Up The Road: Mojave Trails National Monument

May 21, 2018

Elmer’s Bottle Ranch, on Route 66 near Victorville
Credit Leiris202

We head up the road this week to brand-new Mojave Trails National Monument, 1.6 million acres in the south state’s vast desert that serve as a wildlife corridor connecting Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park; that preserve unique desert wildlands as well as General George Patton’s WWII-era desert training camps for troops heading to North Africa; and that protect the largest stretch of ghost towns along historic Route 66, which—with some effort—you can still follow, more or less, to its memorable end at the Santa Monica Pier. (Most of you boomers will remember the early-1960s Route 66 TV show with cool ex-GIs Todd and Buz, not to mention Todd’s Corvette, loosely inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—though I have a hard time imagining Kerouac in a Corvette. Before that, Route 66 was the how most Okies and Arkies fleeing the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression got to California.) Get the larger story at the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville.

 

Cadiz Dunes Wilderness, near Route 66
Credit Bob Wick, BLM

But good luck getting much information at all about Mojave Trails National Monument. There is no management plan, though one was in the works before President Trump’s Department of the Interior (DOI) decided to review the lands protected within its boundaries, and nothing but a map on the BLM website. Desert preservationists worry that what happened to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a whittling away of total acreage to allow drilling for oil, gas, minerals—or, here, maybe even water—may happen at Mojave Trails. But The Wildlands Conservancy donated some 560,000 acres of the Mojave to the DOI on condition of its protection in perpetuity. So, we’ll see what happens.

Some places you’ll want to see, regardless: Grand Afton Canyon just off I-15 33 miles northeast of Barstow (southwest of Baker), one of very few places the shy Mojave River flows—above ground, anyway. Find desert springs elsewhere, too, including plant and animal oases at Chuckwalla, Hummingbird, Barrel, and Fenner Springs.

Marking the romance of Route 66
Credit Tony Hisgett

On the south side of the Mojave National Preserve, easily reached from I-40 east of Barstow, are various attractions accessible from old Route 66, otherwise known as the National Trails Highway. Notable among them: black Amboy Crater, a very young volcano, and the stunning, 20,000-acre Cadiz Dunes Wilderness. The Pisgah Lava Flow’s vast network of lava tubes, the south state’s densest collection of caves, has long been a stand-in for Martian landscapes for developing robotic and imaging technologies.

The George S. Patton Museum at Chiriaco Summit, off I-10 east of Indio, stands at the entrance to old Camp Young, headquarters for the multiple-camp Desert Training Center. You can explore most camps—not counting fenced-off areas protecting you from unexploded ordnance—but mostly you’ll find only rock-lined streets, flag stands, and tent areas. Evocative, though.

Still, the views along Route 66 aren’t what they used to be.
Credit Dave Reichert

Other “trails” worth exploring within Mojave Trails include Sleeping Beauty Valley, the last ecologically intact community of West Mojave plants; vast areas of fossils, from other times and climates—including the Marble Mountains Fossil Beds, full of trilobites, or early ocean-dwelling arthropods, the first animals on earth with eyes and skeletons; and traditional Native American trade routes and trails, such as the sacred Salt Song Trail of the Chemehuevi (cheh-meh-way-vee) people of the Southern Paiute—who know themselves as Nuwu, or “the people”—where particular songs were sung at specific spots along the way.