Mojave National Preserve, Baker, CA

SPECIAL REPORT • The West's untapped treasures
Matthew Jaffe

The Mojave Desert is the California equivalent of flyover country - those endless expanses seen from 40,000 feet on cross-country flights. Every weekend, thousands of people head into the great emptiness of the Mojave between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Few ever stop.

Unlike attractions in more traditional national parks, Mojave's major destinations (such as the Kelso Dunes and Cima Dome - one of the world's largest Joshua tree forests) are spread far and wide over 1.6 million acres. But space and distance are part of the Mojave experience.

From the interstate at 75 mph, it may appear bare and lifeless. But if you catch the Joshuas in bloom or a sunset that colors the land in purples and reds, you'll never just race through without thinking of stopping.

WHERE: Between Los Angeles and Las Vegas with access from Interstates 40 and 15.

WHEN: Open year-round; late October through May is best.

COST: Free.

SERVICES: Hole-In-The-Wall Campground has 35 sites, and Mid Hills Campground has 26 ($12, first come, first served). Lodging is available at Barstow, Needles, and Baker. Primm, Nevada, offers Las Vegas-style resorts (800/386-7867). An information center is located off I-15 in Baker (72157 Baker Blvd.).

ACTIVITIES: Two drives offer a good introduction to the preserve and hiking access. From I-40, take Kelbaker Rd. past the dramatic formations of the Granite Mountains. At 14 miles, a side road leads 3 miles to Kelso Dunes; a 3-mile round-trip hike leads to the 700-foot dune summit. Back on Kelbaker Rd., it's 8 miles to Kelso Depot; the road continues 35 miles northwest past cinder cones and lava beds to I-15. From Kelso Depot, the Kelso-Cima Rd. runs northeast to Cima. Six miles north of Cima (or 11 miles south of I-15) on Cima Rd. is a marked trailhead for a moderate 4-mile round trip on Cima Dome to Teutonia Peak.

CONTACT: (760) 733-4040 or www.nps.gov/moja.