Rockhound Rest at Coon Hollow Campground
Mule Mountains LTVA
by Delmer G. Ross
Professor of History, La Sierra University
The Coon Hollow Campground, located not quite a half mile west of Wiley's Well Road at the southern extreme of the Mule Mountains Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA), is a favorite with connoisseurs of restful places in the Colorado Desert of southeastern California. It offers superb sunrises over the Mules to the east, magnificent sunsets over the desert ironwoods and palo verde trees of Ashley flats to the west, and an unparalleled view of Thumb Peak, a weathered volcano, to the southeast.
Named for an area a short distance east in the Mules where "coon-tailed rattlers" – western diamondbacks – once abounded, the campground has been moved twice. From its original Mules location, it was moved to the upper reaches of the desert-pavement-covered bajada about a mile east of today's camp. That made it accessible by automobile. Numerous campfire rings still indicate the spot along the road to the Opal Hill Mine. Increasing use made additional improvements seem desirable, so once again it was moved, this time to its present site along the edge of a desert wash.
It is now a place where the occasional raucous call of a cactus wren combines with the amorous cooing of mourning doves and the gentle chirping of Gambel's quail hens calling to their chicks. It makes for a melodious, if sometimes inharmonious, background to springtime mornings. It is a place where the sun shines nearly every day. In fact, long-term campers with solar panels rarely need to use noisy generators. While intrepid airplane pilots once used to land on the adjacent stretch of flat desert pavement, that type of activity is discouraged today. It is a place where the occasional kit fox hoping for a handout may trot right into your camp while you sit around the evening campfire. Peace and quiet reign.
Rockhounds especially like the Coon Hollow Campground – part of the so-called "Wiley's Well Rockhound District" – because of its proximity to the world-renowned Hauser Geode Beds, the Potato Patch and the Opal Hill fire-agate mine. It is also conveniently close to many other popular rock-collecting sites in the Colorado Desert in southeastern California, from the Black Agate Thunderegg Mines and the Cinnamon Beds to the Lost Claim and the North Black Hills Geode Beds. Moreover, material left behind by earlier campers can make the campground a rock-collecting destination in its own right. I have collected excellent geodes, jasper, agate and psilomelane right inside the campground! Just make sure the campsite or campsites you explore are not currently occupied.
In addition to rockhounding, popular activities include climbing Thumb Peak and other nearby mountains, hiking to the oasis at Clapp Spring, and swimming at Scott's Tanks or Tadpole Tank when they are full of water. Some enjoy visiting the various gold and manganese mines of the region. Others like to hike the ancient Indian trails. During most of the camping season a group locally known as "Stitch and Bitch" engage in crafts – from making purses out of plastic bags to wire wrapping jewelry – early every afternoon. Another community activity usually takes place later, the "happy hour" get-together where campers exchange useful information and "windies." Nothing is organized, though, and people are free to participate or not. The campground host can provide current information on activities. Not a few visitors simply enjoy the quiet while reading a book or watching clouds float by overhead.
The campground stretches 0.7 mile north to south. Each of its 29 level or nearly level developed sites offers a picnic table, a campfire ring, and, if it has not been permanently 'borrowed," a barbeque grill. Some sites offer shade from palo verde, ironwood, and mesquite trees along the wash. A few tables are shaded by metal "cabañas." All sites have access to nearby trashcans, and there are three modern, unisex, pit toilets. Water is pumped from a deep well into a cistern from which campers may draw with a hand pump. While the water is suitable for most purposes, it is not recommended for drinking because of its high mineral content. A free, dry dump station is located about 1.9 miles north, along Wiley's Well Road.
Although the LTVA season extends from September 15 to April 15, the best time to stay at the Coon Hollow Campground is from mid-October through March, which is also when snowbirds fleeing harsh northern winters make the camp their home-away-from-home. Camping fees change frequently so be sure to check with the BLM before you go.
Camping during the summer months can be very uncomfortable, even dangerous, because of high temperatures, which often exceed 120 degrees in the shade. The record high was 130 degrees, reached years ago in late August. At the beginning, and again toward the end of the September-to-April camping season, daily high temperatures often reach the 90-degree mark, and higher, but, typically, campers can expect highs in the 60s and 70s during most of the season. Lows can occasionally plummet into the 20s, but during much of the season, campers can expect low temperatures in the 40s and 50s.
To get there, drive to the Wiley's Well Road exit from Interstate Highway 10. It is located about 16 miles west of Blythe, California. Immediately to the north is a rest area. You will turn southward. From the center of the overpass, at 33°36.466' N by 114°54.101' W, drive some 2.9 miles south to a stop sign at 33°34.183' N and 114°53.882' W. The paved road turns right to provide access to two state prisons, Chuckawalla Valley and Ironwood. To reach the campground, continue southward on Wiley's Well Road. A small sign indicates camping ahead. The road from this point to the campground entrance consists of graded earth. Unless it is raining or it has rained recently, it should be passable for virtually all types of vehicles. If the road has not been graded within the previous two or three weeks though, it is likely to be seriously wash-boarded. You will pass the entrance to the Wiley's Well Campground and the junction with the Bradshaw Trail at 33°29.613' N by 114°53.256' W and 33°29.457' N by 114°53.278' W, respectively. Immediately south of the Bradshaw Trail is a short stretch of very sandy road. Usually it is not a problem, but you may wish to check it before proceeding. Continue southward on Wiley's Well Road, past a dump station for recreational vehicles at 33°28.349' N and 114°53.587' W and the turn-off to the Opal Hill fire agate mine at 33°26.998' N by 114°53.616' W. Approximately 12.1 miles south of Interstate 10 you will reach a prominent sign on the right marking the entrance to Coon Hollow Campground at 33°26.737' N and 114°53.696' W. Turn right and drive westward not quite 0.5 mile to the campsites.
Services and supplies are available approximately 30 miles northeast, in Blythe. The only services available at the campground are the weekly trash collection and cell-phone service that can be positional, sporadic, and limited to certain phones and carriers. Campers must carry in all supplies they may need, including all their drinking water. There are no nearby markets or stores.
A word or two of caution has to do with pets such as cats and dogs. The area around the Mule Mountains LTVA is home to coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions, to which a pet on the loose may look very much like dinner. Rattlesnakes have been spotted right in the campground as well. So keep pets in your vehicle, or, when they must be outside, keep them on a leash and well supervised. Although I know of no one who has been harmed, common sense dictates especially careful supervision of small children.
The Coon Hollow Campground has much to offer. Those who are careful to take all they need with them should have an enjoyable stay. They may even end up doing what my wife and I have done. We have returned every season for the last 20 years—or longer!
Delmer G. Ross Professor of History, La Sierra University author Gold Road to La Paz
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