Take an adventurous trip into spectacular Mojave National Preserve for vistas, nature, and desert solitude (be smart and safe--pack maps, plenty of water and snacks, and fill up on gas; 4WD vehicle recommended).
Length of trip: 1-2 days
Total distance: 140.7mi/226.4km
Baker. Check out the world’s tallest thermometer, jutting134ft/40.8m high into the brilliant blue sky in this modest desert town, best known as a way station en route from L.A. to Vegas. Cool down with a strawberry shake from the Mad Greek, then stop by popular and goofy Alien Fresh Jerky (peppered jerky is a spicy favorite).
Kelso (34.8mi/56km; 1 hr 2 min). Head into Mojave National Preserve along Kelbaker Road, lined with dozens of conical cinder cones, hinting at the region’s volcanic past. Continue to renovated Kelso Depot, primary visitor center for the park. The charmingly renovated center, a former depot along critical rail lines, includes cultural and natural history exhibits, an appealing art gallery (photo exhibits can be especially striking). Settle into a seat in The Beanery lunch counter, originally opened in 1924 and restored in painstaking detail. The retro slant means you’ll find PB&J and tuna on wheat on the menu, but also fruit smoothies and spring salad with baby greens.
Kelso Dunes (11.9mi/19.1km; 19 min). Continue south to Kelso Dunes Road, then detour west to these soaring dunes . Clamber up then slide down, or just listen for the eerie whistle and boom that sometimes comes from the naturally shifting sands. On Saturdays, join a guided walk.
Cima (19mi/30.5km; 23 min). Follow Cima Road to explore the world’s largest and densest Joshua tree forest—including the world’s largest specimen. Visit in early spring and you can see these bizarre trees, actually a kind of yucca, adorned with spectacular white blooms. Hike Teutonia Peak Trail for expansive views of stunningly rounded Cima Dome, an eroded granitic mound rising to roughly 1,500ft/457.2m.
Nipton (24.8mi;39.9km; 35 min). This don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town has some unexpected treasures. Make a mental note to return to Hotel Nipton , a surprising desert gem, with rooms in a restored early 1900s adobe and a handful of snug tent cabins. Try the pork chops at Whistlestop Oasis and score gift items at the Nipton Trading Post .
Return to Baker (50.2mi/80.7km; 56 min).