RCL Original

The Off-the-Grid Guide to Enjoying the Mojave Desert

RCL adventure correspondent Kinga Philipps takes you off the beaten path.

Adventure Kinga Philipps for RealClearLife

If you haven’t been to the marvelous piece of California desert called the Mojave National Preserve, you need to make time for a little adventuring.

Located between Los Angeles and Las Vegas this 1.6 million acre park is the perfect place to get lost. And I mean that literally as there are merely a few paved roads, a lot of 4×4 only terrain and camping just about anywhere you want to throw down your REI collection and call it home.

Dispersed camping is readily available and super desirable when nearby parks, like Joshua Tree, are booked solid. Incidentally, Mojave National Preserve has more Joshua trees than Joshua Tree National Park. I didn’t personally count them, but the park ranger who told me seemed very proud of this fact, so I believe him.

I went solo. I’m not saying you should, but I’ll strongly suggest it. It’s a chance to talk to yourself out loud, quiet the chatter in your head, and wake up at five in the morning to be the only footprints on the Kelso Sand Dunes as coyotes serenade your arrival. I’ve never been particularly skilled at meditating until I realized that there are different forms. For me, time spent alone in nature and active meditation (hiking, surfing, crawling through snake infested canyons) is my nirvana. If you’re as squirrely as I am, this might also be your route to tranquility.

If there are three must do’s in the park they are as follows:

The Kelso Dunes

Mojave Desert
(Courtesy Kinga Philipps)

Rising 650 feet above the surrounding desert floor they are California’s Namibia doppelgangers. Under the right conditions, they sing. If you get the sand sliding, they make a haunting humming sound, the mechanics of which are still a bit of a mystery. I don’t know what they do under the wrong conditions because I can’t imagine any. At sunrise, the whole area is other worldly, and mid week there is really not a soul there. I had the dunes to myself for hours … pouncing, sliding, playing, staring into space. I went in early spring. The sand was so cold I couldn’t go barefoot and several weeks later still had purple toenails from the sand pressing into my shoes. I call that a memento. Maybe bring socks and walk in those if you go when it’s cold. Points in advance for style. I also strongly suggest spending the night on top of the dunes under the stars … weather permitting. It will take you a few hours to climb to the top, spend some time exploring and wander back down. Sunrise and sunset are highly recommended.

I slept in my car at the base of the sand to be ready to climb at first light. The area can get windy so having car camping as a back up to pitching a tent is a smart idea. To be honest, I sometimes prefer it when traveling solo just so I feel more secure in remote regions. I’ve accepted that I have nothing to prove, and a mad creative imagination that envisions bears of unusual size behind every bush, so whatever makes me the most comfortable is the better choice.

In the mornings I cranked up the heat, another luxury of car camping, and put on some jams to go with the coffee. Nothing beats camping coffee. Nothing.  Shakey Graves, Sturgill Simpson and Griffin House were a good accompaniment to morning desert sounds for vigorous dancing while brushing teeth to get the blood flowing. Dancing for warmth should and could never be mistaken for sexy or graceful dancing. Luckily I had no neighbors, so my dance moves avoided judgment. As did my scurry off into the desert to find a nice spot behind a cactus to do my business. A shovel and toilet paper are a girl’s best friend in the wilderness. The ole spade is the camping hatchet’s uncool cousin but useful beyond words.

It was low 30s at night in the spring but the days were gorgeous. Summer is hot hot hot, like buzzards waiting for you to expire hot. So aim for spring or fall and always check the weather in advance. It goes without saying that plenty of water is a must, but I’ll say it anyway: plenty of water is a must. The Kelso Depot Visitor Center and the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center are the only two places within the monument I found to get water.

The Lava Tubes

Mojave Desert
(Courtesy Kinga Philipps)

Five miles down an unmarked dirt road that is supposed to be 4×4 only, but my Prius made it just fine. You enter a real, honest to goodness lava tube. Formed when the surface lava flow cooled and hardened while hot lava continued to flow underneath, these tunnels are pretty damn spectacular. A few holes in the roof of the tube allow in shafts of light that beam at you like something out of Star Trek. The light is perfect between 11 am and 1 pm to take great pictures and just hang out … I mean, how often do you get to chill in lava tubes.

A little photo tip: throwing a bit of dirt into the light shaft makes for great contrast, so the light beams really stand out. Just keep your eyes closed while you toss it in the air. I speak from personal experience.

Even the drive out is astounding. You pass massive cinder cones and the road is littered with black basalt rock that looks like it made its way out of the earth’s core not all that long ago … although in reality the earliest eruptions began about 7.6 million years ago and continued blasting the area until around 10,000 years ago. Geology has a way of making us feel young.

Along the way, I spotted several fire rings and waved to people making breakfast, so camping is abundant. They all looked a little perplexed at the sight of a girl eating a hot dog for breakfast and driving a Prius on a supposedly 4×4 road, but they were friendly about it.

The Rings Trail

Mojave Desert
(Courtesy Kinga Philipps)

The Rings Trail is a fun little walk with some low-level adventuring. You have to climb down and back up the trail via a series of rings. It’s not scary or dangerous unless you have problems navigating street curbs, but it is a bit of fun, and the terrain is really gorgeous. By the looks of it, it could have inspired the Flintstones. If you feel like having a proper bathroom, a picnic table, potable water and some company, the Hole-in-the-wall campground is walkable from the trail and a rather lovely spot.

The park is full of dirt roads of varying degrees of difficulty. I took my Prius in places it should not go and sweated profusely a few times while flooring it through sand traps thinking that a new bumper was a solid alternative to walking ten miles to the nearest spot where other humans might eventually venture past. Don’t do that. It was like an after school special where the character does exactly what they shouldn’t and then calamity strikes … except I evaded calamity. To be safe, get a good map or road atlas, a full sized spare tire, loads of water and then go exploring. A 4×4 vehicle will give you access to countless otherwise unattainable spots that will knock your socks off. You really do feel a million miles away in places. Cell reception is nonexistent in most of the park which is nice but kind of scary if you find yourself in a bind. Again, good old fashioned paper maps are a must or you will have no idea where you are and what distances you’ll be driving. Plus, you’ll feel so vintage. The visual just screams for social media creative expression … a cup of joe in a blue enamelware mug, an out of focus fire in the background and a real honest to goodness topographic map artistically laid out in the desert sand. A satellite phone isn’t a bad idea either if you want to be extra safe. Less hip and not as photo friendly, but whatever keeps you safe to adventure again.

Tips for adventuring solo: bring a small, light tripod for your smartphone (you can get one for less than $20 on Amazon) and roll video. That way you get all the shots you want and also get to play and enjoy without obsessing over getting a cool photo. Screen grabs from the video make excellent stills.

Map out places you want to be and what time of day you want to be there. Time of day really makes a difference in the shots you’ll get. The area is vast so I suggest sleeping close to what you want to see in the morning and planning to camp near your sunset destinationAnd once you go, I’m confident that you’ll fall in love with Mojave National Monument and the surrounding Mojave Trails National Monument.

Mojave Desert
(Courtesy Kinga Philipps)
Kinga Phillips
(Courtesy Kinga Philipps)

Never one to sit still, Kinga Philipps has tested herself for the past decade by traveling the globe, rappelling, caving, scuba diving, jumping out of airplanes and diving with the sharks as a writer, producer and on-camera host. In her rare bits of free time, Kinga explores her singular fascination with sharks followed by a love for the beach, surfing, motorcycles, cars, charity work, travel, food and action sports.