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To most Americans, the eastern Mojave is a bleak, interminable stretch of desert to be crossed as quickly as possible. But many consider the national preserve, just southeast of Death Valley National Park along California's I-15 and I-40, the crown jewel of the California desert.

This is a hard land to get to know -- it has no accommodations or restaurants, few campgrounds, and only a handful of roads suitable for the average passenger vehicle. But hidden within this natural fortress are some true gems -- its 1.6 million acres include the world's largest Joshua tree forest; abundant wildlife; spectacular canyons, caverns, sand dunes, and volcanic formations; tabletop mesas; and a dozen mountain ranges.

Paradoxically, the eastern Mojave owes much of its appearance to water -- canyons carved by streams, mineral-encrusted dry lake beds, and mountains whose colorful layers represent limestone deposited in ancient oceans. Today the landscape is distinguished primarily by its extreme dryness. The climate changed dramatically following the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago; around this time, the first humans are believed to have migrated into the area. Lakes fed by glacial runoff supported fish, mammoths, camels, and diverse vegetation. When traditional food such as antelope diminished, the inhabitants adapted a lifestyle better suited to the arid climate, ultimately relying on small game and plants.

The European invasion started in the 18th century, when Spanish missionaries and explorers ventured north from Mexico. In the 19th century, American pioneers arrived, crossing the Mojave on their way west to the coast. Then in 1883, the railroad arrived, boosting existing mining and ranching operations.

By the 1970s, environmentalists had become gravely concerned with the region's protection. Destructive off-road use, the theft of rare desert plants, the plunder of archaeological sites, and the killing of threatened desert tortoises all endangered the delicate ecological balance. Then in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act, creating Mojave National Preserve.

The Mojave's elevated status hasn't attracted hordes of sightseers, and devoted visitors are happy to keep it that way. Unlike a national park, the national preserve allows hunting and continued grazing and mining within its boundaries, practices that are sore spots for ardent preservationists.