(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.
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.
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.
Shortly after the mailbox, the road settled in to a wash, where the lava flows and cinder cones were the dominant features of the terrain. Four-wheel drive and aired-down tires quickly became a driver's best ally to get through the deep sand, which was exactly the type of terrain that Robin was looking for to shakedown the newly acquired RTCC Project Nissan Frontier. This portion of the trail follows the southern edge of the lava flows, and if you know where to look, petroglyphs and lava tubes can be spotted from the road. At this point, Douglas informed us of his need to return to society due to something he referred to as "work," so as we crossed over Kelbaker Road, it provided him with quick access to Baker and the remaining three of us carried on.
Our original plans had us taking a leisurely pace and three days to complete our crossing of the Road, with Seventeen Mile point and its clear view across Soda Lake, being our camping spot of choice for night two. As we arrived at mile 87.4, we found that some brilliant person had the same idea as us and had set up camp already, so we ventured on, and with a half day of sunlight remaining, set a new goal of finishing the trail before sunset.
Because of recent rains and the wet conditions of Soda (sometimes) Dry Lake, and the information we gathered about stuck vehicles from other travelers, we decided it was best to backtrack and avoid getting bogged down in the heavily acidic and sticky, truck-swallowing muck of Soda Lake. Back to Kelbaker Road we went, taking Interstate 15 South and exiting at Rasor Road where the Rasor OHV area is. Our new plan was to cut through the Rasor OHV area and rejoin the Mojave Road on the opposite side of the lake and backtrack to Traveler's Monument, which sits on a more solid portion of Soda Lake.
This little side trip took a lot more time than we expected since we decided to play in Rasor for a while, and the intersection of the Mojave Road wasn't clearly marked. Fortunately, with GPS in hand, Sean and Shane found the trail and we headed on to the Monument, where Robin performed yet another Mojave Road ritual by adding a rock from the Mojave Road to the pile. One disconcerting observation is that the plaque that once accompanied the rock pile seems to have been taken. The inscription on the plaque was a treat for visitors, and a secret to anyone who hasn't traveled the road. Unfortunately, someone has removed it, no doubt removing some of the charm from this trail.
From Traveler's Monument we headed back through Rasor OHV area, paralleling the old Tonopah & Tidewater railroad grade. Passing through the Western boundary of Rasor, we came across a rock-hounding couple whose toy hauler and Dodge Ram dualie were hopelessly mired in the sand. After a brief negotiation, we traded delicious homemade tamales for our recovery assistance. With the 37s on the Hummer H1 Alpha aired down, Sean had no problem yanking the Ram, then the trailer out of its sandy predicament.
Racing daylight, we arrived at the entrance to Afton Canyon, which is marked by a railroad trestle. Here we stopped for a bite to eat and after 116.2 grueling miles, we presented Shane with honorary Four Wheeler staff status and placed a rare, and super-cool yellow Four Wheeler sticker on the Bilstein Ranger. Afton Canyon is sometimes called "the Little Grand Canyon" or "Grand Canyon of the Mojave" due to its colorful scenery, and is one of the only places that the Mojave River flows above ground year round. In between its 300-foot walls is a scenic route, which is a refreshing and fun drive at the end of a long trail ride. Our timing was fortunate, as we were able to catch a lumbering freight train as it made its way through the canyon and secured a friendly horn blast from the engineer.
Clearing Afton Canyon and the last couple Mojave River crossings, we took up camp for the evening at the Afton Canyon campground. We had covered 121.4 miles of the 138 miles of the trail in two fast-paced days. We again set up camp, ate burritos, and drank some cold beverages to the setting sun. With good times behind us, a little taste of the old west experienced, the conversation around the campfire naturally turned to, "Where should our next staff adventure take us?"
There are no signs along the route and navigation is purely by rock cairns, carefully placed along the way by the volunteers. For the best experience, we recommend turning to Dennis G. Casebier's Mojave Road Guide, available online, which also fills you in on the historical significance of the area, mile by mile. No other guidebook is as comprehensive for this trail.
While the Mojave Road can be done in two days, it is best enjoyed in three or four, especially if you want to explore the side attractions. Most travelers start out at the AVI Casino in Laughlin, Nevada, where you can both stay the night before and fuel up before the trip. (They even have diesel.)
While the vast majority of the Mojave Road is passable in two-wheel drive, we recommend having four-wheel drive, because of how quickly the terrain or weather conditions can change or vary over 132 miles-especially on Soda Lake, which is encountered on the second half of the journey. Also recommended are recovery gear, five gallons of extra fuel, and enough food and water to last a week. Take note that the elevation change can affect temperatures drastically. During our trip in mid-April, we saw lows in the 40s and highs in the 90s.
Bottom line: Go Prepared.
-Sean P. Holman