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Off-Road Adventure - The Mojave Road

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on September 1, 2007 Comment (0)
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Off-Road Adventure - The Mojave Road

Imagine your favorite Western hero riding into town on a camel. Would Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) look nearly as intimidating riding toward a band of outlaws with both guns blazing and the reins of a camel between his teeth? Does that mental image cause you to unconsciously giggle? Maybe Rooster would have won the battle more easily simply because the outlaws were laughing too hard to fight back.

During the 1850s and 1860s, the U.S. government tried what it called "an experiment" using camels for the U.S. Army. The plan was to replace cavalry horses with camels. The animals were brought to this country on ships and unloaded in Texas by way of the Gulf of Mexico. From there, the animals were used in numerous projects, including the establishment of a road from Texas to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in California. One section of that route still crosses the barren desert from the banks of the Colorado River near Needles to Barstow in California and is known as the Mojave Road.

Fort Mojave was on the other side of the Colorado River.  The Mojave Road starts here. Fort Mojave was on the other side of the Colorado River. The Mojave Road starts here.

There are numerous conflicting stories about the use of camels by the Army. Some stories praise how well the camels performed, and other stories claim the soldiers refused to ride them at all. Some stories tell how the camels were able to run faster and longer than horses, but other stories claim the camels would fall over dead if forced to run long distances.

There seems to be no doubt camels were used on the Mojave Road to carry mail. Private contractors obtained the camels as part of their agreement with the government. There were reports that camel feet were soft-soled and best suited for sandy surfaces. Sharp rocks along the Mojave Road bruised and crippled them.

In the end, it doesn't matter why the camel experiment failed in the Wild West. The fact is, cowboys, soldiers, and gunfighters just didn't like the gaudy animals.

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The route over the mountain behind Fort Piute. The route over the mountain behind Fort Piute.

Camels or no camels, the Mojave Road burned its way into the pages of history by providing the first wagon route between the banks of the Colorado River and Los Angeles. It was used primarily for government purposes such as shipping and mail, so some maps still call it the Government Road, but the route that went down in history as the Mojave Road was founded long before anyone was keeping records.

The Mojave Indians were farmers who lived along the banks of the Colorado River a few miles north of what eventually became Needles, California. Although they were not nomadic in nature, they did like to explore, and in their explorations they discovered the shores of the Pacific Ocean. In that process, they established a trail across the desert by connecting natural springs where water could be replenished while en route.

The first recorded European to travel the Mojave Road was a Spaniard by the name of Father Francisco Garces. He found the Mojave Indian village while traveling upstream along the Colorado River. The Indians guided him across the desert using the Mojave Road.

Fort Piute. Fort Piute.

As the years passed, more and more white men ventured into the Mojave villages on their way to the coast. Although we found no records as to what happened or why it happened, the tribe became hostile and began attacking the travelers. Using the Mojave Road became quite a risky endeavor.

In 1848, a war between the U.S. and Mexico resulted in the U.S. taking possession of the territory later divided into the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado. A few years later, our government began financing explorations to determine the best routes for wagon roads and railroads. The Mojave Indians were enlisted to act as guides across the Mojave Desert and, for a short time, a new relationship seemed to be working. Once again, something happened and the battle resumed.

In 1869, Fort Mojave was built on the Colorado River. To protect the route, the Army built other forts at all the springs along the route. Soldiers patrolled the Mojave Road to protect mail carriers and shippers.

In 1883, a railway was completed across the desert to Los Angeles. A more southern route had been chosen. The Mojave Road was abandoned, the forts were closed, and blowing sands began reclaiming the route.

Many years later, groups with an interest in preserving historic routes took an interest in the Mojave Road and reopened it as the Mojave Recreational Road.

Lone Writer decided to visit the road and sent e-mails to some friends he thought might like to join him. The Mojave Road is not a place for a single vehicle to venture alone. It crosses 130 miles of hostile country. Daytime temperatures exceeded 100 degrees F during this trip in March. Although the road crosses numerous other roads that can be used to reach towns along interstates 15 and 40, the distance might be more than a stranded traveler could accomplish in the searing desert heat.

Lone Writer arrived at the Avi Casino on the Mojave Indian Reservation on a Saturday morning. Snapshot and Toyman were already waiting for him at the buffet. Sundance and Sunshine were the next to arrive, followed shortly by Badhat and Bear. The group would consist of seven people in five vehicles. They are members of a loosely unorganized Internet group called Lone Riders. The names they use are CB handles.

The trip began with filling gas tanks then heading off to Mile Post 00 on the banks of the Colorado River. That mile post is indicated in a very well-written guidebook called Mojave Road Guide by Dennis G. Casebier, which can be ordered online at www.desertusa.com. This guidebook takes the traveler mile by mile along the entire Mojave Road from the Colorado River to Afton. The GPS positions taken by Lone Writer and found in this story can be used to verify your position as described in the book.

Camped at an abandoned homestead site. Camped at an abandoned homestead site.

Getting started on the Mojave Road was a little confusing due to routing around private property, but once the Lone Riders got on the road it was relatively easy to make the right turns. There are cairns positioned at various intervals along the side of the road for assurance the correct path has been taken. Those cairns will always be on the righthand side of the trail when going from east to west.

The first spring along the Mojave Road eventually became known as Fort Piute. For travelers along the Mojave Road, there were no water sources across the 25 miles between the Colorado River and Piute Spring. The next water would be another 25 miles ahead at Rock Springs.

Rock Springs. Rock Springs.

The original road continued past Fort Piute, but that route can no longer be used. It is necessary to drive to the fort, then backtrack and drive around some smaller mountains to reconnect with the Mojave Road. The climb over those mountains is very scenic.

Joshua tree forests are thick, and a large variety of cactuses live in abundance on both sides of the road. Jackrabbits and coyotes are plentiful as is an assortment of birds, including huge hawks.

The surface of the road is rocky in places and sandy in others. Lone Writer was using a four-door Wrangler for this trip. He only used Low range a couple of times and mostly ran in 4-Hi/Second gear. This new design from Jeep fits a 4x4 trail like a glove. It cleared the biggest rocks with room to spare and straddled deep washouts with ease.

Entering Watson Wash. Entering Watson Wash.

The drop into Watson Wash on the approach to Rock Springs was one location where Lone Writer shifted into Low range. The access to the wash is badly eroded and drops at a very steep angle. Using Low range helped keep the vehicle moving slowly.

Living at the place the Army called Camp Rock Springs was nothing anyone cherished. Their only shelter was tents inside walls made from rocks. Supplies were not always on time. During the 17 months in which the small fort operated, 23 men deserted.

The stone house above Rock Springs. The stone house above Rock Springs.

Because water was more plentiful at Rock Springs than most of the other springs, it became well known as a desert oasis. Ranchers and a few homesteaders tried living nearby. At the top of the hill behind Rock Springs is a stone cabin built by a World War I veteran. A modern pit toilet has been added for use by travelers.

In 1868, the mail route was changed to a road through La Paz, so the army moved out.

A short distance past the road to the cabin is a man-made well called Government Holes. A windmill still stands at the site along with a corral and water tank. This location seems to have been built to favor livestock watering. Since it is so close to Rock Springs, travelers could choose one or the other.

Government Holes. Government Holes.

From Government Holes, the Mojave Road remains on the High Desert. It passes through more Joshua tree forests and crosses a seemingly endless desert garden of cactus and brush. The next spring is only 20 miles away and is the most remote of all the others.

Marl Springs consists of two separate natural springs, but the upper one was dry when the Lone Riders visited the site. Without this spring, the Mojave Road could not have existed. The next water is 30 miles away at Soda Springs.

After leaving Marl Springs, the road begins a gradual descent into the hotter and drier climate at lower elevations. Along the way is a place simply called the Mailbox. A register in the box is available for signing. Memorials for previous travelers also mark the location. One such memorial consists of a post with a small steering wheel attached that says, "Let's see where this road goes."

The Frog Shrine. The Frog Shrine.

Another unusual attraction at the site is a Frog Shrine. Apparently these tributes to the almighty frog are scattered all over the world with no real reason and without any leadership. Someone leaves a frog, then someone adds a frog, and the process continues. In this case, the shrine includes an assortment of frogs with lots of coins scattered around them.

At the end of the second day, the Lone Riders arrived at the leading edge of Soda Lake. The decision was made to split off the Mojave Road onto a side road leading to the town of Baker to top off gas tanks, stock up on food and ice, and to have a hot dinner that someone else cooked. Coco's was the chosen dinner spot followed by a quick trip through the Dairy Queen. As the sun settled onto the western horizon, the Lone Riders arrived back at the Mojave Road intersection and utilized an existing campsite to set up their tents. The wind blew hard for a couple of hours then died down about the same time the campfire tales were beginning to fade out.

Crossing the deep sands of the Mojave River flood plain. Crossing the deep sands of the Mojave River flood plain.

Crossing Soda Lake is a fun experience. The hard, dry surface is something like a paved highway in places. The rest is just a thin layer of loose sand. Speeds of nearly 30 mph were achieved in a few stretches.

The actual site of Soda Springs is on private property and is not included as a stop on the Mojave Road. A nearby pile of rocks called Traveler's Monument is as close as the road gets. This monument exists due a long-standing tradition of anyone passing through to leave a single rock to mark their passing. At the center of the pile of rocks is a plaque with a top-secret phrase to be read by anyone passing that way but never repeated outside the boundaries of Soda Lake. For that reason, the Lone Riders cannot tell you what it says. You'll have to find that out on your own.

Marl Springs and Fort Marl. Marl Springs and Fort Marl.

Soda Springs has a long history that could fill a book. For many years, it was operated as a resort under a permit for a mining claim. The BLM voided that permit, and the site became a desert studies center.

The website describes it thus: "The Desert Studies Center, field station of the California State University (CSU), provides opportunity for individuals and groups to conduct research, receive instruction, and experience the desert environment."

From Traveler's Monument, the Lone Riders finished crossing Soda Lake and entered a stretch with very deep sand dunes. It was necessary to keep the speed up and to keep moving for about a mile.

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Crossing the Mojave River. Crossing the Mojave River.

The Mojave Road Recreational Road sort of ends at the Afton Campground after crossing the Mojave River. The water in the river was over the headlights on some vehicles. The campground is an official BLM-maintained site with modern pit toilets. From the campground, most travelers take the county road to I-15 and consider the trip over. The Lone Riders decided to stay on it a few more miles to search for a site called the Triangles.

The original Mojave Road followed the floor of the Mojave River Basin. It must have been quite a challenge tugging wagons through the very deep sand.

The mileages in the Mojave Road Guide are of no use here, but the descriptions of landmarks are still helpful. After a few wrong turns, the Lone Riders found the Triangle site. They hiked up the mesa from a loop-shaped parking area and found a road at the top coming in from another direction. No effort was made to find the entrance to that road. The Triangle site was not impressive to anyone in the group, none of whom is an archaeologist.

Traveler's Monument. Traveler's Monument.

The Lone Riders continued upriver to the last exit before the Mojave Road enters private land. They followed the path back to the access road for I-15, then drove to the town of Yermo for dinner at Peggy Sue's Diner.

Larry E. Heck is the author and creator of numerous books and videos on backcountry adventure. More information can be found at his website at www.lone-writer.com. You can send him an e-mail at larry@lone-writer.com or call at (303) 910-7647.

View Slideshow

NavigationThe Avi Casino is located on River Road north of Needles, California. Turn right out of the gas station at the casino, reset trip meter, and then turn right at the stop sign. This log has two mileage columns. The first column has the mileage as recorded in the book titled Mojave Road Guide (MRG) in case you are using that. The second column contains our odometer readings (ODO).

MRG ODO Latitude Longitude Notes and Landmarks
  0.0 35 0.9004 11438.6030 Casino lot.
  2.7 35 3.1532 114 38.2292 Right on dirt road to reach mile 0.0
0.0 3.5/0.0 35 2.7302 114 37.6318 Fort Mojave was across the river. Reset trip meter.
  0.8/0.0 35 3.1532 114 38.2292 Left on pavement.
  0.5 35 3.4720 114 38.8728 Right on major dirt road.
  1.2/0.0 35 3.0509 114 38.9966 Left fork on major dirt.
  1.4/0.0 35 3.1214 114 40.5560 Cross Needles Highway. Note cairns.
4.5 1.5 35 3.5714 114 42.1393 Right following high wires.
4.8 1.8 35 3.7910 114 42.2890 Right fork away from wires.
5.0 2.0 35 3.9610 114 42.3731 Right fork. Note sign for Mojave Road.
6.0 3.0 35 4.6121 114 42.9033 Left fork. Note sign.
  3.1 35 4.5355 114 43.0368 Left. Note cairn on right.
6.3 3.4 35 4.3759 114 43.1392 Right in wash.
8.2 5.2 35 5.5522 114 44.2746 Right out of wash.
8.6 5.6 35 5.8192 114 44.5196 Straight. Do not follow power line road.
9.6 6.5 35 6.2412 114 45.3767 Right fork. Note sign for Mojave Road.
10.9 7.8 35 6.8979 114 46.4515 Left fork.
14.1 11.0 35 6.7671 114 49.7467 Cross highway.
21.3 18.1 35 6.7271 114 {{{57}}}.2550 Straight past high wire line. Come back here after visiting fort.
23.2 20.0 35 6.8885 114 59.0532 Fort Piute. Go back to high wire line road.
25.3 0.0 35 6.7271 114 57.2550 Back at high wire line road. Turn right.
26.7 1.3/0.0 35 5.4682 114 57.3075 Right. Note cairn.
30.2 3.5 35 5.5693 115 0.7376 {{{Summit}}}.
30.6 3.9 35 5.6846 115 1.1704 Right.
31.1 4.4/0.0 35 5.9978 115 0.8358 Intersects back to Mojave Road. Left is road. Right to corral.
  2.3 35 6.4440 115 3.1874 Left fork. Keep cairn on your right.
35.8 4.6 35 6.8760 115 5.6358 Intersect with cable road. Cross and stay left on other side.
38 6.7 35 7.3472 115 7.7586 Right along fence line.
38.2 7.0 35 7.5859 115 7.7638 Left along fence line.
39.2 8.0 35 7.6037 115 8.8060 Right.
39.9 8.6 35 7.7793 115 94412 Right at angle.
40.4 9.1 35 7.8939 115 9.9036 Straight across Indian Hill Road.
41.7 10.4 35 8.3210 115 11.2217 Straight across Ivanpah-Goffs Road.
43.5 12.3 35 8.3732 115 13.2409 Straight across El Dorado {{{Canyon}}} Road.
45.7 14.3 35 8.4006 115 15.3435 Straight across Carruthers Canyon Road.
47.8 16.4 35 8.6074 115 17.5056 Camped at abandoned homestead.
48.8 17.3 35 8.7379 115 18.5256 Right on Cedar Canyon Road.
49.2 17.7 35 8.8468 115 18.8955 Left at cairn.
50.0 18.6 35 9.1767 115 19.6552 Rock Spring. Cover shot. Fort. Take left fork past historic signs.
50.3 18.9 35 9.3699 115 19.7934 Left on Cedar Canyon Road.
50.6 19.2 35 9.3934 115 20.0998 Left.
50.7 19.3/0.0 35 9.3260 115 20.2002 Left goes to stone house rest area with BLM outhouse.
50.7 0.0 35 9.2950 115 20.2500 Right fork comes quickly.
51.8 1.1 35 8.9511 115 21.2877 Left fork, then straight at intersection.
  1.4 35 8.8352 115 21.5601 Right toward windmill and corral. This is Government Holes.
  1.5 35 8.9003 115 21.5228 Water trough built by ranchers.
52.3 1.6 35 9.0099 115 21.4548 Left.
52.6 2.0 35 9.1764 115 21.7301 Left on Cedar Canyon Road.
{{{62}}}.1 11.3/0.0 35 10.5617 115 30.5570 Cross Kelso-Cima Road. Historic marker on west side.
67.3 5.2 35 11.3273 115 36.0132 Left fork. Note cairn.
70.4 8.1/0.0 35 10.2081 115 38.8146 Left to lower spring. Marl Springs. Come back to this intersection to continue.
73.8 3.2 35 11.1171 115 41.5754 Mailbox.
78.8 8.1 35 10.3852 115 46.6557 Straight across Aiken Cinder Mine Road.
81.5 10.9 35 10.1348 115 49.2938 Straight across road.
85.2 14.5 35 11.9437 115 52.3406 Cross Kelbaker Road.
89.1 18.4 35 12.4726 115 55.2311 Cross Paymaster Road.
91.5 20.8 35 11.2045 115 57.2403 Cross Jackass Canyon Road.
95.5 24.6/0.0 35 9.69.45 116 0.7804 Baker Road goes right. We went in for gas and ice.
{{{100}}}.7 5.1 35 7.8491 116 5.7128 Traveler's Rock/Government Rock.
104.1 8.5 35 6.5252 116 8.5821 Cross Razor Road. I-15 is right with gas.
  10.9 35 5.4901 116 10.8781 Left fork.
109.1 13.5 35 4.4663 116 12.2333 Left fork.
  14.7 35 4.6845 116 13.4189 Right fork.
114.6 18.4 35 3.2799 116 16.6817 Open-area boundary sign post. Sign gone.
  18.9 35 3.1274 116 17.1663 Cross Basin Road. I-15 is right 5 miles if you have had enough of the Mojave Road.
114.8 19.1 35 3.0930 116 17.3901 Left in River Basin.
116.2 20.5/0.0 35 2.5579 116 18.5782 Under railroad bridge. Go into the riverbed and hug the left side.
  2.2 35 1.5115 116 20.2970 Road climbs out to the left with great campsites.
119.7 3.6 35 1.5337 116 21.6091 Barricade. Use railroad service road.
121.4 5.3/0.0 35 2.2964 116 23.0512 Afton Canyon Campground. The main road goes to I-15 if you have had enough of the Mojave Rd.
122.1 0.6 35 2.4827 116 23.6341 Left onto trail that goes under the bridge.
128.0 6.6 35 0.2584 116 28.2599 Straight. Road going right goes to I-15.
128.8 8.1/0.0 34 59.1490 116 28.8861 Right at post for Triangle parking. Follow the road toward the mesa to a loop parking area. Hike up the wash on the right to the barrier at the top.
  7.8 34 58.8994 116 35.6694 Right across tracks. Either direction will connect to I-15 access.

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