|The most interesting direct road through the Mojave National Preserve starts in the north at exit 272 of I-15, 23 miles from the California-Nevada border and heads southeast to Cima, south to Kelso, then exits the park near Granite Pass, where it meets I-40. The only two other main routes in the preserve are from Kelso to Baker, and from Cima to Wheaton Springs - see park map.
Volcanism: The route from I-15 (Cima Road) begins by crossing Shadow Valley, a typically wide, flat Mojave Desert expanse with many Joshua trees. As the straight road climbs steadily towards the Ivanpah Mountains, gaining 1,300 feet in elevation, the trees grow larger and more densely, creating a forested vista equal to any in the more well-known Joshua Tree National Park, 100 miles south. As in the national park, the trees are interspersed with occasional rocky outcrops of large granite boulders, here mixed with patches of lava, which long ago flowed from Cima Dome (5,755 feet elevation), a perfectly round granite hill of volcanic origin a few miles southwest of the road.
The dome is surrounded by various other eruptive features, and is close enough to the road for parts of it to be explored on foot. Nearby, one of only two maintained hiking trails in the preserve (the Teutonia Peak Trail) passes through the rather alien landscape of trees and boulders. Lower in elevation, and 15 miles southwest, the Cinder Cone Lava Beds contain about 30 separate cinder cones of various types, a result of geologically recent (1,000 year old) volcanic activity, spread out over many square miles of older lava, but in an area away from paved roads which makes exploration difficult; the main approach is the 4WD Aiken Cinder Cone Mine Road, which begins from Kelbaker Road south of the formations.
Cima: At Cima, the road is joined by the two alternative northern approaches - an unpaved track from Ivanpah or the paved road from Wheaton Springs - and a single route (the Kelso-Cima Road) continues through the preserve. This is joined by a line of the Union Pacific railway, which then runs alongside for the next 19 miles as both begin a long but gradual descent to the next village, Kelso. There is not much more to Cima besides a collection of abandoned wooden buildings and a railyard; to the south lies a wide desolate valley with little vegetation.
Kelso: After a 1,500 foot drop in elevation, the railway reaches Kelso, where it turns west en route to Barstow, and crosses the edge of a huge sandy area called the Devil's Playground - dunes and salt flats stretching over 40 miles and merging with several dry lake beds around Baker. Kelso is a small but very atmospheric settlement that looks as if it has been largely unchanged for many years, and it is easy to imagine old western movies being set there. The town is built around a large Spanish-style building lined by graceful colonnades and overlooked by several huge, flourishing palm trees; it was formerly a railway depot and now contains the new Mojave National Preserve visitor center. Kelso once had a population of 2,000, and was at one time both an important railway stop, providing water for steam trains on the Los Angeles - Salt Lake City route, and a center for iron ore mining, but is now nearly empty. Overgrown rail sidings and derelict buildings add to the air of faded prosperity. Many miles further north in Nevada, the railway passes the remote town of Caliente which has a similar depot.
Kelso Dunes: Six miles further south, the highway (now the Kelbaker Road) comes close to the edge of the Kelso Dunes, a corner of Devils Playground with especially high and colorful sand dunes, which make a distinctive noise in windy weather as the sand slides downwards. They may be approached by a gravel track that leads past the dunes, then by a direct path into the heart of the sands. Walking on the soft surface is quite tiring, and it takes a relatively long time to hike a short distance. The sand in this area has an unusual pinkish hue, caused by particles of rose quartz.
Providence Mountains: Just north of the turn-off to the dunes, a rough road climbs eastwards towards the Providence Mountains State Recreational Area, which covers a small section of the rugged Providence Mountains; the central attractions are two cave systems (the Mitchell and Winding Stair caverns), which have a variety of depositional features. The caverns may also be reached by a better quality route (Essex Road) starting from interstate 40. Along here, the Black Canyon back-country road branches off northwards, past the three developed campgrounds in the reserve, at Hole-in-the-Wall, Mid Hills and Black Canyon; apart from these, free camping is allowed in most places, wherever rough tracks lead away from the main highways.
Granite Pass: After the turn-off for Kelso Dunes, the Kelbaker Road climbs once more, reaching 4,100 feet at Granite Pass, center of a scenic area of desert dotted with granite rock formations and enclosed by distant weathered cliffs. There are some good free places to camp, away from the main road and surrounded by pristine desert vegetation with various species of cacti and yucca. Six miles to the south, slowly-moving traffic on I-40 is just discernible, a gentle reminder of civilization in this otherwise empty and quiet land. On the far side of the interstate, the Kelbaker Road continues to old Route 66 (the National Trails Highway), near Amboy.