New Life for the Lonesome Desert : The East Mojave Was Recently Designated A National Presserve, But Even So, Few People Have Discovered Its Subtle, Silent Pleasures : Destination: California

McKinney writes the weekly hiking column for this section. He is the co-author, with Cheri Rae, of "Walking the East Mojave: A Visitors Guide to Mojave National Preserve" (HarperCollins-West; $12)

"Boom, boom!" shouts Sophia, my 3-year-old daughter, as she slides down the steep southeast face of the Kelso Dunes. "I have never seen more sand in the whole world!"

As we near the top of the dunes, our footsteps cause mini-avalanches and the dunes sha-boom sha-boom for us. Geologists speculate that the extreme dryness of the East Mojave Desert, combined with the wind-polished, well-rounded grains of sand, has something to do with their musical ability. Sometimes the low rumbling sound reminds me of a Tibetan gong, but on this particular day the sound is like a '50s doo-wop group.

Except for the musical dunes, it's absolutely quiet here. We have a 45-square-mile formation of magnificently sculpted sand, the most extensive dune field in the West, all to ourselves.

We're surprised at such solitude, even in the spring, prime time for visiting Southern California's newest desert preserve.

Two decades of park politicking finally ended in October, 1994, when Congress passed the controversial California Desert Protection Act, the Sen. Dianne Feinstein-sponsored bill that transferred the East Mojave National Scenic Area, administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, to the National Park Service. The act created two new national parks, Death Valley and Joshua Tree, and established the new Mojave National Preserve.

My wife, Cheri, and I, longtime desert lovers, figured (with more than a little apprehension) that the Mojave's elevated national profile would attract hordes of sightseers.

Wrong! During a visit here last week, there was only one other family making their way toward the dunes and fewer than a half-dozen campers in each of the campgrounds on a Monday. To many Southern Californians, the East Mojave is that bleak, interminable stretch of desert to be crossed as quickly as possible while driving Interstate 15 from Barstow to Las Vegas. Few realize that I-15 is the northern boundary of what desert rats have long considered the crown jewel of the California deserts.

About 17 million people live less than four hours from here, but not many city dwellers can locate the East Mojave on a map. They may be surprised to discover that the new preserve is quite accessible; on the south, it's bordered by another major interstate, I-40, and on the east by U.S. 95 (and the Nevada border). Just south of I-40 is one of the longest remaining stretches of old Route 66. Still, the area bounded by these three highways has long been known as "The Lonesome Triangle," and will probably keep this nickname for many years to come.

With few campgrounds and fewer motels--without even a visitors center--this land is a hard one to get to know. But it's an easy one to get to like. Its 1.4 million acres include the world's largest Joshua tree forest, wild burros and grazing cattle, spectacular canyons and volcanic formations, stalactites and stalagmites in vast underground caverns, back roads and footpaths to historic mining sites, tabletop mesas and a dozen mountain ranges.

This diversity--everything that makes a desert a desert--is appealing, but its silence is what draws us. It's a call of the wild that can't be heard, only felt. And in spring (the other prime time to go is autumn) temperatures are mild, the Joshua trees are in bloom and the lower Kelso Dunes are bedecked with yellow and white desert primrose, pink sand and verbena.

So where is everybody?

My family and I have an intense history with this part of the Southern California desert. The quietude of the dunes this time was in complete contrast to my first visit here eight years ago. On Thanksgiving weekend in 1987, I toured the East Mojave on a press trip with then-Sen. Alan Cranston, who had just introduced his California Desert Protection bill in Congress.

One of the bill's provisions would transfer administration of the East Mojave Desert National Scenic Area, as it was then called, from the bureau to the national parks. The measure was controversial, to say the least. Outspoken park supporters and equally outspoken park opposers badgered Cranston and anyone who would listen. By the time I started hiking up Kelso Dunes, I had thrust upon me a day pack full of position papers, from the Sierra Club to the mining industry, from the Wilderness Society to off-road vehicle boosters.

A similarly besieged magazine editor with a name tag that read Cheri Rae joined me to escape the political din. "All that arguing about a land nobody's seen," she commented. "I'll bet if more people experienced the magic of this place, the East Mojave would become a national park."

I agreed. While the East Mojave often made the news on environmental issues, these headlines offered few clues as to its beauty and recreational possibilities. That day Cheri and I began a relationship with the East Mojave that continues to this day. We explored the desert from Aiken Wash to Zzyzx, and fell in love.

Now we have brought our young daughter along to experience the East Mojave for the first time, and to revisit this wondrous land to see if anything has changed besides a couple of signs now sporting the park service's arrowhead emblem.

Atop the Kelso Dunes we take in the stunning view: the Kelso Mountains to the north, the Bristol Mountains to the southwest, the Granite Mountains to the south, the Providence Mountains to the east. Everywhere we look there are mountain ranges, small and large, from the jagged, red-colored Castle Peaks to flat-topped Table Mountain. Despite the underfoot evidence to the contrary, the East Mojave is really a desert of mountains, not sand.

Sophia delights in "finding circles"--where the wind-blown tips of desert grasses have traced 360-degree arcs in the sand. We discover other footprints, made by the desert's abundant (but rarely seen) wildlife: the tracks of a coyote, a ground squirrel, a lizard and a mouse. The dune's surface records the lightest pressure of the smallest feet.

We gleefully slide and saunter a mile and a half back down the dunes (much easier than the slow two-steps-forward-one-step-backward hike up the huge sand hills). Back in our Blazer, we drive 10 miles to nearby Kelso Depot, built by Union Pacific in 1924. The boarded-up Spanish Revival-style structure was designed with a red-tiled roof, graceful arches and a brick platform. Visitors ate meals in a restaurant nicknamed "The Beanery."

The depot continued to be open for freight train crew use through the mid-1980s, although it ceased to be a passenger stop after World War II. When Union Pacific officials decided in 1985 to demolish the building, local citizens and government officials formed a coalition known as the Kelso Depot Fund to save it. The National Park Service is considering refurbishing the building for use as the new preserve's visitors center.

"Kelso Visitors Center" would certainly attract and help orient visitors, Cheri and I decided as we enjoyed a lonely picnic among the palms near the railroad tracks. Eight cars and two freight trains roll past the depot during our hourlong stay at the depot.

"I think there's been a uptick in visitation since we took over," says Bill Blake, chief ranger (actually, the only full-time ranger) of Mojave National Preserve. "Some days it seems as empty as ever, but one day on patrol I counted 22 different out-of-state license plates."

At least some visitors include a tour of the East Mojave along with trips to Joshua Tree and Death Valley in a kind of "three desert park tour," Blake notes. Such a tour is a desert-lover's dream, although technically not all are parks. A federal park is differentiated from a preserve by its higher level of protection.

Land uses allowed in Mojave National Preserve that would not be found in more pristine national parks include:

* Cattle grazing. "What are they doing out here?" we've heard visitors ask when they see forlorn cattle standing in the meager shade of a Joshua tree. Ranchers have been grazing cattle here for 100 years and they will be allowed to continue.

* Mining. Forget the colorful image of the grizzled old miner with pick and shovel scratching out a living. Big mining companies extract minerals from the East Mojave, and will continue to do so.

* Hunting. The gun lobby succeeded in allowing hunting (mostly for bighorn sheep) to continue in the new preserve, the only National Park Service property in the continental United States where it's permitted.

From the old depot, we roam the lonesome back roads toward Cima Dome, a 75-square-mile chunk of uplifted volcanic rock. A geological rarity, Cima has been called the most symmetrical natural dome in the United States. Another distinctive feature of the dome is its handsome rock outcroppings--the same type is found in Joshua Tree National Park to the south, and a lure for rock climbers and hikers. On and around Cima Dome is the world's largest, densest Joshua tree forest. Now in glorious bloom, the Joshuas show their softer side with armfuls of pale yellow, lily-like flowers.

The dramatic colors of the sky at sunset provide a breathtaking backdrop for Cima's Joshua trees--some more than 25 feet high and several hundred years old.

A half-hour drive from the Joshuas brings us to tiny, blink-and-you'll-miss-it Nipton, located in the northeast corner of the preserve a few miles from the California/Nevada state line. The town consists of a few houses, a general store and the four-room Hotel Nipton, where silent film star Clara Bow was a frequent guest. The hotel is a Southwestern-style bed-and-breakfast, but you're on your own for lunch and dinner. Roast some hot dogs or spread out a picnic in the adjacent barbecue area, or take a 20-minute drive for a restaurant meal in Stateline or Searchlight, Nev.

Jerry Freeman, a former hard-rock miner who purchased the entire town in 1984, says hotel occupancy is up 80% since the East Mojave became a national preserve. He and his wife, Roxanne, moved from the famous sands of Malibu to the abandoned ghost town and have gradually brought it back to life. He has ambitions, hoping that one day Nipton will be a gateway to the new preserve, offering visitors more amenities and accommodations.

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The next morning, an hour's drive brings us to Hole-in-the-Wall and Mid Hills, the centerpieces of Mojave National Preserve. Both locales offer diverse desert scenery and fine campgrounds, and the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.

Linking the two sites is an eight-mile trail that remains our favorite hike in the East Mojave. But it's not a hike for tykes, so we put Sophia in the Blazer and choose the preserve's best drive instead.

In 1989, Wildhorse Canyon Road, which loops from Mid Hills Campground to Hole-in-the-Wall Campground, was declared one of the nation's first official "Back Country Byways," an honor federal agencies bestow on America's most scenic back roads. The 11-mile, horseshoe-shaped road crosses wide-open country dotted with cholla and, in season now, delicate purple, yellow and red wildflowers. Dramatic volcanic slopes and flattop mesas tower over this low desert. We stop to scramble among large pinon pine trees and lichen-covered granite rocks and to visit Devil's Garden, a grouping of several types of cactus interspersed with boulders.

Mile-high Mid Hills, so named because of its location halfway between the Providence and New York mountains, recalls the Great Basin Desert topography of Nevada and Utah. Mid Hills Campground offers a grand observation point from which to gaze out at the cappuccino-colored Pinto Mountains to the north and the Kelso Dunes shining on the western horizon.

Hole-in-the-Wall is the kind of place Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would choose as a hide-out. Its canyon walls are a twisted maze of rhyolite, a form of crystallized red lava rock. A series of iron rings helps hikers descend into the canyon, not a particularly difficult feat for those who are reasonably agile and take their time.

Kelso Dunes, the Joshua trees, a night at Nipton, Hole-in-the-Wall and Mid Hills--the heart of the new preserve--can be viewed in a weekend. But we know you need a week just to see all the major sights, and maybe a lifetime to really get to know the East Mojave. And right now, without much in the way of services, the traveler to this desert must be well-prepared and self-reliant. For many, it's this that makes a trip to the East Mojave an adventure.

As Sophia gets older, we'll return again and again to show her the wonders of this desert. We'll meander through a "botanical island," the pinon pine and juniper woodland in Caruthers Canyon. We'll tour Ivanpah Valley, which supports the largest desert tortoise population in the California deserts. We'll climb atop enormous volcanic cinder cones, then with flashlights crawl through narrow lava tubes. We'll explore the ruins of Ft. Piute and wonder about the lonely life of the soldiers stationed there and marvel at the ruts carved into rock by the wheels of pioneer wagon trains. We'll guess at the meaning of the petroglyphs left behind by the Native Americans who roamed this land long ago.

But for now, near sunset, a red-tailed hawk circles overhead while golden light and dark shadows play tag on rugged canyon walls. We head for home, reluctant to leave but reassured that this land will be protected for generations to come.

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GUIDEBOOK

Stretching Out in the Mojave

Getting there: From the L.A. area, take Interstate 15 east and enter the Mojave National Preserve from the north at Baker, or take Interstate 40 and enter from the south at Kelbaker Road.

Getting around: The best map of the area is the Automobile Club of Southern California's "San Bernardino County." The California Desert Information Center in Barstow (831 Barstow Road; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; telephone 619-256-8313), west of the preserve, offers maps, guidebooks and information about camping, lodging and desert attractions.

Where to stay: In Baker, a good point to fill up your gas tank and purchase supplies, there's the Bun Boy Motel (72155 Baker Blvd.; tel. 619-733-4363); double rooms $47.

In Nipton, 10 miles from I-15 near the Nevada state line, the four-room Hotel Nipton (take the Nipton Road exit; tel. 619-856-2335) is a B&B; with a sitting room and two bathrooms down the hall; rooms are $45 per night, single or double, breakfast included.

Just over the border in Jean, Nev., Whiskey Pete's (tel. 702-382-4388) is a casino-hotel-restaurant-truck stop in ersatz Wild West decor; single or double rooms $23 midweek, $37 on weekends.

One pleasure of the East Mojave is camping in the open desert all by your lonesome. However, campgrounds do not have hookups and you should bring your own firewood and water. In the preserve, the Mid Hills Campground is in a pinon pine-juniper woodland, with outstanding views and, at a mile high, some of the coolest weather in the East Mojave; Hole-in-the-Wall Campground is perched above two dramatic canyons. Both sites available at no charge on a first-come, first-served basis.

Afton Canyon Campground (run by the Bureau of Land Management), located 33 miles east of Barstow, can be reached via the Afton exit off I-15 and a well-graded, three-mile dirt road; $4 per night; no reservations.

For other lodgings, contact the Barstow Chamber of Commerce, tel. (619) 256-8617.

Where to eat: In Baker, the Bun Boy Coffee Shop, famous for its landmark giant thermometer outside, is open 24 hours. Or try the Mad Greek restaurant (tel. 619-733-4354), which offers surprisingly tasty food (Greek salad, souvlakia, zucchini sticks) for the middle of nowhere.

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