The old Mojave Road was the southernmost route used to cross to the west coast by missionaries, the military, and various other groups, starting with Juan Batista de Anza's expedition in 1776. It is a 138 mile trail across the Mojave National Preserve from the Colorado river (and Nevada border) to Afton canyon, just west of Baker, CA (familiar to those Angelinos who make the weekend pilgrimage to Vegas). It crosses through historic forts, near stalactite-filled caverns, past many petroglyphs, lava tubes, cinder cones, early desert settler relics, and large canyons, all along some rough 4x4 roads. If you are interested in repeating this trip, I recommend saving these coordinates on Dirtopia at a minimum
, and suggest purchasing Adler Publishing's California Trails - Desert Region book, which has integrated trail directions, GPS coordinates, and lots of information on the various areas you pass through.
For this trip, we rented a classic 2 door Jeep Wrangler (this was before the FJ Cruiser, and this rental provided me with more reasons of why I didn't want a Jeep as my main car). We left on a Friday late morning and reached the starting point of Needles, CA with enough time to set up our tent at a KOA, grab some dinner and go to sleep. Saturday we began the drive, crossed over the Colorado River, and headed west into the Mojave NP, where we visited Fort Piute and Piute Spring, an old army base with many Native American petroglyphs. There was a Jeep meetup going on at the time, which led us to believe that the road was going to be much busier than expected, but it turned out that everyone only went to the main destinations and didn't travel the Old road, which provided for a much more pleasant trip.
From the Fort, we travelled west over an extremely rough and rocky pass, surprised that we didn't get a flat tire. Unfortunately, being our first offroading and backroad navigating experience, we wound up a few miles too far north, and were skirting a gorgeous canyon in Lanfair Valley before reaching a set of rough stadium jumps and sharp terrain, which did give us a flat tire! After swapping out the spare, we turned around, found the right trail, and at the intersection of Lanfair Valley Road, beared south to reach the nearest tire shop, which turned out to be many miles away, on the south side of I-40, in a "town" called Essex. The town was completely run down with the exception of a post office and a mechanics garage that charged a whopping $5 to fix our flat.
A couple hours behind, but back on track, we return to the Old Mojave Road where we left off, and head west to Black Canyon Rd, where we spend a night at Mid Hills Campground after viewing one of the most incredible desert sunsets that I have set my eyes on. Nights got fairly cold here, and the fire was a very welcome addition to the evening.
We awoke on Sunday for an adventure-filled day, starting with a ranger-led tour of the Mitchell Caverns State Natural Preserve, within the Providence Mountains SRA. These are some fun little caverns with well preserved formations, sitting in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve. It is also accessible via paved road from I-40, and thus recommended even if you are just passing through.
We continued back north to our route but after proceeding west for a short while, detoured from a straight section of the Old Mojave Road in order to see the more interesting Cima Dome area. Specifically, we did the short hike up to Teutonia peak passing through many different types of cactus, and winding up with a great view of the curve of the massive Cima Dome. Following this, we headed west around the dome to the Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark and the lava beds there. With very little signage but some good navigating, we came across the Cima Cave lava tubes, a short section of underground and some partially collapsed tubes. After this, it was getting late in the day and we backtracked east along the Mojave Road to Marl Spring, where we found a great campsite in the shelter of a large rock outcropping in this open desert.
Monday morning we woke and packed camp quickly, knowing we had a long drive ahead through the last 50 or so miles, as well as the entire drive back to LA. While passing through what seemed like endless stadium jumps, we stopped to sign the visitor's log book, and headed straight for Soda Lake, the dry lakebed that is extremely loose sand. Since this was my first experience driving through such terrain, it was a white-knuckle, never dropping below 5-10 mph experience, because we were all paranoid of not being able to start moving again if we lost the momentum. The reward was grand though, as we ended up in the thin and high-walled Afton Canyon, where we explored the Afton Station Site and hiked to some "caves" in the rock walls, which turned out to be more like 10 foot indentations. They were still a useful distraction and break from the tense driving nonetheless.
The trip through Afton Canyon also brought us alongside and underneath some old railroad tracks, while passing through and over various water crossings, including one that went to about 36" deep and had another stock Jeep not come through from the opposite direction, we would have not attempted. Luckily we made it through fine, and I decided I needed some future practice on creating a bow wake with the vehicle while travelling through water before I ever attempt to do it with my own car. Finally, we emerged out onto the widening of Afton Canyon, hugged the north wall for awhile, and came across the triangle intanglios, a Native American form of rock arrangement high up on a cliff top. After returning to the car, we drove the last few miles to where the Old Mojave Road reaches I-15, and turned onto the pleasantly paved freeway, leaving behind us the rough and rocky reminder of how far our civilization has come since the days of travelling to California via the Mojave Trail.