Historic Mojave Road, Part 1
The Mojave Road is an ancient trade route that was later improved by the military in the mid 1800’s as a wagon road to haul supplies and mail from Ft. Mojave on the California side of the Colorado River to Ft Cady, just outside Barstow, California. 140 miles in length, this trail carves a path through what is now the Mojave National Preserve, rising to 5,167 ft elevation from its lowest point at the Colorado River at 500 ft. The trail is home to a wide variety of yucca and cactus, including the Seussian Joshua Tree, even pine trees, cottonwood and juniper can be found in abundance. Loads of desert critters call this place home, as well as deer and mountain lion. The Mojave Road was rough then, and it’s certainly rough now. This trail has become a popular destination for four-wheel drive excursionists, with overlanders and off road enthusiasts considering it a rite of passage to complete the trail.
A friend of mine invited me along, and suggested we take some Pin Drops. I said YES! immediately and we set a date. Larry and I both divvied up duties and started to make a plan.
Off Road Ready
As the founder and fabricator for Pin Drop Travel Trailers, I get asked often about our Pin Drop’s off-road capability, and I always tell people they are off-road ready. My wife and I have dragged our Pin Drop over rough Arizona backcountry for years, including miles upon miles of rough road over the Southwest and Northwest. I am confident in our trailer’s fortitude, but I knew that being able to tell folks our Pin Drop has been down the Mojave Road would be a real feather in our cap, and immediately alleviate concerns.
Larry agreed to navigate, provide communication equipment and pack recovery gear. I agreed to handle outfitting the Pin Drops, pack the food, drinks, extra fuel, provisions, and water, water and more water. We rendezvoused in the Verde Valley for one night before heading out. I pulled my six year old daughter Lilah out of school for the week for an “extra-curricular educational opportunity” and we brought our little dog Frida as well for extra company. That evening we reviewed our sundries to make sure we had all we needed. I packed enough for four dinners, lunches, and breakfasts, plus plenty of snacks and some extra foodstuff in case of an unanticipated hole-up somewhere. I had 46 gallons of fresh water stowed between the two Pin Drops, plus an extra 10 gallons in the back of my truck. Larry had an assortment of walkie-talkies, including one that could apparently communicate with planes overhead. He had a device that pinged our location every ten minutes for the folks back home, and other high tech gear that I only glimpsed at. His Jeep had no fewer than three mega-antennas on it. He also packed recovery gear, tow straps and sand recovery boards. We had a ridiculous amount of beer and we both had a copy of Dennis Casebier's indispensable guidebook, the Mojave Road Guide. What could go wrong? The only thing we didn’t pack was a spare alternator for a 2005 Ford F-150. Foreshadow.
On the Road
We left early Monday morning and traffic was light on the Interstate 40 as we raced towards Needles, California. We quipped over the radios that the jaw-jarring potholes on the I-40, which are many, deep and impossible to avoid, would be the roughest part of our trip. In less than six hours that joke would no longer seem funny. We topped off in Kingman, and Larry topped off again in Needles (I chose to not spend any money in California). We lunched overlooking the Colorado River near the long ago vanished site of Fort Mojave. The river was swift, wide and sparkling blue. The sand anywhere off the beaten path of the road was disturbingly soft and deep. It took some time to get on the Mojave Road, as the social trails were so numerous. Larry eventually got us steered in the right direction and we were off! The road was fair in most places, with some pretty steep ascents, however there was nothing too challenging with four wheel drive engaged. Even some of the deeper undulations caused no issue, the spare tire is mounted behind the axle of the Pin Drop, but it never dragged, nor did the tow vehicle’s ball hitch and coupler become too pinched.
Once we crossed Highway 95, the road became rough, and as we ascended towards Fort Piute, the road became extremely rough. Baby-head-sized sharp rock lined the roadway, and the rock garden kept us at a miserably slow pace. Walking the 1.7 miles to the Fort would have saved us lots of time. But we were determined to stick to the Road, dragging Pin Drops along the entire route. At the top we were rewarded with a beautiful oasis nestled in the canyon. Lush green cottonwoods and desert willows emerged from the stream bed and were framed by the rock cliff behind. We backed into a disbursed campground with an established fire pit. With a pull of the hatch we were quickly preparing a great meal of fish tacos and ice cold beer. The evening settled in and the stars surrounded us in that oasis. Except for the glow from Vegas, there was no other disturbance and the night was restful.
In the morning we made a hot breakfast and set out to explore Fort Piute, which was built by the military to secure one of precious few watering holes along the Mojave Trail. Remnants of the Fort remain, but just enough to give an outline of the stone-cobbled living quarters and horse corrals, which were
combined in one building in what must have been a stench-ridden habitation for the soldiers. The road used to continue on up the canyon, but has been abandoned as it is too rough for vehicular traffic. It must now be hiked. A bypass road exists to go around the mountain and reconnect with the Mojave Road.
After our exploration we backtracked to a service road and caught the bypass road that climbs over the mountain pass to reconnect with the Mojave Road. The ascent was decent, but as the road grew steeper it also became washed out and rough. At each pull out I would hold back and wait till Larry gave me the all clear, then I would move ahead until the next wide spot in the road. My fear on this single lane, rough ascent was if another car would be coming in the opposite direction, or one of us needed to turn back, we’d be in a real cluster. So I didn’t want to double our cluster by tailing Larry too closely. At the end of thirty or so minutes we finally crested and I was relieved, sort of.
Our guidebook indicated the worst was yet to come on the Mojave Road! We stopped for lunch and to review our book and maps. There were a couple bypass roads we could take to get around what the book called out as the worst section of road. We opted to motor on, and be cautious. I’m glad for it. The following twenty miles were some of the best we experienced.
Joshua Trees grow in abundance on this side of the mountain, and we were soon meandering through a thick grove of these strange yuccas. The road was well traveled here, and cut a sometimes deep channel just wide enough for our Pin Drops. The wash crossings were soft but not impassable, and we were able to make pretty good time. In the afternoon we were soon upon Watson
Wash, and before beginning the descent, Larry got out of his Jeep to have a look. Never a good sign. I stepped out too and got a snack for Lilah, then reread Casebier’s passage on this section of road. He describes the descent into Watson Wash as “quite a steep hill”. I then walked down to meet up with Larry, who was slipping and sliding down the roadway, which was ice-slick decomposed granite. When I first saw the way down, my immediate words were “Hell no.” And I meant it. We opted to not go down the suicide drop into Watson Wash, but cut around, our only diversion from the Mojave Trail, less than a quarter mile.
We stopped at the Rock House, which was a homestead built by WW I veteran Bert Smith in the 1930’s just above Rock Spring, where there was another fort maintained by the army along the historic Mojave Road. There is a nice loop trail that leaves from the Rock House and heads to the spring below. Petroglyphs and inscriptions left by soldiers are seen carved in the rocks of the small canyon. Only a few cobbled walls remain where the fort was. Though the site is beautiful, it’s hard to imagine what life would have been like for those isolated soldiers.
We were hoping to make camp near Rock Spring, but there were no established sites so we headed down the road a ways and camped above the sloping valley that connects Kelso to Cima, with the Union Pacific tracks running north south and a near constant stream of trains. Across the valley up the other side by the Cima Dome lay the Mojave Road, a crooked trail that lit up in the setting sun, an invitation for our next day’s journey. We cooked a surf and turf dinner and had a nice fire to warm us. The next day we’d be dropping down in elevation, so this was likely our last cool evening.
In the morning we prepared a hot breakfast, broke camp and headed down the road, now paved, and crossed the Kelso/Cima road and tracks in the bottom of the valley. Our Mojave Road continued as before, sandy and windy, but not too challenging to navigate in four wheel drive. My alternator light came on. I radioed to Larry to hold tight while I popped the hood. My meter revealed the battery voltage was 11.5. Eek! The alternator output was null at idle, at least. We pulled well off the road and assessed our situation. Luckily, each Pin Drop is a power generating station, so I knew we could get the truck started again, and get the battery charged up in short order, but going into the backcountry under such conditions seemed a fool’s errand. Also I promised my wife to keep Lilah and myself safe so I figured I should make good on that!
Solar Powered and Self Contained Micro Camper
I keep a suitcase solar panel in our Pin Drop tongue box. We design it to plug directly into a port on the tongue box to add an additional 50 watts into the battery bank if needed. It’s convenient when parked in the shade, the long cord allows one to track the sun better. I cut the end off and wired it directly to the truck’s battery terminals, then duct-taped the panel to the hood of the F-150. Now I was charging! Larry and I discussed our options, and ultimately decided the best thing to do was hole up for a day, and take advantage of the paved road we had just crossed to get us back to civilization. We were at mile 65. Nearly the exact center of the Mojave Road. The second half would just have to wait. We double backed to our previous camp and dug in for a day of forced relaxation. In the evening the Mojave Road lit up again on the west slope of the valley, taunting us. I was bummed for sure, but very satisfied we had made it so far without issue. We had another great evening by the campfire and a restful night’s sleep.
In the morning before we set out I checked my battery voltage, which now sat at 12.5 volts, pretty good. I kept the panel duct-taped to the hood as we drove down the paved road and stopped at the depot at Kelso. The visitors center was closed but we explored the grounds of this beautiful historic depot. Our next stop was the junction with the Interstate 40. Larry and I checked lug nuts and tire pressure and shook hands goodbye. He was heading back to the L.A. area, Lilah and I were heading home to the Verde Valley, or as near to it as possible before the inevitable break down. I figured I had two good options to get an alternator if necessary: Needles or Kingman, and hopefully enough battery voltage to get me to either of those destinations.
I removed the panel from the hood to prepare for freeway speeds, we rolled the windows down for good old-fashioned air conditioning and we sped off eastward. I watched my battery voltage gauge like a hawk as it slowly, slowly sank down. We stopped off at Kingman for lunch and a chance to top off the battery. The second half of our way home went off without incident, and we were soon dropping down Mingus Mountain with the Verde Valley stretched out before us. Home!
Lilah and I took turns telling our tales of the Mojave Road for mom and big sister. We looked through the photos. I checked in with Larry, who was at home unpacking. We wasted no time in discussing the Mojave Road and finishing the trail for Part II....to be continued!