Crossing the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas

Driving from Monterey, California to Las Vegas requires a 250 mile trek across the western portion of the Mojave Desert. All those travelers on Route 66 during the Dust Bowl era coming west welcomed the end of the Mojave Desert when crossing the Tehachapi Mountains to find the irrigated promised land of orchards and agricultural fields around the Bakersfield area in the Big Valley of California.

The drive is tougher for me going east as I leave the forests of the Monterey Peninsula and travel south through the green Salinas Valley and then turn east to cross the California Central Valley to Bakersfield. The Central Valley is a 100-mile wide flat landscape in typically mountainous California.

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California’s Big Valley.

The snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountain range was an awesome sight  on a clear day looking 100 miles northeast across the valley. Unfortunately, the closer I got to Bakersfield the more obscured the mountains were by the valley smog. In recent years Bakersfield has earned the distinction of being the city with the dirtiest air in the country; even smoggier than Los Angeles 100 miles to the south.

East of Bakersfield Highway 58 climbs from an elevation of 400 feet above sea level at Bakersfield to 3,793 feet at Tehachapi Pass, the lowest pass in what is considered the southern boundary of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain peak in the US 48 is about 120 miles northeast of Tehachapi.

Tehachapi is a welcome landscape of natural trees after crossing the Central Valley landscape of oil pumpjacks, the California aqueduct, Interstate 5 and fruit orchards. I recall the Four Points Bakersfield having an oil pumpjack in the hotel parking lot when I stayed there a couple years back.


Tehachapi, California

Tehachapi is the border between the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Mojave Desert. The change in topography creates a wind channel. A new kind of farming happens in these parts.


Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm seen from California Highway 58.

The highway east descends 1,000 feet and there is no doubt you are in the desert once on the eastern side of Tehachapi Pass.


Vast windfarm in the Mojave Desert east of snow-dusted Tehachapi Mountains.

Mojave, California is located at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains and this is the location of the Mojave Air and Space Port where hundreds of commercial aircraft are kept in storage.


Commercial aircraft storage at Mojave Air and Space Port.

I have driven by the Mojave airfield many times over the past two decades, but this is the first time I actually stopped and got out of my car to photograph the jets sitting in the desert about five miles from Highway 58. I recognized the tail colors for Delta and United/Continental among the aircraft.


The daytime temperature in early January was in the low 40s. In summer this area is frequently over 100 degrees.

The Mojave Desert is a stark environment. Walk a couple of hundred yards on the desert rock and sand, then imagine being a pioneer traveler crossing hundreds of miles of this vast desert. Mountains are all around. Mountain passes are few and far between.


Mojave Desert off California Highway 58.


Desert ravens.

A beautiful sight to see in the Mojave Desert is the Joshua Tree or Yucca Brevifolia. These Yucca genus trees were named by Mormon pioneers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-1800s. They are an indicator species of the Mojave Desert. Along the route to Las Vegas they tend to be seen at elevations between 4,000 and 5,500 feet, although they apparently grow at lower elevations in other locations.


Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) in Mojave Desert of California.

As I was preparing to leave the newly built Valley Wells Rest Area off Interstate 15 in California I caught sight of something moving in the sagebrush.


Mojave Desert wild burros.

Apparently burros were brought to the southwest by the Spanish. They are native to northeastern Africa and have been domesticated over 5,000 years. Mojave Desert mining activity in the 1800s relied on hardy burros for much of the physical labor. Many burros were left to roam the desert landscape once mining activity ceased. Wild burros are a contentious issue due to their impact on the desert environment. I was delighted to see them anyway.

After nine hours and 500 miles of driving I reached Las Vegas, the largest metropolis in the Mojave Desert.

There are many unusual and unnatural sights to see in Las Vegas. Some are quite attractive.


Winter’s beauty – The Venetian, Las Vegas.

I am in Las Vegas for the New Media Expo, #NMX on Twitter. Last night I had the opportunity to visit some luxury suites at Caesars Palace and taste some beers I never had before at the new Gordon Ramsey Pub and Grill with a small group of travel bloggers for a private press tour. After getting invited to special press events at the Aria, Cosmopolitan and Caesars in the past three years, I have to ask myself the question:

Is being a travel blogger kind of like being a high roller in Vegas?

Ric Garrido, writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler, shares news and views on hotels, hotel loyalty programs and vacation destinations for frequent guests. You can follow Loyalty Traveler on Twitter and Facebook and RSS feed.



About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined BoardingArea.com in 2008.

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  1. That is a long drive! I used to live on the Monterey Peninsula and the few times I did it, I dreaded it. Now that we moved to the Sacramento area we go the “back way” through Nevada on US 95, although I do still miss passing the boneyard in Mojave.

  2. “Is being a travel blogger kind of like being a high roller in Vegas?”

    I don’t think all travel bloggers get the “whale treatment. There are hordes of them now.

    The marketeers just “romance” the ones they consider worthwhile, I guess. (Are you getting more comps in the last year than previously? I am sincerely happy that you can get this all to happen without pimping CCs!)

  3. One correction: The Mojave Desert is not in the Great Basin. What little rain it receives drains to the Colorado River and the Gulf of California.

  4. @Dan Lester – The Mojave Desert for Las Vegas and the area I traveled through in California is not part of the hydropgraphic Great Basin since water flows into the Pacific.

    This USGS article refers to the region as the Great Basin-Mojave Desert Region and opens with several different definitions, depending on scientific discipline, distinguishing Mojave Desert and Great Basin besides hydrographic characteristics.


    Since hydrographic is probably the most common definition I edited the text slightly.

    Thanks. I appreciate the input.

    I thought someone was going to comment that Route 66 did not go to Tehachapi and Bakersfield.

    Route 66 passed through Barstow, California where travelers heading to Bakersfield changed road to travel to Tehachapi and Bakersfield. I was thinking about ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ with a great description of traveling down the mountain road in their weary truck from Tehachapi to Bakersfield.

  5. @hulagrrl210 – The back way to Las Vegas means having to travel over the high Sierra Nevada passes and in winter if it requires snow chains, then I don’t want to drive there.

    I last did that Nevada drive between Las Vegas and Reno in 1996 in July at night with no AC and continued up 395 before crossing over to Redding and Eureka. My wife and I thought we would leave coastal Maine and live in Las Vegas. That idea lasted three days before we decided to move back to California.

    In 1978 I hitchhiked to Reno from Las Vegas. I recall the day hit 117 degrees. My girlfriend and I waited three hours in the Nevada desert at the intersection of Highway 6 and 95 trying to thumb our way to Yosemite National Park and as the sun was setting changed our minds and direction to Hawthorne, Nevada.

    In Hawthorne my traveling partner convinced me to bet our one dollar between us on Keno at the casino. We hit three numbers and won $50. She danced on the table in excitement.

    The next day we were in Reno.

    Two weeks later she left me for a guy with a Porsche and Jimmy Buffet tickets.

  6. @Ed – There are more travel bloggers online everyday and at these conferences I meet bloggers who travel many places on sponsored trips. One blogger I was talking to had been on a deluxe trip to Qatar at the invitation of the airline to review their new in flight food service.

    I don’t actively seek out sponsored trips and hotel stays, but more are coming my way. This is my sixth year of blogging so some businesses realize I am seriously engaged in the Business-to-Consumer relationship, although I think of myself more in the consumer-to-consumer relationship.

    Except, when I am staying in a $1,200 per night room, then it is definitely business-to-consumer information and I am a conduit.

    I enjoy seeing what is available in a hotel, but I don’t pull in the kind of income from writing to afford high rate hotels and services. I take the opportunity to see luxury hotel rooms when I can for comparative knowledge of the range in hotel accommodations.

    If any hoteliers are reading this, I would also like to do projects comparing different hotel brands in budget chains. This year I also want to start working with apartment style rental companies too and see how that compares with the value of loyalty programs.

    My focus remains showing how to find good value accommodation at different price points with particular focus on middle class income travelers. When I started blogging I felt there was too much focus in travel writing on luxury hotels in magazines like Conde Nast Traveler.

    Each year I get more comps for hotel rooms, and most of the travel bloggers I meet at these conferences travel frequently on familiarization ‘fam’ trips with complimentary lodging and activities.

    The primary value I find in ‘fam’ trips is the ability to share destination information since the trips are generally packed with activities. The issue for me with fam trips is hotel rooms are the easy part to get complimentary while airfare is not. I would benefit more with complimentary airfare and cover the hotel part at my expense.

    Any airlines want to sponsor me?

  7. Ric,

    I’m happy to read that you are wanting to evaluate more value and budget based hotels for this season. I have followed your site for four years; and really feel the last year; even last year and a half; you have focused a lot on the high end and luxury hotels a little much. I look forward to your reviews of the middle; as I am on the road for work 310 days a year and do control my own P&L for travel expenses. I enjoy the reviews of luxury brands so I can know where is best to redeem my points for the best experiences; but knowing where to stay to experience the best service when I’m somewhere for 10-50 days at a time would be nice to know too 🙂

    Thanks for all you do! Love reading your site!

  8. By “the Sierra Nevada mountain range; the highest mountains in the US 48” are you saying that the Sierra Nevada range has the highest mountain, Mt. Whitney, in the 48 states? Otherwise I would think that the Rockies would be higher and have more 14ers. Or do you mean something else?

  9. @charles – okay I concede that Rockies are highest with all the 14ers.

    Difference with Sierra Nevada is Central Valley of California is not far above sea level compared to Rockies in Colorado being viewed from 5,000+ ft. When in Denver.

    Sierra Nevada range looks really impressive on a clear winter day from California valley perspective.

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