As the wind continues to rock our Oz -Tent, I squint at my watch through the murky gloom, it’s 3am. It’s already been a long cold night, despite the 20 degree down bag I’m sleeping in. I was hoping for at least 6am and the temperatures have definitely fallen below freezing. Frustrated, I curl tighter into the fetal position. These are typical conditions for winter desert camping in southern California and as I drift off to sleep, a smile creeps onto my face. Three times we’ve arranged this trip and three times something has come up forcing us to reschedule it. Finally, here we are, our first night on the iconic Mojave Road.
The day before, we had set off from San Diego on a 5 hour road trip to Needles, where we planned to join the start of the trail. The drive was uneventful, with typical hordes of traffic through San Bernardino and Riverside, finally easing when we joined the I-40 at Barstow. I’ve lived in Southern California for 20 years and still can’t quite get used to the volume of people who live here.
Anyway, I digress, back to the trip.
We’d camped at Balancing Rock which although windy, had proved to be a great location. It’s about 10 miles into the trail and off on a side road (AT&T Cable Service Road). Easy to find and worth the side step. It’s now 6am and time to brave the day. The morning camp fire is taking the edge off the cold and as we sip our life-giving coffee, we discuss the plans of the day. The Mojave Road is 128 miles across the Mojave Preserve and can, if you want, be done in a day. However, that’s not our style and for us the point of trips like this are to enjoy the scenery, photograph interesting things, explore the regional history/geography and generally relax. Life is hectic enough!
The plan for the day evolves and we break camp to hit the road. Once back on the main trail, we follow the well-marked signs, always keeping the rock cairns to our right. This is the fundamental navigation premise, when traveling east to west. The first part is easy terrain with a few sections of soft sand, but honestly, we’re yet to engage 4×4. The only issue we encounter is undulating terrain which has our long wheel base Tacoma having to slow down to avoid porpoising. Of course the Rubi as always takes it all in her stride.
We keep consistently climbing and at 22 miles we break away from the Mojave Road and head a few miles towards the ruins of Fort Piute. Constructed in 1867 by Company D of the US Infantry to protect the mail, this is a great example of the history of the trail. It’s hard to believe the brutality these soldiers faced. Not only did they have to survive in the extreme temperatures of the desert, but they also had to keep the mail and settlers safe from Indian attack. I smile sardonically as I think of our little “expedition” across the desert. Life in today’s world has roughed off the edges and today’s “adventure” is categorized as recreation. A far cry from the realities of yesteryear.
“Come in TAP 2, did you just see that!?”
We’re now slowly following some other folks up the Piute Range and climbing to the summit at 3,432 ft. The terrain has become rocky with sections of deeply washed out gullies scarring the surface. The trail is fairly narrow and luckily cambered away from the drop, but it’s essential to straddle them correctly, not allowing your wheels to get into the deep ruts. The rig in front of us is struggling and doing the exact opposite and my CB call out, comes out of seeing them bounce precariously into a gully, coming inches from turning over. I’m getting nervous and my mind races, wondering how we’re going to recover them if they topple over. This is exactly why we travel with two rigs. An issue out here can become serious quickly! Finally and thankfully, we reach the top and the terrain eases off.
At 35 miles we find the infamous rusted out, left for dead, abandoned school bus. I wonder how and why it got here in the middle of the Mojave? We stop for the obligatory photo-op and lunch. The weather is sunny, and the wind has subsided. It’s a perfect winter day in the desert and the sterility of modern-day life is quickly being replaced with the satisfying grime of the desert.
A couple of hours later and 15 miles further along, we reach Rock Springs and the Rock House at 4,800 ft. Another US Army camp built-in 1866 and a well-preserved rock cabin built in 1930, by settler George Smith. The terrain is welcoming and flat and although tired, we resist the temptation to pitch camp for the night. At this altitude, the night temperature is going to plummet quickly and definitely be well below freezing. We carry on, initially loosing altitude quickly, but after crossing Kelso Cima Road, we start to slowly rise again, heading towards our intending primitive camp spot at Mojave Camp. Sunset is closing in on us and the terrain has become mile after mile of frustratingly close together whoops, that keep the Tacoma’s speed at around 12 mph. I glance at the altimeter and see we’re still at 3,800 ft. It’s a beautiful area to camp, but at this altitude it’s going to be a cold night.
We shake the ice off the sleeping bags and pack away the gear. It had indeed been a cold night and we were glad to be up and about, feeling the warmth of the rising sun. Today is going to be a long day, as we have lot’s to see, many miles to cover and looming deadlines dictating that we also have to head home. Our intentions are to try to complete the full 128 miles, but not at the expense of missing some of the must see areas. As I said earlier, overlanding is not a race.
We pass Marl Springs at mile 71, having decided to continue to the infamous “Mojave Mailbox” at mile 74. The mailbox, is well, just that. It was erected in 1983 by The Friends of the Mojave Road, and includes a book to write your name, the date you pass through and your thoughts of the Mojave Road. Behind the mailbox is also something not to be missed. Initially a group of frogs appeared, as we looked around we saw that this “add a toy” area had expanded into separate groups of gnomes and bobbleheads. If you drive this trail, don’t forget to bring your offering and take only pictures.
We’re still at 3,500 ft and the trail is sandy but fairly easy. Be aware though that conditions can vary, so be prepared. We now begin to drop down to the lower desert with the intention of visiting the Lava Tubes on Aiken Cinder Mine Road. It’s a slight detour off the trail, but certainly worth seeing. It’s hit or miss, but try to see the caves when the sun is directly overhead, as it creates an impressive stream of light into the cave. Unfortunately we were about an hour too early and missed the effect.
Continuing on, we tackle the deep sand of Willow Wash and head slowly towards the edge of Soda Lake. We’re in luck, as the El Nino rains have yet to kick in and the dry lake bed is easily passable. Be aware though, that deviation from the obvious trail is fool hardy, as it’s easy to get stuck in the lake mud. On occasions, even the actual trail can be impassable. If traveling with more than one rig, it is advisable to leave a good distance between vehicles. This way, if the lead vehicle gets stuck, the second one can we available for rescue. Take this seriously.
Four miles across Soda Lake and 100 miles along the Mojave Road, we come across Travelers Monument. I’m excited to see what the famous brass plaque says at the top of the rock pile. It’s a well-kept secret and worth keeping. You won’t hear the secret past from our lips! Also, don’t forget to bring your own rock to add to the pile. Sign you name, make a wish and enjoy the feeling of remoteness. I take a long hard breath and soak in my surrounding, this is a beautifully stark area and it feels good to be a traveler on this iconic road.
We’re unfortunately running out of time and after crossing Soda Lake, we take the bitter-sweet decision to cut out on Razor Road and get back on the I-395. We’re short of our goal by 24 miles, missing out on seeing Afton Canyon and crossing the Mojave River. We promise ourselves we’re coming back next year and completing this section traveling west to east.