An Adventure Through Time
By Len Wilcox
Author - Desert Dancing: The California Journal
Perhaps the best treasure in eastern California's Mojave National Preserve is a pair of tracks that cross the middle of it. This famous trail is the Mojave Road, one of the early routes that brought American pioneers to California. This trail is unique in that for most of its 138 mile stretch it is in much the same condition as the pioneers would have found it, and a lot of the trail passes through country that is virtually unchanged since prehistoric times. The road bisects the Preserve, wandering from waterhole to waterhole, and is mostly a 4-wheel-drive trail.
The Mojave Road was a main wagon trail for only a relatively short time, two decades after the civil war. When the railroads came, the railways created an easier route to the south complete with oases on the bitter-dry deserts. While it was used, the Mojave Road was a route plagued by hostile Indians, a lack of water, long stretches of sand and rough hill climbs. For caravans of travelers and a handful of soldiers, it was a proving ground that brought out the best and the worst of them.
To those who took the Mojave Road by foot, horse and wagon, and the few men stationed along it to defend it, this uncommonly beautiful country was a peculiar form of hell. Dry and desolate, it was and still is. Especially to those men and women coming from the lush forests of the east and south, the desert land was a barren expanse to be barely tolerated before arriving in the Promised Land of California. It is still a dangerous stretch of road.
In the great westward migration to California, the Mojave Road was not an important player. Most went north across Donner Pass, or south through the Colorado Desert. The road was primarily a supply route, not an immigration trail, used by soldiers and freighters. It is a more important player now, 150 years later, as it is a piece of history, a memorial to those early days. Its 138 miles of dusty tracks are pretty much the same as they were then. Thanks to the efforts of Dennis Casebier and the Friends of the Mojave Road, these old ruts cover the ground pretty much as they did when the wagons rolled over them in the 1860s.
This unique situation came about because, unlike nearly every other major travel route on the frontier, the Mojave Trail did not evolve into a 20th century superhighway. Better routes were found to traverse the distances between the few cities worth visiting in the region.
Water is everything on the desert, and the locations of watering holes determined the route of the trail. Water was found at the end of each day's drive (about every 20 to 30 miles, depending upon the terrain) and it was water that had to be reliable and safe.
These springs were favored ambush sites, so each location had to be defended by a US Army that was hard pressed to do it. So the Army established outposts, military camps of sometimes just two or three men, who spent their tours of duty protecting gold-seekers and farmers heading for a better life in the golden valleys near the coast. The Army felt it had to be done; by controlling the water, they controlled the road.
It was lonely, hard duty, and some of them died doing it. A few deserted. Others became generals. It was a place that brought out the best and the worst in people, as the desert does today.
Like most trails and even today's superhighways, the Mojave Road was first an Indian path, used as a trade route. The Mohave Indians, who lived along the Colorado River, would travel to the coast, following the path that guaranteed water. The first European to use the Mojave trail was probably Father Francisco Garces in 1776.
When the Americans began pushing westward, Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, John Fremont and others came this way to reach the pueblos on the coast. When gold was discovered in '49, most of the 'Niners took the northern route, but thousands followed the southern route and took the Mojave Road.
As the population of California grew in the 1850s and 60s, the Mojave Trail became a main southern freight route across California to Arizona. The trail became a mail route, and that was when the military forts were established to keep the lines of communication open. These forts began at Fort Mohave, located on the Colorado River near present-day Bullhead City, and ranged to Camp Cady, just outside Barstow.
Fort Mohave was established to suppress the Mohave Indians, whose warriors had come to resent the intrusions of the Americans traveling through their lands. The Mohaves were agrarians, growing corn and other crops along the Colorado River, and traders who traveled frequently to the coast. They were hostages to their farms, however, and with the establishment of an army fort on their land, their warrior days were over.
While Fort Mohave worked well to keep the Mohave Indians subdued, the Chemehuevis, who were not tied to the land, kept the US Army well occupied along the trail. In the grand tradition of the southwestern US tribes, these were excellent guerrilla fighters who could raid and fade away into desert dust. They traveled in small bands and any livestock along the trail was fair game. While only a few travelers were killed, the Army was forced to deal with the threat by establishing a military presence in the area.
The need for these camps faded, with the subjugation of the Indian threat and the construction of railroads south and north of the Mojave Road. When the railroads were built, travelers found it easier to follow their tracks, as the railroads had water stops every 5 miles or so. The camps along the Mojave Road were eventually abandoned by the military, but civilian station tenders opened some of them as stagecoach stops or primitive roadhouses. Today, a few remains are left of this legendary time, and following the Mojave Road brings us back to this era.
Traveling the Mojave Road isn't a picnic. It's a 2- or 3-day excursion, best made in convoy with other 4-wheelers. The trip begins on the shore of the Colorado River, at an elevation of 500 feet; at mile 54.8 you'll be at the head of Cedar Canyon at an elevation of 5,167 feet. During the winter you could hit a snowstorm. In summer it could be 120 degrees, or a summer thunderstorm could bring heavy rain, hail and lightning. Any time of the year, you're a long way from help and city comforts.
The first step in traveling the Mojave Trail is to get a copy of Dennis Casebier's Mojave Road Guide. It's indispensable. Casebier spent decades traveling the trail and has an insatiable appetite for history and geology. His book is the culmination of his research and effort to preserve the trail. Mile by mile, he guides us over the passes and through the valleys, 138.8 miles of 4-wheeling over 3 days.
There are few signs, and none on the trail itself. Casebier and his group, the Friends of the Mojave Road, have erected rock cairns at most intersections to show the way. Casebier's book provides a mile-by-mile tour of the road, starting at the Colorado River and traveling the 138 miles westward to Camp Cady.
Rather than cover the entire trail at once -- a 3-day wilderness adventure during which you'll find no services, no stores, no motels nor perhaps a single other person -- portions of the trail can be traveled in shorter excursions. There are areas to avoid, unless you're in it for the challenge; but frankly, crossing the sandy expanse where the Mojave River becomes a floodplain, or Soda Lake, doesn't appeal. I've been stuck in sand and am not anxious to repeat it.
However, Dennis Casebier, in his Mojave Road Guide, says the floodplain is a beautiful place to visit. According to Casebier, it's best in the spring: "stop your vehicle (on firm ground, of course), shut off the engine, and walk out onto the sand. Fill up your senses with the buzzing of the bees, the flitting of the hummingbirds, and the fragrant bouquet of the desert willows." With a description like that, I know I'll have to go there one of these days.
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Note: As of April 19, 2016, the National Park Service has closed the Mojave Road between Mile 27.0 and 30.5 in the Mojave National Preserve. This closure is due to a washout on the old underground telephone cable road connecting Piute Valley with Lanfair Valley. No date has been set for completion of repairs to the road.
The National Park Service recommends a 29-mile bypass on their Web page. The publishers of the official Mojave Road Guide have developed an alternate 14.2-mile detour for Mojave Road travelers who would prefer a shorter, more historic and scenic route. A PDF with a map and road log is available for download here
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