The Mojave Road bisects the Mojave National Preserve on its way from Afton Canyon to the Colorado River. Perusing a map of the Mojave National Preserve, it's easy to come up with a one-word description of what's beyond the Mojave Road: plenty.
Maps and guidebooks in hand, we packed up the 4Runner to see the preserve firsthand. It's impossible to talk about the Mojave National Preserve without some background information about how the preserve came to be.
The Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994 after many years of controversy and legal wrangling. The political ball was set in motion during the 1980s by the late Senator Alan Cranston, who proposed making the area into Mojave National Park, along with re-designating Death Valley National Monument and Joshua Tree National Monument as National Parks. When first penned by Cranston, giant swaths of what was then called the East Mojave National Scenic Area were slated to become federal wilderness areas, which we'll refer to as "Wilderness" for the balance of this story. This legislation was called the California Desert Protection Act.
Cranston's legislation outlived his political career. Cranston was caught accepting $1 million in campaign contributions from a savings and loan that wanted a "problem solved." Cranston left office in 1991. His successor, Dianne Feinstein, chose to carry the bill through Congress. When the California Desert Protection Act passed, mining, ranching, and off-roading became even more restricted in the Mojave. It pains this author's hands to even type the names of those who ramrodded this legislation down our collective throats. If there's a silver lining, it's that the intended Mojave National Park was instead designated the Mojave National Preserve, a designation that allows certain economic and recreational activities that would be banned within a National Park.
Another silver lining is the vehicular corridors that pass among the newly created Wilderness Areas. These corridors are previously established routes that were left open and intact. In the desert, the sheer distances combined with a general lack of water make it impractical to explore very far on foot. Vast Wilderness designations in the desert without vehicular access amount to nothing more than a land grab. The vehicular corridors are the key to discovering what's out there. For those who like to hike (of which the author is one), the vehicular corridors are the key to getting close enough to the trailheads to have the time and energy to see what’s inside the Wilderness.
With the ugly political stuff dispensed with, let's talk trails.
The Mojave National Preserve is big at 1.6 million acres. It's crisscrossed by dirt routes, some of which are more challenging than others. If you're after hardcore rock-crawling trails, this isn't the place. If you're after discovery and solitude it's a great place to be. Don't get complacent: deep sand, jagged rocks, errant tree stumps, and cholla cactus are in healthy supply, and they aren't forgiving. The big distances in the preserve mean that it's essential to show up with a well-prepared vehicle that carries the same spare parts and tools you'd carry anywhere else. Carry all the water you'll need, and then some. Vehicles must be street-registered to drive on the dirt routes in the preserve.
We had two guidelines during our visit: avoid the pavement, and avoid the Mojave Road.
Our first jaunt took us to the defunct railroad stop at Ivanpah, where we saw the weathered ruins of a loading dock, a cottage, and some holding pens. Shortly after, Ivanpah Road's pavement disappeared and we shifted into 4-Hi for better traction and stability as the dirt surface changed moods. Our goal was Caruthers Canyon and the Giant Ledge Mine. The canyon lies in the New York Mountains.
Caruthers Canyon was first prospected in the 1860s, and mining continued well after the turn of the 20th century. Beyond mining relics, the plant life and geology of the New York Mountains also draws you in. Tall peaks dot the range, the highest of which is New York Peak at 7,529 feet above sea level. Instead of creosote bushes, you'll see pinyon pines and juniper here. There's also manzanita and other plants seen more often in a coastal sage plant community. Scientists say these floras developed during a wetter period of the earth's natural history, and then was left isolated high in the mountains when the surrounding terrain became more arid. The New York Mountains are a sort of island unto themselves. The climate is cooler up there, too, and snow isn't uncommon during the winter.
These days, the road into Caruthers Canyon is still legally open because it's not in a designated Wilderness Area. On the way to the Giant Ledge mine you'll drive until you can't drive any further, park your rig, and hike the rest of the way to the mine. There are several pullouts along the Caruthers Canyon trail. You are allowed to have fires in already established fire rings, and camping is allowed in already established campsites.
What's beyond the Mojave Road? Plenty. Follow along and we'll show you what we mean.