Traversing the backroads of the Mojave Desert along Interstate 15 or Kelbaker Road rewards desert wanderers with countless geological wonders. Among these treasures are the dramatic remnants of an earth that spewed hot molten lava millions of years ago, resulting in expansive lava flows that enveloped huge masses of land, as well as volcanic cones that rise abruptly from the desert floor today. 

As you traverse this part of the Mojave Desert, you’ll see a horizon dotted with thirty-two unique cone-shaped mounds of red and black volcanic rocks. These petite volcanoes, called cinder cones, began erupting nearly 8 million years ago, emitting their last lava flows about 10,000 years ago. These well preserved and precious reminders of a time long ago were designated as Cinder Cone National Natural Landmark in 1973.

Since volcanoes don’t happen just anywhere, these prime specimens surrounded by a sea of hardened lava are amazing sights in California’s desert. Scientists believe that a dynamic period of volcano activity happened in this area due to the region’s dynamic fault activity that cracked the earth’s crust into blocks that slid and rotated to create a tremendous amount of heat—enough to melt rocks forming magma that pushed to the surface.

Feeling brave? Descend into a lava tube

Lava Flows

You may not realize that not all lava is equal. Some lava is thick and gooey, flowing shorter distances. However, these ancient lava flows in the Mojave National Preserve were smooth and thin like syrup, streaming out across the desert (and, at times, on either side of the road you traverse). Interestingly, these molten flows cooled on the surface, but underneath, the still flowing lava formed tunnels and tubes.

For those seeking an extra dose of adventure, you can get really up close to lava’s creations in the Mojave. You have the rare opportunity to make a descent into an ancient lava tube off Kelbaker Road, about 15 miles north of Kelso.  Reaching the tube is a little tricky, however. Travel about five miles on Aiken Mine Road (off Kelbaker), passing an old water tank and corral. About 4 ½ miles down the mining road, bear left at a fork and continue to a parking area. From there, you need to walk uphill about 300 yards to a fence. Then, turn right and follow a path to a metal ladder that descends into the lava tube. The climb into the collapsed hole in the tube’s roof reveals a perspective of volcanic activity rarely seen. But note, since the National Park Service does not regularly maintain the tube, adventurers enter at their own risk—and, yes, there can be snakes!