Riding the Mojave Trail Off-Road


Any time I make the boring drive on the superslab from Southern California to Las Vegas my mind tends to wander. Just a few miles on either side of the traffic-choked I-15 corridor is a world that drivers pulled, moth-like, toward the Vegas lights cannot imagine. I don’t have to imagine: Four years racing the now-defunct point-to-point AMA District 37 Barstow to Vegas desert race and another handful of trips on the L.A. - Barstow - Vegas dual-sport ride let me experience the sights, sounds and even smells of the Mojave Desert. But a call from Bruce “Bruno” Anderson of GoBajaRiding tours changed what I thought I knew about the Mojave. Anderson has many years riding in Baja, but is now adding Go Desert Riding Tours (with exclusively U.S.-based routes) to his Go Baja Riding company. He was offering me a slot on a three-day ride to Las Vegas for the Supercross finale, but without traversing any of the many routes I had previously ridden.

Certainly the traditional B to V courses have a notable past, but Anderson was planning one day’s ride from Barstow on the historic Mojave Road, following it to the Colorado River at Laughlin, then a day riding the great single-track around the Laughlin area, and a final day running from Laughlin to Vegas, rolling for miles alongside Lake Mojave. The idea was to make Vegas in time for a shower, then relax into a couple of good seats at Sam Boyd Stadium. He sweetened the offer by letting me know off-road legend Larry Roeseler was to be trail leader to and around Laughlin. Sign me up!

Whether you ride in Mexico or the U.S., Anderson and crew handle everything once you arrive at the staging point. Fly-in clients are picked up and transported to the first hotel, and GDRT handles all meals, lodging, fuel and transportation. Guests are responsible for alcohol, but the ride staff does the rest, even maintaining the bikes (except for air filter service). You could almost leave your wallet at home.

An evening Barstow loop ride allowed those who were renting GDRT Honda CRF450Xs to acclimate or make adjustments. Roeseler was the leader of this supposed 20-mile loop, but, being Larry, it was nearly 50 miles until we swung by the famous Slash-X saloon for some photos. Some of us wondered (a little fearfully) whether the mileage figures for the claimed 170-mile Mojave Road to Laughlin section would be as far off, too. While all the bikes had legal plates, none were much good for extended pavement cruising, so we loaded everything on the monster rig and headed east of Barstow to not far from the start of the B to V race. For years I had heard of the Mojave Road—or the Mojave Trail, or even the Old Government Road, since it is known by all those names. It is said that in some areas you can still see the wheel ruts of the wagon trains that used the road, and I visualized a flat, boring route that ran straight to the horizon. That was not at all the case. Unlike wagon trains seen in Western movies, the natives that made this trail and wagon masters who later enlarged it into a road didn’t care whether the trail ran straight, or even level. The main concern was that there was available water every 10 to 12 miles. What is now a 4WD road through the Mojave National Preserve has been in use for 500 years. Unlike many early trade routes, it hasn’t been paved over, closed off or faded from modern knowledge. The first recorded European traveler was Friar Francisco Garces in 1776. Famed trapper and explorer Jedediah Smith crossed the trail in 1826 with no problem from any of the tribes, but continuing friction between native tribes and travelers led much of the traffic to move North to the new Old Spanish Trail to avoid conflicts.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War and added the entire Mojave to territory that would eventually become part of the United States. Naturally, U.S. ownership and gold finds first at Sutter’s Mill in California and later in Arizona morphed the Mojave Trail into the Mojave Road. Prescott, then the capital of Arizona, was supplied by the Road, and from 1866 to 1868 it was the mail route between California and Arizona. With a military presence to subdue the locals and protect the mail, the road became firmly established, but the glory years were short-lived. By 1883 a second transcontinental railroad, today’s Burlington Northern/Santa Fe, was completed to the South of the Mojave Road.

The 170-miles of inhospitable badlands between modern-day Barstow and the Colorado required days or weeks in a wagon. The crossing that was often lethal to man and animal was a mere day in the saddle for our group of experienced riders on late-model machines. Certainly it was a long day with photo stops, sight-seeing and history lessons, but it was still a day. It could have been a much shorter if we lassoed Roeseler’s $1500 Honda XR650R and let him tow us along at his pace. We started on a dirt track parallel to I-15 and spent the day between I-15 and I-40. The easy track soon turned into Manix Wash, considered the western exit point of the road. Within minutes of turning away from the freeway the terrain changed to open sand corralled between eroded bluffs on either side. Once we hit the main wash there were sand dune areas on either side, but the marked route is down the dry watercourse. The sand was deep enough to require speed and concentration. Next up was the Mojave River crossing. It is the only water crossing on the trail, and it was deep enough to require care, but has a firm bottom. Afton Canyon was our next landmark, and it was a stunner, with high cliffs on one side and more greenery than any other part of the trip. In Afton Canyon all vehicles are restricted to designated routes with the familiar brown Carsonite posts wearing “open route” stickers on them. The restriction was no handicap as the steep walls pretty much funnel you to the main wash area. At the end of the Canyon I got my first look at a Bighorn sheep when it jumped across the wash in front of me! Not close enough for adrenaline, but a seriously good look.

As we approached the Rasor OHV open area the terrain changed completely for the third time. Vegetation all but disappeared for a good stretch. The trails and roads varied from choppy, hard dirt, like a chewed-up dry lake bed, to silty sand with chunks of shale rock. Closer to Soda Dry Lake the regular desert brush reappeared along with some buildings and small dune areas. At the ridge, LR had everyone gather a rock, and we rode out to a pile of rocks known as Travelers Monument, or Government Monument. Mojave Road travelers carry a rock and add it to this incongruent pile in the middle of a largely featureless Soda Lake. There is a brass plaque on top, and it is worth climbing up to see, but the message on it is a secret for travelers of the road.

Not far from Soda Lake we enjoyed one of the nicest benefits of a ride with GDRT. As we crossed Kelbaker Road, we found the massive rig parked with chairs out, shade up, cold drinks and a spread of lunch and snacks to attack while Bruno and staff gassed up and checked over the bikes.

I also took the opportunity to ride one of the GDRT Honda CRF450X rentals. It was fully prepped with new tires, and it felt very tight and well maintained. I wouldn’t hesitate to choose one of these either.

Rested, fed and fueled, we headed for the Mojave Mail Box. This section is a fast and fun desert two-track that crosses ranges of desert mountains. The vistas extend as far as you can see, and we often saw LR and some of the faster riders’ dust trails miles ahead. We took a short break to let a desert tortoise walk across the trail, then continued to the famous mailbox. In the literal middle of nowhere there is an American flag on a pole, a box filled with mementos left by travelers and a book to sign your name in. We found it interesting that desert racing legend Dan Smith had been there the day before us—and we had with desert racing legend Larry Roeseler in tow. We continued to cover ground to Marl Springs, a remnant of a system of government watering holes that’s now a small oasis thanks to the well and windmill that pump water to the surface.

From there we headed into the Lanfair Valley. Lanfair has been cattle ranching country since the 1880s, and this striking area is forested with Joshua trees and wickedly spined cactus. The road is relatively easy to follow here: try to leave it and you get poked by sharp plants. The years of use have dropped the road bed below the surrounding desert in some sections, and the major turns are marked with rock cairns. Sections of this faster area have miles of whoops, but we easily maintained a good pace.

Soon, we left the Mojave Road for a sample of the sublime single-track razorback ridge trails in the mountains above Laughlin. Eventually those hooked up with a power line road descending steeply out of the mountains to town. We lingered for a minute near the top to take in the mighty Colorado before sprinting to the hotel casino for a shower and a hot meal. The mileage estimate for the day had been right on the money, but 170 miles still was plenty.

While it was still cool the next morning, we undertook a 70-mile loop around the Laughlin area. Highlights included Christmas Tree Pass, which is an especially fun way to eat up miles. The road is dirt, but wide enough for motor homes or semis to draft-pass. We didn’t mind since the scenery is spectacular; almost like the formations you’d expect in Utah’s Monument Valley, but on a smaller scale. After the Pass we had a grand time in the decomposed granite trails and rock outcrops common to the Laughlin area and home to the Dust in the Desert Laughlin Hare Scrambles team race each spring.

Our final run took us back up the power line road, through Christmas Tree Pass and off towards the Lake Mead Recreation Area. After dropping out of the mountains from the Pass, much of the ride was within sight of Lake Mojave, and we included one run down to park on the shore. Anderson was the only one game to jump in with his riding gear on. Finally, we met up with the truck, headed for the hotel and cleaned up for the Supercross.

Go Desert Riding Tours is a great way to completely experience a new, epic off-road ride with no stress at all. You don’t have any worries about finding your way, being supplied or being stranded. You do make your own sandwiches at lunch stops, but if you waited and sulked, somebody would make it for you. You or someone in your group not up to an off-road bike ride? GDRT also has small off-road buggies to handle non-riders who want to be part of the fun.

The Mojave is a radically varied place with much beauty that you’ll never see from a paved road. Despite hundreds of years of habitation, it remains a harsh and forbidding place for the unprepared, but going head-to-head with it and walking away unscathed is a great feeling. In the words of the Terminator: I’ll be back. me

Within minutes of turning away from the freeway the terrain changed to open sand corralled between eroded bluffs

Weapon of Choice: 2012 Beta 450 RR

Much of the route to Laughlin requires licensed machinery, so I arranged for a Beta 450 with a license plate. I requested the street legal RS model, but found that every one imported was already sold. Frankly, that didn't surprise me; the Beta is a comfortable, strong-running bike that still uses a carburetor, and the reliability of its design is very attractive for a long ride through remote areas. The race-spec Beta 450 RR is identical in performance to the RS, and Beta supplied a Distributor plate that was fine for the tiny amount of pavement riding we did. Basically, we were on the street for about three blocks in Laughlin and about a mile on Highway 163 between the power line road and the start of Christmas Tree Pass. Beta blessed the 450 with a low seat height, a roomy and comfortable standing position, excellent suspension and fantastic power. The six-speed handled the ride just fine, but if I owned the bike I would have geared it a little higher to minimize engine rpm on the fast roads. Beta supplied an optional large fuel tank that wasn't even noticeable while riding, but easily made the distances between fuel stops a breeze. As I expected, the bike never missed a beat. To find a Beta dealer see: _www.americanbeta.com_.

Smack in the middle of featureless Soda Lake is a large pile of rocks, to which travelers traditionally add their own contributions. Here we are getting ready to chuck ours onto the heap.
The Mojave Trail--now a 4WD road through the Mojave National Preserve has been in use for 500 years.
You don't touch desert tortoises; they can catch infections from humans. We were happy to wait for him.
Some of the areas we crossed were deep with soft and slippery sand--but you can't resist having fun with it
Within minutes of turning away from the freeway the terrain changed to open sand corralled between eroded bluffs
...it was nearly 50 miles before we swung by the infamous Slash-X Saloon near Barstow for some photos