To drivers speeding by on Interstates 15 and 40, Mojave National Preserve, roughly 150 miles/241 kilometers northeast of Palm Springs, may appear featureless and inhospitable. But a closer look reveals the preserve’s wonders: water-sculpted canyons, ancient lava flows, limestone caverns, massive sand dunes, and Joshua tree forests reaching to a desert horizon.
Start your visit at the preserve’s excellent visitor center, which is housed in the renovated Kelso Depot, a Spanish Mission Revival style railroad stop opened in 1924. Pick up maps and information, then explore the preserve’s highlights. The most popular sunset and sunrise spot is the nearby Kelso Dunes, the second largest dune system in California. These dunes cover 45 square miles/72 square kilometers and soar to more than 600/183 meters, and in spring, desert wildflowers dapple the sands with color. Climb the highest dunes and you’re rewarded with a desert panorama.
After a seven-year closure, Mitchell Caverns—spectacular limestone caves hidden in a hillside at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area—reopened in late 2017. Take an hour-long guided tour—which involves a 1.5-mile round-trip hike to the entrance—to see the caverns and their remarkable dagger-like formations. (Tours are by reservation only and take place Fridays through Sundays and on holiday Mondays.)
Another popular hike—and a memorable workout—is the 3-mile/5-km round-trip trek to the summit of 5,775-foot/1,754-meter Teutonia Peak, the highest point on Cima Dome, an almost perfectly symmetrical formation covered by the world’s largest concentration of Joshua trees. Take plenty of water, and avoid hottest parts of the day. For an extra dose of desert adventure, pitch a tent at either Hole-in-the-Wall or Mid Hills Campground.