Travels in the American Southwest

The Mojave

(Prior to this road trip, I reserved a Sport Utility Vehicle from Alamo. I figured that if I were out in the desert, an SUV would be the vehicle of choice.)

Awoke at 4:00 am and headed to the airport to pick up my SUV. Upon my arrival at Alamo's location, I was greeted with, "Sorry...No SUV." Wait a minute, I reserved one months ago. I confirmed the reservation only three days ago! "Sorry sir, but we'll let you have a minivan at no additional charge." Big freakin' deal. A minivan. To say the least, I was not happy. I loaded my supplies into the minivan, cursed Alamo (under my breath) for their shoddy service and headed down I-15. (*)

Typical desert views of wide open space and scrub. Stop number one was to be the store at Cima, but when I arrived at 5:30 am, I found that their hours were 10:30 - 5:00. From Cima, I headed south to Kelso. Kelso was once a booming metropolis, but today the only link to that glorious past is the train depot which is on the National Historical list. While the depot is locked and secured, it is still in great shape and provides a great subject for picture taking. Peering through dirt-streaked windows, I was able to see the luncheonette, ticket booth and waiting room. As I got into the minivan, I noticed a rumbling. I looked into the distance and saw a l-o-n-g train slowly making its way along the tracks. As the train approached, I was greeted with a long loud blast of the airhorn. The engineer gave me a wave as the train chugged by.

Kelso Depot

From Kelso, I headed north on Kelbaker Road to the Cinder Cones. Extinct volcanoes formed 8-10 thousand years ago pockmark the area. (In honesty, the cones look like small hills.) Spent some time scampering over the lava streams and poking around area.

cinder cones

Reversed course and checked out the Vulcan mine, at one time the largest open pit mine in the world. As this is at the end of a gravel road, caution is advised as parts of the road are rough. I had wanted to take Foshay Pass but was forced to turn back when bushes started to appear growing in the middle of the road and the road itself degenerated into a very rough path. Darn minivan. 

Headed down to I-40 and approached Essex Road, the southern entrance to the Preserve. Made it to Mitchell Caverns in time for the 1:30 tour.

NOTE: Summer tours (Memorial Day - Labor Day) are restricted to 25 people and are given ONLY on WEEKENDS, only at 1:30. Tickets are sold on a first-come first-served basis. This year (2000), they've had so many visitors that some folks have been turned away. You can make reservations to assure yourself of a ticket. (There is a $2 service charge per ticket [$20 max. for groups of 10 or more] if you reserve your ticket. This is in addition to the regular tour cost, which was $6 a couple of years ago.) If there are more than 10 in your party, a special "private tour" may be arranged depending on the park's staffing on the particular day. Call ahead for additional information. (760) 928-2586

Mitchell Caverns   Mitchell Caverns

Mitchell Caverns

First used by the Chemehuevis Indians, these caves are the result of limestone being dissolved. As the limestone dissolves, stalagmites and stalactites form from the constant dripping of water. (Note: It takes about 50 years for a stalactite to grow from nothing to the size of a pencil eraser. Some of them were dozens of feet long!) The guide, Myke, was very knowledgeable about both the caves and surrounding area. One of the many desert inhabitants is the chuckwalla, a desert reptile. It seems that the chuckwalla was a staple of the Native American diet, "And you know what chuckwalla tastes like?", asked Myke. A member of the tour ventured with, "Chicken?" Myke smiled and replied, "You folks must eat a lot of chuckwalla where you're from, huh?" We all chuckled.


If you venture into the Mojave National Preserve, Mitchell Caverns is a must do!

At the end of the one hour tour, I went north to the Hole-in-the-wall campground. At this time of year, it is sparsely inhabited but during the weekend, I'm told that it is quite popular with hunters. While setting up camp (which consisted of busting up the wooden pallets, starting the charcoal, checking the "survival pack" and getting the long johns out in anticipation of a very chilly night) I noticed my neighbor approach my campsite. Turns out that he wanted to know if his generator would bother me as he really wanted to watch the world series that night. (And I thought he was coming over to complain about the volume of my CD!) Moments later, a coyote meandered past my campsite just like he owned the place (which I guess he really does!)

Hole in the Wall

Cooked up a steak with potatoes, mushrooms and french bread. Ate like a king. As the sun set, I watched the stars appear. What a celestial display! The Milky Way stretched across the sky, only to be broken by the occasional satellite zipping across the sky. I saw dozens of meteors as it was the end of the Ornid meteor shower. I found it difficult to pick out all the constellations as you can see many more stars from the desert than I can from my home (light pollution and all that!). For light after sunset, I used a couple of chemical illumination sticks which cast a pleasant greenish glow over the campsite in addition to the well stocked campfire.

Awoke the next morning refreshed and had a quick breakfast while I struck camp. When I saw my neighbor, he let me know that the Yankees won yet another game! Being an old Red Sox fan, I took this news with a stiff upper lip.

Drove north along Black Canyon Road and doubled back on Wild Horse Road, stopping every once in a while to snap a picture of cactus or a particularly interesting rock formation. Because this is open range, it's wise to keep an eye peeled for what I call "speed bump warnings". These brown lumps, left by passing cattle warn the driver that big speed bumps (i.e. cattle) are in the vicinity and a collision would be bad for both minivan and cow! I had wanted to look for Winkler's Cabin, but the minivan would not have made it on some of the roads so I regretfully removed that from my list of things to do...maybe next time!

While heading back to Las Vegas, I took a short side trip to Cima Dome, an outcropping of granite which broke through the desert floor millennia ago. Being from New England, I knew what granite looked like and was therefore not as impressed with the Dome as I would have otherwise been. I did see a tarantula though. It was slowly plodding across the road. I, of course, stopped and took pictures of a spider who couldn't care less if I was there or not! I also saw a Darkling Beetle who's job is to keep the desert clean by eating dead animals. Must be doing a good job because I didn't see any dead animals!

Headed back to Cima to stop at the Cima Store and purchase some post cards. Well, the store was closed but a sign hung on the front door saying "Ring Bell". I complied and the postmistress appeared. (The post office is attached to he store.) The store was dark, dirty and if I didn't know better, I'd have thought deserted. A few cans lined the shelves, but the big seller here is beer and ice. Since I couldn't buy postcards, I got a six pack instead (anyone willing to work in that hostile environment deserves to have the occasional tourist stop in and buy something...anything!)

Basically backtracked to Las Vegas making excellent time on well paved two lane roads. Though the speed limit is 55, the extremely dusty, bug splattered minivan occasionally exceeded the limit by 40%!

Earlier I referred to the "survival pack" that I carry when I go out in the desert. Some people have asked what I carry in it. The "survival pack" contains: compass, whistle, small blanket, mag-lite, chemical light sticks, scissors, hemostat, single edged razor blade, ace bandage, triangular bandages, band aids, sterile pads, aspirin, lip balm, After Bite, multi-purpose tool (knife, pliers, and ten other tools!), fire starter, water-proof white tipped matches, duct tape, bandana, plastic garbage bag, wire wraps, kite and a 25 foot strip of aluminum foil. (The kite and foil are to attract attention should the unthinkable occur!) I also carry a "snake stick" which is really a 3 iron with the head of the club removed.

In the minivan, I carried a five gallon container of water (which really wasn't needed in the campground as they all have water in addition to outhouses), but out on the open road, you'd have to be crazy or have a death wish not to have an ample supply of water!

The weather during my road trip was warm (mid 70s during the day, upper 40s at night) and dry. Perfect traveling conditions.

I would urge anyone contemplating a trip to the Mojave National Preserve to contact the Desert Information Centers. Barstow: 760-733-4040, Hole-in-the-wall: 760-928-2527. These folks have the information which will make your trip both safe and enjoyable.

When I returned to Las Vegas, I headed back to the craps table...Should have stayed in the desert!

And so ends days 2 & 3.

More Information
Kelso Depot
Cinder Cones
Mitchell Caverns from California State Parks
Map to Mitchell Caverns
Map to Cima Dome

Main | Trip Reports | E-mail | Next Report