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Getaway Guide: One Tank Trip to Barstow, CA

Just two hours northeast of Los Angeles stands the gateway to a desert playground where four-wheel drive vehicles reign and visitors can race down majestic sand dunes, crawl through caverns and traverse the landscape of volcanic cinder cones and lava flow. A one tank trip to the city of Barstow will open the doors to breathtaking natural wonders and the promise of adventure in the Mojave National Preserve. Once a small railroad and mining town, Barstow prides itself on being at the "Crossroads of Opportunity." As the entrance to the Preserve, it is certainly positioned to live up to its slogan.

Getting There

Flee the congestion and gridlock of downtown LA by heading east on I-10 for 38 miles. Catch the I-15 transition north and head 72 miles through the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. On the other side, witness the awe-inspiring expanse of the Mojave Desert. Once in Barstow, be sure to top off that fuel tank and grab some area maps before venturing into the desert wilderness where gas stations are scarce and GPS navigation systems are unreliable. 

What To Do
Mojave National Preserve (Photo by Truc Dever)
Mojave National Preserve
2701 Barstow Road
Barstow, CA 92311
(760) 252-6100

The Mojave National Preserve spans 1.6 million acres in the Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County. Here, visitors can explore canyons, mountains and mesas where more than 250 types of wildflowers bloom annually and Joshua tree forests break-up the sandy landscape. The Preserve is open year-round, but the best months to visit are October through May when temperatures are cooler. There are many sites to see within this vast stretch of desert, so travelers should map out their journey carefully and be sure to pack plenty of food, water and a camera.

Kelso Dunes (Photo by Truc Dever)
Kelso Dunes
Mojave National Preserve, CA
(From I-15 at Baker exit Kelbaker Road, then 3 miles west on a graded dirt road)

Towering 650 feet in the air, these sand dunes were created over the course of 25,000 years and stand as the third tallest dunes in North America. They were created through a slow and fascinating dance of wind and sand from the dried Soda Lake and Mojave River Sink. From the parking lot off a graded dirt road, spend an hour climbing to the top of the dunes and enjoying the view. From the peak, launch into an exhilarating run down the slopes and listen to the dunes sing and rumble. This phenomenon occurs when sand slides down the steep slopes and is especially prominent when the dunes are extremely dry. To soothe those weary feet after a long hike, travelers just need to dig their toes into the fine sand and enjoy the cooler temperatures beneath the surface.

Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark
Mojave National Preserve, CA
(16 miles southeast of Baker)

Until about 10,000 years ago, fountains of lava flowed over parts of the Mojave National Preserve forming volcanic cinder cones clustered on lava flows. These conical formations bring height and depth to the desert landscape and are a unique spectacle. The Cinder Cone Natural Area showcases a complex of more than 20 of these large cinder cones. Take Kelbaker Road from I-15 to pass through one of these lava flows and check out the geological marvels.

Calico Early Man archaeological site
(15 miles northeast of Barstow off I-15, Minneola Road exit)

Price: $5 Adults/ $1 Children ages 12 and under/ $2 Seniors ages 62 and over

This excavation site dates back to 1942 and was where amateur archaeologists found what they believed to be primitive stone tools. By 1963, it had become the only New World archaeology project of Dr. Louis S.B. Leakey, an archaeologist-paleontologist renowned for his Early Man findings in east Africa. The site is believed to be a stone tool workshop, quarry, and campsite for nomadic hunters 200,000 years ago. Visitors can take guided tours through the excavation site and learn more about man's origins.

Calico Ghost Town
36600 Ghost Town Road
Yermo, CA 92398
(800) 86-CALICO

Price: $6 Adults/ $5 Children ages 6-15/ free kids 5 and younger

This historic mining town was founded during California's largest silver strike in 1881 but quickly cleared out when silver lost its value in the 1890s. This ghost town and its 500 abandoned mines were purchased by Knott's Berry Farm's Walter Knott in the 1950s and were mostly restored to look as they did in the late 1800s. In 2005, this State Historical Landmark was proclaimed to be California's Silver Rush Ghost Town and is now part of the San Bernardino County Regional Parks system.

Where to Eat

Barstow Station
1611 E. Main St.
Barstow, CA 92311
(760) 256-0366

A favorite stop for road trippers from Highway 58, Interstate 15, Interstate 40 and the historic Route 66, Barstow Station has been the central hub for filling up, stocking up, and grabbing a bite to eat since 1973. The Station may be best known for the famous McDonald's built from railroad passenger cars, but hungry travelers will find a variety of other food options including a Panda Express, Hollywood Subs, Barstow Station Ice Cream and Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits.

Related: Best Campgrounds Around Orange Country


Peggy Sue's Nifty Fifties Diner
35654 Yermo Road
(760) 254-3370


Just 10 miles north of Barstow off the I-15 at Ghost town Road is an original 50s roadside diner where travelers can enjoy breakfast, lunch, or dinner to the nostalgic beat of great 50s music. Peggy Sue's pays homage to the railroad and mining roots of the region and was built from railroad ties and mortar taken from the Union Pacific Rail yard in 1954. Visitors will also find a 5 & Dime Store where they can enjoy some shopping and indulge in old fashioned ice cream, malts and floats.

Where to Stay

While there are no hotels or motels inside the Mojave National Preserve, there are a couple of developed campgrounds that can accommodate up to eight people with two vehicles.

Hole-in-the-Wall Campground
Take I-15 to the 40 east. Exit north on Essex Road

Price: $12 per site per night

This campground offers 35 campsites with access to pit toilets, waste bins, water, fire pits and picnic tables. The campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and no reservations are accepted. Hole-in-the-Wall Campground is situated at 4,400 feet in elevation and perfectly located as a base camp to explore nearby Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area.

Mid Hills Campground

Price: $12 per site per night

This campground offers pit toilets, trash receptacles, potable water, fire rings and picnic tables. The campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and no reservations are accepted. Mid Hills Campground is located at 5,600 feet in elevation, stays much cooler than the desert floor and is generally about 10 to 15 degrees cooler than Hole-in-the-Wall Campground. Be warned that the unpaved road to access this campground is not recommended for motorhomes or trailers.

Don't Miss...
Don't miss the wildlife (Photo by Truc Dever)
Mojave Desert wildlife
Mojave National Preserve, CA

While traveling to and from these desert excursions, visitors should keep their eyes peeled for some of Mojave's native flora and fauna. More than 300 different animal species can be found in the Preserve. Large and small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians all share this ecosystem. Some favorite sightings may include the desert tortoise, which spends most of the year buried underground to avoid extreme temperatures. Mojave National Preserve also provides protected habitat for the desert bighorn sheep.

Related: Weekend Road Trip To Death Valley


Truc Dever is a freelance writer covering all things Orange County. Her work can be found on

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