Protecting a staggering 1.6 million acres, this dramatic desert monument west of Needles lets you discover towering sand dunes, magical mountain ranges, and remnants of a volcanic past. Mojave Trails National Monument contains “some really grand national treasures,” says David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, including what he calls as “the longest undeveloped stretch of historic Route 66.”
Get your kicks on a three-mile round-trip hike to Amboy Crater, a 250-foot-high cinder cone that is one of North America’s youngest volcanoes. Afterwards, snap a few selfies in Amboy, the self-proclaimed “ghost town that ain’t dead yet.” Almost entirely abandoned, the town, which features the remnants of a school, a church, a garage, a cemetery and even an airport, is famous for embodying the desolate loneliness of a desert community that was thriving in the '50s and '60s but has since been left behind. If Roy’s Cafe is open, stock up on road-trip snacks and Route 66 trucker hats.
Mojave Trails also contains the dramatic Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness. The preserve, 18 miles west of Needles, protects California’s densest population of the fluffy looking, knee-high cactus—the Bigelow cholla—that’s a photographer’s dream when backlit by late afternoon light. (Don’t touch—cholla spines can be extremely difficult to remove.) At dusk and dawn, keep your eyes peeled for jackrabbits and coyotes. Stargazers and geology enthusiasts should head to Afton Canyon, a rainbow-hued gorge carved out by a Pleistocene-era flood. Sometimes called “the Grand Canyon of the Mojave,”the area is a designated watchable wildlife area, home to bighorn sheep, roadrunners, and various kinds of raptors that nest in the canyon walls.