A WEEK IN RED ROCK COUNTRY - #1 - Barstow & Mojave Preserve
A WEEK IN RED ROCK COUNTRY #1 – Drive to Barstow & Mojave Preserve
Drive to Barstow
Our first day on this trip in February 2016 was pretty much just driving from the San Francisco Bay area to Barstow where we spent the night. The weather was good and not much traffic so, all in all, I can’t complain. I won’t bore you with the equally boring drive down I-5 through the Central Valley but once we got up into the high desert, past Tehachapi along CA-58, we passed a few things of mild interest.
We drove by the Mojave Air and Space Port. This is an airport plunked down in the middle of a desert with no real urban area nearby. Up until 12 years ago the only modern claim to fame of this facility is that it became a giant commercial airline long term parking lot. Hundreds of jet liners can be seen parked nose to tail waiting to be needed again, refurbished, sold to 3rd world countries or scrapped. Having a massive amount of flat vacant land with exceedingly dry air makes it an ideal place to store these aircraft awaiting their fate. It is still used for this purpose, but Interestingly enough, around 12 years ago this airport was designated as the first facility in the US licensed for horizontal launches of reusable spacecraft and was certified as an official “spaceport” by the FAA in 2004. So, when you decide you’ve had it with this planet, this is where you’ll come to catch your flight to Mars. I hope they build a hotel nearby before then.
A bit later, still on CA-58, we passed Edwards Air Force base where the Space Shuttle landed when the weather was too lousy for it to land in Florida. Here we saw the wide dirt parking/camping areas on either side of the road where hundreds of space shuttle fans would camp out and party whenever the Shuttle was expected to divert to Edwards. From this vantage point they could watch it come right over their head and land at the nearby Edwards AFB.
As mentioned we spent the night in Barstow, but why does Barstow exist at all? As is true for many cities and towns throughout the southwest, the main reason Barstow exists is the railroad. The long southern route of the transcontinental rail system comes through here as this is the first spot south of the Sierra’s where the rail line doesn’t have to go over snow covered mountain passes to get into California. Barstow sprang up here as this is where the rail line splits with one leg going on to Los Angeles and points in southern California and the other leg descends into California’s fertile Central Valley and eventually to San Francisco (well, nowadays, Oakland). In order to break apart and re-configure trains a massive fueling and switch yard was built here and Barstow evolved to support that operation.
Not too long later, people in the LA basin discovered two things: One was the automobile and the other was Las Vegas. As it turns out, way before interstate highways and freeways, it was a two day affair to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Well, guess where the half way point is? You got it – Barstow (or nearby Baker). So, as the rail industry migrated from steam to diesel reducing the amount of workers needed in the shops and switch yard, the Vegas bound tourist trade more than made up the difference, and so Barstow prevailed. Now of course with I-15 you can drive from LA to Vegas in under 5 hours. However if your starting point is in the SF Bay area, Las Vegas is nearly 9 hours and Barstow, at a bit under 7 hours, is a good stopping point - especially if you’re headed to the scenery in the American Southwest instead of to Las Vegas.
Mojave National Preserve
The next morning we headed out to the Mojave National Preserve which is located in the Mojave Desert Northeast of Los Angeles and an hour or so from Barstow. The preserve is nestled between I-15 which heads NE up to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City and I-40 which heads west to into Arizona and points beyond.
This high desert preserve was created in the fall of 1994 as part of the California Desert Protection Act that converted the area to a National Preserve from its former status as a National Scenic Area. It is the 3rd largest unit of the NPS (National Park Service) in the lower 48 states consisting of 1.6 million acres (#1 is nearby Death Valley at 3.4 million acres and #2 is Yellowstone at 2.2 million acres).
With such a large area, it’s not surprising that there are many different types of topography and things to see. But, make no mistake, this is more a preserve and wilderness area than a developed area like Yosemite Valley. Elevations in the park range from 880 ft. near Baker in the north to 7,929 ft at the top of Mt. Clark. Among other things, the park contains massive sand dunes, mountain ranges, volcanic remnants, as well as lava beds and caverns however some of these areas are managed as California State parks. Add to this a Joshua tree forest a small railroad ghost town and many miles of unpaved roads and one could spend several days exploring this preserve
Summers here are quite warm to downright unbearably hot with highs averaging above 90° F and on most summer days soaring well into the 100’s and it’s very common for temps to be over 110° F on many of those days. That’s why we went in the winter. When you talk about a desert, many people envision miles and miles of sand dunes such as found in the Sahara. However sand dunes are not what defines a desert. A desert has a couple of definitions but in general is anyplace (hot or cold) where the annual precipitation is 0 to 10 inches per year, or where there is more precipitation but it all evaporates rather than flowing down rivers to the sea. Here the rainfall varies from 3.37 inches per year near Baker, to almost 9 inches in the mountains. At least 25% of the annual precipitation comes from summer thunderstorms and snow is often found in the mountains during the winter. In the winter it much more mild – similar to Death Valley – and on our visit it was warm (lower 70’s).
As we only had one morning to visit the Preserve on our way to other parks, our main objective was to see the Kelso Dunes. Kelso Dunes is the largest field of Eolian sand deposits in the Mojave Desert. The dune field covers 45 square miles (120 km2) and includes migrating dunes, vegetation-stabilized dunes, sand sheets, and sand ramps. The tallest dunes rise up to 650 feet (200 m) above the surrounding terrain making them much taller than the much more popular 100 ft or so dunes at Stovepipe Wells in Death valley and here they also cover a much larger area.
Although large, due to the topography and prevailing winds, the Kelso dunes are no longer receiving any new sand from the region. The sand that’s already there shifts with the wind but not nearly as much as the Mesquite dunes do in Death Valley. Due to these dunes being more stable, plant and animal life is much more abundant on the dunes.
Getting there is not all that difficult. There is a paved road that leads from either I-15 or I-40 to a 3 mile long, well maintained, dirt road. At the end of the dirt road is a parking lot with restroom and from there it’s about a 20 minute walk to the base of the dunes. As with most dunes though, climbing them is a workout as with each step you slide backward almost as much as you move forward.
Due to being somewhat lazy, we did not attempt to get there for sunrise and wound up at the dunes in late morning, around 10:45. So, the light was horrible for photography. But of course that didn’t stop my itchy trigger finger from taking shots anyway to see if I could tease out some interest in post production.
Providence Mountains from Kelso dunes
Edge of Kelso dunes from 3 mile dirt road leading to parking area
Ripples in the sand
More Wind Ripples in the sand
A bug making tacks in the sand
Plants take root in shifting sand
Kelso Depot and Station
The only services in the Mojave Preserve of any sort are at the Kelso Station. This is an old Railroad station and the restored depot building houses a visitor center and snack bar. This is where we headed for lunch. However even though the web site said it was open every day, the sign on the door said it was closed two days a week “due to staffing issues” and as luck would have it, we were there on one of those days – so no lunch for a while.
It’s pretty odd for there to be a train station in the middle of a desert, but for the Union Pacific Railroad it became a necessity. Since its inception in 1862, the Union Pacific railroad (UP) wanted a foothold on the West Coast. After reaching Portland, Oregon, the UP turned its attention to the rich California markets and the ports around Los Angeles. To get there, it needed to construct a rail line across the Mojave Desert. Kelso was crucial to reaching that goal.
In 1900, Utah Senator William A. Clark, a wealthy mine owner, bought a small railway in Los Angeles. He used that to start construction on what would become the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. In 1902, the UP purchased half the stock of that railroad before it was even completed. Construction on the line, known as the Salt Lake Route, began at the two ends (near Salt Lake and Los Angeles) and spread across the Mojave Desert. By 1905, it had grown to nearly 235 track miles and reached Siding #16. Siding #16 became "Kelso" when two warehousemen put their names into a hat along with that of a third worker, John Kelso, who had previously left the area. They drew a name out and Siding #16 was renamed "Kelso." By the end of 1905, the track stretched from the West Coast port of San Pedro to Salt Lake City, giving the UP access to markets in southern California.
The steep two percent grade that trains had to climb from west of Kelso to the Kessler Summit (later renamed Cima) meant that extra “helper engines” would need to be stationed nearby to help them up the grade. Additionally, steam locomotives of the era needed water. Kelso was perfectly situated to fill both roles, since it is located near the bottom of the 2,078 foot climb, and had a reliable water source from a nearby spring in the Providence Mountains.
The first depot at Kelso opened in 1905, followed a few months later by a post office, an engine house and an “eating house” to serve both railroad employees and the passengers on trains without dining cars. The town grew over time, as more employees were needed, and more of their families moved to the Mojave Desert to join them. Eventually Kelso had a population of 2,000 people made up of railroad workers as well as workers in the nearby Vulcan mine (iron ore mine for Kaiser Steel).
Over time the mine closed, diesel replaced steam and the population of Kelso moved out. In 1962 the depot closed down but the restaurant and passenger lobby stayed in use but they too closed in 1985. Believing that the now empty building would become “a target for vandalism” plans were made to tear it down. Local residents thought otherwise and organized to save the building. They were able to stop the demolition but had to wait till it came under US Gov’t control for enough funding to be available to restore the building. Renovation of the Depot began in 2002 and the building reopened to the public as the new visitor center for Mojave National Preserve in October, 2005.
Reflection in Kelso Depot station
Abandoned Post Office in Kelso
Remains of house in Kelso
I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log. The next installment will include Valley of Fire State Park.
This Blog can be found online here: http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/2016/9/a-week-in-red-rock-country-1
Images from this trip can be found on my website at
Thanks for reading -- Dan
Keywords: barstow, blog, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogredrock, kelso dunes, kelso station, mojave air and space port, mojave desert, mojave national preserve, sand dunes, travel blog, travel log
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