Hiking the Kelso Dunes Again -- After 28 Years

I first stumbled across the Kelso Sand Dunes back in 1985 as I was making my way across the Mojave Desert en route to a seasonal ranger job in the Colorado Rockies.  The dunes were an impressive sight, the highest sand dunes in the Mojave and miles from the nearest town, building or person.  The last time I visited the dunes was three years later, in 1988, when my ranger buddy Laurie and I camped here on a beautiful afternoon in October.  The next morning, though, the clouds were spitting a mix of snow and rain.  One of the hardest things I’ve ever done while camping was rouse myself out of my nice, warm sleeping bag in the back of my then-Toyota truck and walk out into the snowstorm to take a bath.  Then I prodded Laurie to do the same. 

Above:  In the morning I climbed to the top of the amazing Kelso Sand Dunes.  After a stop at the Kelso Depot, I drove a portion of Route 66 near Amboy, visited Joshua Tree National Park for a few hours, then drove down to San Diego to visit my friends, Troy and Carlye.

I’m glad to say that the dunes haven’t changed much since then – though the weather certainly had, because I woke up to a warm, sunny morning.  Not much snow or rain here in May, I guess.  The guy who’d camped a hundred yards down the road took off early so I had the entire dunes all to myself, which was great, and I took a panorama photo of my campsite.

I hadn’t climbed to the top of the dunes since that camping trip with Laurie and wasn’t sure, almost 30 years later, if I could do it, but I decided to try.

The dunes are massive, several hundred feet high and extending for several miles.  You can’t see them from the two Interstate freeways that cross the desert, I-40 and I-15, so probably 99.9% of the people who’ve ever crossed the Mojave Desert have never seen them.  It’s pretty easy to get here, though, since a paved road, the KelBaker Road, provides access.  But still, most people don’t bother to drive out here. And that’s fine with me. 

Above: It had been nearly 30 years since I last hiked to the top of the Kelso Sand Dunes, so I wanted to see if I could do it again.  Yep, I did it -- barely! (1:51)

I left on my dune hike about 10 a.m. and walked across about a half-mile of gently sloping sand, but then the real fun began as I started up the steep incline.  Talk about two steps forward and one step back – or in some places, three steps back.  At some places the dune was so steep that I was literally down on all fours trying to claw my way up, and at times I wasn’t sure if I’d make it, but I was determined.  As I approached the summit, the wind picked up and was creating a mini-sand storm, so I put my SLR camera in my daypack for protection.

And then, with my heart pounding and my lungs aching, I reached the summit and beheld a glorious view of the dunes and the desert, and not a soul to be seen in any direction.  I sat on the top of the dune for a while soaking in the view and took a panorama photo – and then I realized this wasn’t the same dune that Laurie and I had climbed.  Nope, that dune was to the east and it was actually a much smaller dune.  Gee, all that work for nothing!  But it was nice to know I could still climb up here after almost 30 years.

Yep, there might be a little dust on the bottle, as the country song goes, but don't let it fool ya' about what's inside. Or maybe not.

The Kelso Dunes


A Depot in the Desert

Going down the dune was a lot more fun than going up and I glissaded my way back to my truck, then hopped in and took off.  I backtracked to the small community of Kelso, which I’d passed through the night before on my way to the dunes, because it’s one of the most intriguing settlements in the Mojave Desert.  Way out here, in the middle of nowhere, sits one of the most beautiful railroad depot buildings I’ve ever seen.  Back in 1985 when I first saw the Kelso depot, I was puzzled by this enigma, and then I visited it again with Laurie a few years later. 

Why was this beautiful, intricate building sitting way out here, all by itself, in the middle of the desert?   Back in the early 1900’s, the Union Pacific built a railroad across the desert and in 1924, they built a depot here at this outpost and called it Kelso.  It was an important location because the steam trains needed to load up with water before making the long up-grade to the east, so the Union Pacific decided to build a fancy depot here that would compete with the elegant Santa Fe Railroad depots around the west.  Kelso was a thriving and vital community back then.  And during the years around WWII, it was an important stop for both passenger and commercial trains.  But then its importance faded during the 1950s, along with so many other railroad depots around the country.  Trains still ran through here but the Union Pacific decided to close the depot in 1985, about the time I first stumbled over it.  The depot was nearly torn down in the 1990s but instead the nearby desert community rallied and petitioned to have it made into the Visitor Center for the newly created Mojave Desert Preserve, which is managed by the National Park Service.

I learned all this, actually, after I walked into the depot and talked to Rachel, a volunteer in her mid-20s who worked at the front desk.  After talking to her for a while, I realized that she reminded me a lot of myself when I was that age.  As she told me, she’d just finished an around-America road trip with her boyfriend and decided to work for the National Park Service, so she volunteered – just like I’d volunteered during my first season as a ranger for the BLM in Colorado when I was in college.  I enjoyed talking to this bright and articulate young woman, who told me all about the history of the depot, but after a while, I looked at the big clock on the wall and figured I better get going because I had a long drive ahead of me.  After all the times I’d driven by the Kelso railroad depot, this was the first time I’d been able to step inside. 

The National Park Service and local community have done a magnificent job in restoring the Kelso depot to its former splendor.  If you’re driving across the Mojave Desert, be sure to visit the depot here – and better still, the terrific sand dunes nearby.

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

I got back to Gigi and continued driving south across the desert, and within an hour, I hit the junction with the former Route 66.  As you may know, the fabled U.S. 66 no longer exists as a federal highway; it was officially decommissioned in 1985.  But many of the communities along the former route do still exist, in various conditions of decline, and there are still sections of the original highway that you can visit.  One of my favorite sections is near Seligman, Arizona.  I stopped in that little town about 20 years ago and bought an authentic Route 66 white highway sign, which I’ve displayed proudly in my house in Portland for many years as well as my apartment in Qatar. 

Sections of Route 66 still exist in California, as well, including near the small settlement of Amboy, California, where I stopped in the early afternoon.  There’s one prominent sign in Amboy, for Roy’s Motel, and it’s been there for decades.  All that’s left now of the once-thriving Amboy is the café, a motel, and a few other buildings, but it’s a great place to poke around.  I walked into the café/gift shop and chatted with the owner, a woman about my age, for a few minutes.  “I’ve driven by here a hundred times but I never stopped and visited,” I told her.  “It’s the same story everywhere on Route 66,” she replied.

Getting Lost in Joshua Tree  (Who, Me?)

Back on the highway, I continued my southward trek across the Mojave Desert en route to San Diego.  My next stop was Joshua Tree National Park, on the southern edge of the Mojave.  The park was named after the Joshua trees that are so prevalent here.  These bizarre-looking trees are related to yucca plants and were named, so the story goes, by the early Mormon pioneers who thought they resembled the biblical figure Joshua extending his arms to heaven.  Joshua trees are scattered across the Mojave Desert but perhaps the biggest concentration is right here in Joshua Tree National Park. 

I only had a couple hours to spend at Joshua Tree National Park, since I had to get on to San Diego that afternoon, but I mainly wanted to see Belle campground.  In yesterday’s entry I told you about the camping trip I took with the UC Riverside Geography Department to Death Valley in 1982. A few months later, in May 1982, we decided to take another camping trip, this time to Joshua Tree. 

It was my first time here and we had a blast:  exploring the rocks and canyons during the day (and drinking beer), flying kites in the afternoon at Belle Campground (and drinking beer), and telling stories around the campfire in the evenings (and drinking beer).  We were there for only two nights but the great memories of that trip are still vivid in my mind, despite drinking all that beer.  I’d visited Joshua Tree a few times since then but had never been back to Belle campground, so I wanted to visit it again and see if I could remember where we camped.

Above: Driving through Joshua Tree National Park late on Thursday afternoon. This was before I realized I was lost! (0:28)

I pulled up to the kiosk at the entrance to Joshua Tree and proudly handed over my new National Park pass to the ranger there, and he waved me through.  About a mile down the road, I realized that he forgot to give me a map of the park but I figured, being a geographer (and an extreme geographer at that) that I wouldn’t need a map.  Heck, I make maps for a living!  Besides, I’m a guy, so I wouldn't need no stinkin’ map. 

OK, that was a big mistake.

I found Belle campground and found the two campsites where we’d stayed back in ’82, and the great memories came flooding back.  Unfortunately though, someone was occupying the campsites, so I drove on and found another campsite, then pulled over and ate an early dinner.  It was a beautiful afternoon but, as is common in the desert, the wind was really ripping through here, blowing away my plates and fried chicken and everything else.  So I packed up, said goodbye to Belle and continued on down the road. 

I planned to head south through the park, cross the mountains by the Salton Sea, and drive into San Diego from the east.  But I’d forgotten how many roads there were at Joshua Tree and a half-hour later, when I glanced at the compass on my rear-view mirror, I noticed that I was heading northwest, not south.  As Homer Simpson would say, “Doh!”  I’d taken the wrong road and was heading for a different park exit.  It was too late to turn around so I kept going and ended up driving through Yucca Valley and then Riverside, where I’d gone to college many years ago.  From there I turned south on Interstate 215 and about an hour later, I arrived in San Diego at the doorstep of my good friend, Troy, who welcomed me into his house.

Troy and I have known each other since the fifth grade in San Jose, California.  We were both recent transplants from Michigan, and ironically were born in the same hospital in Michigan just a few months apart.  Growing up in California, we formed an instant bond because we were both Michiganders as well as Detroit Tigers baseball fans, and we’ve been good friends ever since.  He was kind enough to keep in touch with me during the years I lived in the Middle East, so San Diego was a definite stop on my trip. 

Many years ago, Troy met a woman named Carlye on a softball team, they got married, and now have three great kids.  I was dismayed to learn that, because of my late arrival, I’d missed seeing Troy’s Dad play in his jazz band that evening, but Carlye filled us in an hour later after she returned.  They’d set up their guest room for me, which was even nicer than sleeping in the back of my truck.  I was going to stay here for two nights and that evening, I told them about the big Extreme Geography adventure I had planned for the next day.  It would be something, I told them, that they’d never forget.  And neither would I.

The Kelso Depot... And Other Desert Gems




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