Using Dennis Casebier’s book as our guide we started the day at the edge of the mighty Colorado River.
After a few fits and starts as we figured out the difference between what the book says we should be seeing and what we actually see we finally found the right turn off Needles Highway and started into the desert. With only a line of telephone poles in the distance as our target we quickly came to the first official sign that we were now on the right path.
We started later than we wanted to so about the time the above picture was taken it was already around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and Willow just wanted to be back in the air-conditioned Tacoma. The book mentions a road not to take as it only leads to a series of impassable dry waterfalls but that we could come at them from the other side and still be on the right path. We found them and decided to not test the Tacoma’s capabilities and instead just take a quick walk down into that area.
We could see some tire marks there but that is probably just some of those crazy, tricked out Jeep people showing off. Back on the Road we got on a relatively easy route both to see and drive.
One of the main hints the book helps with are those many places where the Mojave Road crosses roads used for power line maintenance at odd and narrow angles. Without the help of the book we can really see people easily getting off track and ending up confused and lost. After a couple of hours of slowly rolling through portions of the Dead Mountains Wilderness Area we came across Hwy 95 out of the blue.
Our next point of reference is Fort Piute itself. From where we cross Hwy 95 it is only about 10 miles to this historic end of a line of forts built in the late 1850’s to protect the wagon train and mail routes across the Mojave desert. The first eight of those ten miles was about the same quality as we had traveled over that day. Then we passed the sign below, entered the Mojave National Preserve itself and the road devolved into (I believe the technical term is) shit.
The next two miles took about the same amount of time as the preceding eight as we had to slow down into the low single digits and carefully pick our way around (if possible) or over (if necessary) the varied collection of hard, sharp igneous rock that was strewn all about when the last volcanoes in the area belched their last gasps about 30 million years ago. Considering the beating our KO2s were taking we were quite impressed at how they performed. By now it was about 104 degrees or so and felt like the volcanoes were still active. Even with our trusty Tacoma’s AC on full blast the interior of the cab was probably in the low 90s. We eventually passed under some electrical highlines and continued up and to the left around a nicely symmetrical cinder cone. On the left we came to the remains of an old homestead with a cistern and pens which we later found out were to house turkeys. Apparently the homesteaders lost the battle to not subsidize the resident predator population with free turkey meat by keeping their turkeys from the jaws of bobcats and coyotes which eventually precipitated their abandonment of the property in the 1950s.
After a quick stop to take a look at the old homestead we continued up the final half mile or so to Fort Piute itself.
We parked and walked into the ruins.
Over the years vandals have toppled walls and done a great deal of damage. What remains is minimal and it takes an active imagination to “see” in your mind’s eye what this might have looked like when in active use back in the mid-1800’s. The Park Service eventually rebuilt some walls to a third of their original height and coated them with some goop to help repel water and hold them together. Down to the left of the remains is a prominent area of green due to the last above-ground vestiges of Piute Creek which flows from Piute Spring a short distance further up the valley.
After our short stay at the Fort we turned around and headed slowly back down the hill.
Once we passed back under the highlines we turned to the right on the electrical maintenance road towards the next point we were supposed to turn off at.
Luckily we had read about this road closure and had downloaded the detour route map from the Mojave Desert Heritage and Culture Association website. Thank you guys. The original route would have been about 7 miles. The detour more than doubled that but, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Once on the detour route we made a few stops at several abandoned mine shafts that were all sealed by various versions of bat gates – structures that stop humans and most other wildlife from entering dangerous mine shafts but allow bats to fly through and roost inside.
Yes, if you had not guessed yet I like bats. One bonus of this detour was that it forced us to drive by the short access road to the old Leiser Ray mine (we’ve also seen it spelled Leiser Rei). While we were behind schedule we really enjoy old ruins and these were worth the extra time.
The old bus is the worse for wear but is still in better shape than the one at Emmett’s Camp. That’s not saying much.
After a brief break we continued along the Old Government Road heading towards an easily seen line where the Joshua Trees are starting to populate the area. Over in the distance to the left was a VORTAC station (the Goffs VOR we believe) but we didn’t have the time or the inclination to deviate from our path and check it out.
We soon came across the famous Penny Can Tree and left a small donation.
As we passed by the turnoff at Ashwell Road we were stopped in the road by a happily basking and obviously well fed snake.
I got out and walked towards him in hopes he would feel my vibrations and move along. That didn’t happen and he gave me the snake equivalent of “the finger” and refused to move until I actually picked him up and moved him to the side of the road where he hissed his annoyance at being displaced from his warm, sunny spot and showed his displeasure by peeing/pooping on my hand. You’re lucky we saw you in time and stopped you ungrateful, stinky serpent.
After a thorough hand washing we got back on the road continuing along the Lanfair Valley and made it to our next stop, Camp Rock Spring, by about 6pm. Camp Rock Spring was once another outpost along the Mojave Road helping protect the mail route from bandits and Native Americans. It was only used for a short time until the mail route was moved south through La Paz.
We had heard there was a vault toilet up near the spring itself and so hiked from our parking spot along Cedar Canyon Road. We meandered next to Watson Wash, along a portion of the moderately difficult Rock Spring Loop Trail route the quarter-mile or so up towards the top of the hill where we could look back down towards the Tacoma.
We could see a structure farther along the trail and so kept moving in that direction. We were delighted to find a nicely preserved rock house at the top of the next hill. Sadly it is closed to the public or we would have driven around to the official entrance and stayed the night there if allowed.
The house was built in the late 1920’s by Bert G. Smith a World War 1 veteran whose lungs were scared by poison gas in the trenches and who found some relief in the Mojave Desert. He kept a herd of goats and homesteaded here until the mid-1950’s. He died in a nursing home in 1967. The next long-time resident was Carl Faber, a desert landscape artist who worked and lived here from 1981 to 1986 and sold his paintings to travelers who were partaking in the increasingly popular 4×4 pastime.
Now almost 7pm with the sun dipping low we needed a place to camp for the night and had decided in advance that we wanted to stay at a place called, amusingly, Camp Phallus due to a particular rock and the way it stands upright and my juvenile sense of humor. All we knew was its GPS coordinates and that is was over in the New York Hills several miles from where the Rock House stood. Once back down to the Tacoma we punched those coordinates in and headed in that general direction. We took more than a few wrong turns as I tried to keep my eyes on the road and the GPS at the same time. We eventually could see that we were getting closer to our destination when the road seemingly came to an abrupt end as it headed down into a wash. It was close to 8pm and the light was losing its battle with the oncoming darkness so we decided to push on through the brush, into the wash, through a vicious desert pin-striping maze of brush until we finally emerged at a clearing with all those items that denote a camp site: picnic table, fire pit and BBQ.
With only minutes of daylight remaining we quickly emptied the camper shell, set up camp, rinsed off the day’s dust, had a quick bite to eat and then settled in for the evening. The next morning we decided that this was a pretty nice spot and so we’d take a break after the long day before and just hang out at this substantially cooler 5600 feet elevation, relax, get our bearings and rest up for our next leg of the adventure.