The Mojave Desert is a vast expanse of sand, which might not seem like the best vacation destination for anyone looking for an active vacation. And this isn’t a diss of the Mojave; the epic size of this desert is something to behold. The stark loneliness of it all adds a unique beauty that is food for the soul.
But is the Mojave worth visiting if you’re looking for attractions or activities? It can be hard to know where to start.
Good news desert traveler!
There are plenty of things to do in the Mojave Desert, from off-roading in a jeep or truck to hiking in Joshua Tree National Park or exploring ghost towns that were once home to over 20 mines across this almost never-ending sea of sand and rock.
From things like camping under the sparkling blanket of the night’s sky and watching shooting stars at night, to desert spelunking, the adventures and excursions we’ve listed below will give you an unforgettable experience. Check out our list below for ideas on what’s waiting for you in the Mojave!
Table of Contents
- Mojave Desert
- Best Things to do in Mojave Desert
- 1. Death Valley National Park
- 2. Badwater Basin
- 3. Salton Sea State Recreation Area
- 4. Stay up late and go stargazing in the Mojave National Preserve
- 5. Kelso Dunes
- 6. Mule Mountains
- 7. Joshua Tree National Park
- 8. Desert Hot Springs Spa
- 9. Mitchell Caverns
- 10. Calico Ghost Town
- 11. The Lava Tube
- 12. Cima Dome
- What to Know Visiting the Mojave National Preserve
- Final Thoughts
The term “Mojave” means “along/beside the water” or as “people who live along the water.”
Look no further if you want to know where the planet’s hottest air and surface temperatures are because the Mojave Desert has them.
Like all deserts, it also gets pretty darn cold at night, so make sure you pack for hot and cold!
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The Mojave’s notorious heat is exceeded only by its fierce frosts. As a result, the Mojave is a hot and chilly desert due to its deadly daytime heat and critically cold at night.
Average annual rainfall in the desert ranges from 2 to 6 inches (50 to 150 millimeters), according to historical evidence.
Because of the Mojave National Preserve’s harsh conditions, only a few plants and animals can survive there. Again, if you want to survive there, pack accordingly!
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Best Things to do in Mojave Desert
The Mojave Desert may be referred to by many as the “Valley of Death” owing to its astounding aridity and the fact that it is home to some of America’s most inhospitable regions.
Even so, it has become well-known as a tourist destination over the years.
The legendary Death Valley (yes, it’s within the “Valley of Death”; seems a trifle unimaginative, I know) and the Las Vegas Region are both located there, as well as being located near Sin City herself as well as being pretty close to Los Angeles, both huge tourist cities.
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1. Death Valley National Park
On the Mojave border, roughly midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Nevada lies Death Valley, which has both North America’s lowest point in relation to sea level and the world’s hottest recorded surface temperatures.
The valley’s fame and the grim name were born out of a tragedy that occurred in the 1800s. A group of pioneers headed to the west coast to find fame and fortune got lost. Many in this unlucky group would perish due to the lack of water, food, as well as the fierce heat and biting cold.
Which makes total sense; it’s a scorching, rocky canyon with dehydration from excessive heat posing a threat to any lost people. Make sure you bring water!
Death Valley is now a National Park, and sees over a million visitors each year. It’s a great spot for avid hikers and bikers. It’s also very popular for stargazers as there is virtually no light pollution and is also home to a couple of superb resorts and hot springs.
The Furnace Creek, located in Death Valley, has the world’s highest recorded temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celsius), documented back in 1913.
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2. Badwater Basin
The second spot on our list is Badwater Basin which has the lowest elevation in the United States and the second-lowest elevation in the western hemisphere. At its lowest point, Badwater Basin is 279 feet or about 85 meters below sea level!
Seems a bit damp for a desert, dunnit? Well, let’s not forget that all of these spots are found in the Mojave Desert, y’know, that place that’s by the water.
Going back to the meaning of the Mojave’s name, Badwater Basin is one of several waterfronts found in the desert. The Mojave River flows mostly underground to Soda Lake, while on the eastern edge of the desert, the Colorado River and Lake Mead are located.
Badwater Basin is arguably the most striking, and a pretty incredible oasis, marked with weirdly precise salt flats and sparkling salt crystals surrounded by the jagged hills and ravines of the Mojave.
And yes, this is saltwater, making it Bad water to drink if you were (for example) a pioneer who had gotten lost and were struggling to survive in new and inhospitable lands.
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3. Salton Sea State Recreation Area
The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is located on the Colorado River in Central California. This is a popular site for fishermen and water sports enthusiasts, as well as birdwatchers.
The low-lying lake, which is approximately 30 miles by 8 to 14 miles has no natural outlet and lies below sea level. This is another starkly beautiful oasis in the harsh Mojave, that is a major stopping point for migratory birds.
There are camping and picnic areas on the north bank, ideal for fishing fans to make an extended stay.
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4. Stay up late and go stargazing in the Mojave National Preserve
The sky in Joshua Tree National Park is among the clearest in southern California. The Sky’s Limits Observatory and Nature Center provide stargazing programs to visitors who want to admire the celestial wonders that surround us.
When the sun sets on the hills surrounding Los Angeles to the west, the Mojave Desert becomes one of America’s darkest locations to observe the night sky – but on a clear night, as the stars and planets come out to play, it is anything but dark.
The Mojave Reserve’s northern region is a doozy if you want to learn more about the Milky Way and any ancient stellar objects you may discover through your telescope.
It’s an easy-to-reach area of the desert, making it a perfect starter visit to the Mojave.
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5. Kelso Dunes
The Kelso Dunes are huge gravel sand dunes in the Mojave National Preserve, in a stretch of the Mojave Desert in Southern California.
They’re part of a larger system of ancient, wind-swept sandhills that stretches from just southeast of Barstow to just east of Lucerne Valley.
The Kelso Dunes have Mount San Bernardino to the north and the Victorville Fault to the south.
The dune field is your classic Hollywood-home of gods and bedouins-style desert; barren, dry, high-rising mountain ranges all around you with long vistas of majestic sand dunes stretching out as far as the eye can see.
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6. Mule Mountains
In between the Kelso Dunes and San Gorgonio Pass lie the Mule Mountains.
The Mule Mountains are a range that parallels Interstate 40 in California, USA. The range extends for approximately 50 miles (80 km) from Lucerne Valley to beyond Barstow.
The highest point of these mountains is Old Dad Mountain.
Defined by its rocky mountains, cacti, and scrub vegetation, this area is highly reminiscent of old Westerns and was used in the Golden Age of Cinema to shoot many higher-end cowboy movies.
It’s also home to wild donkeys, which is where the range gets its name – yes donkeys and mules are different, but Donkey Mountains doesn’t have the same ring to it.
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7. Joshua Tree National Park
With epic rock climbing and “you never know what’s around the next turn” road trips, Joshua Tree National Park is a must-visit destination for any desert explorer. It’s one of our favorite US national parks here at Via Travelers.
Named after the spiky Joshua Trees that populate this desert wonderland, you’ll discover ancient Native American dwellings and mines as well as a staggering array of desert wildlife, including bighorn sheep and desert tortoises.
Joshua Tree National Park actually consists of two locations: the main one is in Southern California (about three hours drive from Los Angeles), while there’s also Joshua Tree National Park out near Palm Springs.
No matter which one you go to, you’re in for some serious eye candy – bring your camera!
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8. Desert Hot Springs Spa
You probably wouldn’t think a desert would be a great place to get a mani-pedi, but that’s probably because you didn’t think of the Mojave!
Desert Hot Springs Spa is a drop of civilization offering the desert explorer a chance for some top-notch pampering amidst the barren beauty of the Mojave.
Escape to the desert and enjoy a luxurious spa day at Desert Hot Springs Resort.
Enjoy a blissful afternoon at this delightful spa, soothing your muscles after a day of hiking or off-roading in the surrounding desert wilderness. Even Lawrence of Arabia had a day off.
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9. Mitchell Caverns
Mitchell Caverns is located about 25 miles west of the town of Barstow in San Bernardino County, California. The main entrance and visitor center overlook a dry stream bed and sit amid acres of meadow and cottonwood trees.
The property was originally patented by John M. Mitchell as part of his Rancho Teco in 1876, which he had purchased from William F. Heald.
In the early 1900s, the site was mined for extremely valuable bat guano (*ahem* turds) which was used as an agricultural fertilizer and to make gunpowder. During World War II it was also mined for tin to support the war effort.
Depths vary from 50 to 500 feet and there are 14 known caves in the limestone rock.
The best time of year to visit Mitchell Caverns is during the spring and fall when temperatures are cooler.
Summer can be very hot and winter brings freezing nights and high winds – either way, it’s no picnic for anyone but the hardiest (or most masochistic) desert explorer.
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10. Calico Ghost Town
Calico Ghost Town is one of the best things to do in the Mojave Desert if you have kids or you’re interested in silver mining and California’s history.
The old settlement of Calico is about a mile east on Barstow. It was one of the major mining cities that sprang up in the region from 1881 to 1896.
When the silver market deteriorated in 1894, the silver mine shut down, and Calico rapidly began to decline. By the turn of the 20th Century, it was all but deserted.
In 1954, Knott’s Berry Farm’s property owner rebuilt the ghost city as a Western theme park.
This fascinating pocket of history, lovingly recreated and preserved is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Mojave with shops and restaurants to compliment the old bones of this town.
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11. The Lava Tube
Lava Tube is located about 5 miles off of Hwy 63. The top of the lava tubes (or simply “Lava Tube” as it’s commonly referred to) is only accessible via a 5-mile dirt road. Three holes in the ceiling of the lava tubes allow sunlight to shine beneath the cave floor.
A spine-chilling, magical, mystical feeling, not to mention a terrific photo opportunity is generated by the beams of light knifing through the darkness. It’s almost like walking onto the set of The Lord of the Rings.
Lava Tube is a great location for visitors looking for a break from the desert sun and for capturing some unique photos.
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12. Cima Dome
The Cima Dome is located near Cima, California, just 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas, and is home to an interesting all-natural rock formation known as The Mushroom Rock.
This bizarre formation is about 755 feet tall and is composed of granite that was uplifted to the surface thanks to tectonic shuffles. Regardless of how it came into being, it is truly alien-looking and deserving of many a photo.
The trek around Cima Dome is about 5 miles roundtrip, making it a two-hour hike for strong hikers.
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What to Know Visiting the Mojave National Preserve
The Mojave Road has aided economic growth in the desert for decades. Historically, the route went through what is now the Mojave Preserve and was one of the primary wagon routes to the west coast in the years of expansion after the Civil War.
Traders traveling from California to New Mexico in the 19th Century faced huge hazards when they took the Mojave Road. The weather could only be measured in extremes – blisteringly hot in the day and bone-chilling at night. Water shortages were a way of life for travelers and countless traders and settlers perished from thirst.
The Natives who were opposed to the ever-encroaching (and treaty violating) European American development of the west were also dangerous. Warriors from Native tribes frequently raided farms and attacked travelers, rarely leaving survivors.
Water scarcity and limited options for hunting had long been an issue in the region, also fueling animosity.
The development of railroads would spell the end of the Mojave Road’s importance, as railways provided the most practical means for transporting goods and people quickly and safely from east to west.
As the industry took hold and resources were provided, cattle grazing grew in popularity on the Mojave’s northern half. On the desert’s southwestern edge is urban and recreational construction.
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Welcoming visitors with its famous sign that reads: “California Welcomes You,” the Mojave National Preserve is a must-stop for any traveler passing through California on I-15.
Beyond the interstate, you’ll discover ancient lava flows and historic Native American trading routes, Joshua tree forests, and granite peaks.
Visitors driving through California can stop at the Mojave National Preserve information center just north of Baker on Interstate 15. Off-road driving is allowed in designated areas, but you do need to obtain a permit first.
Make sure your trip includes time for exploring the surrounding area; the preserve includes volcanic mountains, sand dunes, Joshua tree forests, and the historic Kelso Depot.
Mojave Desert Location Mojave National Preserve is located in southeastern California near the borders of Arizona and Nevada. Its center point is the intersections of Interstate 15 and State Route 127.
The preserve can be found roughly 120 miles (193 kilometers) northeast of Los Angeles, California, and 200 miles (322 kilometers) southwest of Las Vegas, Nevada.
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