Part 3: Mojave Road


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The Trip

Kathleen and I decided that we needed more trail work so when MogFest was complete, we elected to head home "the long way" rather than straight back to San Diego.  Our choice was to go east, deep into the Mojave Desert.  The plan was to follow the old "Mojave Road", a historical trail that dates back to prehistoric times and was also used by the early explorers.

The Photos

The photos below are what we saw.

We had heard that there had been some flooding in the desert, but so far had not seen it or the results of it.  Hurricane Odile pumped many inches of rain into southern Arizona and the desert regions of southern California.  The Mojave Road going east "starts" in Afton Canyon, so we headed there.  We found quite a bit of standing water indicating a deep water crossing.  We were unsure about the absolute depth of the water or the solidity of the bottom.  But, inspecting the debris piled on the fence posts and in the remaining trees suggested that the river had been flowing deep and hard.  After some discussion, we decided to take a pass on the water crossing (since we were alone and getting unstuck in muddy water is usually no fun).  So, our bypass plan called for returning to the freeway and going up one exit and coming back to the Mojave Road on the far end of Afton Canyon.

We went up the freeway one exit and then turned south into the desert.  From there, we followed the path until we intersected the dual BNSF railroad tracks.  To get here required crossing the Mojave River bed and it had been washed out and was strewn boulders.  We searched for the trail, but the flow from the river washed it away leaving no trace except where our GPS thought it should be.  We could potentially travel in the riverbed, but given its boulder-strewn state, it would be both slow and unpleasant.  So, we thought harder about the physical evidence and concluded that the Soda Dry Lake a few miles down the trail may not be so dry.  The trail crosses Soda "Dry" Lake bed, and I had no desire to get Thor stuck in a mucky salt flat.  Since the full flow of the Mojave River dumps into Soda Lake and does not exit, it is fully reasonable to expect that the lake is soft and likely not passable.  Bypass plan "B" called for more freeway travel to the far side of Soda Lake and then south again to the Mojave Road.

This is a view of Soda Dry Lake from Zzyzx road and I-15.  The access to the lake is blocked on the west side by a research center, so we continued east of the freeway to Baker.

Baker's (sole) claim to fame is the "world's tallest thermometer".  So, no visit to Baker would be complete without at least seeing this monstrosity.  From Baker, we headed south on Kelbaker road until we hit the intersection with the Mojave Road.

The intersection of the Mojave Road with the blacktop was easy to miss.  We spotted a small rock cairn at the side of the road that was constructed by the "Friends of the Mojave Road" (a preservation organization) and that was our turn-in point.  At the intersection, the trail generally followed the blacktop and then turned east toward the volcanic crater field.  From the trail we could see the wall left by a "recent" lava flow.  A portion of one of the volcanic craters is visible at the rear of the photo above.

An interesting aspect of trails in the old west is that they are frequently re-purposed over time.  For instance, the Immigrant Trail in northern Nevada travels along the Humbolt River.  The path was used by the local Indians since the dawn of time.  Then the path was used by the immigrants heading west to the gold fields in 1849.  The path then hosted the first transcontinental railroad, then a highway and finally an interstate highway.  The Mojave Road is a less direct path than most, but it was well known to the local Indians and later used by other explorers.  Today, aside from the historical trail preserved by local enthusiasts, it is traversed by modern power lines, seen in the distance.  Another interesting aspect of the area is the presence of the odd-looking Joshua Trees.  J-Trees are a type of cactus that prefer higher elevations.  They frequently develop multiple arms and can get quite large, like the specimen above.

We ground our way east on the trail and got a better view of some of the volcanic cinder cones.

A reasonably large "pencil cholla" bush.  These have 1" spines that are sharp and nasty.  The whole plant is better avoided.

The J-Trees can get rather tall.  In the photo above, they are accompanied by yucca bushes (the long spiky leaves) that encroach on the trail and scratch Thor's fine paint job.

Close to the crest of a large ridge, we passed a box with a register for travelers to sign in.  The register is changed every year and is sponsored by "Friends of the Mojave Road".

From the crest of the ridge we had a commanding view of the Kelso valley to the southeast.  Currently, this is within the Mojave Preserve.

With the exception of the portion of the trail on the southern flanks of the New York Mountains, this crest was the highpoint on the trail.  The J-Trees cast long shadows in the afternoon sun.

While out of the truck at the crest, I discovered several USGS benchmarks.  This one, labeled USGS-31 states that the crest is at elevation 4555 feet above mean sea level and is dated 1909.

From the crest we could see a freight train slowly making its way along the tracks in the Kelso valley.  The rails run from Las Vegas to Barstow, CA.

As the shadows grew longer, the air started getting cold so we found a place to camp at the base of a large rock outcropping.

We had a pleasant night in spite of the stiff breezes.  Next morning the wind was still blowing but the skies were clear.  Our camp gave us a clear view of the Kelso dunes to our southwest.

We broke camp and continued east on the Mojave Road.  Along the way we encountered a fellow in a Land Rover who was, essentially, lost.  Armed with a xeroxed map with no detail and no overnight supplies, he had headed out.  He stopped us to figure out where he was and the path to Kelbaker road.  The Mojave Road is not a "hard" road, but it did have a number of deep washouts from the recent hurricane and plenty of deep, soft sand.  So we were somewhat taken back by meeting a fellow in a street-class vehicle with no shovel, all by himself.  I climbed the rock outcropping and watched him via binoculars until he was lost in the brush.  I think he made it past the deep sand, but really have no way to tell.  Harsh terrain can extract a price on those who are unprepared.  About 10 miles further down the road, we encountered this marker erected by a preservation group, E. Clampus Vitus (AKA "the Clampers").

The monument was at the intersection of the Mojave Road and another road that parallels the railroad tracks.

We continued east on the Mojave Road into the southern portions of the New York Mountains.  At this point, the trail was just over 5,000 feet of elevation.

On the eastern flanks of the New York Mountains the trail bed became a trench.  The ground is soft, friable decomposed granite which erodes easily and results in steep edges.  The trail has been used heavily for hundreds of years and each passing wagon or vehicle digs the rut a little bit deeper.  Thor was several inches wider than the ditch in many places forcing us to travel on the walls of the ditch.

Soon, the ditch was deep enough to impact our ability to open our doors.  A flat or a de-bead at this point would be very, very ugly and it would be very difficult to repair.  The brush was encroaching on the trail and the J-Trees were ripping at our mirrors and the sides of the camper.  Above, I attempt an on-the-trail repair of some J-Tree damage to our weather stripping.  The ditch was deep enough that to reach the top of the camper I only had to stand on the surface of the desert floor.

We wound our way through stand after stand of J-Trees.  Due to Thor's width, we were impacting the trees at many points with each impact exacting a toll on Thor.

We came upon this abandoned cabin on the north side of the Mojave Road.  We found no clue to its history nor did we have any clue as to its water source.

Continuing east, the nature of the ground cover changed to include several species of cholla in addition to the J-Trees and yucca.  The skyline was still punctuated by numerous volcanic mesas.

Later in the day we reached another crest on the trail.  This crest provided us a commanding view to the east all the way to Nevada.  Highway U.S. 95 is in the valley below.

As the Mojave Road traveled to lower elevation, we started to see more barrel cactus and fewer J-Trees.  The surface of the desert was covered with volcanic ejecta.

I spotted this horned lizard (AKA horny toad) at a stop.  These critters eat insects and do not bite humans.  His horns are visible at the rear of his head.

We crossed U.S.95 and continued east over another range of mountains.  On the east side, the trail went into a large wash and continued to parallel the California-Nevada border.  We reached a section of the wash that looked "different" and had a large number of recent tire tracks.  We dismounted to check it out.

We learned years ago that to blindly follow the route with "the most tracks" usually means that there is a turn-around and every vehicle going in also comes out.  This was the case here.  There is a rock ledge in the creek bottom and this was the end of the road.

The waterfall had slick granite surfaces and large ledges.  While Thor might make it down, there would be damage to the tool boxes.  Plus, we did not investigate what was around the corner; it could get worse, not better.  We elected to pass on this obstacle, as most did, and retreated to a bypass about 100 meters up the wash.  The bypass had several tight spots, but eventually emptied into the big wash.  The wash took us  south of Laughlin, NV and finally intersected a highway.  We aired up and went north until we found a Nevada state park on the banks of the Colorado River where we camped.

Our camp was near the Colorado River and the view from shore was good.  There were nice river-side homes on the Arizona side in Bullhead City.

The homes on the river had their own docks and boat slips.

From Laughlin, we headed south on U.S.95 and then west toward Palm Springs.  Along our route we could see the California Aqueduct and some of the pumping infrastructure.  In the distance is the Iron Mountain pumping plant.  A portion of the aqueduct is visible on the face of the hill before it goes into a tunnel through the mountain.

This is the output end of the aqueduct tunnel.  Note the pipes coming down the side of the mountain from the exit portal.

We stopped along the freeway for some ice cream and spotted these tanks at the General Patton museum.

Sundown was approaching and we were many miles from home, so we decided to stop for the night in a canyon along the road.  The setting sun highlighted the contrails from the passing jets.

The setting sun highlighted the mud cliffs near our camp.

We had done the Mojave Road back when I first bought my Unimog (circa 1996) but I remember it being easier.  I am sure that the recent rains made things harder, but I don't recall any vehicle damage due to the J-Trees.  I think that we did more damage to the truck on this trail than anything we have encountered thus far during my 4+ years of ownership.  Go figure.  That said, for a normal width vehicle, it should be no problem.  We enjoyed the Mojave Road and the interesting history of the trail.  We will surely do it again at some point in the future.

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