The Mojave is a vast, unique swath of desert that when we first moved here seemed like a barren wasteland. If you spend any time here, however, you quickly begin to appreciate the beauty and variety it has to offer. It’s unique geography and volcanic past have shaped it into a very special place. We have had the opportunity to make it our to this special place a fair number of times, however, our only regret was that we didn’t make it to Mitchell Caverns, a system of limestone caves within the preserve. They were shut to the public for a long time, but then reopened after renovations. We made reservations for a tour, but alas those plans fell prey to COVID-19. As a side note, if you are headed to the preserve from the south make a stop in Amboy along the way!

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Hiking

Lava Tube

***Warning, quick geology lesson #1 to follow!***

When we heard there were lava tubes out in the Mojave, we didn’t really know what to expect. I halfway expected them to be columns of lava rock rising from the earth. It turns out that lava tubes are underground passageways (i.e. tubes) that form when the top layer of lava in a flow cools and hardens while the deeper portions keep flowing. Eventually the chamber in which the lava flows emptys, leaving a cave of sorts.

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If you’re curious how to find this place take a look at the Mojave National Preserve’s handout beforehand which includes directions and a map. So we’ll go ahead and just admit that the five mile dirt road to access this natural wonder is a little bumpy…okay, a lot bumpy. However, if you own a smaller car don’t let that stop you from driving out to the tube. Sure, a 4WD truck would have made the drive out to the parking lot a breeze, but it is definitely doable in a little hatchback FWD as long as you go slow and try to avoid the areas with soft sand (trust us, we did it).

Once parked, the trek to the lava tube itself isn’t difficult at all. In fact it’s pretty darn short (~0.2 mile/each way) all of it over volcanic rock and just up a small incline. After a few minutes of walking you’ll see a little single-track trail to your right. Following it will lead you to the entrance of the tube (at this point you’ll probably see the rails of the metal ladder heading down). As you head up to the metal ladder you’ll notice two holes in the ground. These are the skylights that the rays of sun shine through and create the light inside the tube! Cool, right?

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Honestly a structured child carrier for this adventure was a bit overkill, but we didn’t know how strenuous the hike in was going to be. However, it was helpful to have some sort of child carrier to climb (if you got small littles) down the ladder as it’s a little wobbly (if you own a soft structured carrier like a Tula or an Ergo that would be more than sufficient). Nothing terrible, but feels good to have your hands on the handrails for sure.

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Once inside, we let the kids break out their headlamps and explore away! There are a couple points where the ceiling of the tube is low so make sure to watch your head. The kids were pretty timid at first, but most of the ground in the tubes themselves is soft and flat so we had a good time letting them go “spelunking”.  Anyone else feel like Penny looks like she belongs on the cover of a kid’s detective novel, here?

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Overall, the cave is only a few hundred feet, so no need to budget too much time to explore. It makes for a great way to learn (and teach) a little about geology in a somewhat unexpected way.

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Lava Tube:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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Kelso Dunes

Ummm…Sahara type dunes in SoCal? Really? Yup, really. We aren’t sure if this is where Apple shot its Mojave desktop background, but we’ve heard rumors that may be the case. The dunes rise 600 feet from the Desert floor and seem completely out of place when you first see them contrasted against the darker mountains.

***Warning, quick geology lesson #2 to follow!***

The dunes were created by south eastern winds blowing fine sand from the Mojave river basin. The fine particles slowly accumulates, with their quartz and felspar composition giving them their golden color. The dunes lay at the very end of the Soda Lake Kelso Basin, where the Providence and Granite mountains prevent the sand from being further blown southward. As a consequence, the particles have slowly deposited here over thousands of years.

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Naturally, when there are mounds of big sand like this there is only one logical thing to do – climb them (and run or slide down)! At the time, we were feeling ambitious and so we decided to tackle the biggest dune head on so we could get to the top for sunset.  However, there is an easier way up and takes you up around the right side of the dunes and is much more gradual in its incline. The trail itself initially seems straightforward, but the further you get the more murky it becomes. This is because the wind constantly reshapes the topography and erases the trails of those who came before you. So did we follow a true trail here? Not really. We just kept our eyes on the summit in front of us the entire time and just kinda went for it.

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A little into the hike we ended up just going barefoot, as our sandals continued to take on sand and then started slipping off as the incline steepened (Note that we have heard that rattlesnakes like to burrow in the sand, soooo perhaps this wasn’t the best choice? Your call.)

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Overall, this is a short hike (~1.5 miles each way), but that doesn’t mean it’s “easy.” Sure the first half of the gig is fairly straightforward and easy going, but the second half becomes more of a free-for-all and the steeper grade makes everything a bit more challenging. Just take it slow once you’re on the direct incline and you’re good. Ten steps…breather. Ten steps…breather. Slow + steady. You’ll get there, and the view is 100% worth it when you get there. If possible, we recommend timing it around sunset so you aren’t too exposed in the mid-day sun AND you get to see the desert change color as night falls. We enjoyed it so much we stayed a bit too late and had to break out the headlamps one more time to find our way back to the car.

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Kelso Dunes:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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Teutonia Peak

Perhaps you may find it interesting that the largest forest of Joshua Trees isn’t actually found in J.T. National Park (shocking, we know). However it isn’t very far away, so (of course) we had to visit. The trail to Teutonia Peak is roughly about 4 miles and starts off with just a gentle incline through a dense forest of Joshua Trees as well as good ‘ol Yucca, cactus, etc. Although Joshua Tree N.P was literally our backyard at the time we were still blown away by the number of these Dr. Suess looking plants. So. Many.

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Eventually you’ll start a bit of a climb and this where the elevation will start to kick up just a bit. However, it stays pretty tame the whole way up – nothing crazy, I promise. Here you’ll also begin to grab great views of the Cima Dome, a whopping 70 acre dome in the earth’s surface. It is definitely easiest to see at as you climb higher and get a better perspective on the landscape. Its so big, however, that even though it is easy to see with your naked eye, we had a bit of a problem catching it on camera. The best shot we captures was this one, where you can see about a quarter of the dome rising on the left side of the frame. It’s so big and so prominent that it makes you feel like you are looking through a fisheye lens.

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***Warning, quick geology lesson #3 to follow!***

What is the Cima Dome and how did it form? We’re glad you asked, as its the exact question we had ourselves upon visiting! Rewind 180 MILLION years and the Cima Dome was actually a jagged, rugged granite mountain formed from molten rock. Over the eons, the granite was subjected to erosion and the entire mountain slowly disappeared, leaving only a broad dome where it once was. Where did it go? See the Kelso Dunes section above!

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Once at the “peak” you’ll enjoy a beautiful panoramic desert view as well. It’s good to note that if you’re using  a downloaded map on the AllTrails app (which we encourage because we lost cell signal for a portion of our adventure) the trail will stop before the peak. The true peak really requires some fairly intense rock scrambling we weren’t willing to tackle with the kids so we called this the summit.

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The hike is an out-and-back kind, so when you’re ready turn around and head back the way you came. If you have a smaller kiddo in tow once down from the descent and on the initial flatter section we let Penny run free. She took a couple spills, but because of the soft sand and gentle incline down it was much easier for her to keep her momentum.

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Also, on this particular trip, we didn’t dive off the trail to check out the ruins of some old mines, but if that’s your thing you should totally go for it!

Teutonia Peak:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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Hole-in-the-Wall Rings Loop Trail

Albiet short, this little trail (~1.5 miles) is super fun and definitely one that needs to make the must-do-list if you visit the preserve! Like it states in the name, this trail is a loop. If you’re curious how to find this place take a look at the Mojave National Preserve’s handout beforehand which includes a map of the area as well as information about all the trails which are accessible from this spot.

If you are facing the Visitors’ Center and start the hike going left (towards the main road), you’ll hike up the ring sections. The opposite is true if you go right (away from the main road and towards the campsites as this direction will have you hiking down the rings which in our opinion is a little bit harder). When we hiked this trail in 2020, we went right and headed down the rings essentially doing the trail in reverse. Going this direction you are hit with the two sections of rings right away. Our son (age 6yo) handled the rings section no problem, however, he had a little trepidation as he went down. Re-doing the hike with littles again we would definitely go up the rings and start left of the visitors’ center.

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We started the trail when we visited to the right (just after the parking lot). The signage unlike some of the other trails we have hiked recently is really good, so just keep an eye on the signs and you’ll be set. From the beginning the trail quickly begins to descend into the Banshee Canyon. Not too far after the trailhead you’ll be met with your first set of steel rings. This is the best part of the hike and luckily there are two sections of them!

First set of steel rings (again we went right at the visitors’ center and down the rings)

Second set of steel rings (again we went right at the visitors’ center and down the rings)

After you head down both sets of steel rings you are in the wind worn canyon and man is it cool! If you’ve ever been in a slot canyon that’s basically what this part feels like (although if your have ever hiked Annie’s Canyon out in good ‘ol San Diego it is wider than that). After climbing down a few more sections of rocks everything will open up and you’ll exit the canyon itself. Don’t forget to turn around when the canyon opens up and take a moment to just take it all in. Our son thought the towering walls looked like mysterious faces while our daughter thought it reminded her of a moon made of cheese. Goodness, I love their imaginations!

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Once out of the canyon you’ll arrive at a junction with Barber Peak Loop (this is a longer 6 mile loop and we have hopes to one day come back and enjoy). Stay left at the junction this time though to stay on the Rings Loop.  At this point the trail flattens out and it feels as if you’re walking out in a prairie (which is also littered with cow patties so mind yo’ step here).

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Just take at that mesa right behind Miles! These hikes in particular are some of my very favorite because the wide open space allows us to give our kids (our 6yo, really) more freedom. Can you find him in the photo below? Happy as can be jumping over rocks and playing Star Wars independently. We love the desert so dang much.

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Not too far from the start you’ll see some petroglyphs on a few rocks. We know from our time in Joshua Tree National Park that these aren’t always authentic and sometimes they are just works of vandals (if you’re interested in seeing some in Joshua Tree National Park check out the Barker Dam Trail). Verdict is out on these, but they look cool and if they are genuine, are a neat look into the past.

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Hole-in-the-Wall Rings Trail:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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