Mojave National Preserve: The Kelso Dunes & More

Last Updated on: 2nd November 2023, 02:02 am

The massive Mojave National Preserve, located between Joshua Tree and Death Valley, is one of California’s most overlooked outdoor destinations. The towering Kelso Dunes alone are worth the trip, while other parts of the park feature unique hikes like the Ring Loops Trail.

Established in 1994, the Mojave National Preserve covers 1.6 million acres – about half the size of Death Valley, but nonetheless huge. While not a National Park, it’s managed by the National Park Service. And if it were to become a National Park someday, it would be the 10th largest in the country.

Given Mojave National Preserve’s immense size and the large distance between many of the main sites, you can’t expect to see everything in a day. But as we’ll cover in this guide, you can still enjoy many of the highlights.

A fact that surprises many people is that the Mojave National Preserve is home to more Joshua trees than Joshua Tree National Park itself! But the area where they’re most located – Cima Road – was closed at the time of my visit, and is therefore absent from this guide.

On that note, always be sure to check for the latest updates before your visit.

I spent a day exploring the Mojave National Preserve on my way from Joshua Tree to Death Valley. The following itinerary details the route I took, but it shouldn’t be difficult to do it in reverse if you’re coming from the north instead.

In any case, it would be wise to fill up on gas near your hotel before embarking on this journey.

While there are a few campgrounds within the park, you won’t find any hotels nearby. Be sure to check the end of the article for a wide variety of suggestions for hotels in neighboring areas.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

Amboy Crater

Amboy Crater is technically outside of the Mojave National Preserve. Instead, it’s part of the Mojave Trails National Monument, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Nevertheless, we’re including it in this guide, as you’ll pass right by it on your way from Joshua Tree to the Mojave National Preserve (or vice versa).

In my case, I departed from the town of Yucca Valley at 7:15, arriving at Amboy Crater about an hour later. But those basing themselves in Twentynine Palms (more below) could make it in about forty minutes.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

If you’re short on time, you can simply admire the cone from afar by sitting in a kiosk near the parking lot. But the real appeal of visiting Amboy Crater is the chance to hike right into it and along its rim.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater
Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater
Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

From the parking area, the trail to the cone is 1.1 miles (1.8 km) one-way. While the sign near the lot says to ‘give yourself a minimum of three hours,’ the hike just took me two. And I was taking it slow with photography.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

The hike, which will ultimately take you atop the 250 ft-high cone, looks rather intimidating from afar. But while not visible from the parking lot, there’s actually a large opening on the crater’s righthand side, as the wall collapsed due to an ancient eruption.

Fortunately, the hike is not nearly as steep as it first seems.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

The trail is well-outlined and it’s difficult to get lost. Eventually, it will take you up a gentle slope on the side with the opening. As you walk up several switchbacks, you’ll get to enjoy excellent views of Amboy’s surroundings.

But the best is yet to come.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater
Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

Once through the opening, the trail forks into multiple paths. You have the choice of beginning with the crater floor or heading right up to the top of the rim.

I briefly walked along the lower Crater Trail before walking uphill to the rim, where I’d end up spending most of my time.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

Disappointingly, some people had left their ‘art’ on the crater floor. Using basalt stones, they created a massive image of a cartoony face, and in another area, a spiral.

This is the last thing someone wants to see when visiting a natural wonder. And had I not had a packed itinerary ahead, I would’ve taken some time to ‘retouch’ the work. Hopefully, somebody already has by the time you read this.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

The top of the rim offers more stunning views of Amboy’s desert surroundings. And once up here, it’s hard to resist walking along the entire thing, which measures out to 1,500 ft in diameter.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

If you’re concerned about safety, it’s been about 10,000 years since this volcano last erupted! The main thing you’ll have to worry about is watching your footing as you walk along the rim, as some parts can be quite narrow and rocky.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

Eventually, the rim trail will gently take you back down to the opening. And from there, you’ll return to the parking lot via the same trail that got you here.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

Moving on, you’ll pass through the town of Amboy. It’s situated along Route 66, one of America’s original highways that stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles. As such, Amboy went through a brief boom period in the early 20th century, with Roy’s Motel and Cafe opening here in 1938.

As it was the only motel, gas station and restaurant in this part of California, just about everyone traveling along Route 66 would stop here.

And those passing through Amboy today will find its preserved 1950s-era sign and even a classic car out front for a little taste of old Americana.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater
Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

While the cafe, motel and gas station are still there, their operating hours are said to be sporadic, wildly fluctuating from year to year. The gas station didn’t seem to be operating at the time of my visit, so make sure you fill up first thing in the morning near your hotel.

Mojave National Preserve Amboy Crater

Another ‘attraction’ nearby is a large golden Buddha statue. Having lived before in Southeast Asia, I shuddered a bit to see it entirely covered in stickers and trinkets. But I’d like to think it’s been done out of ignorance rather than deliberate disrespect.

The Rings Loop Trail

When moving onto the Mojave National Preserve from Amboy, you have a couple of options. Heading directly to the Kelso Dunes would be a straightforward 45-minute drive. 

But if you plan on doing the Ring Loops Trail (which you really should), head east for a while before turning onto Essex Road. Your destination will be the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center.

From Amboy, the journey took me a little under 90 minutes. As mentioned, the Mojave National Preserve is vast and lacking in infrastructure, so expect to do a lot of driving in between the main landmarks.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail
Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail

Essex is largely unpaved, but it was relatively smooth and without any major obstacles at the time of my visit. Considering how stunning the surrounding scenery was – not to mention the lack of other visitors – I made frequent photography stops along the way.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail
The Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center

Finally, I arrived at the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center, only to find it closed. There were at least, free pamphlets outside for visitors to take.

The Rings Loop trail is part of the wider Hole-in-the-Wall area which contains four hikes in total. The others are the 6-mile ‘Barber Peak Loop Trail’ and the 8-mile ‘Mid Hills to Hole-in-the-Wall Trail,’ while the 0.5-mile walk between the Information Center and the campground is counted as the fourth.

As the Rings Loop Trail is just a one-mile loop which should take you about an hour, it’s ideal for those with just a day in the park.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail
A viewing platform situated above the rings

This trail can be done either clockwise or counterclockwise. But while I happened to do it counterclockwise, I’d recommend most people do it clockwise.

The reason is that by doing the hike clockwise, you’ll finish it by climbing up the rings, which seems more fun than beginning by climbing down them.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail
Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail

Entering the trail from above, I had to carefully find my footing and slowly descend backward before then grabbing onto some rings with my hands. All in all, though, it wasn’t so bad.

I then repeated the process with additional sets of rings, which were fortunately very stable and seem to be able to support a lot of weight. As mentioned, while climbing down them is definitely doable, it does seem like they’re intended to be climbed up.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail
Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail

Once at the bottom, I found myself within Banshee Canyon, known for the many Swiss cheese-like holes in its rocks. I had a look around the various cracks and alleyways before continuing on with the trail.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail
Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail

Next, I was greeted with a stunning view of rocky buttes, mesas and yuccas. 

This being the summer low season, I had the entire place to myself. But given how obscure the Mojave National Preserve is, you’d probably be able to avoid crowds in peak season, too.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail
Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail

Eventually, I reached a barbed wire fence – one of the last things you want to encounter on a trail. But looking closely, I spotted an opening, realizing that it’s probably there to block animals and not hikers.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail

Aside from the rings, another highlight of the Rings Loop Trail is the petroglyphs. 

This region was once inhabited by tribes like the Paiute, Chemehuevi and Mojave. It’s unclear who left these particular carvings, though you will spot a lot of interesting symbols, with the most prominent among them being a large bighorn sheep.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail
Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail

Next, it’s finally time to visit the Kelso Dunes. At the time of my visit, the road north of the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center was closed. So I had no choice but to return the way I came down Essex Road before turning right onto Highway 40, and then another right onto Kelbaker Road.

But even if the road north of the Information Center is open during your visit, I think going back down Essex would still be the most straightforward route.

As you can tell, the Rings Loop Trail is a really big detour, but one I still found worth it.

The Kelso Dunes

Coming from the Rings Loop Trail, expect it to take you about 70-80 minutes to reach the Kelso Dunes. 

But on the way there, be sure to make a brief stop at the Boulders Viewpoint Area. It almost looks like a small chunk of Joshua Tree was transported and dropped here.

Mojave National Preserve Rings Loop Trail

While Kelbaker Road is paved and in great condition, you will have to head down an unpaved road again to reach the dunes. As you drive along Kelbaker, you’ll eventually need to make a left down the aptly titled Kelso Dunes Rd.

It’s about a 4-mile (6 km) drive to the dunes. And luckily, it’s not that bad as far as dirt roads go. But it would still be a good idea to rent a 4×4 or AWD for this trip.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

The Kelso Dunes are among the oldest and largest dune complexes in the western US, with the total dune field covering up to 45 square miles! Obviously, most visitors are only going to experience a small fraction of it.

These dunes are also some of the highest in the country, reaching up to 650 ft (200 m). That makes them just a tad shorter than Death Valley’s Eureka Dunes, which stand as tall as 680 ft. But compared to the Eureka Dunes, the Kelso Dunes are a lot simpler to reach.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

The pictures don’t fully convey it, but when you’re looking out at the dunes from the parking lot, they really do look like mountains of sand. 

But don’t just view them from afar. Hiking right up to the Kelso Dunes is arguably the highlight of the entire Mojave National Preserve.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

At the time of my visit, I was using the AllTrails app, whose trail for the Kelso Dunes appears as just a long straight line. I was under the assumption that the trail would simply culminate at a nice viewing spot somewhere at the base of the dunes – but this would not turn out to be the case.

It was a long walk from the parking lot to get to the base of the dunes. Given how high the central and tallest dune was, climbing to the top was out of the question in the middle of such a busy and tiring day, I figured.

But as I got closer, I was tempted to at least make my way a bit further uphill to enjoy the views.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

But how did these massive dunes get here? The process first began back when the Mojave River carried sediment from the San Bernardino mountains, which was largely comprised of feldspar and quartz. 

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

Up until about 25,000 years ago, there used to be a lake in the area, and the river would carry sediment to it. But it eventually drained, and much of the sediment was exposed. And over time, the sand was blown here by the wind, gradually forming this massive dune field.

So gradually, in fact, that geologists believe it took thousands of years for the dunes we see today to take shape. In particular, the Kelso Dunes largely formed from 9000 years ago up until about 2400 hundred years ago.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

If you’ve hiked up sand dunes before, you know how tiring they can be. Not only do you have to deal with an uphill climb, but your feet are constantly struggling against the soft sand.

Fortunately, as I made my way higher, I encountered some firmer sections of the sand, which encouraged me to keep going. As there we no fresh footprints to be seen, I had to improvise my route.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

While, as mentioned, I set out on the hike not intending to climb to the top. But I eventually realized that I was almost there. And checking AllTrails again, I understood that the trail did indeed culminate at the highest point.

And so I decided to push myself to make it to the the top of the central, highest dune.

The final stretch was easily the roughest part of the hike. But by sticking to the central part of the crest, it wasn’t as slippery as I’d anticipated.

It was hot and I was out of breath and sweating, but I gradually made my way up step by step.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

Ultimately, I had made it, and the views from the top were tremendous and well worth the effort.

Another thing the Kelso Dunes are known for is their ability to produce a booming sound, though I didn’t hear anything myself. Supposedly, multiple need to be pushing sand down simultaneously from atop the crest for this phenomenon to occur.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

All in all, my roundtrip journey to the top and back took me an hour and forty-five minutes. 

It was a sweltering late afternoon in June, and it was indeed exhausting. I never could’ve done it without multiple liters of water on me, most of which I finished.

While I saw no one out on the dunes, I did encounter a family who’d just arrived as I got closer to the parking lot. For whatever reason, they hadn’t brought any water, and they asked me if I thought they could reach the top without any!

Please, have more common sense than that.

The Kelso Depot

When finished with the dunes, continue north down Kelbaker Rd. until you reach the Kelso Depot. While it long functioned as both a Visitor Center and museum, it’s been closed for years now.

Nevertheless, the actual building is far older and a local historical landmark, so it’s at least worth a quick glance from the outside.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

The structure was built in the 1920s in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. This was where ore from the nearby mines would be delivered to be shipped further along the interstate rail route.

But ultimately, the depot would cease to function by 1965, and it remained abandoned for decades before being transferred to the National Park Service in the 1990s. It was then finally restored in the early 2000s.

At the time of writing, though, it’s been abandoned once again – but hopefully not for long.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Depot Mojave National Preserve

The Kelso Depot is located where the road forks. From here, you’ll have the option of continuing down Kelbaker Rd. or heading down Kelso Cima Rd., which later just becomes Cima Rd.

As mentioned, at the time of my visit, Cima Rd. was closed due to construction, so I didn’t have a choice. But if you find it open, that’s where you’ll find the Teutonia Peak Trail, another one of the Mojave National Preserve’s popular hikes.

Kelso Depot Mojave National Preserve

The Lava Tube

From the Mojave National Preserve, I was ultimately headed toward Beatty, Nevada – another 2.5 hours away. (For those heading to Death Valley, Pahrump or even Las Vegas would be closer from the Mojave National Preserve, but my particular itinerary had me starting in Beatty.)

While I’d decided against visiting the Lava Tube at the end of the day, fear of missing out (FOMO) took over. And the next thing I knew, I was turning off of Kelbaker onto Aiken Mine Rd, yet another unpaved road.

Lava Tube Mojave National Preserve

Part of my decision was based on recent AllTrails reviews. Multiple reviewers had claimed that the 4.7-mile road was smooth and easy and that the Lava Tubes were a must-visit.

But in my case, the road was pretty awful, and it was far more difficult than the other unpaved roads I’d encountered elsewhere in the preserve.

The conditions of unpaved roads can change with little warning, so despite what others say, you never quite know until you get there.

Finally arriving at the parking lot, you’ll walk down a 0.8-mile flat trail until you reach the tubes themselves. You’ll then descend a ladder, after which you must carefully walk down some rocky terrain before ending up in the tube itself. 

At the time of my visit, it was already evening and quite dark inside. If you have some type of flashlight, bring one. Otherwise, your smartphone should be fine.

Lava Tube Mojave National Preserve
Lava Tube Mojave National Preserve
Lava Tube Mojave National Preserve

The tube itself is quite small and only takes a few minutes to walk through. So why bother visiting?

Supposedly, in the mid-afternoon, the sun shines directly above the holes in the ceiling and results in beautiful light beams. While that sounds like a great experience, I wouldn’t say that the Lava Tube is worth the detour for those arriving in the early morning or evening.

When exploring the Lava Tube, you also have to be mindful of rattlesnakes. Be especially careful in the rocky portions, as they like to hang out in the shade.

Reaching the end of the tube, I spotted a long green object in the shadows. It wasn’t moving and I wasn’t quite sure if it was a snake, but I certainly didn’t want to find out!

Exiting the Mojave National Preserve, I stopped for food in the town of Baker, California, which happens to be home to the World’s Tallest Thermometer. I then made the long journey to Beatty, Nevada to begin a new adventure in Death Valley.

The World's Tallest Thermometer in Baker

Additional Info

Most visitors to the Mojave National Preserve will be staying near Joshua Tree before or after their visit.

There are two main towns that give one easy access to Joshua Tree National Park. To the north of the North Entrance is the town of Twentynine Palms, where the highest-rated accommodations are all rental homes.

Popular options include Cozy Fresh Desert Hideaway, Desert Twilight 29, The Joshua Tree Forest and Lovegrass by AvantStay.

While not as highly rated, there are a few small motels in town, such as Harmony Motel, Oasis Inn and Motel 6.

From Twentynine Palms, about a twenty-five drive west down 29 Palms Highway is the town of Yucca Valley. From here, you have easy access to the West Entrance.

This is where I stayed, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a Walmart right in town. This is probably the only option in this remote part of California to buy whatever outdoor equipment you might need.

Again, the most popular places to stay here are rental homes, such as Yucca Valley Oasis, Sweet Suite in the Desert and The Loft.

The few hotel options, meanwhile, include Super 8 and America’s Best Value Inn.

In regards to staying within the park, there are plenty of campsites to choose from. None of them, however, have showers. You can learn more about camping at Joshua Tree here.

The Mojave National Preserve makes for a great stop before or after a visit to Death Valley. But figuring out where to base yourself for exploring Death Valley is far from simple.

First, let’s take a look at options within the park itself, which would be the most convenient option considering the park’s massive size.

Unfortunately, all of the hotels and restaurants within Death Valley are owned by the Xanterra Corporation and they don’t come cheap. The different options include The RanchThe Inn at Death Valley and The Oasis.

If you don’t have the budget to splurge on those hotels, you’re left with two options: stay in a city outside the park or camp.

Outside the park itself, the two most convenient bases for visiting Death Valley are the towns of Pahrump and Beatty, both in Nevada. Both towns are a couple of hours from the northern end of the Mojave National Preserve.

Pahrump

The small city of Pahrump is arguably the best base for Death Valley. It’s right in between Las Vegas and Death Valley, or an hour each way from either.

It has lots of shopping and restaurant options, while many of the local casinos also feature hotels. My only experience was at the Saddle West Hotel Casino. While the rooms were nothing special, they did have all of the essentials and were reasonably priced.

Beatty

Beatty, Nevada is another convenient base for Death Valley, being only 50 minutes from Furnace Creek. Compared to Pahrump, however, it’s harder to reach for those coming from afar.

All in all, Beatty is much more charming than Pahrump but it also has fewer shopping and dining options. I stayed once at the Exchange Club Motel, which was fine as far as motels go. It seems to be run by the same management as the nearby Death Valley Inn (not to be confused with The Inn at Death Valley inside the park).

Las Vegas is just 90 minutes or so from the edge of the Mojave National Preserve, while it can also serve as a base for a Death Valley day trip (it would be wiser to stay closer for extended visits).

The one-way journey between Las Vegas and Death Valley’s eastern pay station is about two hours.

Tourists into gambling, nightlife and an all-around typical Las Vegas experience tend to stay on or near the Strip. This area is home to a myriad of hotels and casinos, many of which are household names, such as Mandalay Bay or Luxor.

Las Vegas, however, is a fast-growing city with new residential areas being built each year, and much of the greater metropolitan area feels surprisingly normal.

Some good choices outside of the strip area include Tahiti All-Suite ResortSouth Point Hotel or Aloft Henderson, just to name a few.

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