Natural Wonders of the Mojave Desert


Unlike their culinary and historical counterparts, the botanical and geological treats found along Interstate 15 don’t get top billing in road signs and guidebooks. But if you know what you’re looking for and keep your eyes peeled, you can take in a cornucopia of animals, plants and natural formations along the way. 

Desert tortoises

Youíre most likely to spot a desert tortoise at the Valley Wells rest area 26 miles west of the Nevada-California border. If you do, consider yourself lucky: They spend 95 percent of their lives undergroundóexplaining how they can survive temperatures up to 140 degrees. Another reason you wonít see many: Human activity has reduced their numbers to the point that theyíre a threatened species.


No, that scrubby grayish-green groundcover flying by outside your window for miles upon miles is not sagebrush; itís creosote, known to old-school types as greasewood. It might not be much to look at from a human perspective, but to desert animals, itís heaven, providing food, shade and cover from predators. Creosote roots even serve as a stabilizing framework for desert tortoise burrows.

Rainbow Basin Natural Area

This collection of multicolored canyons eight miles north of Barstow is worth the short diversion off the 15, according to those whoíve been there. A quick jog through Barstow (Main Street to First Avenue to Fossil Bed Road) leads to a spectacular area so replete with rare natural and paleontological treasures that the federal government designated it an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

Desert bighorn sheep

Much Mojave wildlife is nocturnal, endangered or just plain secretive. Your best chances for animal-spotting are with the desert bighorn sheep around Zzyzx. Because the curly-horned sheep can go long periods without water and have keen eyesight for spotting predators, theyíre not afraid to go out in the daylight.

Mormon Rocks

Where I-15 meets Highway 138 near the Cajon Pass, look to the west and youíll see an outcropping of white sandstone rocks. Named for a band of Mormon settlers who drove covered wagons through the pass, the formation is visible evidence of the San Andreas Fault below the Earthís surface. Its holes and caves are teeming with life, from lizards to owls.

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Sept. 28-29 Calico Days at Calico Ghost Town Enjoy a parade, live music, gunfights, stagecoach rides, a burro run and a minerís triathlon. 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sept. 28, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 29; 36600 Ghost Town Road, Yermo, Calif.; (800) 862-2542;