The Bonanza Trail
El Paso Mountains, California
by Scott Schwartz
By the time I arrived at the Red Rock Canyon campground, it was 6:30 Friday evening. I had left my Los Angeles apartment later than I had planned because I had to run several errands before I could leave town. I was looking forward to a weekend of exploring the desert that I’ve come to love.
Cruising up Highway 14, 20 miles north of Mojave, I noticed that the sky was overcast and I could see some thunderheads in the distance. "A great night to sleep outside!" I thought to myself, wryly. Fortunately, the clouds gave way to a clear sky. After a dinner of canned stew, I unrolled my sleeping bag and fell into a deep sleep under a canopy of stars.
I awoke at dawn, surrounded by the brightly colored walls of sedimentary rock. I packed my Jeep, and headed farther north on Highway 14. My plan was to explore a trail officially designated EP 15 in the El Paso Mountain Range. The Bureau of Land Management calls it "The Bonanza Trail."
The El Paso Mountains lie in Kern County, California, approximately 30 miles northeast of Mojave, and they are bordered on the north by the cities of Inyokern and Ridgecrest. There has been intensive mining activity in the area for over 100 years, and the Bonanza Trail links several old mines. It enables the visitor in an off-road or four-wheel-drive vehicle to take a self-guided tour of the area. Some of the old cabins along the trail a few dating back to the 1890’s have been preserved under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management’s "Adopt_A-Cabin" program. This program enables volunteers to restore and maintain selected cabins. Visitors to the area can stay in some of the more habitable cabins on a first come, first serve basis. There are no facilities of any kind in these cabins. They are for shelter and nothing more.
After I’d driven roughly seven miles, I turned off Route 14 on to a dirt road that seemed to disappear into the chocolate-brown mountains ahead. This area is relatively flat and there are a few houses here, not too far from the freeway. Yucca trees dot the landscape. The Bonanza Trail begins about a mile off the highway; a big brown sign marks the beginning of the trail.
Treasures besides gold attracted people to the El Pasos. About a mile or so after entering the trail, I came across an abandoned limestone mine that was carved out of a small hill. A family had set up camp here. The little ones were exploring the mine entrance under the watchful eye of their father. A bit dangerous? Perhaps. Abandoned mines should always be approached with caution. At least, these particular mines have been here for many years without a major cave in.
As I continued on, the trail became a little more treacherous. "This is how people get into trouble," I thought, a bit uneasy. Until this point, the trail had been basically a dirt road. A person with little off-road driving experience could easily be lulled into a false sense of security. Suddenly, though, I came to a steep rocky downgrade. If I wanted to continue, I would have to make the descent. I shifted my Jeep’s transfer case into low range to keep my speed to a crawl. I began the descent into an area known as Upper Bonanza Gulch. I came to a stop in front of a small brown cabin. According to my BLM map, this had been the local post office. I got out of my Cherokee and looked around. The hills were peppered with old mines. There were crude walls made from piles of stones in front of some of them. These served as homes for the miners while they worked their claims during the 1890s.
The area was worked by white men who abandoned many of the sites when it appeared that there was no more gold to be had. According to an informative book, Exploring the Ghost Town Desert: A Guide to the Rand Mining Area, Its Natural And Historic Points of Interest, by Roberta Martin Starry and Suzanne Knudson, Chinese miners began to work the abandoned sites. Due to their smaller stature and their use of short-handled picks, they were able to work very narrow tunnels. All was well between the whites and the Chinese, at least until the Chinese began producing sizable quantities of gold. The whites grew angry. They spoke of "repossessing" the area. Rumors of mines being blasted shut (with Chinese miners still inside them) circulated, but there was no solid evidence to support these tales. Still, no one could explain the sudden disappearance of the Chinese from Upper Bonanza Gulch. Recently, prospectors excavating tunnels in the area found human bones inside several of themalong with short handled picks and shovels.
I drove another two miles. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Occasionally, a jackrabbit dashed across the trail in front of me. As I crept along, I imagined the area during its heyday. I could almost hear the clatter of machinery. I pictured men toiling in the heat, hoping for that one strike that would make it all worthwhile. I stopped my vehicle on a steep, rutted incline, lined on each side with sage. Bright yellow wildflowers sprinkled the hills around me. I got out and listened. The only noise was the wind howling through some unseen canyon. The ghosts were silent.
Some of the cabins in this area do not appear on any of the literature I’ve obtained so far. One example is a grayish metal cabin that resembles an old gas station because it has an awning over the front of the building. Located only a fifth of a mile from the post office in Bonanza Gulch, this cabin is equipped with a sink. In addition, someone saw fit to furnish the place with an old couch and other odds and ends. Despite these things, this cabin is one of the less habitable buildings, due to the accumulation of rat droppings and spider webs inside.
Another example lies about a tenth of a mile past the "gas station." A local four-wheel drive club called the "Hi N’ Lo Desert Runners" has unofficially "adopted" this cabin. Club members frequently stay there. They have cleaned the place inside and out, and they have set trash containers nearby. They empty them regularly. The club has also placed a guest book inside the cabin.
The four-wheel drive trails in the El Paso range form a network that can take you almost anywhere in the area. There are so many trails that you can become overwhelmed. I decided to stay on the Bonanza Trail. This required me to take a turn on to trail EP11, which took me through Goler Gulch. This is a very sandy area. Four-wheel drive is a must.
Goler Gulch is named for a prospector who was supposed to have seen some gold nuggets here when he was passing through in 1849. Too tired and hungry (and afraid of Indians, according to some) to linger, he continued on his journey with plans to return one day to claim the gold. Whether he returned is unknown. Whether he actually found gold is also unknown.
Goler’s eventual fate is lost in time, but small quantities of gold were, in fact, discovered at the gulch in 1893. This spurred a flurry of activity, most of it fruitless. No one was ever able to locate Goler’s lost gold. All that remains of the Goler settlement are some crumbling foundations. As I drove past the ruins, I wondered what became of Goler’s inhabitants.
EP11 eventually connects with Garlock Road, which is a paved highway. I was getting close to the end of the Bonanza Trail. The day was drawing to a close. My last stop was at the Mingus-Meade cabin site, right next to Garlock Road. There are seven cabins here, and they’re all in a good state of preservation. It took me a few minutes to realize that the cabins lie right next to a dirt airstrip. I recognized the runway when I saw the tattered remains of a windsock in the middle of a clearing. Once, on a previous trip, I met an old prospector who told me that famed test pilot, Chuck Yeager, used to sneak out to an airstrip in the vicinity to go hunting. Could this be the place? I may never know, but it was something to ponder as I drove back to Los Angeles.
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