Mojave National Preserve: Kelbaker Road & Cima Road


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.

Kelbaker Road begins at Route 66, just east of Amboy.  As you head north, it crosses Interstate 40 at the Saltus exit.  At the center of the park is Kelso.  The road splits here: Kelbaker Road continues northwest, but I chose to take Kelso Cima Road to the northeast.  Cima Road intersects I-15, which continues into Las Vegas.

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.

The Kelso Dunes are the third highest sand dunes in North America.  Climbing to the top will take a while: the tallest of the dunes is around 600 feet high.  And these are talented sand dunes–they can “sing”.  Sand sliding down the sides makes a distinct “booming” noise.  Climb to the top of a dune, and try to push sand down the side, and you can create the low-frequency noise (you can also listen to it on a recording at the Kelso train depot, just in case you don’t want sand in your shoes).

After a few more miles of desert, you come to an oasis:

Kelso, California

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.

Kelso provided an ideal place for a train depot for several reasons.  For one, Kelso was at the foot of a steep grade, where “helper” engines were needed to push trains up the hill.  Also, old steam locomotives needed a reliable supply of water, and the nearby Providence Mountains had a reliable spring.

No, they no longer serve lunch at the lunch room…

… but the old counter is just as beautiful as it was 80 years ago.

The Kelso Train Depot was built in 1924.  The Union Pacific railroad used it as a depot until 1962, then continued to use it as a boarding house and restaurant until 1985.  For a while, the railroad had plans to demolish the building, but local residents put up a fight, and saved it.  The BLM gained control of the building in 1992, but it was another ten years before restoration work began.  You can take a look at what went into the restoration effort here.

I paid another visit to Mojave National Preserve in 2016. You can check out my visit to Kelso, the dunes, and a lava cave, here.

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.

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