The Mojave Road
Photography by Jim Brightly, Mike Fissel, Steve Schlueter, and Tim Lewis
When a Wells Fargo or Butterfield stage coach was prepared for a long pull with a full complement of passengers, six horses were hooked up to its cross-trees and harness chains—this was called a “six-up.” By the way, the next time you call “shotgun”, remember where the term originated. (You’ve got it, at a Wells Fargo stage station!) Stage coaches were a regular sight on the Mojave Road in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and most of the Jeeps in our group were powered by six cylinders.
Reminiscent of the opening scenes from “Wild Hogs”, members of Jeep Expeditions (JEO—see www.jeepexpeditions.org) slipped into line in the caravan from Phoenix to the BLM’s Afton Canyon campground three miles east of Interstate 15 (between Barstow and Baker, California—see the sidebar for GPS coordinates). Some members met in Wickenburg, others in Vidal Junction, and still others at the campground itself on Friday night. With most of the Jeeps being from Arizona, it made sense to meet at the Afton Canyon BLM campground and drive The Road eastward, finishing the trail in Nevada. For the author, home is only about 20 minutes from the eastern trailhead; others were several hours closer to home than they would be if traveling the trail westward.
The Mojave Road’s continuous use for more than six centuries has been documented; it was once the only footpath for Native Americans between the seashore and the Colorado River. Coastal tribes (Tongva and Chumash) would trade soapstone from Catalina Island (they were great boat builders), hand-woven baskets (sealed with pitch from the La Brea Tar Pits) and sea shells to the desert and river tribes (Mohave and Piute) for obsidian and fresh-grown vegetables (from the Mohaves’ farms).
We thoroughly explored the Cave Canyon Iron Mine and drove on its old roadway. Only the wooden ties remained as the story goes that the rails were pulled up during World War II during the many metal drives.
When the Spaniards introduced tumbleweeds, horses and Christianity to North America, and then founded the Puebla de los Angeles on September 4, 1781, the Mojave Road became the route to what is now called Los Angeles and saw the likes of Jed Smith, Kit Carson, and John Fremont traveling over it to open up California to illegal immigration from the United States (the resident Californios tried unsuccessfully to keep Americans out of California). In reading the Mojave Road Guide by Dennis Casebier once again, I was surprised to discover that the engineering officer tasked with measuring distances along the Road, eventually using these notations to draw a detailed map of the Road in the late 1860s, was Henry Martyn Robert; who later in life wrote a book that is still in print and being used today, Robert’s Rules of Order. During the 1850s and 1860s, many officers served along the Road, who later became well-known. (Speaking of the Mojave Road Guide, it is available at Amazon.com, the Hastings book store in Bullhead City, and at the museums in Goffs and Kelso. A copy of the book will greatly enhance your visit to the Road.)
The Mojave Road had become one of three major thoroughfares into California by the time gold was discovered near Sacramento in 1849; Donner Pass in the north, the log road across the sand dunes of what is now called Buttercup (adjacent to I-8) into San Diego, and the Mojave Road. Although more ‘49ers used Donner Pass, thousands still used the Mojave Road because Donner was usually impassible during the winters.
Just west of the campground, BLM has engineered a fairly deep pond that must be crossed by anyone driving the Road.
Speaking of winter, today the Mojave Road could be considered a year-round trail, with a couple of caveats. If you’re going during the winter months—November through March—make sure that you can brave some very cold temperatures—especially at night—as the road tops out above 5,000 feet. By the same token, if you’re going during the summer months—June through mid-September—be certain that your air conditioning is in tip-top working order, because you’re going to need it in temperatures that could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the heat of the day (I once tested a new Nissan pickup on portions of the Road while the truck’s onboard thermometer was reading 119). I’d suggest spring or fall as your best bets (this trip was undertaken in November). Remember the temperature extremes if you’re planning on camping out on the trail—should be a minimum of a two-day trip, three days would allow you to visit more of the historical sights along the way.
Soda Lake was a dust bowl on this trip, but it sometimes has a sticky, slippery quagmire hiding just under the dry surface—stick to the major tire tracks, even if there is water in them.
The Mojave Road can be easily negotiated by any stock four-wheel-drive SUV or 4WD pickup, ATV, UTV, or dual-sport motorcycle. A 2WD buggy or what we used to call a Baja Bug would also be acceptable if it carries sufficient fuel for 130 miles in the dirt. In other words, it’s navigable with almost anything you’re comfortable driving in soft sand, sharp stones, hard rocks, deep dust, or gooey gumbo. I would rate it at a one or a one and a half, depending on the weather. With rain or snow you can add another several numbers to that rating, especially during the Soda Lake crossing.
If you’re driving a 4WD vehicle, alone or with a small group, plan on taking a day and a half for the entire 130-mile crossing. (The Mojave Road is actually more like 148 miles in length if you traverse the entire length from the Colorado River to Camp Cady (near Barstow) and make a few side trips such as the lava tubes, Kelso train station museum, etc. However, the typical trip picks up the Road at the BLM Afton Canyon campground (traveling west to east) and ends a few miles west of the river where it crosses River Road between Needles, California, and Laughlin, Nevada.
The Travelers Monument can be found in the middle of Soda Lake, just southeast of the end of Zzyzx Road. Tradition has it, regardless of the direction you travel, that each traveler must place a souvenir rock on the monument (below left) to bring good luck to the group.Group shots at the Travelers Monument are also a tradition. Remember to read the plaque now buried in the center of the pile, but don’t repeat the message written there.
I’ve driven it and ridden it in both directions. On a dual-sport bike, it can be easily traveled in both directions from Baker, California, to Camp Piute and back in a single day (I’ve done it). But that’s not the way to see the Mojave Road. The way to see the Road is to take your time, to savor its scenery, to remember its history, and to introduce its many attractions to friends.
I try to drive the Road at least once a year, but sometimes I’m forced to skip a year or two. But no matter how many times I’ve been over it, I always find something new. Last year we discovered the lava tubes near the Kelbaker Road. I’d heard about them for years, but had never seen them. This year we found them again, this time with a permanent ladder installed for a safe visit.
There are few signs along the route and navigation is purely by rock cairns carefully placed along the way by the volunteers; driver’s side while heading east, passenger’s side while traveling west. The Mojave Road Guide fills you in on the historical significance of the area and the trail’s details, mile by mile. No other guidebook is as comprehensive for this trail.
Lava tubes (above) and flashlights turned Jeepers into spelunkers; they just had to explore the lave tube.In the past year, Friends of the Road have erected a steel ladder (left) for visitors to explore the tube safely. It’s bolted and cemented into place.
Just before entering the west side of Soda Dry Lake, we entered the Mojave National Preserve (exit was just east of “Fort Pah-Ute”), one of the mistakes forced upon us off-roaders by President Clinton when he could find the time in his busy social life. When the BLM controlled this huge area, we could camp where we wanted, were still restricted to existing roads and trails (except in open areas), and were not required to secure a permit before traveling. Now, if you’re a group larger than seven vehicles and/or fifteen people, you need to secure a $50 permit or face a fine. This is what was told to us by a ranger at Marl Springs when she counted our group of nine vehicles (six Jeeps had made the trip from Arizona and three vehicles were from California). We told the ranger that the three California rigs had joined our Arizona group for safety and convenience, so she checked with headquarters and didn’t give us a citation. Since I had called the preserve’s headquarters in Barstow (760-733-4040) prior to the trip and was told eight vehicles were okay, we didn’t feel we were breaking or bending any laws. Like I said, the Mojave National Preserve, managed by the National Park Service, is just one more Clinton mistake that shouldn’t have happened.
Fort Piute was built and put into service to protect travelers using the springs from marauding Mohave Indians. In the days of the trail, the actual trail went up the canyon west of the fort, but a landslide has closed the canyon to vehicular traffic today.
That's pretty much where we ended that particular trip, although you can continue east from Fort Piute, where the trail is an easy drop to the crossing of US 95. If you wish to bail at this point, US 95 north will take you to Las Vegas; south will take you to I-40 and Needles, California. East on the trail takes you along an easy trail over one more ridge and then down into the Colorado River valley. The present-day trailhead is now on River Road, about a mile north of the side road into the Avi Hotel & Casino, where you can refill your Jeep's fuel tank and your own inner fuel tank as well.
But no matter which way you choose to go, once you’ve experienced the Mojave Road, you’ll probably want to make plans to visit it again and again. It’s a road full of history and scenic beauty, plus it's also just an easy, fun trail. Once you develop a romantic blind spot for the Mojave Road, you’ll never want to turn down an opportunity to lead folks across it.
Mojave Road GPS Coordinates
(West to East)
Location Latitude (North) Longitude (West) Elevation (ft)
1. Afton Canyon BLM Campground 35˚ 2.25 116˚ 23.02 1,425
2. Cross under rail road bridge 35˚ 2.54 116˚ 18.57 1,237
3. Cave Canyon Iron Mine 35˚ 3.30 116˚ 17.45 1,208
4. Crossover Rasor Road 35˚ 6.54 116˚ 8.62 1,034
5. Travelers’ Monument 35˚ 7.83 116˚ 5.53 928
6. Crossover Kelbaker Road 35˚ 11.83 115˚ 52.34 2,258
7. Crossover Aiken Mine Rd (lava tube turnoff) 35˚ 10.33 115˚ 46.70 3,200
8. Mailbox 35˚ 11.10 115˚ 41.56 4,300
9. Marl Springs 35˚ 10.14 115˚ 38.83 3,867
10. Campsite 35˚ 10.86 115˚ 36.80 3,800
11. Crossover Kelso Cima/Clear Canyon roads 35˚ 10.57 115˚ 30.55 3,722
12. Rock House Overlook 35˚ 9.43 115˚ 19.95 4,895
13. Rock Spring 35˚ 9.17 115˚ 19.67 4,783
14. Crossover Clear Canyon Road 35˚ 8.71 115˚ 18.48 4,788
15. Crossover Lanfair Road 35˚ 8.29 115˚ 11.22 4,102
16. Coin can 35˚ 8.20 115˚ 10.77 4,047
17. Right Turn 35˚ 7.57 115˚ 7.77 3,795
18. Left Turn 35˚ 7.35 115˚ 7.77 3,787
19. Left Turn 35˚ 6.00 115˚ 0.83 3,407
20. Piute Creek Overlook 35˚ 6.52 115˚ 0.56 3,427
21. AT&T Turnoff 35˚ 5.46 114˚ 57.30 2,466
22. Turnoff to Fort Piute 35˚ 6.51 114˚ 57.28 2,428
23. Fort Piute 35˚ 6.91 114˚ 58.96 2,784
24. Crossover US 95 35˚ 6.78 114˚ 49.75 2,270
25. Trailhead (mile 3 @ SR 162) 35˚ 3.19 114˚ 40.52 763
26. Avi Casino & KOA Campground 35˚ 0.78 114˚ 38.38 495
Jeep Expeditions, which is the group seen in these photos, is a Jeep-only club based in Phoenix, Arizona, with members in seven different states. Adhering strictly to the Tread Lightly! credo, JEO is associated with the Arizona 4-Wheel Drive Association and the United Four-Wheel Drive Association. See www.jeepexpeditions.org for more information about the organization.