Best Way to See the Mojave Desert? Try a Camper Van
No hotel? No problem. A camper van makes for spontaneous, stress-free travel in the desert. And a great night’s sleep.
When asked about dream ’21 travel earlier this year, I immediately thought of how I’d travel versus the where. My answer? A camper van. Camper rentals offer a taste of the tiny, nomadic lifestyles we see in our social media feeds. Tethering to wheels allows for spontaneity and killer sunsets in locations where hotels don’t have stakes. Plus, hitting the road as such holds promise—the discovery of landscapes never beheld, both external and internal. Might epiphanies rush in like the wind with the roll down of a window? Probably not. With each Huberman Lab podcast listen, I know a ticker tape of answers in all caps to questions I’m pondering won’t present itself that easily. So I’ll grab the external and reach for insights later.
I meet my Cabana camper van on a late afternoon Sunday in Los Angeles, pull back the side door and step in to survey my home for the next two nights. All I need for enjoyable overnighting is in this one van: an ultra-cozy bed, a Dometic cooktop, a 35-liter refrigerator now housing my leftovers, a snack drawer for convenient carb grabs, a toilet, and a shower stocked with bath products I’d actually use—Beekman 1802. The towels on this trip left me addicted to their plush so much that I splurged on Turkish cotton ones from home essentials brand Parachute once I returned home. The van’s Smart TV holds zero interest given I left my binge-watching ways on the west side. Let’s say I will not be doing without on this camping trip. Yet it feels simultaneously minimalistic.
My camper van trip inspiration was fueled by a vintage Sunset story published in 1960—”Auto Exploring the Mojave”—which was shared with my Cabana concierge Demory. We collaborated on a flexible itinerary taking drive times, interests, and access into consideration. Easy to moderate hiking, dunes, a dry lake, wildflower sightings, and driving through Joshua Tree National Park for the first time ever played into my travel plan.
Given a visit to Joshua Tree National Park was a priority, I deemed the Trona Pinnacles—one of the vintage story stops—too far for my ideal two-nighter. Plus, the unpaved access roads to these unique formations were not suited to this van. With spotty-to-no cell reception in certain parts of the Mojave, it doesn’t pay to hit dirt roads with a vehicle that may succumb. So I hit pause on the Pinnacles. If you’re keen on overlanding, search for companies that offer vehicles that will suit those driving conditions and be sure to follow your rental company’s guidance. Now in fact is the time to book a camper vehicle rental for your fall trips. If you’re wanting a week or more of travel in a rental, now is the time to book your 2022 itineraries, too, given this year’s sellouts.
Heading east from L.A., my mind mostly quiets as the white noise of driving a through road without traffic lights takes effect. As I speed steadily forward I victory glance at the heavy bumper-to-bumper vision opposite on Interstate 15—Vegas weekenders returning home as the sun falls in the sky. With what became a dinnertime departure and a four-hour drive ahead of me, I am going to miss golden hour in the Mojave National Preserve. I’m driving into its darkness with no campsite booked. But my comfort level is pretty high. For some anxiety enters the picture when tent camping solo is coupled with the probability of a poor night’s sleep. So some opt out if waking well-rested is a priority. With a self-contained vacation vehicle, anxiety is not on my horizon.
Happy but tired, I pull into my overnight spot near the preserve’s Teutonia Peak Trailhead off Cima Road. I practically weep with joy such was the efficiency of parking, switching off the lights, and having the hush descend from a starry sky seen through the windshield. I do not step outside but throw up the provided windshield shade and promptly settle into my cocoon for the night, feeling safe and ready for sleep.
Daylight reveals a scene dominated by the scorched remnants of last year’s Cima Dome Fire. Here at the Teutonia Peak Trail in the northern portion of the preserve, I’m surrounded by the largest concentration of Joshua trees in the world. It’s estimated that 1.3 million of these trees burned and many will not regenerate. Fortunately efforts are underway to replant portions of the Dome Fire area this winter.
For now the landscape is otherworldly, if not apocalyptic, but shows bursts of regeneration in wildflowers pushing through the soil nevermind the gothic expanse of dead trees. The preserve is a visitation underdog given it’s situated between Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks. Those magnets pull droves. But I want to pay homage to this area with a visit and to witness any rebirth.
Showered and ready for my morning caffeine I access the Dometic cooktop from the back of the van to get the Earl Grey tea going when a visitor arrives. A solo traveler like me—Karen from San Diego—pulls into the trailhead, her trusty Subaru covered in dust and packed with well-used camping gear. This is my favorite part of travel. Running into kindred spirits and taking inspiration from those who opt to rough it more than me.
I set off soon afterward to hike the trail which feels like a slow-motion operation given I bashed my knee in a biking accident not that long ago. No way will I be scrambling to the actual peak. Note to self: Pack walking sticks on your next trip. At one point, I notice all of the photo taking drains my phone battery and a search for my Goalzero charger proves what I suspect. It was left behind in the van. So I power off my phone to save what little power is left.
Making it safely back to the van, I head south on Cima Road for the Kelso Dunes. At one point, south of Cima, I see a dirt road snaking off in the distance and a trail of dust rising from it. I sight a plaque at the Kelso Cima and Cedar Canyon crossroads identifying this dirt road as the historic Mojave Road.
The cloud of dust off the road is whirling towards me. Finally I spot the creator—a man riding a motorbike. The rider Bruce flew into L.A. from Costa Rica the day prior, purchased a Husqvarna, and set off to ride the Mojave Road. I follow Bruce until the paved portion of Cedar Canyon ends, then turn back to continue my way to the dunes. I have another 22 miles to go which includes a quick stop at the closed Kelso Depot Visitor Center to view informational displays.
The dunes appear as if a mirage in the distance. They appear to float and hijack my attention entirely, all the way to the trailhead. A few miles beyond the trailhead is a designated camping area. But at this point I’m not sure if I’ll stay near the dunes for my second night or make my way closer to Joshua Tree National Park. Mostly because I’d like to start my morning closer to the park. And then return to Kelso Dunes when my knee is properly healed to attempt an ascent.
Right now I’m more interested in the scene unfolding ahead. Fresh off a triathlon, Henry is in the Mojave to reset while Gabriel documents the process. They grapple with a Neso beach tent as the wind taunts. But they conquer it and their meditation setup is a success. Inspired by the sight of people pushing it in person, I linger to watch Gabriel hustling to get shots of Henry kicking up some sand while sprinting barefoot.
Leaving them to it, I direct my attention toward a daytripper from Vegas, inquiring if he hiked to the top. It’s a strenuous 650-foot climb and I simply don’t have the kick in me to do it. His tale doesn’t exactly encourage me either. At the apex he formed a human ball to stabilize and to counteract the feeling that he could catapult down the side at any given moment. No thanks to the wind. In short, this hike is an excellent mental and physical challenge! I can’t wait to return.
While I want to capture some pink sand moments here at sunset, I’m anxious to drive on. But not before showing off the van to a Bay Area couple wanting to check it out and obtaining their road trip recommendations which include Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 and Burr Trail Road.
Heading south on Kelbaker Road and before exiting the preserve, I stop at Boulders Viewpoint to gaze at the Granite Mountains. Hopping into the van I’m looking forward to more stunning views and roadside surprises as I make my way closer to Joshua Tree National Park.
I’m driving Amboy Road south through Bristol Lake. It’s salt flatlands here. The sun is setting and the light is spectacular. Given Zzyzk Road—providing access to Soda Lake in the Mojave National Preserve—was closed, Bristol Lake is my one shot at a dry lake experience on this trip.
I’ve never walked in the bed of a dry lake previously but it feels like stepping on an oversized Duncan Hines brownie, based upon my experiences of touching one with my finger. I love it. And apparently I need dinner, or at least a snack, given the brownie analogy. But eating can wait as I shoot sunset here.
About an hour later I enter Wonder Valley at night. It’s just north of Joshua Tree National Park. Parking next to some lighted tennis courts, I jump on my phone to determine if there are any campsites of interest available last-minute at the park. Only spots nearer the south entrance are available. So I navigate to Hipcamp—a no-membership-fee site that features overnight spots from tent camping with no facilities to cottages fully equipped for a stay. In under 10 minutes I’m confirmed to stay at Mojave Stars. It has six sites for vehicles or tent camping and I’m the only one here on a Monday night so it’s ultra quiet. Driving past a closed restaurant at the entrance to the property, I meander back to my spot, turn the ignition off, and promptly consume some leftovers.
While I love eating out on vacation, my itinerary was fed by a greater need to see beauty not dictated by my proximity to restaurants. No sidetracking to grocery stores either. I also ate only what I packed which was purposefully healthy. On my next van trip I’d definitely like to prepare food onsite. Cabana actually recently partnered with JUST Egg. Both teamed up with van-based chef Anthony Strong to bring travelers van-friendly recipes to elevate their mobile boutique hotel experience even more.
I wake to 360-degree views of Wonder Valley and a row of papier-mâché animal heads on top of sticks in the ground staring at me. My headlights missed that last night! Having a second shower in the van, I’m not taking it for granted. I feel rejuvenated and ready to fall in love with Joshua Tree National Park. Arriving at the north entrance, there’s no wait. I purchase an annual pass to the national parks and federal recreation lands knowing I’m not going to see all that I want to on this trip to Joshua Tree. And there are other national parks I’m hoping to hit this year.
I approach the Skull Rock Discovery Trailhead where I easily find a curbside spot for the van, pull back the side door, and sip a cold kombucha while people watching. Onlookers inspect the van from a polite distance and joke that I could make a mint selling refreshments. After my break here I head to Jumbo Rocks Campground. I’m scouting it to take note of prime sites for future camping—1, 65, and 84 are some of my favorites.
I’m driving through the entire park today by the way and will exit at the south entrance. On my way to the Arch Rock Nature Trail to see Arch Rock—the location depicted on the cover of Sunset’s vintage issue—I stop to take in Joshua trees unmarked by fire.
I locate the parking area that services Arch Rock Trail. The heat is escalating now in the early afternoon at JT. Some hikers opt to shade themselves with umbrellas. I’m covered head to toe in protective and cooling technical wear—a long-sleeved Backcountry UPF 50+ hoodie and light-as-air Fjallraven trousers. My sunglasses are a comfort to my eyes given the intense brightness. I always travel with a backup pair, too.
Before departing for the trail I decide to run the cooling fan on the roof to circulate the hotter air out of the van while I’m hiking. Temps at night have been springtime cool and this is the first time I’ve had to turn on the fan. By the time I reach Arch Rock, I’m feeling confident that I can work my way up for a photo opp especially given the grip on my Danner hikers. A gentleman named Bruce (not pictured) offered me a hand as I was working out my plan of attack. I didn’t refuse the chivalrous gesture.
Cholla Cactus Garden is my last stop in the park before I head back to L.A. The return drive is smooth and absent of traffic snags. I drop off the van and see my vehicle waiting for me. Yes, I cheated on you Toyota RAV4, but just for two nights! I’m not replacing you entirely. For now. Especially since a camper van rental is a click away.
Camper Vehicle Guide
If you want a cozy, adventurous, potentially off-grid experience that allows for spontaneity as inspiration alights, a camper vehicle rental may be the way to go. Cabana was featured in this story. They have a two-night minimum and operate out of Seattle and L.A. From $189 per night.
The pandemic has increased the popularity of camper vans. To meet demand Moterra has tripled its fleet of Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans. The luxury rental company has hubs in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Jackson Hole, San Francisco, and Whitefish, Montana. There is a five-night minimum. On occasion they have vans available for fewer nights so it’s worth a reach out if you want a less than five-night try. From $3,899 for five nights.
The Camper Cartel
If you’re departing from L.A. and are looking for a vehicle with more clearance and tires with more grab, The Camper Cartel’s Adventurer option is our pick. The Toyota Tacoma has a rooftop tent and deck for stargazing, a built-in refrigerator, portable stove, outdoor shower, and attachable awning. There is a three-night minimum. $175 per night.
Your Camp, Road Trip, and Hiking Essentials
With Labor Day sales in the foreground now is a great time to stock up on your adventure needs. Protection and recovery from the sun and heat as well as fuel for the road were top of mind for my trip into the Mojave—as was being stylishly comfortable on hikes.
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