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California's Outback Highway: 2 Lanes, 200 Miles, 3 National Parks

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The characteristic backlit red pavement of Kelbaker Road | Photo: Jim Stanger/Flickr/Creative Commons License

There are a lot of epic road trips possible in the California Desert, but only one connects three National Parks -- and a proposed National Monument -- via more than 200 miles of often-deserted two-lane highway. The most direct route between Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks offers solitude, wilderness, a glimpse of desert history, and some of the widest wide-open spaces you'll ever see.

The route includes two long roads and a short stretch of a third. It's not a designated scenic highway, though it ought to be. Let's call it the Outback Highway: there are few roads in the state of California that will get you farther out in the back of beyond, with views that stretch for hundreds of miles, often with little sign of human interference in the landscape aside from the blacktop itself.

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Make sure you have a full tank of gas when you start out, especially if you're traveling from Twentynine Palms northward. Between 29 and the next reliably available gas on the route at Baker lie 115 miles of occasionally mountainous terrain, and getting stranded out there with an empty tank might mean hours of waiting for a good Samaritan to happen by. (It should go without saying that you should also bring sufficient water and other necessities in case something unexpected forces you to pull over, and don't count on mobile phone coverage over the entire route.)

Let's start out from the south end of the Outback Highway. Take Amboy Road east out of Twentynine Palms, near the East Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. (It's easy to find, parallel to Highway 62 two miles north: you can get there via Adobe or Godwin roads.) Amboy Road runs for a few miles through the sparsely populated community of Wonder Valley, with its abandoned homestead cabins and occasional artists' retreats.

The road here is arrow-straight for a bit more than ten miles, passing intriguing dirt roads leading off to secluded little cabins surrounded by miles of creosote, the humonguous 29 Palms Marine Corps base occupying almost the entirety of the northern and western horzons. But that arrow-straightness ends abruptly with a left bend of almost 90 degrees as Amboy Road suddenly starts to climb a long grade to a pass between the Bullion Mountains, which mark the north end of Wonder Valley, and the Sheephole Mountains to the valley's east.

Atop Sheephole Pass, just shy of 2,400 feet, you pass a Bureau of Land Management sign welcoming you to the "Heart of the Mojave." It's true. Northward is the basin that holds the Bristol and Cadiz dry lakes and Amboy Crater, soon visible as a low black dome left of the road. Though human industry has altered some of the landscape to a startling degree -- the salt evaporation ponds we'll drive past on Bristol Lake providing an immediate example -- from a number of vantage points you can easily get the sense that this part of the world remains largely untrammeled and unexploited by our species. And a big part of the world it is: When the weather cooperates here, you can see peaks as distant as the Harquahalas in western Arizona and Avikwame and Mount Charleston in Nevada from the slopes above the Bristol Lake basin.

It's no coincidence that this "Heart of the Mojave" is also the heart of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.

About 40 miles from downtown 29, make sure you're not lulled into drowsiness by the drive: Amboy Road ends at an abrupt leftward S-curve. It's done its job: it's delivered you to Amboy. Turn right on the National Trails Highway, a.k.a. the fabled Route 66, and after another leftward S-curve -- this one including a rail crossing, so take care -- "downtown" Amboy arrives in less than a mile from the intersection. It's worth getting out to take a look around, though there may not be any services available depending on the time of week and other arcane factors.

And you might as well take a photo of the iconic "Roy's Motel" sign. You know you want to.

The next six miles or so eastward follow what was once one of the most isolated stretches of Route 66, the iconic highway of westward migration in the early 20th Century. The remaining stretches of 66 in California are definitely worth their own road trip, and their own post here. But we leave the Mother Road not far east of Amboy, turning left on Kelbaker Road to start a long climb out of the Bristol Valley.

Eleven and a half miles north of the intersection with Route 66, after passing between the Bristol and Marble mountains (to the left and right, respectively) Kelbaker Road crosses Interstate 40 at an interchange with no services. (If you need services, Ludlow is 30 miles west with gasoline and food; Fenner's about the same distance east with more of the same, though perhaps with somewhat more limited hours.) On the far side of the 40 lies the Mojave National Preserve.

Kelbaker Road grinds slowly uphill past the remarkably scenic Granite Mountains to your left, until it reaches Granite Pass at about 4,000 feet above sea level. Rounding the east flank of the Granites, we sweep slowly left as one of the best views in all the Mojave opens itself up before us. The Kelso Dunes off to the left, the Cima Volcanic Field 25 miles across the basin, and -- gradually emerging on the valley floor as we approach -- the Kelso Depot, home of the Preserve's main visitor center.

The Depot's worth a stop for the chance to stretch your legs, use the bathroom, drink a bit of cold water and peruse the fascinating displays detailing the Preserve's natural and human history. You can also grab a bite here if the lunch counter's open.

Back on the road, we pass up the opportunity to head out on the Kelso-Cima Road that leads northeast into the Preserve's Joshua trees, and stay our previous course on Kelbaker Road as it climbs toward a series of intriguing volcanic peaks. We reach the summit of the low hill at about 3,700 feet after passing quite close to some of the outcrops of the Cima volcanic field, some of which hold lava tubes and other geological wonders. There's a pullout near the top of the hill should you be so inclined.

If not, keep going as the road crests the summit and starts the long downhill approach to Interstate 15 and Baker, where you can fuel up both yourself and your vehicle, and even find a place to sleep if it's that time of day.

At Baker, what was Kelbaker Road coming in from the south becomes Death Valley Road / Route 127 heading north. Follow it through the outskirts of Baker -- note well the low speed limit in town -- as it follows the course of the lower Mojave River outflow toward usually-dry Silver Lake. (Usually.) This section of the Outback Highway holds some of the longest straight stretches of road to be found in the California desert, so take your time, drive carefully, and take plenty of breaks to avoid road hypnosis. The mountain ranges drift past on either side like passing ships: the Avawatz mountains on your left and Silurian Hills on your right as you pass into the Silurian Valley, the Kingston Range and the Owlshead Mountains in the far distance, and the Salt Spring Hills/Dumont Dunes complex closer at hand. As we pass the dunes, cutting between two of the Sperry Hills, the road turns rightward: we've just crossed into the extreme southern end of Death Valley, if only for a few miles.

Ten miles past the Dumont Dunes, at about 40 miles from Baker, we crest a saddle between the Ibex and Sperry Hills and drop down into the Tecopa Valley, which holds the tourist villages of Tecopa and Shoshone. This area's a great base camp for exploring the environs of the southern end of Death Valley National Park, with ready availability of lodging, groceries and gasoline, hot springs at Tecopa, and date shakes at the nearby China Ranch. There's also the Amargosa River Natural Area outside the park here, where that watercourse flows aboveground for a short stretch on its way to its terminus at the Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level.

But rather than linger, let's finish the last leg of our trip on the Outback Highway by pushing on along the Amargosa River another 27 miles past the odd, crenellated battlements of the Resting Springs Range to our right, until we reach the quirky crossroads called Death Valley Junction with its sun-bleached buildings, cafe and hotel, and world-class Opera House.

From here, you can turn west on Route 190 and head into the center of Death Valley National Park, with the Furnace Creek visitor center and associated lodging just 30 miles away.

Or you can turn around and head back the way you came on 200 miles of desert two-lane.

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