Desert Hiking near Las Vegas: Exploring the East Mojave Preserve

Most visitors to Las Vegas flock to Sin City for the glitz & glamor of the Casinos and the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip. Yet few may know that Southern Nevada also constitutes the perfect gateway for scenic excursions in both directions, either North towards Zion, Bryce Canyon or other National Parks in Utah or Southwest towards the beautiful Mojave desert shared by both Nevada and California. On previous occasions, Euroquest Sidetracks has touched on highlights and hidden treasures of the Mojave, including China Ranch, Kingston Peak or the bizare cave church of the “Christ of the Andes”. Over 2 years ago, we previously presented an article entitled “Escapes in the East Mojave National Preserve” featuring a general outline of the magnificent desert landscape on a drive between Las vegas and Palm Springs, California. This gem of a desert secret, however, merits a more detailed account of the very highlights that make it so special: the fields of Joshua Tree Cacti near CIMA, California and the vast sand dunes of KELSO. Both also constitute perfect venues for timeless long hiking adventures through surreal desert scenery of unsurpassed beauty.


Upon leaving behind the Nevada-California state border on I-15 at Primm, we initially ascend and then descend the Mountain Pass and then reach an exit for “CIMA, California”, which we take and subsequently turn left onto CIMA Road. Within a mile already the scenery changes abruptly from dull freeway desert to lush green fields of Joshua Tree Cacti. We witness first-hand some of the miracles of fauna and flora of the Mojave desert, so much drier and cooler and at a much higher altitude than the nearby Sonoran Desert of Arizona. That´s why Saguaro cacti cannot be found here, but instead this is among the only habitats for the unique JOSHUA TREE cactus. Where climatic conditions are ideal, such as in certain parts of the East Mojave Preserve, these cactus trees truly prosper and may reach up to 15-20 meter in height (or up to 50-60 feet). All along Cima Road within close proximity to Interstate I-15 numerous scenic points invite visitors to stop, walk and explore the majestic fields of Joshua Tree cacti. The area here also lends itself towards extensive hikes along some of the nearby trails, among the most beautiful of which ranks the 3-mile TEUTONIA PEAK TRAIL featuring the nearby Cima Dome & Teutonia Silver Mine. Continuing further South on Cima Road we also admire the color of the asphalt. Depending on the position of the sun the road surface may appear red or black – a colorful juxtaposition to the lush green of the Joshua Trees & the deep blue of the desert sky.

We then reach Cima, California – a ghost town that has been left in ruins. Since our last post 2 years ago, even the post office sign announcing “CIMA CALIFORNIA, 92323” has been taken down. Few signs of human life are left in this desert outpost, although judging by the sight of occasional trailers here a small number of temporary residents seem to be attracted by the seclusion, quiet and remoteness of the Cima area in addition to its spectacular scenic beauty. Turning right on the “Kelso Cima Road” Highway we join the famous former Route 66 and follow along the rail road tracks for a good 20 miles – often colorful cargo trains either stand still here waiting for their continuing journey or slowly make their journey bound for urban areas of Southern California. 

The next stop is Kelso, California. Unlike Cima, this small community has undergone a resurgence in recent years since the renovation and restoration of its historic railroad station. Ever since its inception in 1862, UNION PACIFIC needed a base in the Southwest desert & upon construction & acquisition of the so-called “Salt Lake” train route, the first depot in Kelso was built in 1905 with the edifice in its present form dating from 1924. Upon suspension of regular train service in this area in 1985, Union Pacific intended to raze the building, but concerned citizens helped save the depot from demolition and it was subsequently restored and opened to the public in 2005. Nowadays the station building marks the perfect stopover for visitors in the East Mojave Preserve featuring a free-of-charge museum, restrooms and a diner-style restaurant. 


From the Kelso train depot it is only a short drive towards the vast desert dunes nearby, by far among the most spectacular sights in the East Mojave Preserve. An unpaved sandy trail leads from the highway about 3 miles to a parking area with garbage and restroom facilites – the ideal point of departure for a lengthy hike along the vast and moving slopes of the Kelso dunes. Other websites have also commented on the beauty of the Kelso Dunes for hiking & walking activities (see for further details). Here we find rare fauna and flora of the Mojave desert including bunchgrasses, Creosote Bush and White Bursage. Throughout the sand dunes, animal trails may be found, many of which created by either lizards, kangoroo rats or occasionally by Sidewinders, a kind of rattlesnake, innocent if left alone. 

About 30 minutes are enough to reach the lower slopes for an initial scenic view of the surrounding vast desert landscape. Yet it is advised to spend several hours here & start quite early in the day to take full advantage of the splendid sense of space, solitude & peace this desert gem has to offer. From the higher slopes at about 480 feet we enjoy splendid views over the entire area known as the DEVIL`S PLAYGROUND, a truly unforgettable & timeless experience. Although the distance covered may amount to only 1.5 miles each way, the total hike of about 3 miles is nonetheless strenuous due to the difficult nature of walking at a steady pace on sandy surface. Following our memorable hiking adventure at the Kelso dunes, we may either resume our drive towards the greater Palm Springs area or return towards Las Vegas the same way we came, with a possible alternative route via Morning Star Mine Road in Cima leading us back towards the Nevada border and the Nipton Road exit at Interstate I-15. This last alternative return route equally offers splendid views of fields after fields of Joshua Tree Cacti attesting to the unsurpassed scenic beauty of this particular stretch of the Mojave Desert.