If you are looking for a desert road trip that is literally off the beaten track, the Mojave Road might be just what you are looking for. It is a 138-mile long track that extends east-to-west across the Mojave National Preserve in eastern California. It enters the park near Piute Spring on the east side and, on the west, on Soda Dry Lake.
This is mostly wilderness, unchanged since the settlement era, and you should not expect service stations, motels, or stores. Four-wheel drive is strongly recommended, as is staying on existing roads. The area is hostile, arid and inaccessible, and the trail meanders following the watering holes that once meant survival to the travelers.
The Mojave Road served as a thoroughfare and trade route for Native Americans for a long time before explorers, missionaries and settlers came to use it. It never became a major immigration trail for the settlers, but was a supply trail for a while, getting most use in the mid-19th century as a freight and mail route.
Following violent conflict over this territory with Native-American tribes, including the Mohave, Chemehuevi’s and Paiutes, forts were established along the route enabling the military to control the water and ensure the safety of the travellers. Forts extended from Camp Cady on the Mojave River (12 miles northeast of Newberry Springs) to Fort Mohave on the Colorado River (10 miles southwest of Bullhead City, Arizona). These fell into disuse with the building of railroads, which offered more convenience and safety to the settlers.
Today the Mojave Road offers the opportunity for a 2-3 day excursion that requires 4-wheel drive and is still best done in a convoy. Summer temperatures can rise to 120F, and thunderstorms pose another risk. Remember you will be relatively far from the comfort and safety of the freeway, so plan and prepare accordingly. Be flexible but do not improvise, and note that you will encounter few signs along the entire trail, excepting rock cairns at intersections providing some directions. All vehicles entering the park must comply with the California DMV requirements, including registration, insurance, tags, lights and turn signals.
The road is alternately rocky and sandy and includes some tough climbs, as well as dirt and very fine sand that may prove challenging to drive on. Even with all-wheel drive, you may run into problems, like stalling in deep sand or large rocks, or wheels failing to engage. In wet conditions the roads may become completely impassable and certainly more hazardous, and for miles on end you may see nothing to remind you of human intervention in nature.
Landmarks along this trail include:
- At the eastern entrance to the trail, The Colorado River;
- The natural spring of Piute Creek;
- Fort Piute, built in 1867. It used to be a day's wagon drive from the Colorado River, but only takes half an hour today using 4-wheel drive. It includes remnants of the fort and a ranch from the 40s.
- Lanfair Valley, where you can see the effects of farming attempts. Here, settlers cleared Joshua tree forests in many places, replacing them with crops that could not grow under these conditions. In some areas, however, Joshua Tree Forests survive and offer spectacular views.
- Indian Hill and Indian Well;
- The biggest watering hole along the Mojave Road, Rock Spring, and Government Holes, another water supply nearby;
- The highest point of the trip, Cedar Canyon, at 5,000ft (1,500 m) elevation;
- Marl Springs, a spring with a primitive concrete trough and a desert oasis, still serving as a watering hole for many animals. The next drinkable water source is 30 miles away.
- Mojave Road Mail Box, a flagpole where you can sign your name:
- Heavy sand at Willow Wash, running parallel to the paved Kelbaker Road;
- The large, dry Soda Lake, which requires extra caution, especially during winter;
- Travelers Monument (Government Monument), where visitors traditionally carry a rock across the dry lake to add it to the pile;
- Sand Dunes (at mile 106 of the trip);
- The scenic Afton Canyon, with very deep and steep walls:
- Mojave River crossing, at mile 121, the only water crossing on this trail.
In preparation for your trip, you can find general information and tips on desert driving in our recent article, and plenty more specific to this trail in Dennis Casebier's mile-for-mile Mojave Road Guide.
Recommended by: the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association
Western National Parks Association
and the National Parks Service