Part II: Government Holes to Afton Canyon
(Editor's Note-Part I of this two-part Four Wheeler adventure series began in the August 2005 issue.)
It had been several hours since our own team of explorers, Editor Douglas McColloch, Tech Editor Sean P. Holman, Feature Editor Robin Stover, and friend of Four Wheeler magazine, Shane Casad from Bilstein shocks (filling in for Senior Editor Ken Brubaker, who was undoubtedly making snow angels in the Midwest), had put out the campfire and ended the "we don't let the truth get in the way of a good story" fat-chewing session for the night. As the sunlight crept over the hills surrounding Round Valley, we knew it was time to pack up and trade the hospitality of Government Holes for a day of westward exploration, but not before a filling breakfast of Kielbasa and red potato hash was stuck to our ribs like a Jp editor sticks to the Tank Trap.
Pulling out of camp, we took in the sights of Pinto Mountain and headed down the smoothest section of the Mojave Road through Cedar Canyon, named after the prevalence of juniper trees in the area. At over 5,100 feet, this stretch of the Mojave Road is the highest segment along the route. Hitting Cedar Canyon Road, we picked up the pace on the smooth, hard-packed dirt road, but were careful to keep our dust down and speed reasonable as to be respectful of the residents that this road serves.
At mile 56.1, we crossed the intersection with Black Canyon Road. Black Canyon Road offers access, not only to the intriguing Mitchell Caverns and Interstate 40 via Essex Road from the Mojave Road, but also to the only established campgrounds along the route-Mid Hills and Hole-in-the-Wall. These are National Park Service campgrounds and happen to be roughly at the halfway point of the Mojave Road. The choice is yours, but as desert adventurers, we prefer the seclusion backcountry camping offers.
Cedar Canyon soon opened up to reveal spectacular vistas of the Mojave stretching clear to the horizon. Stopping to take in the beauty, we looked to the distant south where a patch of lightly colored earth announced the presence of the 500-foot-tall Kelso sand dunes, whose congregation of wayward grains is blown in by the mystical desert winds. Just barely visible were the summits of the San Bernardino Mountains, which surround Los Angeles to the east, still bald with snow. To the northwest, the magnificent Cima Dome, a prehistoric batholith, gently rises from the desert floor, with only a few ancient cinder cones nearby to hint at the violent nature of this once actively volcanic region. Blooms of desert wildflowers carpeted the desert floor with a palette of yellows and purples, only seen during a few weeks every spring, before giving way to the Beale and Marl Mountains, our next obstacles.
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At the intersection with the Kelso-Cima Road at mile 62.1 (elevation 3,725 feet), a monument to the history of the Mojave Road, which was erected in 1986, signals the beginning of the Mojave Road's return to a primitive and remote trail. In fact, no major roads would be encountered until the Kelbaker Road at mile 85.2. This area is desolate enough that the Mojave Road Guide cautions against attempting this stretch of the trail alone.
As our group entered this portion of lonely backcountry, a solitary vulture greeted us by circling our caravan. As we wondered what it must have been like for a family in a covered wagon traveling the road with a circling vulture as their only companion, we tried not to think about any omens this bird of prey might represent. Another common wildlife sighting along the Mojave Road is the protected Desert Tortoise, which can often be found in the roadway. It didn't take long before a rock-like shape appeared to be unhurriedly crossing the trail in front of us. After taking some photos, our tortoise moved himself to the safety of the roadside, allowing us to pass. Once considered a delicacy by Native Americans, this protected species, which can reach 80 to 100 years of age, should never be handled, because it could cause them to urinate and expel vital bodily fluids, so we allowed him to carry on at his pace, before we continued on at ours.
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We had traveled a total of 70.4 miles as we pulled in to the former Army encampment of Marl Springs, which in October of 1867 became the site of an Indian siege that was abated only when, in Western film fashion, a column of over 150 soldiers marched in to save the day the next morning. Over the years Marl has been used as a watering hole for wildlife and cattle, a goods outpost for civilians, and a small stamping mill and operations point for local miners. Forging on, we crested Cimacito, where the views once again became breathtaking and only the Edison high-power lines remind you that civilization hides just beyond the surrounding mountains.
Erected by the Friends of the Mojave Road in 1983, the landmark Mojave Road mailbox resides at mile 73.8. Carrying on with Mojave Road tradition, we stopped to sign the guestbook, along with adding some Four Wheeler goodies to the box for whoever may pass behind us. We always make a point of carrying a new 3x5-foot American flag whenever we travel the trail, because the flag at the mailbox is often tattered. However, this time we were beaten to the punch, as a brand-new flag was waving proudly over the road.