The Mojave Road – Day 3: Government Holes To Afton Canyon

Once we decided to head out from Camp Phallus we made it a point to get up and pack up before the insect assault began anew. We awoke at sunrise and were completely packed up and ready to head back out on the road by 7:30am. We made it down out of the New York Mountains along these many unmarked dirt roads that all look remarkably similar with only one wrong turn that brought us to the closed gate of the Pinto Valley Ranch.

closed gate at the Pinto Valley Ranch

A quick u-turn and a couple of miles or so of backtracking got us back in the right direction, past the turnoff to the Rock House and by 8:30am had arrived at the tree which marks the spot where the old Pleasant View schoolhouse once stood.

Fire ring and The Tree Where The Old Schoolhouse Once Stood
The Tree Where The Old Schoolhouse Once Stood

This is also designated as another of the approved camping spots along the Mojave Road. Past the tree we were directed into a wash as a way to get back over onto Cedar Canyon Road. As we entered the relatively deep sand we could look across and see the distinct layers of Pinto Mountain in the distance.

The Striations Of Pinto Mountain
The Layers Of Pinto Mountain

With Pinto Mountain still in sight our next stop was the Government (watering) Holes. The first well here was dug in 1859 by private parties and then enlarged the next year by U.S. soldiers who named it Government Holes. Even with the plural “holes” in common usage there is actually only one well here.

windmill surrounded and hampered by Oak trees
The Windmill That Pumped The Well
The Old, Galvanized Holding Tank knocked partially down by a felled tree
The Old, Destroyed Galvanized Holding Tank
modern plastic tank inside old damaged metal tank
The Modern Solution To That Problem

In the early years Government Holes was a stopover point for travelers to camp and water their livestock. Later, it was used mainly by cattle companies up until around 1990 when the National Park Service bought the area and had all the cattle removed.

Willow At The Main And Only Watering "Hole"
Willow At The Main And Only Watering “Hole”
small Wire-Covered "Ladder" allows small animals to and away from the watering hole
This Once Wire-Covered “Ladder” Allowed Smaller Desert Dwellers Access To The Water And An Escape Route If They Fell In
Remains Of Cattle Pens From The Days Of Cattle Being Allowed To Graze And Water In The Area
Remains Of Pens From The Days Of Cattle Being Allowed To Graze And Water In The Area

After driving away from Government Holes, about four miles down Cedar Canyon Road we came to the intersection of Cedar Canyon and Black Hills Road. This looks familiar! When we first explored the Mojave National Preserve in 2015 we had come up and over Black Hills Road while checking out the Hole-In-The-Wall and Mid Hills campgrounds and arrived at this 90 degree intersection and turned left. In 2015 we looked to the right and wondered what was up that direction…and now we know! About 7 miles further down Cedar Canyon Road we arrived back at the Kelso-Cima Road intersection and once again looked across the railroad tracks at the Mojave Road marker that had precipitated this trip those many months ago.

looking across Kelso-Cima Road to The Mojave Road Marker On A Hazy Day
The Mojave Road Marker On A Hazy Day

But, right about then we glanced at our fuel gauge and saw it was half full. Apparently driving slowly but in 4-wheel drive with the air-conditioning on full blast turns our normally poor gas mileage getting Tacoma into an insatiable, gulping beast. While we had our emergency 20 liter jerry can with us that is for, you know, emergencies and not wanting to cut things so close we decided to suck it up and take the 45 mile round-trip detour to the Shell station at the intersection of Cima Road and the Barstow Freeway/Hwy 15 and fill up our tank. Their prices are criminal but it wasn’t worth it to drive another 20 miles round-trip into the town of Mountain Pass for slightly cheaper gas. So, now filled up and ready to continue on our adventure we headed back to the roadside marker.

Our GPS Track On Day 3, In Black, Show Our Detour For Gas
Our GPS Track On Day 3, In Black, Shows Our Detour For Gas
Closer view of the Mojave Road marker
This Time We Are Taking The Road

As soon as we drove past the marker the terrain abruptly changed from what we had been on so far. The entire zone laid out before us now is a flood plain and is made up of numerous cross-washes, one right behind the next, running perpendicular to our direction of travel. Added together this is known as the Kelso Wash. This means we could only travel in 1st gear at engine idle speeds. Up and down, up and down. It was as if I was back to being a toddler and my mother allowed me to sit on those little mechanical rocking horses situated in front of your local grocery store and for .25 cents took my Hi Ho Silver ride for two whole minutes…except in this case it was for about 45 minutes until we finally reached the other side of the wash. As we rolled out of Kelso Wash and up onto the bank there we found an obvious trail heading to the left across the top of the berm. Knowing this was not the correct direction of travel we still took it just to see what we would find because, you know, adventure.

Not too far after turning left we saw the remains of a mining operation up on the hill to our right and headed up that way. The remains of the Bright Outlook Mine awaited us with ore car tracks, prospecting holes, the mine entrance itself and tailing piles.

Safety Netted Prospecting Hole
Safety Netted Prospecting Hole
Main Mine Entrance
Main Mine Entrance
Oar Car Tracks
Ore Car Tracks
Looking Back Towards The Tacoma From One Of The Prospecting Holes
Looking Back Towards The Tacoma From One Of The Prospecting Holes

Our curiosity satisfied he headed back down the hill from the Bright Outlook Mine and got back on the Mojave Road heading towards Marl Springs. As we slowly ambled along we were treated to views of the Providence Mountains, Kelso Valley and Kelso Dunes and in places the railroad track appeared in the distance, one time with a track maintenance vehicle slowly chugging along. We had heard mention of a camping spot called Mojave Camp quite close to Marl Springs and when we rounded the corner of the large rock outcropping to the South of the road and saw tire tracks heading along the base of the rocks we turned left and went to check it out.

left behind campfire wood next to an iron firre ring
We Scored Some Nice Wood For Our Next Campfire

There were five spots each of which had a fire ring installed but no picnic table or vault toilet. On our quick drive through we picked up a whole grocery store bag worth of trash but were happy to find a mostly intact pack of firewood someone had left behind. The spots were relatively protected from desert winds by the shelter of the rock outcropping and, next time we “do” the Mojave Road we expect to make use of this spot as a nice, well-spaced stop along the road. Frankly we should have just stopped and camped there for the night this time but we got such a nice, early start that it was not even noon yet and so there was more exploring to be done.

Our next main destination was Marl Springs itself which was all of two miles from the Mojave Camp campground. Named by an Army Lieutenant Amiel Whipple on March 7th, 1854 as he was guiding a railroad survey party along the 35th parallel the name was intended to describe the “marly” clay-like soil around the springs. There are two springs here, an upper and a lower with the lower one being the one we saw near the old corrals. A small Army post made up from men from Camp Rock Spring and Camp Cady was here for about 7 months, ending on May 22nd, 1868. When they were in residence this was called “the Outpost at Marl Springs.”

Cattle Ramp From When Cattle Were Allowed In The Reserve
Cattle Ramp From When Bovines Were Allowed In The Reserve
Relatively dry water trough
A Trickle Of Water Still Drips Into The Water Trough But It Has Seen Better Days
looking down on our Tacoma
Looking Down On The General Area And The Remains Of An Arrastra
Douchebag vandals have stolen a plaque from this brick base
We Would Have Liked To Have Known What The Plaque Said But…Thieves Abound

We spent about 30 minutes here wandering around checking the ruins out. Willow took a few semi-spirited runs at a couple of rabbits who were brave (or stupid) enough to pop their big ears up above the grasses in the area but happily no blood was spilled.

Willow Perched Precariously Above An Old Prospecting Hole
Willow Perched Precariously Above An Old Mine Entrance
Willow sticking her head into Another Hole Nearby
Taking A Closer Look At Another Hole Nearby

Now about 12:30 we took several more minutes to have a snack and a drink and then headed back out on the road.

Our next destination was to be the Mojave Mailbox, commonly considered the most isolated “mailbox” in the contiguous U.S. Along the 3.5 miles between Marl Springs and the mailbox we stopped a few times to repair downed cairns along the road.

rock cairn and geodetic survey reference mark
Geodetic Survey Reference Mark Next To One Of The Cairns We Repaired

The road was in good condition and we got a bit enthusiastic in our driving while pretended to be Ivan “Ironman” Stewart until, out of nowhere, several small sections of the road devolved into tire-killing rock gardens and we had to slow to a more sensible (a.k.a. boring) pace.

rock section of road
And Out Of Nowhere, A No Fun Zone
another rocky section of the road
Another Slow Zone

We finally arrived at the Mailbox and I forced Willow out into the 107 degree heat for a quick photo opportunity.

Willow sitting impatiently as I take her picture next to the Mojave Mailbox
“Hurry Up And Take The Picture Dad, My Tootsies Are Hot Hot Hot”

This “mailbox” (no actual USPS mail is delivered or picked up here) and flag was installed by the Friends of the Mojave Road in 1983. Larger flags have flown here in the past but the desert environment drys them out and shreds them quickly (they survive one season, at most) so on our visit the mailbox was graced with a small version. We feel cheated.

The Tacoma at the Mojave Mailbox
The Tacoma With Her Old Wheels And Old, Droopy Leaf Springs At The Mailbox

When we were staying at the Geologists’ Cabin in Death Valley and the Jeep Club stopped by we mentioned we would be “doing” the Mojave Road next and they told us to make sure we check out what was about 50 feet behind the mailbox. They wouldn’t tell us what “it” was but said we would know it when we saw it.

Pile of frog-related items about 50 feet behind the Mojave Mailbox
This Must Be What They Were Alluding To

Figurines, plush toys, mugs and more. Some were solar-powered and moving. Others had sensors and began moving or making frog noises at our approach which was startling (Willow jumped back and raised her hackles for a moment) and rather creepy. Literally hundreds of frog-related items all laid out on display for those adventuresome folks who want just a little bit more during their Mojave Road tour.

Now we know to bring some sort of frog thingy to leave during our next stop here. Before we moved on we signed the guest book that was in the mailbox and helped ourselves to a small can of Planter’s Dry-Roasted Peanuts that was one of the many small snacks and water left for weary travelers. We weren’t necessarily “weary” but they sounded good. We replaced them with a little something that we had in our food box but now I cannot for the life of me remember what it was except that it must have been something really, really good ‘cuz that’s just how we roll.

From the Mailbox the next point we were aiming for was the Travelers Monument. After 5 miles we crossed over Aiken Cinder Mine Road and into the relatively deep sand of Willow Wash. This particularly well-named wash skirts the edge of the Cinder Cone Lava Beds. All along this area the ground is made up of the remains of (wait for it…) cinder cones and lava beds with vicious dark pumice-like chunks trying their hardest to do damage to your tires.

Some Typical Volcanic Rock-Covered Road In This Area
Some Typical Volcanic Rock-Covered Road In This Area

Our KO2s were unimpressed and kept rolling right along with zero added effort or drama. After about an hour we came to the asphalt ribbon of Kelbaker Road and crossed over it back onto the sandy path that is the Mojave Road.

Kelbaker Road Crosses Our Path
Kelbaker Road Crosses Our Path

We crossed Kelbaker Road around 3pm and soon came upon section after section of deep, sloppy sand. We were aired down to around 15psi and still had to pointedly keep our revs up so as to not bog down in the sand. It was very much like steering a boat where there is a distinct pause between rudder input and vessel response. The sand also had its own idea about which heading we should take and so I was constantly correcting as we heeled this way or that. I was not at all keen to get stuck and have to get out and start shoveling in 100+ degree heat. Like Not. At. All. Really…I cannot stress enough how much that was not in my plans. Finally by about 3:45 we had gotten out of the sand and onto the just-barely-not-muddy expanse that makes up Soda Lake.

Entering the road across Soda Lake
At Least It Is Not Deep Sand

With white alkali crusts along both sides of the “road” we just stayed in the existing tracks and between the green posts that mark the way and soon enough, all of 10 minutes later, a mound appeared above the flat expanse.

Although remaining above 100 degrees, in a desert with zero shade we were still happy to reach another of our goals and step out of the air-conditioned Tacoma for a few minutes of exploration and picture-taking. Well okay, I was, Willow not so much.

Willow sitting pretty for a picture in front of the Travelers Monument
Another Hot Feet Moment For My Desert Dog
The Tacoma in front of the Travelers Monument
The Tacoma Proving She Was There Too

As is the custom we had picked up a rock earlier in the day to add to the pile that is the Monument. I picked up our softball-sized specimen while we were in the aptly-named Willow Wash.

the rock we added to the Travelers Monument
Ready To Add To The Pile
Our rock placed on the pile the Tacoma in the background
In Place On The Pile

Up near the top of the Monument but now, after years of added stones, situated somewhat down in the man-made caldera sits a plaque commemorating an event that happened right on this spot in 1897. Tradition dictates that we actually not reveal to you what the plaque says and commemorates but to prove to you we did see it we offer the edited picture below.

Travelers Monument plaque pixelated so you cannot read what it says
This Should Keep The Mojave Road Gods Happy

We drove away from the Monument at about 4pm. We still had 22 miles or so to go and several hours of time to do it in if we wanted to reach our day’s final destination of the Afton Canyon Campground before nightfall.

For the next hour our path led us through the sand of the Mojave River floodplain which meant much more deep, difficult sand. Towards the end of the floodplain things narrowed considerably as we entered Afton Canyon itself. Right about there we passed under a railroad bridge.

railroad bridge with a small American flag hanging under it
Patriotic Bridge

In general the directions we had said “Keep going due West and stay in the riverbed” and so that is what we did. Riverbeds are ever-changing beasts and so what was once hard sand can become in one season, a dry, deep, blown sand pit or a basketball-sized rock-covered riverbed. We lucked out and were confronted with all of those features with the added concern of the many times the Mojave Road Guide said to never, ever do this trip alone and Really never, ever do this part by yourself. Several times we would follow barely discernible tracks only to have then disappear or lead us to dead ends. We ended up driving up a dirt road and came out at a tiny, impromptu graveyard overlooking the canyon whose residents were only relatively recently interred.

looking back down into the afton canyon basin
A Wrong Turn Got Us To This Vista

Now convinced that this in fact was not the correct path to the Afton Canyon Campground we retraced our steps once again, got back into the dry riverbed and continued in a Westerly direction.

When we began to parallel the railroad tracks we knew we were getting close. We eventually left the riverbed and climbed up a maintenance road literally right next to the railroad tracks and then right up to and then back down next to the second trestle of the day.

At the trestle close to Afton Canyon Campground
Getting Close As The Sun Dips Lower

The road turned back under the trestle and then headed down into what traditionally is a water crossing. When we bought the Tacoma one of the first modifications we did to her was to extend all the vents to higher ground – Differential, Electric Locker, Transmission and Transfer Case Breathers were all extended so now I have no trepidation on those rare occasions when we cross high water.

Tacoma crossing a 3 foot deep river
Never Go Faster Than Your Bow Wave And All Will Be Good

Once through the water obstacle we emerged and turned up back to the other side of the trestle and the remaining several hundred yards to the Afton Canyon Campground itself.

After taking all our stuff out of the camper shell and setting up camp we walked back over to the trestle to take a look around the place. When we looked across the tracks towards the hillside across the way we were greeted by a small gathering of Desert Bighorn sheep.

A Closer View

Later, when we downloaded these pictures and took a closer look we could see that someone or some agency had set up a tripod with a camera system on it which was sitting right next to where the sheep were congregating.

Camera on tripod next to Desert Bighorn sheep
Sheep Surveillance Stuff

We would love to see some of the photos that system captured.

While Afton Canyon Campground is a standard end to the modern Mojave Road adventure, the traditional route continues on to Camp Cady and so, after a good nights sleep that is what we intend to do.

Leave a Reply