Wedged into the triangle formed by Interstates 15 and 40, the Mojave National Preserve is a desert wonderland. It’s not quite as extraordinary as Death Valley, but it still provides an excellent example of what the harsh Mojave Desert is all about: wide open, hot, arid, and empty space. For tourists who want to escape the oasis of Las Vegas for the harshness of the Mojave, the preserve is ready and waiting.
I wasn’t looking to escape Las Vegas, I had already done that. After six days on the road, this was the final attraction. I had just traveled down Route 66 to the south of the preserve, and now I had just enough time remaining for a leisurely desert drive back to McCarran International. The most direct route cut directly through the heart of the park: Kelbaker Road.
It’s quite a feeling driving underneath a freeway in the middle of the desert, instead choosing an old, sun-bleached two lane highway. Soon, other cars and other people are all memories. You’re slowly climbing to a rocky ridge, passing through an extraordinarily empty desert landscape.
You’re treated to a few curves at the top of the hill, as the lonely road continues.
With little warning, Kelso Dunes road turns off to the left. It’s dirt, but well maintained. Drive just a couple miles out, and you can climb up Kelso Dunes.
After a few more miles of desert, you come to an oasis:
The National Park Service has done a beautiful job restoring the old Kelso Train Depot. The historic building now serves as headquarters for the preserve. You can walk inside, wander around, check out the historic exhibits, and talk to some friendly people.
No, they no longer serve lunch at the lunch room…
… but the old counter is just as beautiful as it was 80 years ago.
Across the street from the depot, you’ll spot Kelso’s old post office, which is no longer used.
There are also ruins of some other old buildings nearby.
Between Kelso and Cima, the road is even rougher and wilder than before. Kelso-Cima Road runs next to the railroad tracks. About every tenth of a mile, the railroad crosses over a small bridge, to allow for drainage under the tracks. Road builders weren’t quite as industrious. Instead of building bridges, they simply dipped the road into the dry washes. I tried to take a picture of one of the dips, but didn’t do a very good job, since they’re almost invisible until the moment you hit them.
The next wide spot in the road is Cima. Here, the road turns away from the railroad tracks. There is an old building that’s worth a look.
Between Cima and Interstate 15, the road is simply known as Cima Road.
When you arrive at the interstate, you see a rare sight in the Mojave Desert — a gas station. I took this picture because this is some of the most expensive gas I’ve ever seen. I really, really hope that a few years from now, it still looks expensive. Although, I remember in 2005, marveling at a gas station in Ludlow (on Interstate 40) that was selling gas for $2.99 a gallon. At times now, that seems like a bargain.
There’s not a lot to see between here and Las Vegas. You’ll have plenty of time to stare at Primm, Nevada, since you can see its cluster of casinos and motels from about 10 miles away. That’s about it, until you hit the Vegas sprawl.
After my traditional green chile lunch at Garduño’s at the Palms casino, and one final drive down the strip, it was time to put Las Vegas in my rear view mirror.
Note: This trip was first published in 2007.