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Desert Art | EMHT Segment 3A Rocky Ridge to Granite Mountains

There was no way Mike @Digiratus, Zane @Speedytech7, and I were going to run the entirety of the East Mojave Heritage Trail when we set out to do it at the end of November. At something more than 700 miles long - not including the nearby side-adventures that I added for our enjoyment - it might seem like a Backcountry Discovery Route, but the roads are significantly slower and more technical, and the percentage of on-dirt miles is significantly larger.

Frankly, these two things make it easily twice the length of a BDR, not to mention the fact that we were trying to do it at a time of year that sported 9 total hours of daylight, vs. the 14+ hours that we often have in summer for our cross-state journeys.

And so, a week after completing segments 1 and 2 with Mike and Zane, @mrs.turbodb and I were back to run segment 3 - from Rocky Ridge to Fenner. It was perfect really, since this segment contained two, 5+ mile hikes - more and more, our favorite part of any adventure - an activity that would have been less interesting, if not downright impossible, for the previous weeks' crew.

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After a quick provisioning in Las Vegas - for both our bellies and the Tacoma - we headed south on I-15 for the western edge of the Mojave National Preserve. With a couple of days for our adventure, we were in no huge rush, so it seemed only sensible to pick up where Mike, Zane, and I had left off - the camp site at Mesquite Spring. A three-ish-hour drive, our 3:30pm departure out of Las Vegas meant that we'd arrive well after dark.

With no reason to rush, we were only half an hour into our adventure when I made some lame joke about a sign along the highway that read "Seven Magic Mountains," and how the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park had some competition out here in the desert. Little did I realize that Seven Magic Mountains was an art installation that I'd passed - without knowing its name - several times in the last year, each time wondering how to get off the freeway to see it!

Vibrant towers.

Seven Magic Mountains is an artwork of thresholds and crossings of balanced marvels and excessive colors, of casting and gathering the contrary air between the desert and the city lights.

Ugo Rondinone

What is Seven Magic Mountains?

A large-scale, site-specific public artwork by artist Ugo Rondinone, Seven Magic Mountains opened in May 2016. Mediating between geological formations and abstract compositions, Rondinone's Seven Magic Mountains consists of locally-sourced limestone boulders stacked vertically in groups ranging between three and six. Each stone boasts a different fluorescent color; each individual totem stands between thirty and thirty-five feet high. The artwork extends Rondinone's long-running interest in natural phenomena and their reformulation in art. Inspired by naturally occurring Hoodoos and balancing rock formations, the stacks also evoke the art of meditative rock balancing. The works appear poised between monumentality and collapse - seeming to defy gravity in their teetering formations, but equally to depend on it.

Like kids blocks, but excavator size.

Why was this location chosen for the artwork?

Located a short distance from Nevada's legendary Jean Dry Lake where Jean Tinquely and Michael Heizer created significant sculptures; Seven Magic Mountains is one of the largest land-based art installations in the United States completed in over forty years. The work pays homage to the history of Land Art while also offering a contemporary critique of the simulacra in nearby Las Vegas.

Colorfully contrasted with against the desert landscape.

After 15 minutes of magical mountains, we retraced out our back through Jean. The sun was racing quickly towards the horizon as we passed from Nevada into California, the Ivanpah Solar Plant already cooling down after a short day of lackluster production.

Soon, the Tacoma was nestled under the trees, and we were nestled under the comforters, our exploration of the East Mojave Heritage Trail ready to begin.

The following morning...

With less than ten hours between the 6:38am sunrise and 4:17pm sunset, there was no time to waste if we wanted to complete segment 3 of the EMHT in two days, so I'd set my alarm for 20 minutes before sunrise, so we could get going at the crack of dawn.

Desert sunrise.

Wandering a bit as @mrs.turbodb was getting dressed, I really liked the circle pattern of some petroglyphs I'd never seen before!

More circles.

Soon enough, the sun was up and we were headed south along Crucero Road, following the old Tonopah to Tidewater rail grade towards the Broadwell Lake Playa. A fixture throughout the Mojave, this was the same grade that we'd inched our way alongside - as we'd dropped in and out of drainages across an alluvial fan - on segment 2 of the EMHT, just south of the Kingston Wilderness. Here, the going was much easier, the terrain allowing us to make good time.

Soft, sandy soil made for an extra cushy ride with our aired-down tires.

Crossing Broadwell Lake on the old - slightly raised - rail grade.

Outrunning the flying camera.

Zoom zoom.

At the south end of the playa, we found ourselves at Ludlow, where present day I-40 and the iconic Route 66 meet to play leapfrog as they continue west. It was a place we'd passed through without stopping on our previous visit, and we'd have done the same this time were it not for a waypoint I'd found for the Old Murphy General Store.

As we pulled up, I wondered if it was even worth stopping.

Ludow in its heyday, nearly 100 years ago.

Like the rest of Ludlow, this place was likely once a bustling business - tourists, overlanders, and freight all stopping in for a bite to eat or to fill up on gas - but with the advent of the interstate, it has become little more than a mostly-abandoned ghost town. Not overly optimistic, I wandered into the ruins.

This is the second time I've seen this name. C'mon Zane, stop writing on walls.

As I stumbled around a corner, I was greeted by a smile.

Desert girls.

A second face, perfectly placed on the crumbling concrete.

Pleasantly surprised by the stop - though any time we find graffiti like this, it's always with mixed feelings - we altered our heading from south to east, following Route 66 for a few miles as it meandered through the landscape, a stark contrast to the arrow-straight-engineering demonstrated by I-40.

We were surprised how much traffic still flows on this route, as people old and young revel in the past.

Our stint on pavement lasted fewer than ten miles before we were once again on dirt, following the rail grade of the BNSF towards Amboy. Plentiful train traffic - more than 125 cars in tow - raced by in both directions, the smooth rails allowing for speeds well in excess of our slow, bumpy pace. It's no wonder that trains ruled the west, they are the perfect desert transportation.

Along the way, we found EMHT Mailbox #3.

First ones through in December!

We had to stop for a look at Siberia Crater. A view that only the flying camera could capture!

Back in the Tacoma and bumping along the trail, it was right around 11:00am - halfway through our limited daylight - when we approached Amboy, home to an astonishingly symmetric-looking crater.

Unlike Siberia Crater, which we'd viewed "American-style," via a technology and a screen, we planned to hike Amboy Crater. Four-miles roundtrip with only 100 feet of elevation gain, we'd use it to stretch our legs - a bit of post-lunch exercise - and as a warm-up for the much more arduous 6-mile, 3,000-foot hike we had planned for the following day. Or, so we thought.

Guess there's no question as to whether it erupted.

Can't pass through Amboy without a quick stop at Roy's.

The last third of the nineteenth century brought the railroad into southern California. The Atlantic and Pacific built west through Arizona to Needles, while at the same time the Southern Pacific built east through the California desert to the Colorado River. The Southern Pacific, working east from the town of Mojave through Waterman (now Barstow), in this region followed a route south of the Mojave Road, thereby avoiding the rough terrain through which that trail passed. The railroad skirted the Providence, Old Dad, and Bristol Mountains to the north of here, reaching Needles (about 155 miles east of Barstow) in 1883. In 1884 the Santa Fe Railroad purchased the desert right-of-way from the Southern Pacific, and operated it as the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, Western Division. Small towns were established along this route to provide water for the thirsty steam locomotives. Starting here in Amboy, the towns were named in alphabetical order from west to east: Amboy, Bristol, Cadiz, Danby, Edson, Fenner, Goffs, Homer, Ibis, and Java. Later, Edson became Essex and Bristol became Bengal. During the golden age of rail travel, the Santa Fe Railway ran some of its most famous passenger trains over this route, including the Grand Canyon Limited, the Chief, and the Super Chief. Today, Amtrak continues this tradition, with its Southwest Chief, which makes the run between Los Angeles and Chicago in just over two days.

Information sign

Apparently Santa is a snowbird, taking up residence at Roy's when it gets chilly at the North Pole.

Yep, we're still in the desert.

As the names suggest, it wasn't far - only a mile or two - from "downtown" Amboy to the trailhead for Amboy Crater. With several shaded picnic tables at the trailhead, it was the perfect spot for @mrs.turbodb's turkey sandwiches and a few Fritos before setting off on the rock-lined Amboy Crater Hiking Trail. From the get-go, the battle between the naturalists and their lawyers was obvious - a description of the trail, its history, and what we should expect to enjoy along the way posted just above a "HIKING HERE IS NOT RECOMMENDED" warning. Good work, America!


Poor volcano barfed everywhere.

It was interesting to see how the erosion was amplified down the slopes of the cone.

From ancient art on rocks to modern art of rocks, it seems humans have always loved spirals.

I'm not sure why - perhaps because I had the distance wrong - but I'd envisioned the hike to Amboy Crater taking four hours to complete, so I was quite relieved - given the ground we still had to cover before finding camp - when we returned after only half that time. Still, it was 2:00pm as we got back into the Tacoma and onto the trail, the EMHT changing direction once again - heading north towards the Granite Mountains of the Mojave Preserve.

Our route would take us through the Bristol Mountains, and I'd mapped out a short detour - along old mining roads - that I hoped would allow us to poke around the Orange Blossom Mine before crossing under I-40 on our way to Budweiser Canyon.

Into the Bristol Mountains.

Yep, we're still in the desert.

Anatomically correct graffiti.

Unfortunately, the mining roads I'd scouted via satellite - while passable by a 1s gen Tacoma for the first mile or so - had no evidence of travel as they transitioned from the bottom of the wash to a narrow shelf road that climbed up into the mountains. Ravaged by rain and decades of deterioration, it wasn't long before lockers and a careful line were far from enough to keep us from certain death. Alas, we were forced to back down and find a spot to turn around.

Back on the main EMHT route we soon crested the pass, our road continuing into the distance through Orange Blossom Wash.

As it turns out, the route I'd mapped to the Orange Blossom Mine was actually a through-route, and it was with high hopes that we turned off of the EMHT for a second time to attempt access from the east. The road here seemed much more frequently travelled, and we put our odds at somewhere between 30- and 75% - depending on which one of us you asked - as to whether we'd make it to the mine or not.

In the end, @mrs.turbodb was correct. We did not make it to the mine, at least, not on the ground. The Orange Blossom is - apparently - still active, and signed for no trespassing.


While our inability to explore the mine was a bit of a bummer at the time, it was also - in retrospect - beneficial from a timing perspective. Now 3:40pm, we had only 45 minutes before sunset, and even less time before the fiery ball would drop behind the Bristol Mountains to our west. The race was on!

Let's go left.

I don't know why it's always fun to drive under the freeway in the desert. It's not like it's an uncommon experience in the city.

Our destination for the evening - somewhere near Budweiser Canyon - was not on the East Mojave Heritage Trail. Rather, it was a place we'd visited back in 2020 when we'd been foolish enough to think that we could hike one of the most difficult trails in the Mojave Preserve, and find a pictograph depicting a pair of red men dancing. Ultimately, we'd spent so much time searching - unsuccessfully - for the pictograph that we'd run out of time for the hike.

Into the long shadows and through a sea of rippling amber.

And yet, it was with the same hubris that I'd added this little excursion to our trip this time. In the intervening years I'd gotten a hint as to the location of the pictographs, and surely, I thought, the hike couldn't be that bad. Of course, I'd refrained from re-reading the hike's description, an oversight that my companion would gleefully correct before we set out the following morning.

For now - having arrived in the last of the day's light - I set out in search of the pictographs, certain I knew exactly where they were.

I'd seen these modern petroglyphs before, but they are still fun to encounter.

Now where'd I put that eraser?

A SHIP 60, CURT 87 (left) | M POLY, E EDWA (right)

Unsurprisingly, my certainty was misguided. Try as I might - and I was mightily trying - I was unable to will pictographs into existence in the location I was sure they should be. With light fading fast, it was a hopeless endeavor, even as I discovered what had to be a clue.

Follow the arrow?

It was too new to be old.

Alas, as @mrs.turbodb - who'd decided that the smart move was to warm up our chicken tender wraps while I chased faint memories of the past - called me for dinner, there wasn't enough light to keep searching anyway. This, naturally, meant we would have a decision to make in the morning - continue our search or abandon it in favor of the hike we'd already skipped once before?

During dinner, we caught the tail end of a show.

Or perhaps - suggested @mrs.turbodb - we should try something else entirely!



The Whole Story


Looking for other segments of the EMHT? Check out
East Mojave Heritage Trail
for other trips where the other parts of this epic route were enjoyed.



    JOHN D MORAN January 17, 2024

    Beautiful photos even if, 'These aren't the petroglyphs we're looking for...' couldn't help myself, LOL. Brings back memories of taking Route 66 on the way to Oklahoma as a child. Every couple of years we'd make the journey through Ludlow, Amboy, Essex, wide spots on the road with gas stations. It was exciting for a child back then before there were super highways, many things to see and experience like the native trading posts, gas stations turned into cafes, etc.

    • turbodb
      turbodb January 18, 2024

      LOL, my own words come back to haunt me!

      I've only had the opportunity to drive Route 66 a couple times, and usually I'm in a "rush" to get somewhere else. It was nice this time, to have the "where" be along the route so we could spend a bit more time enjoying the history. Definitely had me thinking of the "Cars" movies, and how the super highways have wiped a lot of these places off the map.

  2. Kenny
    Kenny January 18, 2024

    This was indeed a mixed bag of discoveries from old to new. Although I am not generally a fan of Gafritti some of this is very artistic and I enjoy the art as presented. This trip presented some new sights to see, the mines are always a interesting explore and the painted rocks inspire a lot of thought as to how they were built.
    The drone shots lend a special view not normally seen while on land. I see you are getting very familiar with the functions of your new toy. The story was excellent in detail and research, thanks for sharing Dan.

    • turbodb
      turbodb January 18, 2024

      Yes, some of the art on this trip was definitely on the edge for me as well. @mrs.turbodb reminded me that technically, even petroglyphs are graffiti, just from an age when we (now) think of them as being special. So, who knows - perhaps in 500 years, spray paint graffiti will be as sought after by those exploring the world in hovercraft as pictographs are to some of us today.

      I know you've got some cold temps and plenty of snow over in your neck of the woods. I surely hope that you're keeping warm and using the time to plan your spring and summer outings, rather than getting bogged down in winter!

  3. Paul
    Paul January 18, 2024

    Love a good turbodb trip report...! And the drone shots...? Nailed it..! Hiked Budweiser Spring in November 2022 and... Kinda got spooked. Walked to the East past the closed (too bad!) section and up into some former fire ringed camp spots. Lotta soul and mojo out there. Going back in the fall this year. Looking forward to it...!

    • turbodb
      turbodb January 20, 2024

      Thanks Paul, glad you enjoyed the story, and I dunno that I've nailed the drone shots, but it's definitely fun playing with a new toy. I'm sure I'll get better as time goes on, lol.

      We've been up there east of Budweiser Spring as well - there was significantly less wilderness signage when we were there the first time - and thought it'd be a great place to camp in the future. Not any more though, there are gobbs of No Camping signs now, unfortunately! We had a great time up there both times, and I think the next time we go, we'll allocate an entire day and make the hike to the top of the canyon. It wasn't too bad (at all IMO) up to Monster Fall, but it definitely got steep from that point on!

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