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Star-Dazed & Sun-Scorched in the Mojave

Bright stars, glorious sunrises, and lava caves all epitomize our weekend getaway in Mojave National Preserve. But it wasn't all stars and alien scenery, we also experienced the harsh conditions associated with summertime in the desert. A few hours east of Barstow lies Mojave National Preserve, home of the largest Joshua Tree Forest (that's right, more Joshua Trees here than in Joshua Tree National Park), singing dunes, and cinder cone volcanoes. Even though the Mojave has its' share of beauty, the park is a place of solitude.

Kelso Dunes at Sunrise

Milky Way drifting across the August Sky

Arriving late one Friday evening, we found a spot near Kelso dunes to camp for the night. Camping at Kelso dunes is free and available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Alone, we watched the Milky Way rise in the night sky. Clear of clouds, the vast sky held millions of stars, each casting their bright light upon us. The warm night air caressed our bare skin as we gazed at the gorgeous sky above. Too soon, we went to our serene campsite eager to see the dunes in the morning.

Waking before sunrise, our bleary eyes strained in the dim light as we ascended the Kelso Sand Dunes. With soft sand underfoot, the hiking was slow. At the top of each hill, the dunes loomed largely above and our progress rivaled a snail's pace. Across the desert sand, there are hundreds of wildlife tracks. Some tracks we could easily guess which animal made them, like a jackrabbit hopping along, but others were a mystery. Eventually, we made it to the top of the dunes just as the sun rose over the nearby mountain range.

Running across the tops of the dunes, sand cascaded down the steep slopes creating an eerie drone. This is known as the dunes singing. From the top, you can see for miles around and appreciate their immensity. After enjoying the sunrise and some much-needed water, we ran down the side and back to the air-conditioned car. It was only 7 am but we were already feeling the sun's heat.

Heading north through the park and down some dirt roads, we headed to the cinder cone volcanoes to look in the lava tubes. After successfully finding the trail and stairway into the lava caves, we climbed into the dark cavern. One side of the cave looks caved-in and the other is full of darkness. Crouching into the darkness, under an overhang, the cave opens up to reveal a cavern with two incisions in the ceiling. At certain times of day, roughly 11 am to 1 pm in the summertime, a ray of light flows through these holes and lights the cave. It's a beautiful effect and with a little dirt thrown into the shaft of light, you can take some cool photos.

Rays of light in the Cinder Cone Lava Tube

After an afternoon siesta, we attempted to climb the dunes a second time. We started at around 6:30 pm but the temperature was still close to 95 degrees. Hiking up the strenuous dunes with camera equipment and insufficient water, we quickly realized that this hike was too much for us to handle. Dehydration came quickly as dry air took away any and all moisture, even our sweat. The desert in August is brutal, sun and sand work in tandem to create a beautiful, harsh landscape. Nevertheless, we made it up the dunes by sunset. As the light started to fade, the massive dunes changed from yellow to gold and the clouds took on the colors of the sun. As beautiful as it was, our parched mouths cut the visit short. We rushed back to the car and the ice chest full of water. Along the way, a rattlesnake crossed our path, reminding us of other hazards to keep an eye out for.

With how close the Mojave is to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, you would think there would be more visitors. The grand dunes, alienesque lava fields, and gorgeous skies are all worth a visit. Unfortunately, the heat and dry air of the desert presents some difficulties and is probably why there were not many visitors in August. Our next visit will include even more ice and water, and maybe more relaxing than hiking.

Sandy ripples across the dunes


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