Take a long look as you drive along that lonely stretch of highway between Barstow and Baker, Calif. Just over there, to the southeast, see those yellowish hills with dark green knobs? See the train chugging along what looks like a river of golden sand? You are driving across an ancient lake bed. If you get off the freeway, you can see where the water rises through the sand and the Mojave River reflects blue sky.
This is Afton Canyon, one of the three places where the Mojave River pushes its way to the surface and the only such site on public land.
Cave Mountain and its craggy profile, about 37 miles northeast of Barstow, Calif., on Interstate 15, signal you are near the Afton Road exit. The canyon is one of the best places in the Mojave to view wildlife, watch trains and release your inner Ansel Adams — although I think color photography is more suited to the area than Adams’ signature black and white.
I can’t think of anything more magical than water in the desert. By definition a desert is dry, so when you find a free-flowing stream supporting a healthy riparian habitat in an otherwise arid and barren landscape, it is indeed special.
The sides of the canyon are carved into spectacular, multicolored geological formations that give Afton Canyon its majestic title “The Grand Canyon of the Mojave” and changing light conditions make for many photographic opportunities.
Washes and stream channels are good hiking trails and excellent for experiencing natural conditions.
Remnants of prehistoric encampments, shorelines of ancient Lake Manix and the fabled Mojave Road are all part of the wonder of the canyon. Caves offered shelter to historic travelers, and a narrow slot canyon is an adventure for today’s modern explorers. (Bring a flashlight!)
There are signs of man to be sure in this primitive looking place, but buildings are few and far between. Most of them are abandoned to the vagaries of the weather. An old homestead is a poignant reminder that settlers tried to put down roots in this harsh environment. A trail etched by countless Indian feet meanders across the ancient lake bed, left high and dry by Lake Manix draining east into the Lake Mojave basin.
A faraway rumble reminds you there is a train a’comin’ down the Union Pacific tracks.