colors from the volcanic area to the “normal” desert spread below me. But the highlight from a scenic perspective is actually the lava fields behind the crater from the road. This was once a very active lava lake, and remnants of lava flows are clearly visible in harder rock sticking up out from the black sand. There are miles – I’ve been told – of lava tubes underneath the area, but few are large enough to enter and those that are aren’t easy to find without a guide. I like to imagine that the rock formations are the roofs of lava tubes, but that’s probably not true.
Most of this area is now protected by Mojave Trails National Monument, run by the Bureau of Land Management, and part of California’s ambitious plan to protect the entire “spine” of the state from Joshua Tree through Yosemite. Sadly, the monument doesn’t do a great job of promoting itself, but one can have a full cinder cone experience in nearby Mojave National Preserve as well. (Click here to read about Mojave National Preserve.)
Back at the lava fields, I grab a couple of rocks (one black and one brown) for later study from a pile that was left from the creation of the road, and marvel that such an unexpected and beautiful place exists out here in the middle of the desert. This part of California is one most people just drive through, barely noticing the scenery out of a car window as one traverses the seemingly empty space between Los Angeles and Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon. It just goes to show that beauty – and just sheer wonder – can be found anywhere, and that we all, myself included, need to do a better job of slowing down to notice it.
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