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Exploring The Mojave National Preserve

Posted in Features on June 14, 2016
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As the dirt road transitioned to thick sand, I thought, “This is probably a good place to stop and lower tire pressure.” Although I was not yet far from the fuel stations and fast food of the Interstate, it already felt remote and I could barely see the mountains I was headed for. This was going to be a good day!

Most people view California’s Mojave Desert as a dead and uninviting land to endure on the way to Las Vegas. But to those with a more enlightened mind it is actually quite scenic and full of life. Even at this low elevation the healthy green creosote bushes were taller than my car. Plus, the desert is filled with interesting history; at the moment I was headed for some old gold mines.

I just entered the northern section of the Mojave National Preserve. A relatively new addition to our collection of national parks, the preserve was created in 1994. An interesting fact is that national parks and preserves are operated virtually the same way, however preserves allow more human activity such as hunting. The preserve is over 1,600,000 acres in size, making it the third largest unit in the contiguous 48 states.


The road from Baker to Seventeen Mile Point is mostly soft sand. The road deteriorates as it climbs into the Old Dad Mountains. There are several different canyons to explore.


On the south it is bordered by Interstate 40 and on the north by Interstate 15, and it extends eastward to the Nevada border. There are a few paved roads in the park giving access to the visitor center and campgrounds, however most of the preserve is only accessible by dirt roads and hiking trails. There are over 1,000 miles of dirt roads available! The result is an interesting place to visit and explore, without the maddening crowds of parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite.

On this trip I was seeking old mining ruins. Having done some research, I had a general route in mind. Starting from Baker, CA, I would make a clockwise loop through the area. First up was 17 Mile Point, a settlement that supported mines in the Old Dad Mountains. All that I could find of the settlement today is one chimney. However, I found many mines, shafts, and structures in the mountains. I found three mines to be most interesting: Oro Fino, Paymaster, and Brannigan. All were gold mines dating to 1900 or so. Of particular interest was Brannigan Camp. The historic cabin is in good shape and is now one of the many adopt-a-cabins on public land. Back in the day it was a residence for miners, now it is a good place for desert explorers to camp.

Not too long ago desert visitors would break windows and shoot holes in places like this. Fortunately a new awareness has changed attitudes and, for the most part, people have learned to respect and preserve historic sites for future generations rather that destroy them. Cabins like these were adopted by clubs or groups interested in preservation, and are now open to all to use as a base camp. Besides some basic indoor accommodations, Brannigan has outside fire pits and flat areas to pitch tents.

Leaving Seventeen Mile Point, I headed east to see the cinder cones and lava beds. There are more than 30 extinct volcanoes or cinder cones in this area, as well as some lava tubes that can be entered and explored. I drove up a scenic sand wash that followed the edge of an ancient lava flow. The trail offered a dramatic visual contrast between the soft white sand and the rugged black wall of lava. My destination was the Aiken Cinder Mine. Started in 1948, the mine produced lava rock pumice of various sizes for nearly fifty years. The equipment was abandoned in place and now is an interesting site to explore and photograph. The quarry still has conveyor systems, rock crushers, buildings, and other equipment lying around. There is also a large truck scale that was used to measure empty or full weight for billing.

It was late in the day when I arrived at Aiken, so I decided that the mine would make a good place to camp for the night. The beauty of camping out, rather than in an established campground, is the relative solitude. The only sounds came from wind, birds, and the occasional coyote. At night the stars were spectacular and I could even see the Milky Way.

In the morning I continued east, driving up across a large, uniquely symmetrical rise in the land called the Cima Dome. It gradually ascends 1,500 feet above the plain. Just east of the dome, Cima Road heads fifteen miles north to the freeway where fuel is available. I continued east.


Brannigan Camp is well kept with two cabins and fire pits. Inside Brannigan Cabin is a functional kitchen and fireplace. It makes a great place to camp and explore.


This entire area is covered in what can best be described as a forest of Joshua Trees. I passed thousands of them while navigating the dirt roads from the cinder mine to the Ivanpah Mountains. They are as captivating here as anywhere in Joshua Tree National Park. I read on the Park Service website that the historic cattle grazing that took place in the region contributed to increased numbers of trees flourishing. Whatever the cause, the trees were beautiful to see.

My next destination was the mining ruins on the west side of the Ivanpah Mountains. There are more than a dozen mines and camps to explore. The primary mines were the Copper King, Evening Star, Standard, and New Era. The mountains were a source of copper, tin, gold, and tungsten from the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s.

Besides the mines, there are equipment and old cabins to view. Two of them, Riley’s Cabin and Greer Cabin, are particularly well kept by cabin adopters. J. Riley Bembry, a WWI veteran, started the Evening Star Mine and then sold it for a profit. He built a house and lived in the mountains for fifty years, from the Depression to his death in 1984. During this time he worked the New Era mine and many more. He filed over fifty mining claims in the area. Today people can stay in his cabin for free on a first come basis. As with other cabins, it is customary to raise the American flag on the pole to let others know the cabin is occupied. There are rules posted on the wall and spare provisions on shelves for those in need. It is a good system.

Way over to the east, just outside the border of the preserve, lays the townsite of Hart. Gold was discovered in 1907 and hundreds of people showed up to get rich. Five hotels and eight saloons were built, along with the rest of a mining camp. Within a few years it was all over and everyone left. Today, little remains besides a chimney and several mine shafts. More visible are the remains of a modern gold boom. In the 1990’s an open pit mine was dug in the same mountains to recover the gold the old timers left behind.

In the past, prospectors would search for gold-bearing quartz, which they called the mother lode. Then they would dig a mine following the quartz vein. As a result we see the older mines as tunnels in the ground. In our modern era, rather than dig a small shaft, the whole gold bearing area is dug up. Then the ore is chemically processed. If you are interested, the details are explained in a YouTube video titled “How gold is produced.”

Viceroy Resource Corporation operated Castle Mountain Mine from 1992 to 2001. When gold prices dropped they closed their operation. Over 1.2 million ounces of gold were produced during that time. Three giant pits were dug by blasting and the use of heavy earth moving equipment. The largest pit, called Oro Belle, is approximately 2,100 feet across and over 500 feet deep. The gold was extracted from the ore using the heap leach process which dissolves the gold with a dilute alkaline cyanide solution. Today the massive leach pile looks like a small mountain and can be seen for miles. I read that a new corporation has been formed to resume operations on the same land in the near future.


The entrance to Brannigan Mine is relatively intact. A horizontal entrance is called an adit, a vertical entrance is called a shaft.


From Castle Mountain I started heading back west, towards the OX Ranch. During my 240-mile trek through the preserve I saw numerous windmills, water tanks, and corrals. Ranchers grazed cattle in this desert for 125 years, and the OX Ranch was one of those family operations. It was also one of the last. With the National Park Service taking over, the old ranches are now just historic sites to visit.

After viewing the ranch I followed a section of the old Mojave Road, which is a historic trail across the desert. However, when I saw something interesting in the distance, I would cut off the trail to have a look. I saw quite a few old homesteads deteriorating in the desert sun. From simple trailers to rock structures, there is quite a variety.

I completed my tour with a visit to the Kelso Depot. The old Union Pacific railroad depot is now the visitor center for the preserve. The depot was in use from 1923 to 1985, when it was slated for demolition. Public interest saved the building and it was eventually donated to, and restored by, the park service. The restoration was beautifully done and it is worth a visit. In fact, the depot would be a good place to begin your visit to the preserve.

The Brannigan adit still contains the ore cart rails. It would take a certain personality to work in that environment.

The tales that this abandoned truck bed could tell!

Waste material is piled outside Paymaster Mine. There are several vertical shafts on top of the mountain.

Aiken Mine Road runs adjacent to an ancient lava flow. The washboard surface will keep you shaken, not stirred.

The truck scale at Aiken Cinder Mine still has the operator’s booth.

Driving into the quarry gives a sense of scale to the operation.

Many conveyors and rock crushers remain at the site. They were used to process the material and load the trucks.

A combination of sand and rocks makes for a bumpy ride in the cinder cone area.

The preserve has several areas of thick Joshua Tree forests. This one thrives on Cima Dome.

J. Riley Bembry lived in this cabin until 1984. Volunteers have maintained it since that time.

The interior of Riley’s Cabin is well stocked. Use it, but leave it clean for the next visitor.

The Ivanpah Mountains are quite rocky and scenic.

The Andrews House chimney is one of the few remaining structures at Hart townsite.

Castle Mountain as viewed from the west. The Oro Belle pit is a massive hole in the ground. Over a million ounces of gold were produced at this mine.

Driving west on the Mojave Road. The abundance of flora mocks the idea that the desert is dead.

The historic Mojave Road is a worthwhile trip on its own. There is a guidebook available for it.

This old rock house has stood the test of time.

This trip isn’t for the faint of heart, truck-wise. There are many places where the trail is tight, and some paint damage may occur.

The former Union Pacific Kelso Depot is now restored and used as the visitor center for the Mojave National Preserve. It contains exhibits for railroad history and for the park

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