For the first time in five years, the "annual" TacomaWorld trip has morphed into two trips. I suppose, technically, I should call it a trip-and-a-half, given the debacle that became Half a Trip in Montana, but I prefer to see the glass always full (there's always something in there) so we're just going to call it two.
The timing of the second trip - in December - clearly ruled out anything up north, so returning to Montana for redemption would just have to wait until next year. Plus, given the unexpectedly good time that we had in Death Valley a couple years ago, it only made sense to return to the desert. While normally we'd have simply picked up where we left off on our previous visit, Hurricane Hillary - in August - left the road system in shambles and most of Death Valley was still closed to the public.
And so, we're headed even further south in the Mojave Desert - to the East Mojave Heritage Trail (EMHT).
Created in the late 1980s by Mojave Desert explorer and historian Dennis Casebier, rather than following an established historical route like the Mojave Road, the EMHT is a comprehensive tour through some of the most remote portions of the East Mojave Desert.
Split into four segments and more than 700 miles long - even without the nearby side-adventures that I added for our enjoyment - that would be a lot of ground to cover in two weeks, so we're going to try to complete it in one!
Segment 1: Needles to Ivanpah - 173 miles
Segment 2: Ivanpah to Rocky Ridge -199 miles
Segment 3: Rocky Ridge to Fenner - 211 miles
Segment 4: Fenner to Needles - 155 miles
And Now, the Story.
Not wanting to repeat the unfortunate attendance situation of our Montana trip, we started coordinating dates immediately upon our return. After a few rounds of messages, we settled on the week after Thanksgiving, and Zane @Speedytech7 and I made sure that Monte @Blackdawg requested the time off before either of us - time off in Zane's case, and flights to/from Las Vegas in mine - finalized our arrangements.
Even best laid plans can come undone quickly - and only hours before we were set to leave - though.
And again, we were three.
Mike and Zane left promptly after their respective Thanksgiving feasts, caravanning the 1,000+ miles - over the course of three days and what I hear were several very cold nights - to our starting point in Needles, CA.
Luckily for me, the Tacoma was already in Las Vegas after our recent Connecting the Dots in Nevada trip, so I hopped on a flight - if you call Spirit Airlines "flying" - and after provisioning once I landed, rolled into camp just after 8:00pm to a warm fire and good company.
The most important stop when "provisioning."
With a full moon and warm air, our first campfire was one of our most pleasant!
Aliens were out in full force, their contrails creating perfectly circular lunar halo.
The ring is actually an optical illusion. It is caused when the moon light refracts off ice crystals in a thin veil of cirrus clouds. Those crystals create a giant lens 20,000 feet above us. They're positioned perfectly, with respect to our eyes, for the halo to appear. They are easier to see when the moon is full or almost full.
The following morning...
The flying camera was up before sunrise, the desert mountains we'd become familiar with, rising behind camp.
Unbeknownst to me, my alarm (phone) had updated to whatever incorrect time Arizona uses when I'd filled up in the land of cheap fuel, and hadn't updated again when I'd crossed back into real time in California. That meant that I putzed around camp for an hour wondering why I was the only one up - especially given that we'd talked about leaving early given 4:30pm sunsets - only to find that the joke was on me.
Mike was ready to go by 7:37am. So now we know he can do it.
All aired down, we pulled out onto the trail to begin what would become our pattern over the course of the trip. We hadn't moved more than a couple hundred feet and I hopped out of my Tacoma for a photo!
Our entrance to the trail - Eagle Pass.
Each of us enjoy different aspects of these adventures - a point that can sometimes cause a bit of friction, but that always provides us the ability to rib each other. Certainly, my preferences will impact the story, so let's just get them out in the open.
Mike. Mike enjoys a bit of driving - ideally with nice views but not a ton of stopping - and a lot of sitting around a campfire chatting with friends. He can get a little grumpy if we're not looking for camp... shortly after lunch, having pulled out of camp around 10:30:am. And driving in the dark? That's completely unacceptable. So - as you can tell - Mike's pretty normal in his approach.
Dan. (me, duh) I like getting up when it's still too dark and too cold outside to be awake. I like to drive from sunrise + 30 minutes to sunset - 30 minutes (or perhaps a little later if necessary), stopping at least several times every hour - to explore something along the road or run to some vantage point to snap a photo of my roaming gnome (the Tacoma) in some spectacular landscape. I enjoy campfires, but only have them when others are around. And all my crazy running during the day means I really do like to get to bed by about 9:30pm. Yep, I'm totally not normal.
Zane. I don't even really know how to describe Zane. This dude is so laid back and willing to go with the flow that it makes the rest of us look like total assholes all the time. Seriously. He's fun on the trail and off, happy to drive, stop for photos, or camp. He also knows more about all of our trucks that we do. Saint Zane, really.
Monte. Apparently, Monte doesn't go on trips anymore, so no description for him! Actually, he's pretty much the same as me with one exception: if he can stretch half-a-bundle of wood on a 29°F night into a heatless campfire that lasts past midnight while everyone freezes to death, he will.
Not all who travel the EMHT are fully prepared.
While we were out looking at some ruins I'd found on satellite, this much more interesting (and dead) cholla trunk caught my eye along the side of the trail.
The first three hours on the trail were - in my opinion - rather mundane. There are understandable reasons for this - the need to start somewhere that has fuel, the desire to create a loop, etc. - but running along well-graded powerline roads that stretched for miles was a little monotonous. Mostly.
It was a little exciting - in an "oh shit, am I going to die?" way - when I failed to notice a jump-sized hump in the road and flew off it at just over 50mph.
Zane noticed that I'd tweaked my rear brake proportioning lever when I landed. Luckily, bending it back into place was an easy fix.
Passing through the Piute Mountains, the Providence Mountains rising in the distance.
Looking north, the mountains and valleys we'd travel for the next 48 hours.
It was 11:00am when we pulled into Goffs. This is a place I've heard a lot about, but that I've never previously visited. A desert museum, they've collected or recreated many of the cool-but-strange oddities that exist across the Mojave, and it was fun to walk from display to display, familiar with the location of the "real thing."
The original Mojave Cross, now in a new location.
Originally erected in 1934 by J. Riley Bembry on Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve, the Mojave Cross was intended to honor the fallen soldiers of WWI, and was later dedicated to veterans of all wars.
In 2010, the cross was stolen by a vandal who claimed to be a veteran himself. He left a letter explaining his motives, but it was not discovered until 2022. The cross was later found abandoned in Half Moon Bay, California, and returned to the original caretakers, Henry and Wanda Sandoz.
In 2012, a replacement cross (which we visited back in 2019) was erected in the location of the original cross, but it was also challenged by lawsuits. Eventually, a land swap deal between the federal government and the Sandoz family, allowed the cross to remain on private property within the preserve.
With the replacement now legally secure, the Sandoz family decided to move the original cross to a safer location, where it would be less likely to be vandalized or stolen again - the Goffs Schoolhouse and Museum. Run by the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association, it aims to preserve and share the natural and cultural history of the Mojave Desert region.
A dedication ceremony was held on Veterans Day, November 11, 2023 and was attended by the children of J. Riley Bembry. Henry Sandoz, veterans, local officials, and supporters of the cross.
If you've travelled the Mojave Road, you might find the original frog display.
I'm always looking for ore carts in the mines I visit, but I don't think this one counts.
While wandering around, one of the caretakers - Andy - approached. Chatting with him for more than 15 minutes, he was extremely welcoming and we probably could have talked for hours. He was excited to give us the lay of the land, let us know that we could use their various facilities, and even swapped our empty propane tank (and a bit of cash) for his full one so we wouldn't have to run all the way to Needles to refill it. Super cool dude!
As we left, I had a whole new appreciation for the entrance sign.
It was lunch time when we arrived at the Leiser Ray Mine and pulled onto the old concrete pad that once the mill site of this mine that produced silver, copper, gold, lead and vanadium. Between the 1890s and beginning of WWI, 10 shafts and 50 pits were opened in a one-half square mile area. The deepest shaft - at 900 feet - was used to procure water for the operations, the water level currently sitting at about 450 feet below the surface. Over the years, 77 tons of ore were produced, yielding 40 tons of concentrates, including 14,130 lbs of copper, 1,660 lbs of lead, 1,178 oz of silver and 26.69 oz of gold. (Gregg Wilkerson)
How considerate, they constructed a nice parking area just for us!
Zane settling in to the "oversight" position.
Our bellies satisfied, we were back in the Tacoma's after 30 minutes or so, and with lots of ground to cover before the day was done. Our next stop was one that I'd visited before - on my first trip to the Mojave - Fort Piute along the old Mojave Road.
Distances in the desert are longer than they appear.
Even the trucks seemed to enjoy the view from the mouth of Piute Canyon.
Abundant local rock was used in building the fort and the ruins of at least three structures. The largest - a building of several rooms - is approximately 60 feet long by 25 feet wide, and includes rifle ports in the thick walls, deflecting shields in front of each door to prevent direct fire through the opening, and rock breastworks at Strategic locations immediately outside. It was also the site of a rather interesting battle, if local legend is to be believed.
More interested in snapping pictures of history, or of 1st gen Tacomas? Why not both?
The Mojave Road no longer - and hasn't for decades - climbs through Piute Canyon, so after visiting the fort, we backtracked a few miles and turned west to climb Piute Pass. While others might take a longer detour - Paiute Pass was significantly impacted by Hurricane Hillary - I'd heard that with the right line and the right trucks, we could inch our way through the rough spots and save nearly 30 minutes.
We might not choose the right line, but we had chosen the right trucks.
The views into Piute Valley as we gained elevation were stunning.
Having survived, we soon found ourselves in a Joshua Tree forest.
Now racing the sun across the Lanfair Valley, our general path followed the Mojave Road at a reasonably good clip. If we were going to see anyone along this entire journey, I figured it'd be here, given the relatively popularity of this route across the Mojave National Preserve. Still, we saw only each other.
Ultimately, our destination for the evening was one that I always look forward to - perhaps my favorite spot in the entire Preserve. This time, however, I knew things would be different - and not in a good way - as the York Fire (2023) swept through Carruthers Canyon only a few months earlier, decimating everything in its path. I had yet to see the aftermath of that event, but I expected it to be similar to the devastation we'd seen from the Dome Fire (2021) just a couple years prior.
Still, we had a few stops to make prior to reaching camp, and for now we had our sights set on the ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ petroglyph site - a place I've passed many times without any clue of the treasures to be found.
Clearly a popular destination.
I really like the concentric shapes that seem to be common in the art of the Chemehuevi and Mojave people who called this area home.
Always fun to find a sun glyph.
Some sort of plant?
Front view of a long-toothed pig?
The kids won't recognize this computer, but that's a CRT monitor on top of a desktop computer if you look closely. (left) | Settlers made their way to this place as well - J W YOUNG, C. SIELE and B. WESTIR were through on APR. 12, 1912. (right)
After climbing around for 20 minutes or so, and admiring the 20-foot deep natural granite well - complete with several feet of water at the bottom - that surely attracted travelers from all ages to this location, it was time to get back on the road to something a little... less historic but more "desert."
This may look like a "normal" Joshua Tree (are any of them really normal?), but it hides many secrets.
Pele Duck (left) and Do-You-Think-Overdid-the-Lipstick Duck (right) have settled in for the long game.
Yoda Duck and Cool Duck didn't find very comfortable seating.
The Penny Tree must have been recently "cleaned," by the National Park Service (NPS) because with only two cans and not very many pennies, I don't think Mike and Zane even got out of their trucks as we continued along our way towards our last stop before heading to camp - Rock Spring.
As with many springs across the desert, Rock Spring was once home to an US Army fort, and has seen occupation both before (Indians) and after (Bert Smith and Carl Faber) that time. First though, we had to make our way down a fun little section of road that would get our Tacomas a little flexy.
No three-wheeling for Zane, with a lot of work, he's got the rear end flexing nicely!
Getting crossed up, Mike wasn't three-wheeling it either. (For the most part.
While fighting in Europe during World War I, Bert Smith was exposed to poison gasses used during that war. Returning to the U.S. with scarred lungs, Bert eventually moved to the Mojave Desert in the late 1920s.
When Bert built his Rock House and started living here in 1929, it was a desperate attempt to regain his health. Although he expected to survive only a short time, he lived here until 1954 - 25 years later!
- - - - -
Artist Carl Faber had already been living rough in the East Mojave for about ten years when he set up his art business at the Rock House in 1981. Four-wheel drive trips had become a popular activity and Carl took advantage of passing traffic to sell his art. After five years. Carl moved to another nearby property and continued his art business there until 2003 when he moved to New Mexico.
Rock House is a still a cool place to stop, and if you happen to make your way inside, be sure to check out the note over the fireplace mantle.
Making our way toward the spring, evidence of the US Army's 4th Infantry was a reminder of their occupation.
Nearly hidden in the brush, I'd missed these petroglyphs on my previous visits.
Our final stop complete, our race against darkness was going to be a nail-biter, and since I knew that Mike liked to be in camp early, I was a little worried when Zane noticed a red liquid dripping from the front of his Tacoma.
That can't be good.
Luckily, Zane determined that the leak was from the intercooler on his turbo - an issue that was not at all fatal - rather than from his radiator, so minutes later, we were gaining elevation as we raced our way north to the New York Mountains and Carruthers Canyon.
I was lucky enough to lead this entire adventure. I did not envy the guys following me.
As I expected, the impact of the York Fire was immediately apparent. The green hills - previously covered in Joshua Trees, Sage, Juniper, Pinyon Pine and countless cacti - were a golden brown, only skeletons remaining. Caused by a lightning fire, it's just part of the cycle, but a part that will require decades - if not centuries - to fully recover, and wiped-out dozens of historic man-made structures that will never return.
It was like someone applied a gold filter to everything around us.
Rocky outcroppings - once peaking out from the foliage - stood naked over the aftermath.
Already on the rebound.
Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata var. multiradiata)
Parts of the trail into the canyon were in great shape - likely due to fire suppression efforts - but lack of living vegetation, and record amounts of runoff from Hurricane Hillary - meant that there were a few tricky sections as well. Still, we navigated them with a combination of skill and good equipment and soon - only minutes after sunset - we found ourselves at a site I've always wanted to camp at but where the opportunity has never presented itself: Easter Island Rock.
Steeper and deeper than it looks, with an even steeper climb to get out.
Zane snuck into a perfectly flat spot while Mike and I were left to level our trucks as best we could.
A very different view of an iconic rock.
With light fading fast, we got camp deployed and the propane fire ring flickering away. At 5,500 feet and with a brisk breeze blowing air down the canyon and through our camp, we bundled up for a cold evening. Soon, a bowl of guacamole appeared from Mike's kitchen, the three of us (but mostly Zane and me ... and really mostly just me) making quick work of the spicy treat. It was a little after 5:00pm.
By 9:00pm, neither Zane nor I could feel our feet, and it was time for bed. We'd only made it halfway through the first segment of the EMHT, and before another day was done, we were nearly forced to abandon the entire journey!
That - as usual - is another story.
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.