The Mojave Desert begins less than an hour from where I live on the edge of Los Angeles. When the wind blows out of the northeast, pushing back the ocean’s influence, the Mojave arrives in my yard. The garden crackles with fallen leaves, and the humidity plunges into the single digits. You can smell the plants drying in the heat.
I like those days. Because Southern California is as much about the desert as it is the Pacific, and the breezes remind me of the arid lands outside town that connect L.A. to the American outback.
When I arrived in Southern California 30 years ago, the first trip I took was out to the Mojave. Retracing that route now, we drop from State Route 14 into the Antelope Valley. The antelope are long gone and most of the Joshua trees, too, where Pearblossom Highway runs east toward Interstate 15. Conventionally beautiful it’s not. But the Pearblossom is nevertheless a small miracle: a rolling desert highway, like something out of the 1950s, in today’s Los Angeles County.
The Pearblossom has few landmarks. The old Hungarian deli finally shut down after almost 40 years, but the highway passes the cobblestone ruins that mark the onetime location of Llano del Rio, a utopian Socialist colony established in 1914; Aldous Huxley lived nearby for a time. While he would later experiment with mescaline, Huxley wrote that “the desert should be taken either dilute, or, if at full strength, in small doses. Used in this way, it acts as a spiritual restorative, as an anti-hallucinant, as a de-tensioner and alterative.” The terrain is scruffy—marginal habitat for the valley’s surviving Joshua trees, though a haven for creosote and people living on isolated spreads who want nothing to do with their neighbors, much less Los Angeles or its suburbs that have sprawled into the High Desert.
After a stretch on Interstate 15 to Barstow, we opt for the more scenic, less congested Interstate 40 and break free of L.A.’s gravity, reaching open desert. In the distance, mile-long freight trains, tiny against the mountains, glide across valleys so vast that there’s no sound of steel wheels against steel rails. Lingering haze from an ocean system that passed through a day earlier softens the desert’s usual high-definition clarity, blurring the margin between land and sky. Ninety miles beyond Barstow, the Granite Mountains, a creamy, craggy range that rises to nearly 7,000 feet, dissolve into the blue as we enter the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve, established as part of the landmark California Desert Protection Act of 1994.
FROM HOT TO COOL
Introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the act, the largest piece of land-use legislation in the history of the Lower 48, brought new protections to and expanded Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments, redesignating them as national parks. Administration of the Mojave preserve, formerly the East Mojave National Scenic Area, transferred from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service. But the Mojave didn’t become a national park. As part of the compromise that finally smoothed the bill’s passage, hunting and grazing were allowed to continue.
None of it happened easily. One of the most contentious environmental battles in U.S. history, the struggle over the act foreshadowed today’s politics. Advocates for stronger protections were portrayed as coastal elites imposing their will on desert dwellers, who feared restrictions on mining, ranching, hunting, and off-roading. The locals saw themselves as the rightful stewards of the land. Some likened the National Park Service to the gestapo.
There wasn’t much love in return. Why, many bill supporters wondered, would residents of the Mojave go against their own interests by opposing a national park and its potential benefits to the local economy? How could they defend commercial and recreational activity that was destroying the fragile desert environment, where the scars on the land from off-road vehicles might last for generations?
The intensity of the debate came as a surprise to many Southern Californians. After all, while we’re aiming for the desert on this drive, plenty of travelers experience the Mojave only as the pass-through country between L.A. and Vegas, while others eagerly profess their hatred of the desert. These days, though, I hear that less and less, because in many ways the desert has become cool.
That’s especially true in the Coachella Valley, where the midcentury modern revival awakened Palm Springs from a decades-long slumber and brought a new generation to the Colorado Desert, a subregion of the Sonoran Desert, which extends from southeastern California through Arizona and deep into Mexico. The Coachella music festival helped turn the low desert into a destination for a young crowd that might otherwise have spent a couple of its April weekends at the beach.
From the Coachella Valley, it’s just a short hop to the hidden palm oases and stacks of monzogranite boulders at Joshua Tree, one of the world’s top climbing destinations. The rocks’ rounded, sculptural contours and the twisting shapes of the park’s namesake trees, set against cloudless skies and uncluttered expanses, have a graphic simplicity ideal for the mediated world of smartphone screens. And Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth, has become the set for a kind of climate porn as more and more people head out during the most extreme summer conditions. August, when temperatures average 117 degrees, is the park’s busiest month.
There’s also something to be said for the old-fashioned allure of national parks. Since the passage of the protection act, the visitor rate at Joshua Tree has more than doubled, while Death Valley’s has jumped by nearly 75 percent.
CAUGHT IN BETWEEN
During the debate over the protection act, many critics questioned whether the Mojave preserve deserved national park status too. It was more of a working landscape than a pristine wilderness, and it certainly couldn’t compare to such iconic parks as Yellowstone or Grand Canyon. But the desert has never stood up well to such traditional comparisons and needs to be taken on its own terms.
In the preserve, Kelbaker Road drops through Granite Pass and opens to views of the 700-foot Kelso Dunes, a wind-whipped confection of sand that is North America’s third-tallest dune system. After a few more miles, we reach the Kelso Depot. Finished in 1924 in the mission and Spanish colonial revival styles, the former train station and its arcaded walkways have been beautifully converted into the preserve’s visitor center.
The old lunch counter’s still there but out of service, and a quote from Edward Abbey adorns a large photo of the dunes: “Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.”
Deeper in the preserve, we climb the almost imperceptible slopes of Cima Dome, a granite formation that’s 25 miles across and considered the most symmetrical natural dome in the country. Here the Joshua trees thrive, growing to more than 30 feet tall and clustering so densely that they form the improbable habitat of a desert forest.
About 50 miles from the depot, we leave the two-lane roads and return to Interstate 15. The desert reverie is broken by the otherworldly white light emanating from three 459-foot-tall towers at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. Looking like something out of a sci-fi movie, 347,000 mirrors reflect concentrated light to boilers atop the towers to generate superheated steam that powers turbines to create electricity for 140,000 homes. That’s of little consolation to the 6,000 or so birds that get zapped out of the sky each year when they fly through the beams of sunlight.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and as we speed east into Nevada, L.A.-bound traffic from Vegas backs up at the agricultural inspection station near the state line. Two miles. Three miles. Four miles. I lose track as we pass the cartoonish castle-style turrets of Whiskey Pete’s and the giant neon sign at Buffalo Bill’s depicting a bison in a Plains Indian headdress, landmarks beckoning travelers to the cluster of casinos set along the border in Primm, Nevada, the place of first and last resort for Californians hoping for a change in their luck.
Despite the additional environmental safeguards of the 1994 act—and the passage of the far less contentious California Desert Protection and Recreation Act of 2019, which created another 375,000 acres of wilderness, including 88,000 in Death Valley, while also permanently designating six areas totaling 200,000 acres for off-highway vehicle use—the Mojave, caught between two gigantic cities and forever eyed for its resources, remains disputed territory.
The proposed Cadiz Water Project would build a 43-mile pipeline and pump an estimated 16 billion gallons from the aquifer beneath the Mojave Trails National Monument, near Joshua Tree, potentially drying springs that wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep, need to survive. An Australian company hopes to drill four exploratory wells in the Panamint Valley, adjacent to Death Valley National Park, to determine the viability of lithium mining. Nearly 2,000 other lithium-mining claims have been filed in the California desert.
It’s nothing new. Even back in the 1950s, Huxley lamented the relentless creep of civilization into the Mojave, writing, “Solitude is receding at the rate of four and a half kilometers per annum.” The pace has only increased since then.