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Mojave Road - History's Highway

Posted in Events on March 1, 2010
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Photographers: Mike Fissel

Nearly all of the great pathways of the past have been buried beneath concrete, paved over, lost in the mists of time, or placed off-limits to "protect" them. One in California stands out above the rest: The Mojave Road.

The road's continuous use for more than six centuries has been documented. According to the historians, it was once the only footpath for Native Americans between the seashore and the Colorado River. Coastal tribes (Tongva and Chumash) would trade soapstone from Catalina Island (they were great boat builders), hand-woven baskets (sealed with pitch from the La Brea Tar Pits), and sea shells, to the desert and river tribes (Mohave and Piute) for obsidian and fresh-grown vegetables (from the Mohaves' farms).

When the Spaniards introduced tumbleweeds, horses, and Christianity to North America, and then founded the Puebla de los Angeles on September 4, 1781, the Mojave Road became the route to what is now called Los Angeles. It saw the likes of Jed Smith, Kit Carson, and John Fremont traveling over its route to open up California to illegal immigration from the United States (the resident Californios tried unsuccessfully to keep Americans out of California).

By the time gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento in 1849, the Mojave Road had become one of three major thoroughfares into California. The routes also included Donner Pass in the north and the log road across the sand dunes of what is now called Buttercup (adjacent to I-8) into San Diego. More '49ers used Donner Pass, however, thousands still used the Mojave Road because Donner was usually impassible during the winters.

Speaking of winter, today the Mojave Road could be considered an all-year-round trail, with a couple of caveats. If you're going during the winter months — November through March — make sure that you can brave some very cold temperatures, especially at night. The road tops out above 5,000 feet. By the same token, if you’re going during the summer months — June through mid-September — be certain that your air conditioning is in tip-top working order, because you're going to need it in temperatures that could reach 120 degrees F during the heat of the day. I'd suggest spring or fall as your best bets (this trip was undertaken in October). Remember the temperature extremes if you're planning on camping out on the trail.

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The Mojave Road can be easily negotiated by any stock four-wheel-drive SUV or 4WD pickup, ATV, UTV, or dual-sport motorcycle. A 2WD buggy or what we used to call a Baja Bug would also be acceptable if it carries sufficient fuel. In other words, it's navigable with almost anything you're comfortable driving in soft sand, sharp stones, hard rocks, deep dust, or gooey gumbo. I would rate its difficulty at a one or a one and a half, depending on the weather. With rain or snow you can add another several numbers to that rating, especially during the Soda Lake crossing.

If you're driving a 4WD vehicle, alone or with a small group, plan on taking a day and a half for the entire 120-mile crossing. The Mojave Road is actually more like 138 miles in length if you traverse the entire length from the Colorado River to Camp Cady (near Barstow), however, the typical trip picks up the road a few miles west of the river where it crosses River Road between Needles, California, and Laughlin, Nevada, and ends at the BLM Afton Canyon Campground, which is just a few miles east of Interstate 15. With a large group it'll probably take you nearly two full days, as it did us.

I've driven it and ridden it in both directions. On a dual-sport bike, it can be easily traveled in both directions from Baker, California, to Camp Piute and back (I've done it). But that's not the way to see the Mojave Road. The way to see the Road is to take your time, to savor its scenery, to remember its history, and to introduce its many attractions to friends. I try to drive the Road at least once a year, but sometimes I'm forced to skip a year or two. But no matter how many times I've been over it, I always find something new. This trip we discovered the lava tubes near the Kelbaker Road. I'd heard about them for years, but had never seen them. This year we found them through a geocache and they won't be missed again.

A few other attractions that you'll not want to miss even though they are not actually on the Road, are the Goffs School, Kelso train station (now a museum of the area), Mammoth Caves, and the Kelso "singing" dunes. A road map or a DeLorme Southern California Topographic Atlas will show you where all four attractions can be found.

There are few signs along the route but navigation is purely by rock cairns, carefully placed along the way by the volunteers. For the best experience, I recommend Dennis G. Casebier's Mojave Road Guide, available online, at the Hastings Book Store in Bullhead City, or at the Kelso Train Station Museum, which also fills you in on the historical significance of the area, mile by mile. No other guidebook is as comprehensive for this trail.

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Jeep Expeditions
Jeep Expeditions, which is the group seen in these photos, is a Jeep-only club based in Phoenix, Arizona, associated with the Arizona 4-Wheel Drive Association and the United Four-Wheel Drive Association.

For more information:

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Mojave Road GPS Coordinates (East To West)

Location - Latitude (North) / Longitude (West) - Elevation (ft)

Avi Casino & KOA Campground 35˚ 0.78 / 114˚ 38.38 - 495
Trailhead (Mile 3 @ SR 162) 35˚ 3.19 / 114˚ 40.52 - 763
Mile 10 35˚ 6.36 / 114˚ 45.58 - 2,428
Crossover US 95 (Mile 14) 35˚ 6.78 / 114˚ 49.75 - 2,270
Turnoff to Fort Piute 35˚ 6.51 / 114˚ 57.28 - 2,428
Fort Piute 35˚ 6.91 / 114˚ 58.96 - 2,784
AT&T Turnoff 35˚ 5.46 / 114˚ 57.30 - 2,466
Piute Creek Overlook Turnoff 35˚ 5.70 / 115˚ 1.20 - 3,395
Piute Creek Overlook 35˚ 6.52 / 115˚ 0.56 - 3,427
Right Turn 35˚ 6.00 / 115˚ 0.83 - 3,407
Right Turn 35˚ 7.35 / 115˚ 7.77 - 3,787
Left Turn 35˚ 7.57 / 115˚ 7.77 - 3,795
Coin can 35˚ 8.20 / 115˚ 10.77 - 4,047
Crossover Lanfair Road 35˚ 8.29 / 115˚ 11.22 - 4,102
Crossover Clear Canyon Road 35˚ 8.71 / 115˚ 18.48 - 4,788
Rock Spring 35˚ 9.17 / 115˚ 19.67 - 4,783
Rock House Overlook 35˚ 9.43 / 115˚ 19.95 - 4,895
Crossover Kelso Cima/Clear Canyon roads 35˚ 10.57 / 115˚ 30.55 - 3,722
Campsite 35˚ 10.86 / 115˚ 36.80 - 3,800
Marl Springs (Mile 70) 35˚ 10.14 / 115˚ 38.83 - 3,867
Mailbox 35˚ 11.10 / 115˚ 41.56 - 4,300
Crossover Aiken Mine Rd (lava tube turnoff) 35˚ 10.33 / 115˚ 46.70 - 3,200
Kelbaker Road (Mile 80) 35˚ 9.80 / 115˚ 48.53 - 2,900
Crossover Kelbaker Road 35˚ 11.83 / 115˚ 52.34 - 2,258
Travelers' Monument (Mile 100) 35˚ 7.83 / 116˚ 5.53 - 928
Crossover Rasor Road 35˚ 6.54 / 116˚ 8.62 - 1,034
Cave Canyon Iron Mine 35˚ 3.30 / 116˚ 17.45 - 1,208
Cross under rail road bridge 35˚ 2.54 / 116˚ 18.57 - 1,237
Afton Canyon BLM Campground 35˚ 2.25 / 116˚ 23.02 - 1,425

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