I’ll start out by saying I am not a big fan of the desert.
I’m a mountain girl. I love green. I love lots of trees, and the canopy and smell of the forest. I love shade. I love water. And of course, I love snow.
The low desert is the exact opposite (though sometimes it could snow, albeit very rare).
I’m also not of fan of Southern California for reasons I won’t get into here. So why are we going to Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve, the gigantic desert near Southern California? Because I’ll go just about anywhere to meet up with friends and have an adventure.
And who knows, maybe I’ll end up liking the desert. Stranger things have happened...
Our original departure date was supposed to be Sunday, March 14th. But two things got in the way: the weather (stormy, wet and cold), and launching a website called, ahem, BlingMyRig.com. Ever heard of it?
The site went live on Friday, March 11th, but the official “store is open” sign wasn’t hung until Sunday evening, March 14th. By the next day, the site was getting lots of traffic and orders. Many thanks to everyone who so patiently waited for the launch date and made purchases! 🙏
Here’s a big tip for anyone launching a business / website, and this is extremely obvious: don’t launch a site and then leave for a trip the next day where you will be away for two weeks, with no cell service and no one minding the store while you are way. DUH.
Luckily, before leaving I decided to double check a few critical website functions to make sure they were working. You guessed it: of course they weren’t working!!! This was discovered at 10pm Monday night, when we were supposed to have already been on the road for three hours. After seven hours of staring at a computer screen, I crawled into bed at 5am with the problems resolved.
After cleaning the house, packing and getting Beastie ready for departure, we finally left San Francisco on Tuesday at 9pm, two full days later than originally planned.
Total drive time to Kelso Dunes from SF is about nine hours (515 miles / 830 km). The plan was to stop and boondock part way, then get up early Wednesday and drive the rest of the way.
Two hours into the drive, I had to have french fries. I don’t eat them very often, but when I want them, move over, people.
Before we stopped at In-N-Out in Santa Nella, I did a bunch of research on Fast Food — don’t you love how they’re now called “Quick Service Restaurants,” an attempt, I guess, to up-level the “dining” experiencing — french fries.
If you love McDonald’s or Carl’s Junior’s fries and don't care what's in them, skip to the next paragraph NOW... I was shocked to learn Mickey D’s fries have 19 ingredients, including a beef-derived flavoring agent, wheat and milk. So much for them being gluten-free. If you think that’s bad, Carl’s is worse: I counted 20 ingredients (see page 36 of their menu) – WTH???? Hey, but at least they don’t contain milk or wheat. Okay, guess I’ll go to Carl’s. NOT.
People give In-N-Out fries a bad rap. Some people think they suck. I like their fries, and they contain only three ingredients: potatoes, salt and oil. Less is definitely more, when it comes to fast food fries. The trick to getting really good In-N-Out fries is having them spend more time in the fryer. I order them “light well.” I just learned this when we made the stop. I never knew until now the official term of how I liked them crisped just right.
An hour after pigging out on my protein-style double-double, fries (one order each) and sharing an extra-large chocolate shake (yum), we arrived at Harris Ranch to boondock for the night. At this point, my stomach felt like I inhaled a grease bomb, and I was dismayed at my lack of self-control ...for drinking more than half the shake. 🐷
This is a great place to stop (with a caveat) — clean, quiet, legal / legit, and with a patrolling security beat. The free, official boondocking location is in the parking lot between the restaurant and the hotel. I will say, however, there was the smell of the cows (or should I say cow 💩), but since we didn’t open the windows or doors, it did not smell at all in Beastie. I only noticed the odor the next morning when the door was opened.
If you’re planning to boondock here, definitely do a drive-by smell test before stopping / getting set up. If it’s odorous, you can park at the truck stop on the other side of the highway, though it very well may smell there too. It’s definitely much nicer at Harris Ranch if you can’t escape the smell anywhere in this area.
We woke up early the next day and crossed east at Bakersfield. Who knew the area between Bakersfield and Mojave was so pretty? This was the first time I’d been in this area, and I was very surprised by the mountainous terrain and beauty in the Tehachapi area. I guess I don’t get out much. 😆
The drive to the Kelso Dunes trailhead and nearby campground (beyond the trailhead) is very easy. From Highway 40, there is a clearly marked turn-off onto the paved Kelbaker Road to enter the Mojave National Preserve. After about 14 miles, there’s a sharp turn to the left (we almost missed it) onto a flat, dirt road that does not require a high clearance or 4-wheel drive. Cell service tip: shortly after making the turn onto Kelbaker road, we lost AT&T service.
We passed the trailhead, and a bit ahead was a very large area with primitive camping. We arrived at the campground around 2pm. It was great to pull up and see friends we haven’t seen in awhile, some as long as twenty years. Camping in our rigs (or in tents, for that rig-less) is the perfect way to hang out and very safely and distantly socialize during a pandemic. Thank goodness for the great outdoors.
The next day we hiked to the top of Kelso Dune. There is NO way I could have done this during the summer. It was already quite warm (especially for this San Francisco fog girl) in mid-March, and since I was desperate for catch-up sleep, there was no way I was going to get up early to beat the heat.
It would be downright dangerous, crazy and life-threatening (no joke) to do this hike during the summer. The average ambient temperature high in July is 106°F / 41°C, and the thermal mass of the dunes can increase the temperature, I believe, by 30+°, thereby pushing it to a deadly 136+°F / 58+°C.
We left from the campground vs. the trailhead. It was very convenient to start the hike right from Beastie's campsite.
There are many clearly marked trails, so no worries about trampling on virgin territory, though I saw several tracks being made off-trail. 😡😡😡
Definitely bring your hiking poles. They help a lot, and you will appreciate them because this hike is strenuous. We are experienced hikers and backpackers, and I am not exaggerating. Hiking steep pitches in sand to the summit (at 3,094ft) is tough.
From studying the trail map, the route from the official trailhead takes a straight line approach to the dunes, then at the base of the dunes, either veers left to go straight up the face, or bears right to eventually approach the dunes from the West.
From the campground, we headed towards the dunes, approaching it from the East / the opposite direction of the official trail. Shortly after leaving Beastie, the path began a gradual, and sometimes very steep, climb.
Once at the base of the dune, we took the path closest to the ridge line, which has two very steep peaks shortly before reaching the summit.
This is the base of the Dune. See those three points in the middle? The first two are the "peaks" we needed to climb before reaching the summit.
On the way up, our friends Rick (dad) and Lake (son) were coming down. They carried a snow sledding dish all the way up the summit so that Lake could ride down the dune. It wasn’t possible to get a lot of speed, but Lake said it was worth it to bring the dish. I personally would not want to carry anything other than my poles and backpack.
As we got near the top, we saw three guys going up the face. They were climbing on all fours, and they were hurting. In order to not succumb to the one step forward, two steps sliding back phenomenon, they would sprint up a few seconds on all fours, then stop to rest. Crazy technique, and tough on the knuckles and hands, I imagine.
It took us about two hours in total to get from Beastie to the summit. There were some very interesting things along the way, including this little tiny creature. The sight of it was incredulous.
I knelt down to ask this teeny, tiny ant, "what the heck are you doing up here???"
I was also really taken with the way the sand moved, especially when I inadvertently, then purposely, created “sandalanches." I pointed these out to 1der, and he thought it was soooo cool.
As we neared the top, we sat down and parked for a few minutes to give the hurting guys some time to enjoy the summit by themselves. Thankfully, they didn't stay long and no one else was remotely near, so we very happily had "the place" all to ourselves once we reached the summit.
The 360° views were stunning. You could see forever.
Coming down was super fun and fast. We walked and ran down the same route we took going up. On a side note, we really didn't hear the sand sing much. I believe it was because the sand's surface wasn't hot enough, and it was windy, so it was hard to hear much of anything on the way up other than ourselves heavily panting.
We arrived back at Beastie after being gone for about three hours total. First thing to do after de-gearing: pig out with a late lunch and re-hydrate with lots of water. Then sit in the shade and visit / catch up with friends.
We highly recommend climbing the dunes. No pain, no gain, and make sure you super slather on the sun block and wear a wide-brimmed hat, sleeves and lightly colored sun protective clothing!
After dinner, we all sat by the campfire and enjoyed the company. What a great way to end a marvelous day.