“It’s the rock star of California deserts,” said artist Phillip K. Smith III, who creates large-scale, light-based installations and grew up in that environment. “I’ve always been mesmerized by the desert light, its purity and color. Incredible natural-light phenomena happen every single day.”
In addition to appreciating the light, outdoor enthusiasts can roam elevations from 536 feet in the lowlands to 5,814 feet. There are nearly 200 miles of paved and unpaved roads and 191 miles of hiking trails. Botanists can identify varieties of flowers, shrubs, cactuses and trees as the elevation changes. Birders can look for owls, falcons and the northern mockingbird. Animal fans can see the Mojave desert tortoise, kangaroo rats, bobcats, coyotes and desert bighorn sheep.
“People travel to the desert because they’re curious about the beautiful natural landscape and want a tactile experience with the environment,” Smith said. “You can have that in Joshua Tree Park, but there’ll always be a lot of other people doing the same thing.” In 2018, the National Park Service recorded 2.9 million visits.
Location: Joshua Tree National Park is about 35 miles east of Palm Springs, Calif.
The Mojave National Preserve: A beautiful landscape few people encounter
Smith’s advice? Drive past Joshua Tree to the Mojave National Preserve. “It’s even more pure and vast,” he said. “No one is there.”
The 1.6 million-acre preserve is exquisite. There are desert, dunes, salt flats, plateaus, mesas and buttes, ancient volcanoes, abandoned mines, and few paved roads or established trails.
Photographer Lance Gerber lives and works in the area and visits often. “It’s a beautiful, powerful landscape that most of the world doesn’t encounter,” he said. In 2018, the National Park Service recorded 787,000 visits.
Gerber recommends driving north from Joshua Tree National Park along Amboy Road. “As you crest Sheep Hole Pass, you’re distinctly entering the Mojave and leaving most traces of civilization behind. The view from the pass is a panorama of vast emptiness,” he said. “You’re inspired to stop and feel the moment.”
You can climb and slide on the sand hills in rarely visited Cadiz Dunes Wilderness. “The dunes are pure, untouched and perfectly sculpted,” Gerber said. Wander through the underground caves in the spectacular Mitchell Caverns. (Tours require paid reservations and guides.) Hike to the center of Amboy Crater — an extinct cinder cone volcano — atop black lava. Walk around volcanic rocks perforated with holes caused by uneven cooling and erosion. Best of all, gaze at the sky and count the stars. “There’s little light pollution and the white-dotted black sky is incredible,” Gerber said.
Location: The Mojave National Preserve is about 59 miles south of Las Vegas.
Hoffer is a writer in Washington. Find her on Instagram @audreyhoffer.