Travel: Four-Wheeling the Mojave Trail in a Toyota FJ Cruiser
Following an ancient trade route through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet.
Imagine driving halfway across California for two full days, without ever encountering another vehicle. Impossible though it may seem in a state with more than 35 million registered vehicles (that's one for every 130 square feet or so of the Golden State), our two Toyotas had the road -- more than 130 miles of it -- entirely to themselves.
Then again, maybe our solitude wasn't so remarkable. The road in question, the Mojave Road, is an off-pavement route that passes through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, and our excursion took place during the time of year when only the deranged or the desperate are caught challenging the desert's blistering heat.
The Mojave Road currently stretches from the western bank of the Colorado River, across from the ruins of Fort Mojave, to the site of old Camp Cady, near Barstow, California. For the most part, it follows an ancient trade route to coastal California forged by the Mojave tribe of the Colorado River valley. After Europeans arrived on the scene, the trail became a route into Southern California used first by the Spanish to reach their settlements and later by the explorer Jedediah Smith, the first American to cross the formidable desert barrier. It wasn't until 1858, though, that the U.S. Army was able to carve a rough wagon road out of the ancient footpath, creating an important military supply route and starting a thriving cattle and sheep trade between California and Eastern markets. Then, with the arrival of the railroads in 1883, the Mojave Road fell into disuse and obscurity.
A hundred years later, it became an official recreation trail. It has since attracted off-roaders as well as the history buffs who have rediscovered this vital link to the Southwest's past, and the long, colorful story that begins with the first settlers along the stretch of Colorado River flowing from present-day Needles north to Bullhead City.
The Aha Macav, or Mojave people, were farmers and fishermen, but they also traded throughout the Southwest, including Pacific Coast tribes with whom they bartered produce for seashells and other coveted goods. The route west was determined by a simple element: water.
Scattered throughout the seemingly bone-dry desert are springs of sweet water, and the Mojave used these rare seeps as points along the trade route. Centuries of peaceful use passed before the first Spanish explorers appeared in Mojave villages, seeking a path to settlements along coastal California. The Mojave were happy to show the way, but, in the years that followed, the increased numbers of explorers, trappers, and emigrants who used the trail and springs often inflicted the same violations of land and culture endured by other American Indian tribes.
Their patience stretched to the breaking point, the Mojave attacked a group of emigrants in 1858. Perhaps the newcomers had trampled the fields with their wagons or cut down the Mojave's beloved cottonwoods for firewood. There was bloodshed.
The Mojave once were the most populous Native American tribe of the Southwest and were respected, even feared, by surrounding tribes. But their bows and arrows were no match for U.S. Army guns, and the tribe suffered tremendous loss of life in 1858-1859 before surrender and confinement to a reservation.
That would not be the end of the bloody conflicts throughout the Southwest, and the U.S. Army needed a supply road from coastal California to garrisons farther east and into the Arizona Territory. The task fell to Edward Beale, a former navy officer, and his labors paid off when the crude track opened in 1858.
Today, the road is not usually treacherous. For much of the year, the average 4x4 (and driver with any sense) can enjoy miles of beautiful back country without breaking a sweat. Deep sand and, during rainy season, diabolical mud are the chief obstacles to taking the family's luxury SUV over the trail, though there are plenty of spots where short overhangs and four working wheels are the only solution. Even more important than locking diffs or mud tires, though, is preparation for the unexpected -- and lots of water.
A helpful tool is the "Mojave Road Guide," by Dennis G. Casebier. Now in its fourth printing, it's a vital compendium of route instructions, human and natural history, and specific guidelines for tackling the route safely. Though the road is well-marked by rock cairns, erected by an admirable group of enthusiasts called Friends of the Mojave Road, Casebier's guide is essential for navigating around the many opportunities for making a wrong turn. This latest edition adds GPS coordinates to Casebier's very descriptive directions, and can be helpful to those who are adept with such devices. We relied on maps, a compass, sense of direction, and, occasionally, a wad of spit into the wind.
Most of the road falls within the jurisdiction of federal government agencies in an area known as the Mojave National Preserve, a huge, irregular rectangle of rough country between Interstates 40 to the south and 15 to the north. Much of the preserve has been closed to all vehicles (a contentious issue among those who like to tread where no one has before), and there are a surprising number of privately owned patches of solitude throughout the preserve, but plenty of signposts (some, miraculously, with no bullet holes) warn the traveler against any ill-advised or illegal excursions. Several minor roads, including a few paved ones, crisscross the preserve, but there are long stretches of isolated road where it seems as though it's the only thoroughfare left in a blasted and blighted world.
A good first rule is never drive the road alone. During agreeable weather, the Mojave Trail can seem almost busy, as caravans enjoy what is generally a three-day jaunt from end to end. If you haven't strayed from the trail, help for minor emergencies is usually not far off, though don't expect to summon aid by phone. Cell coverage is sporadic at best, so it's a good idea to equip the vehicles in your group with two-way or CB radios should anyone become separated or lost.
Our FJ Cruiser and TRD-tweaked Tacoma pickup were electronically connected, but we also made sure never to lose sight of one another, and we both carried the usual tools for getting unstuck. In fact, even though we drove the road in just two days, we still equipped our vehicles as if we were staying for a week, with redundant measures against the many "what ifs" of a long journey through the desert, including two snakebite kits, two jerry cans of gasoline, and, to supplement the snakebite treatment, two bottles of sublime spirits. And we mentioned water, yes?
There are no permits currently required to travel the road unless your group has more than seven vehicles or 15 people. Camping is generally wide open, but there are a few established sites along the way. For complete rules and regulations, contact the preserve's headquarters in Barstow or the Bureau of Land Management's office in Needles, California.
Our trip over the Mojave trail ended all too quickly. We recommend at least three days minimum, and we wished we could have stayed for a week at our quiet campsite in the New York Mountains, enjoying the gorgeous scenery, the solitude, and the rest of our medicinal liquids.
We plan to hit the Mojave Road again for next spring's bloom of wildflowers. See you there!