An Unbroken Dome of Sky

The Mojave is perhaps the least appreciated of North American deserts. It lacks the lush gardens of stately cacti that define the Sonoran Desert. Nor can it boast of red rock canyons and soaring temples of the Colorado Plateau deserts.

What the Mojave has instead is an abundance of light and space. With few deep canyons and no forests, an unbroken dome of sky arches over a land that is totally exposed to sun and stars. After the year of darkness that was 2020, I needed to walk in its light.

A hazy, pastel sunset from the top of a ridge.
Sunset from the New York Mountains in Mojave National Preserve

But ongoing pandemics and long-distance hikes are a poor mix. I had section-hiked the Desert Trail as far as I-40 last year and thought to continue on to Death Valley this year. But the only plausible resupply option is the town of Baker. Getting there would require a 30-mile (48 km) hitch. That wasn’t going to happen. Nor was it obvious how I could get from Death Valley back to my starting point.

I abandoned my ambition to continue north on the Desert Trail and sketched out a self-supported loop. The route would cover the heart of the Mojave National Preserve, hopping from one mountain range to another across stretches of desert floor. A detour into Nevada would let me resupply at the fittingly-named town of Searchlight.

There would be no trails of course. But the Mojave is full of abandoned jeep roads that serve as de facto two-track trails. I could use them for over half my route. The openness of the country would facilitate cross-country travel. I sketched out a route on GaiaGPS and had a plan.

A map illustrating the author's proposed route through the preserve.
A loop through Mojave National Preserve, starting at Kelso Depot. Planned route in red, actual route in blue.

I spent a day setting out water caches at road crossings. Those caches would supply about half the water I needed. For the rest, I would rely on springs tucked into the mountain ranges. Given the ongoing drought, this strategy was a bit of a risk. I hoped the springs still flowed. Although hope is not a plan, sometimes it is the best we can do.

Days 1-2: Kelso to Hole-in-the-Wall

I parked my car at the pandemic-closed information center at Kelso, saddled up, and began walking towards Searchlight, heading northeast along the highway, climbing out of the Kelso Valley.

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