To put it simply, our one-week stay in the Mojave National Preserve was my favorite week of our trip thus far. We left Barstow, CA on the morning of March 26th headed for a spot just within the preserve, called “Dharma Tower.” We had seen a couple of reviews for the location on Campendium, a website where we find most of our camping locations. Reviews stated that the spot was beautiful, accessible and boasted good cell data connection, which are all very important to us when choosing a spot. Mojave was another location suggested to me by my mom, who spent over two years living in Southern California and knows all the best places to visit. This was her best suggestion yet.
We arrived midday on a Sunday, and there was not a single other camper in sight. This set the tone for our entire stay there, as this was the most remote and secluded destination of our travels thus far.
We had a tiny bit of trouble finding the spot using the given GPS coordinates, but soon spotted the tower and recognized the site from photos that others had posted on Campendium. We pulled in next to the tower, but the site was not very big, nor very scenic, due to the fact that we were parked next to a cell tower. We decided to drive our Cherokee a bit further down the road, to a spot that we had read about that was apparently only big enough for vans and truck campers. After surveying the spot, we were confident that our rig would fit just fine, so we went back for our rig, and, sure enough, we fit just fine in this spot a bit further down the road. Because of our willingness to be a bit more adventurous with our big RV, we were able to spend the week parked next to a huge pile of boulders, rather than a cell tower. Score!
No words can describe how great it was for us, both physically and mentally, to be out of the city and back in “the wild.” As much as we really had wanted to visit LA, we had planned to be there about a week and ended up being there nearly three weeks. Each night was filled with the sounds of loud sirens and cars/horns blaring, rather than with the sound of wildlife and silence. Our arrival in the Mojave Preserve was like a breath of fresh air for us, not to mention that the sheer beauty of the area was extremely enjoyable.
This spring 2017 was a noteworthy year for the wildflowers of California, with many referring to the desert’s spring bloom as a “superbloom,” which was caused by all the rain California endured over the winter months. A superbloom is a sort of reward for putting up with ridiculous amounts of rain in an area which is not supposed to rain often. Since the superbloom technically began in the very beginning of March, we were worried that we had missed it while stuck in LA, but we somehow lucked out, as there were wildflowers waiting for us in the Mojave. Our whole campsite was filled with little yellow wildflowers, and there was also the occasional purple wildflower, which was so fun for us. We are easily delighted by simple pleasures, I suppose.
However, our joy in celebrating our return to the wilderness was soon cut short by the gnarly wind that began to blow that evening. Yes, in our preparation for our travels to the Mojave Preserve, we had somehow forgotten to check the area’s weather. The wind began to blow very strongly that night, and it was supposed to continue until Wednesday morning, stop briefly for the day on Wednesday, then pick right back up Thursday morning, then remain strong straight through until the following Sunday. So basically, we were going to be stuck with a full week of wind. Not just normal wind, but strong, crazy, California desert winds.
Before traveling to California, we did not even know that strong, winter desert winds were a thing. We did not find out how intense the wind could be until we ended up in the middle of a ridiculous windstorm while camped on a dry lake bed, with nothing to stop the wind or protect us from it. It was truly terrifying, and it left me with a perpetual and somewhat irrational fear of wind (you can read more about this specifically terrifying wind experience here). My uncle also told us about all the times he has seen overturned semis during bad windstorms, and after doing some googling, we learned that the California desert winds were to be taken very seriously. All that aside, because of my fear of the wind, I wanted to leave the Mojave Preserve, that we had arrived in just that day, almost immediately. Luckily, Brendan was able to convince me to stay the night and see how I felt about it the next morning.
Well, that night came and went without incident, and I decided to give the Preserve another shot. I’m SO glad that I did! The wind turned out to be tolerable and not too bad overall, and we had such an amazing week there. The huge boulders next to us helped to block a lot of the wind, and we also parked our tow vehicle in such a way so that it would break the wind for us. With these two factors, the wind was hardly even an issue in our lovely stay.
We decided to plan our “exploring day” for Wednesday since that was the day that the wind was supposed to die down. On Monday and Tuesday, we mostly worked, while enjoying gorgeous desert views. Brendan took care of a few maintenance needs on our RV and on our Cherokee (he’s such a good mechanic!), and it was great to get those things taken care of. When our work was done for the day, we enjoyed cooking, playing outside with our dogs, and watching movies in the evening. We also saw an incredible amount of stars at night, due to the remoteness of the area, which was incredible.
On Wednesday, we set out early, eager to enjoy the entirety of our “exploring day.” We realized in all the excitement to get to the Mojave Preserve that we had filled gasoline on our RV, but not on our Cherokee. We had planned a couple of hikes for the day, but some of them were a bit further than we would have been comfortable driving on a less-than-full gas tank. Because of this, we decided to go get gas first, before beginning our day. Due to the remoteness of the Preserve, there was only one gas station around, located thirty minutes in the opposite direction of the hikes. However, this gas station was located on “Route 66,” the iconic American road trip highway, so we were not completely disappointed about the hour of driving this gas scenario had added to our morning.
While driving down Route 66, we saw what appeared to be a big black hill far into the distance. As we approached it, we realized it resembled a volcano. We saw signs pointing to it, and decided to check it out further, because why not?
Upon arrival, we found out that it was actually a crater, aptly named “Amboy Crater,” and that it is also a national monument. We were stoked to have stumbled upon this unplanned gem! We read on the sign and on alltrails.com (a popular hiking reference) that the trail was about 3.8 miles out-and-back, and that we would be able to climb into the crater once we had walked to it. We quickly decided to give the hike a try.
The hike was so gorgeous! It’s so neat to find something completely random that you hadn’t even planned to do and then be able to enjoy it so immensely. As Martin Buber once put it, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” For us, this crater hike was one of those “secret destinations.” The hike to the crater was gorgeous, filled with even more yellow and purple wildflowers than our then-campsite. There were also bountiful black lava rocks, strewn randomly about the desert, and it was altogether a very beautiful sight.
The only thing that brought the hike down was the 90-degree weather combined with the strength of the midday sun, which was beating down on us pretty hard. We had all three of our dogs with us, including Archie, who we don’t usually bring on hikes over two miles, as he tires quickly (he is a Bichon Frise/Shih Tzu mix). Since this hike was not planned, we decided to try it with him. He did fine for the most part but did get pretty hot due to the length of his coat at the time. We stopped for plenty of water breaks and rest for him, and I also carried him for some of the hike out to the crater, to keep him from getting too tired.
We arrived at the crater within a half hour, and climbed up and into it. Being inside the crater was neat, although it was more shallow than I had expected. For some reason, I had this picture of it being completely hollow, but the distance from the floor of the crater to the upper rim was probably no more than 50-75 feet. It was still breathtaking and very interesting to behold. Brendan climbed to the rim of the crater and walked its circumference, but I opted to stay on the crater floor with the dogs and allow Archie to rest.
Once Bren had fully explored the crater, we hiked back to the car. Bren walked Max and Luna, while I carried Archie much of the way back.
Once we made it back to our car, we finally went to get gas, where I met a bunch of Airmen special forces, who were gassing up their dune buggies. They approached me because they wanted to pet Luna, but we ended up having a great conversation about their current duties, and I told them that my younger brother is a Marine.
After getting gas, we headed back to the RV to eat lunch and drop Archie off, who was exhausted. Because we had already completed one hike, we only had time for one more that day, and we decided to do the “Mojave Lava Tubes” trail, which was short and ended with a cool, underground cave. The drive there was a bit lengthy but very scenic. When we turned off of the main road, we had a five-mile drive down a washboarded dirt road to reach the trailhead, which was gnarly to say the least, but very worth it. When we arrived, we had only a one-half mile walk before we reached the entrance to the cave.
Upon arrival to the cave entrance, we met a French-Canadian family with an adorable three-month-old Husky puppy, who made fast friends with Luna and Max. Once they left, we climbed down into the cave, and we were disappointed to find that it was a shallow pile of rocks that reached a rock wall after a mere fifteen feet. Brendan had been talking about wanting to explore caves for awhile, and he was rather disappointed, especially since the photos of the cave we had seen online made it appear much bigger and neater.
Before leaving, we saw an opening on the opposite side of the cave, which Brendan crawled under to make sure we weren’t missing anything. It turns out that there was an entire underground room on the other side of the cave overhang. I followed suit, and was led to a large open room with a series of three open skylights. It was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen! I’m so glad Brendan found the other side of the cave that we almost completely missed out on. We spent about thirty minutes exploring the cave before heading back to our car.
We decided to check out the Kelso Sand Dunes on our drive back to our campsite, hoping to watch the sunset there. When we arrived at the dunes, we realized that there was a one-mile hike out to the dunes, and we were not sure we could make it there by sunset. We were also tired from the two previous hikes and the heat of the day, so we opted to watch the sunset from our car and come back in a couple days to complete the full hike out to the dunes.
When we returned to the RV, I made ceviche for the first time, and it was delicious! I had watched my aunt make it during our December visit with them, and I mimicked her recipe, using shrimp, imitation crab, cucumber, jalapeno, tomato, cilantro, red onion, tomato juice, and lime juice. We ate it as a cold salad with tortilla chips, and it was so, so good! I will definitely be making it again.
The next couple of days were similar to our first few days in the Mojave, as we worked and took care of other to-do list items. On Friday night, the wind died down some, so we were able to have a bonfire, and it was our most epic one yet. We built the fire between the boulders that were piled next to our campsite, to block out the wind, and it was a clear, starry night. We cooked hot dogs and s’mores over the fire, and we were super glad that we braved the winds. It was the best bonfire we have had as of yet.
On our last afternoon in the Mojave National Preserve, we headed back to Kelso Sand Dunes, and we planned to hike the full distance to the dunes and fully explore them. We left a bit later than we had planned, and we arrived at the dunes around 5pm with Luna in tow. It was only about a mile out to the largest sand dune, but we did not realize that the sand on these dunes is not your typical desert sand, but is instead basically like sand that you find on the beach. We ended up hiking up and down the sandy hills to reach the largest dunes, and it was akin to trudging through sandy hills at the beach. It was gorgeous and scenic, but very tiring. At a certain point, I took off my shoes and walked barefoot over the soft sand, which actually helped to make it a bit easier to hike through the sand.
We finally made it to the top of the largest dune, and it was definitely worth the hike out there. It was the most magnificent sight. At the top of the dunes, we could see very far into the distance. There were mountains and desert as far as the eye could see, all of it very clear and bright, due to the glow of the setting sun. It was very surreal. We took the most beautiful photos, and we waited until the sun had dipped below the horizon before heading back to our car.
It quickly began to become dark, and we made it back to our RV as the moon rose into the sky for the night. It was so worth it to make sure we experienced the dunes before leaving for our next destination.
We spent the next morning packing up and left that afternoon, but we will never forget our wonderful time spent in the Mojave Preserve.
If we hadn’t been in such a rush to reach Death Valley National Park before it became unbearably hot, we would have spent a second week there. I am so glad that we did not decide to leave because of the intense wind, which did not end up being so bad after all. We are so grateful for our refreshing time there, and we are hoping for the opportunity to visit once again another year.