Old Mojave Road Trip Report West

After our recent trip to the center section of the Old Mojave Road, my wife Heather was really excited to run the western section and complete the entire length of the trail. Her idea was to drive the western section on our way to our annual trip to Big Bear, CA over the Memorial Day holiday. I worried that such a trip during this time of year could be a rough trip due to high temperatures in the desert. In late April we finished the center section in Baker, CA and the air temperature was only 107 degrees. Despite my concerns, we gladly planned our trip and embraced her good idea.
As we prepared for our trip, gathered our gear, food, and checked out the mechanics of the jeep, I decide to check the local weather report. To my surprise, weather.com predicted the temps in the mid 80s with clear sky’s and light wind. The weather could not be any better.

The dry soda lake located in the Mojave National Preserve and found next to Zzyzx Road offers a surreal view of the area. Photograph by James L Rathbun
The dry soda lake located in the Mojave National Preserve and found next to Zzyzx Road offers a surreal view of the area. Photograph by James L Rathbun

Another interesting development, is that Heather kept offering to drive in the event I got tired of driving. She didn’t just offer once, but several times per day for several days before our departure. Being the good husband that I am, after about twenty or thirty offers, I started to get the idea that, subconsciously, Heather might want to drive this run. So after some arm twisting and bartering, I finally convinced her and Heather agreed to take the wheel. This of course, would be a great source of confusion for me during the trip, however I am certain I can persevere this new dynamic. This is not to imply that Heather is not one of the finest drivers I know, far from it.

All packed up, we left the Las Vegas area at 7:00 am on Saturday morning, and headed towards Baker. A quick stop in Baker, we topped off the fuel tank and took our respective bathroom breaks. Once Heather reminded me that she was driving this trip, I took my seat on the right had side of the jeep and we headed down Kelbaker Road. It took me a few miles, but soon I became used to having my coffee cup on the wrong side, no pedals, eta… This must be what it is like in England. The map and guide-book took some getting used to as well, but somehow I managed to get us to the trail head. It certainly didn’t hurt that we were here just a few weeks before. A quick turn on to the trail, and we stopped to air down the tires for some ride comfort.

After dreaming of this trip for the past few weeks we are finally on our way. We followed the trail around 17 mile point and then turned southwest into the Mojave. The road steadily looses elevation as it cross a fallout zone of lava and start to head down into the valley.

After a few more miles, we “discovered” the Little Cow Hole Mountain Mill Site just north of the road. The short drive over to the site was well worth it and provided you are at all interested in locations such as these. There is a large concrete foundation which appears to be the footings for the mill itself, along with several retaining walls. There is a very minor uphill section of to the foundation level of the mill. Heather did a great job on this minor obstruction. I am still amazed that she easy handled the slope despite my exaggerated gesturing and attempts to apply the brake or depress the gas from the passenger seat.

Heading towards the Travelers Monument on the other side of the dry soda lake.
Heading towards the Travelers Monument on the other side of the dry soda lake.

The next stage of the Old Mojave Road, drops the remaining elevation down to the Soda Dry Lake. For those who drive the I-15 highway between Barstow and Primm, this is the large desolate dry lake bed just off the highway as you drop into Baker from the South. The Soda Dry Lake is a flat expanse, that when dry is easily passable. However, judging from the troughs through the dried mud, it seems to be very rough terrain to traverse unless you have significantly more horsepower and larger tires. Most definitely bad form in my opinion and I certainly would never put my Jeep to this test.

Driving across the soda lake is an awesome experience. Either you appreciate terrain such as this, or you don’t. The flat dry desolation along with the white color of the soda lake combines perfectly with the crunch below your feet and the wind blowing. Oddly enough, the higher the temperature and wind speed, the more I appreciate this environment. There is a tranquility in this place and really gives on the feeling that you are alone and out in the middle of no where.

Ryan climbed to the top of Travelers Monument
Ryan climbed to the top of Travelers Monument

We did make the prerequisite stop at the “Travelers” monument. My son Ryan added to the pile and we let Ryan and our Labrador Retriever, Rooger AKA the boys, run around and stretch their legs. The boys played while I explored the area photographically.

Again we loaded up the boys and continued our travels. Once we left the dry lake, we found ourselves in a deep sandy road after a quick right and then left turns at the “Granites” rock formation. There was no danger of getting stuck in the sand for us, but Heather was naturally concerned. She gained experience and confidence as we crossed over Shaw Pass and followed the rocky road down the backside. This was soon shattered when a high-pitched voice from the back seat sang out, “Mom, can you let dad drive?”

Once we crossed the rather nondescript pass, we dropped into the Mojave River Wash. This section of the trail is just sandy river bed and marked with either Cairns or railroad ties. During the Mojave River wash section, both Heather and I had to really keep an eye open for the markers. In many locations I noticed several parallel trails and multiple markers. For the most part you just travel in a western direction and keep to the left side of Cave Mountain.
Sandy conditions aside, this section of the trip was a lot of fun. There are an abundance of birds, and we jumped several large jack rabbits. As the terrain is sandy and with intermittent bushes, when we did see a rabbit, it was easy to follow them when they ran into the distance. Although we are in middle of the Mojave desert, an extremely harsh and arid place you would not know that considering the size and number of these rabbits.

Towards the end of the Mojave River Wash at the intersection with Basin Road, there is a large mining complex. We stopped for lunch and a hike. ’The boys’ were very exciting to hike an old track line which had rail road ties embedded into the rocky soil. One a future trip we will have to return and explore this area further as there are trails and roads all over this site. I don’t know much of the history of this spot, what was mined, etc… but this is a very interesting place and will be the subject of future adventures.

Back on the trail we headed towards and under the infamous railroad bridge. The bridge itself glistened in the sun and shined like a beacon in the distance. The bridge moaned as a train crossed over head on its way to drop off its cargo. I got out of the car to take some photos of the jeep and the bridge. Thankfully, Heather in an act of kindness did turn around and picked me up.

We continued to follow the river bed down and through Afton canyon. Afton Canyon is a gem of the Mojave desert. On the trail, we found a buried rail road car and soon crossed paths with the only other traffic on this forty mile side trip.
The rail road car is a great example of why the Mojave desert is such a wonderful place. Scattered across the landscape is the history of this country. Old rail cars, mines, camps, watering holes and even crashed jet airplanes can still be found lying around. You just need to learn to look.

Afton Canyon is just an amazing spot and the trail follows the riverbed through the water and wind-swept canyon. The colors and geology are amazing and photographically offer a lot of opportunities. A fence clocks the trail from following the river further for environmental rehabilitation purposes and the trail jumps up next to the train tracks for a while.

After two short water crossings this section of the Old Mojave Road dumps out into the Afton Canyon Campground. Once again Heather’s jeep confidence grew as I asked her to back up into the water crossing again to take some photographs of some cat tails growing in the river. The Afton Canyon Campground isn’t much to look at, and personally I would rather camp in the back country.

Once past the campground, we drove up the road towards the I-15. A quick stop to add some air pressure back into the tires and make us safe for high-speed travel. Once we aired up, Heather announced that she was tired and decided that I should drive. A bit over an hour later, we arrived at the house in Big Bear and unpacked. Following a quick dinner, the boys quickly crashed out.

This was the first time the Heather did significant driving on the back roads. She did a great job, and I am thrilled that she is taking to our trips with such a wonderful attitude and sense of adventure. This weekend, she drove 75 of the 110 miles of back road driving. I am very proud of her.

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