Mining the Earth Below & Soaring into the Heavens Above
Mojave is a town located in the western Mojave Desert in the High Desert sub-region of Kern County. The Mojave Desert is California’s largest desert. The High Desert portion of Kern County is confined to the southeastern quadrant of the county which is separated from the county seat in Bakersfield – located in the San Joaquin Valley – by the Tehachapi Mountain Range. Mojave’s neighboring communities are California City to the north, Boron to the east, Tehachapi to the west, and Rosamond to the south.
As of March 2017 – the last date complete data is available from the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources – Kern County is California's top oil-producing county at 10.6 million barrels per year, followed by Los Angeles County at 1.7 million barrels. In 2009, a reservoir the equivalent of 150 million to 250 million barrels of oil was discovered in Kern County – the largest oil discovery in California in 35 years.
Population / Elevation
4,238 / 2,762 feet above sea level
Weather / Climate
Mojave’s climate is one of cool winters, hot summers, very little annual precipitation and clear, blue skies and abundant sunshine making the region an attractive location for the aerospace industry. Annual rainfall averages six inches with that total falling over an average of 22 days only.
Though sharing the name of the First Nations band known as the Mojave, the town of Mojave is not remotely close to the territory the Mojave tribe occupied 212 miles to the east along the Colorado River. The name [Mojave] is a compound of “aha,” (water), and “macave,” (along or beside) and refers to “people living beside the water.”
First Nation people living near what is today called the town of Mojave were the Kawaiisu and Kitanemuk. The Kawaiisu were affiliated with Desert West Shoshone to the north while the Kitanemuk were closer aligned and speaking a dialect of the Serrano to the south.
The railroad industry played a significant role in the town’s founding in 1876 when the location was chosen as a Southern Pacific Railroad construction camp. A rail spur made Mojave the final destination for 20-mule teams – 18 mules and two horses – pulling wagons of borax mined in Death Valley, California from 1884 to 1889. Today, more than 40 railroad trains move through Mojave each day. The railroad tracks essentially shadow Sierra Highway – US Route 6 – for the 35 mile distance between Mojave and Palmdale to the south providing a perfect scenario for automobile travelers with children on-board who are infatuated with trains.
While the Los Angeles Aqueduct was being built, Mojave was the location of its headquarters. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was under construction from 1905 to 1913. The aqueduct has no pumping stations because it is engineered to let gravity transfer water down the channel.
The mining industry continued to play an important role in the area well into the 20th century. While in the depth of the Great Depression the county established the two-runway Mojave Airport in 1935. The airstrip was used primarily by the gold and silver mining industry. The mines were ordered closed during World War II and remained mostly dormant until June 2016, when the Soledad Mountain Project began extracting gold and silver from a site just five miles south of Mojave. Golden Queen Mining Company expects an average production of 74,000 ounces in gold and 781,000 ounces in silver over the expected 12 year lifespan of the mine.
Mojave Air and Space Port
From 1941 to 1961, the airfield was occupied by the U.S. military. During the Second World War, Army Air Corps pilots received their gunnery training at Mojave. At the end of the war the U.S. Navy took control of the airport for less than one year, at which time the base closed until the onset of Korean War when it then served as the back-up landing field and ordinance training center to El Toro
In 1961 the pentagon decided it no longer needed the airfield and transferred title to Kern County who then formed the East Kern Airport District (EKAD). In November 2012, EKAD changed their name to the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Though Kern County may be best known for oil, mining and agriculture, Mojave is world renowned for its air and space port. The Mojave Air and Space Port was certified in 2004 as the first facility to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration for horizontal launches of reusable spacecraft. That same year, the airport hosted the Ansari X Prize competition offering a $10 million award to the first private sector company able to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space, twice, within two weeks.
On October 4, 2004, 47 years to the day after Sputnik 1 was launched, the X Prize was won by Spaceship One. Financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen at nearly $25 million, the project was under the supervision of Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites. The Tier One project included the mother ship “White Knight.”
The first aircraft to make an unrefueled, around the world flight was conceived, designed and built in Mojave. On December 14, 1986, Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force Base located 24 miles southeast of Mojave. Voyager returned to Edwards and landed nine days and five minutes later after circumnavigating the planet.
Today, the Mojave Air and Space Port hosts several aerospace companies including the Richard Branson and Burt Rutan co-owned spaceship assembly plant, “The Spaceship Company,” and is home to the civilian National Test Pilot School.
US ROUTE 6
Originally, the California section of US Route 6 was limited to the eastern portion of the state, beginning in Bishop just 40 miles from Nevada line, making California the state with the second shortest stretch of US 6 among the 14 states the highway enters (Rhode Island at 26 miles being first). During the late 20s and early 30s it was also known as the Roosevelt Highway, after President Theodore Roosevelt.
Commissioned in 1937, the California portion was part of an extension from Greeley, Colorado through the Mojave Desert into Los Angeles, and on to Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean. This brought US 6 designation to the main road entering Mojave – called Sierra Highway from the south, and renamed the Midland Trail as the road leads out of Mojave to the north.
The section of road between Bishop and the sea lost its US 6 designation in a 1964 highway renumbering project. Today, US 6 history is kept alive by U.S. Route 6 Tourist Association.
Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm
The Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm is home to over 4,700 wind turbines, and at the time of its construction in the early 1980s was one of the largest wind farms in the United States. The wind farm is visible in the distance from as far away as Palmdale which is located over 30 miles to the south.
Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road travels through the wind farm and is accessed from Highway 14. If south of Mojave, traveling north on Highway 14, exit Backus Road and travel west. Backus Road ends at Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road. In Mojave, at the north end of town, take Oak Creek Road west, as it too ends at its juncture with Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road.
Things to Do
Gold Mining Ghost Towns
Gold was first discovered in the High Desert region of Kern County in 1894 with deposits focused within five prominent buttes near Mojave and Rosamond. More gold was soon discovered in the region and the Soledad Mountain Mining District was formed. The district includes the mining ghost towns of Garlock, Randsburg, and Johannesburg. From Mojave, the historic mining towns of Randsburg and Johannesburg are 25 miles to the north. From Highway 14, exit Rock-Randsburg Road just before entering Red Rock State Park.
Willow Springs International Raceway
Designated a California Point of Historical Interest in 1996, Willow Springs International Raceway is 600-acre complex of eight racetracks located just outside Rosamond. The main track is a 2.5 mile loop unchanged from its 1953 design.
Elevation changes and a long straight-away allowing for speeds nearing 200 mph has earned Willow Springs the moniker the “Fastest Road in the West.” Cornering speeds range from 70 to 170 mph.
The European-inspired layout incorporates both tight corners and long, wide turns making the course a fan favorite as it provides a good view for spectators watching from any vantage point. The facility includes trackside camping areas. Events are held throughout the month so a visit to their event calendar at their website is a must.
Tehachapi Loop Railroad Site
The rail line connecting Mojave in the High Desert region of the Mojave Desert with Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley must climb up and over the Tehachapi Range – a narrow, high elevation range running perpendicular to the direction of travel.
The engineering marvel required for trains to navigate this pass is called the Tehachapi Loop. Built from 1874 to 1876 by Southern Pacific Railroad, the nearly three-quarter mile stretch of track laid-out in a spiral pattern rises at a constant 2 percent grade and services nearly 40 trains each day.
A must-see for rail enthusiasts, the “Loop” was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and designated California Historical Landmark #508 in 1998. Like a dog chasing its tail, a 4,000-foot train will make a loop as the engine will cross 77 feet above its rear cars traveling in the tunnel below. The “Loop” is at Old State Hwy, 3 miles east of the Keene exit. No passenger trains use the line between Mojave and Bakersfield, owned by Union Pacific.
Nature, Wilderness & Recreation Areas
Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park is a sensitive natural area located atop a ridge in the Tehachapi Mountains. Access is available when accompanied by State Park volunteers on weekends in the fall and spring. Tours begin at the Tehachapi Museum with an orientation and then require a 12 mile car trip to the park. A walking tour takes three hours and is considered moderately strenuous. Tomo-Kahni is translated as "Winter Village" and is a location that was preferred by the Kawaiisu First Nation people.
Mojave National Preserve is a 1.6 million acre park about a two hour drive east from Mojave. The park is bordered by Interstate 15 to its north and access to the park is available from Baker, California. The preserve is topographically diverse as visitors can expect to see sand dunes, canyons, mountains, mesas and woodlands and is home to mountain lions, bighorn sheep, coyotes and bats.
A 30 minute drive north from Baker is Death Valley National Park. Despite its name and being the land of extremes, Death Valley is teaming with life – over 400 species of native wildlife – and is recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve.
Death Valley bighorn sheep can go without water for several days and with dehydration lose up to one-third their body weight. When coming upon water, the bighorn will drink several gallons at one serving and make a recovery.
A Death Valley species not concerned with dehydration is the kangaroo rat. This animal does need to drink water ever. It survives on water within the plants and seeds they eat to survive. The largest of national parks in the lower 48 States, it is hot, dry and the lowest point in elevation in North America and the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere - 282 feet below sea level. The park serves as California’s southernmost border with Nevada.
Red Rock Canyon State Park is 52 miles north from Lancaster on Highway 14. The park offers camping, day use, equestrian, and off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation opportunities. It is located at the juncture of the Sierra Nevada Range’s southernmost point and the El Paso Range, and features many vibrantly-colored and dramatically-shaped tributary canyons. A wet winter is followed by a stunning spring wildflower bloom and the area is home to roadrunners, hawks, lizards, mice and squirrels.
Petroglyphs made by Kawaiisu First Nation are visible in the El Paso Mountains along a trade route used by Indigenous people for thousands of years. The unique landscape served as guideposts for 20-mule freight wagons in the 1870s stopping in the area for water. According to the California State Park service, around 1850 Red Rock was “used by the footsore survivors of the famous Death Valley trek, including members of the Arcane and Bennett families along with some of the Illinois Jayhawkers.”
Today, the park is home and protectorate for vestiges of 1890s-era mining operations and significant paleontology sites, and has been featured as a backdrop for many movies – Jurassic Park perhaps the most popular – television shows and commercials, and advertising shoots – print and video.
Camping is first-come, first-served and permitted in developed sites in Ricardo Campground only and costs $25 per night. Overnight parking in the day-use lot is not permitted. Day use recreation offers miles of trails ambling through aesthetically exquisite landscape. The park service reminds visitors to use desert safety precautions by bringing twice as much water as you think you need, and by wearing layered clothing for sudden fluctuations in temperature. All licensed vehicles (street legal and OHV with green stickers) have access to the dirt road system.
Fort Tejon State Historic Park is located in Grapevine Canyon. Fort Tejon State Historic Park is served by Interstate 5 and is the main route between California's San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Established in August 1854 and garrisoned by the US Army to “protect and control” First Nations people living on the Sebastian Indian Reservation, and to protect both the “Indians” and white settlers from raids by the Paiutes, Chemeheui, and Mojave “Indians,” it was abandoned by the government in September 1864. The original fort’s restored adobes are on display and army life during that time is featured, along with aspects of local history. A number of beautiful 400 year-old valley oak trees still stand today.
Nearby Cities & Towns
Distance from Mojave
Ridgecrest – 57 Miles North
Rosamond – 14 Miles South
Lancaster – 27 Miles South
Palmdale – 35 Miles South
Los Angeles – 96 Miles South
California City – 14 Miles Northeast
Death Valley – 164 Miles Northeast
Boron – 31 Miles East
Victorville – 75 Miles East
Barstow – 87 Miles East
Tehachapi – 21 Miles West
Bakersfield – 61 Miles Northwest
By Thomas Fitzgerald
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