by Lynn Levine
In mid-October, we became first-time llama owners: we purchased three well-trained pack llamas in order to hike and camp in the Sierra wilderness. But, being mid-October, there was snow in the Sierra. We wanted to spend some time with them (who can resist new llamas?), so we decided to take them to the Mojave National Preserve for eight days over Thanksgiving.
We choose the Mojave National Preserve over Death Valley because there is no entrance fee and almost no controls over where you camp. Llamas are specifically welcomed on the website, no permits are needed, and the only camping restriction is that you camp a quarter-mile away from paved roads unless you are in a developed campground or at one of the eight roadside camping locations. These spots are in interesting scenic locations, each one-quarter to one-half mile distant from each other, and have campsites with fire rings. We never put the rainfly on our tent the entire trip and, as it has a mesh roof, we enjoyed the Milky Way and the occasional shooting star until we went to sleep each night.
Because there is no water (rainstorms can be years apart), our plan was to pack the llamas with everything all of us would need for twenty-four hours, go out to a scenic location overnight, then return to the car and trailer the next day to feed the llamas their hay, refill our water, and drive to a new scenic location and do it again. We took fifty gallons of water, a bale of hay and a lot more food pellets than we needed. It turned out that the llamas found plants they constantly munched on wherever we camped, so we only used about five pounds of the pellets (while camping in the sand dunes) and about half the hay. The two of us and the three llamas averaged about 6.5 gallons of water consumption per day total, all of us drinking our fill whenever we wanted. Water can be replenished at Kelso depot, as well as at the two developed campgrounds.
I suggest bringing some firewood and better clothes for wind protection than we had. We used Hiking the Mojave Desert by Michel Digonnet as a hiking guide; it was well organized and very informative, with five to ten hikes in each of the eight different areas of the preserve.
We used the Tom Harrison Maps, Mojave National Preserve Recreation map and it had all the information we needed to safely drive around the Preserve and to find the designated roadside campsites, although we took many hikes not marked on the map.
What To See
Cima Dome, ten miles across and about 1200 feet high, holds the record for the most symmetrical dome in the US. It has the largest number and highest density of Joshua trees in the world (even more than Joshua Tree National Park). The temperature was in the mid-60s when we were there and the sky was clear and blue—perfect hiking weather. The further we went, the larger and denser the Joshua trees became. They had fantastic shapes and we were delighted by them, as they are so different from the pines we usually hike in. About five miles in, we left the trail, made our way close to the top, and found a sheltered spot behind a large rocky outcropping. It was windy, but not too cold. We staked the llamas and let them sample the Joshua trees, several cacti, and a variety of bushes and grasses. We gave them their fill of water and left each of them a full water bowl. We didn’t see or hear another person until we got back to the trailer the next day.
The New York Mountains are about two hours away from Cima Dome. They top out at 7532 feet and were colder (about 50 degrees by mid-afternoon) with a constant wind, but the topography was fascinating. Since they receive more rain than most of the rest of the Mojave, the mountains are covered with evergreens and filled with dramatic canyons. We camped in a large grassy field next to a wash (the Preserve is full of very large dry washes, which are briefly full of raging water when rare but fierce rainstorms fall). We had no rain during our nine-day stay, but the guidebook said never to camp in a wash because rain from miles away can roar down a wash without warning. They are great to hike in, however, having wide flat sandy bottoms with huge boulders scattered about. The llamas ate their fill of dry grasses, but the nights were quite cold and there was a layer of ice in the llamas’ water bowls the next morning. Next time we will bring some wood for a fire as well as some wind pants and warm gloves.
We explored two canyons in the New York Mountains: Keystone Canyon and Sagamore Canyon. We hiked eight miles up Keystone Canyon (a change of about 2000 feet in elevation) on an old road that was washed out in many places—it would have been a stressful drive (if even possible), but it was a great hike. Near the top of the canyon, we lunched at the site of an old copper mining operation.
For the hike up Sagamore Canyon, we took a road four miles up the canyon, then continued into a wash for another three. We found an old, fairly intact mining operation and walked through the huge bunkhouse, which had been partially restored and included a new wood stove and a couple of beds. There were seven or eight other interesting structures to explore. After lunch, we turned back and went back to the car, hiking a little over nine miles that day, and up and down about 2500 feet.
By this time we were tired of being so cold at night, so headed for a lower elevation. We stopped at Kelso depot to refill our water jugs.
A two-hour drive took us from the canyons to the Kelso Dunes, 800-foot-high sand dunes that extend for twenty-five miles. I was very excited about the prospect of camping in the midst of the sand dunes, but immediately discovered that hiking up a very steep mountain of soft sand is extremely hard work. The llamas also weren’t happy. They clearly didn’t like the how the sand buried their feet with each step and they kept trying to pick up their feet quickly so they wouldn’t sink in so far. They also got quite balky about going up the steepest sections and scared sliding down the backside of the dunes. The sand was firmer along the crest of the dunes, so we walked along the top once we summited the first set of dunes. The trail guidebook described a twenty-five-mile, three-day trek across the dunes, which I had fantasies of doing until I discovered how hard it was to hike there. I decided the llamas were right, and we had gone far enough. It was very warm, without wind. We staked the llamas in the sand, and even there they found a few grasses to eat. We took off our shoes, and enjoyed the 70 degree temperature.
Our last night was spent at a campsite in the Cinder Cones and Lava Beds. We hiked up over a ridge of lava and then down into the lava fields. It was quite warm here, in the high 70s, and we got hot. There are sixty square miles of lava fields to explore, dotted with about forty cinder cones ranging in height from 100 feet to 560 feet. We found one with a road leading to the top and circled up until we had amazing views for miles in each direction.
If you want a great winter trip, the Mojave National Preserve is an interesting and diverse area. I wasn’t expecting such diversity and so many different kinds of hikes. We thought the limiting factors would be food for the llamas and water, but everywhere except the sand dunes they found lots to eat, although it may not have had much nutritional value. The llamas were calm and happy walking everywhere except the sand dunes and the temperatures were comfortable for hiking each day, although it did get very cold at night in the New York Mountains. The main drawback was the long, fourteen-hour nights, although they did allow us to catch up on our sleep. We plan to travel further, going out for two nights at a time when we and the llamas are better used to each other and we are more efficient in packing. We saw less than one-third of the Preserve and could return for another week and not repeat a single hike.