THE MOJAVE ROAD: The American Desert by Sportsmobile

-Extended FB Album (Lots more qulity shots, check it out!)-

I had to make it to Overland Expo just outside Flagstaff, AZ this year to soak up as much overlanding and off road driving knowledge as I could, and meet tons of amazing like-minded adventurers along the way. Lucky for me I met some amazing people at the SoCal Desert Rendezvous and they invited me along on an adventure across the Mojave Road on the way to OEX. Our journey consisted of about 140 miles of off pavement driving with Anthony Sicola and David Croyle in their respective 80 series Land Crusiers and me in my Sportsmobile. It ended up being quite an adventure for all and an amazing shake down trip for my overland rig, with day 1 starting off with some quality carnage!

Day 1 Reports: David, Anthony

Anthony and David took the long highway slog from the bay area and met me at the Vons supermarket in Barstow, CA at around 1pm. We were headed for the Afton Canyon Campground which should have been a quick and painless endeavour. First we did some creative driving to a number of long closed gas stations to fuel up as close as possible to the off road portion of the trip. After actually topping off our fuel tanks and reserves we hit the dirt and headed towards Camp Cady. Sadly we came into the private property that is now Camp Cady from the wrong side and again back tracked around the camp and finally found the Manix Wash.

Using David’s GPS track we navigated the Manix Wash and soon found ourselves in the Mojave River Wash. Soft silty sand quickly brought my 5 ton Sportsmobile to a stop in a “van sized grave,” as Anthony put it. The lighter Land Cruiser’s, with better tires, were barely able to keep momentum and make it though the soft stuff, but both made it to hard ground and were able to come back and help me recover the Sportsmobile. Anthony was the first to the scene and with the use of his shovel and set of MaxTrax sand ladders we managed to move the Van about 50′ forward in an hours time. We quickly realized the sun was setting and a new tactic was needed. David showed up about this time and we devised a plan where we would get the van to the “river bank” and then winch it out of the soft stuff and up onto the harder pack out of the wash. After another hour maneuvering, digging and using the MaxTrax to their full extent we had the van lined up perpendicular to the steep bank and ready for some winch assistance. Sadly my van doesn’t have any recovery points, soon to be sorted with a proper front bumper and winch. We ended up winching off the front axle, which in the end worked but was scary to say the least! David’s 12k lb winch didn’t do a whole lot with my 10k lb van attached to it and a steep bank between the vehicles. We then used a double pull with both David and Anthony using their respective 12k lb Warn winches to pull out the Van. 24k of pulling power, enough diesel power to blow up a heavy-duty transmission and a set of MaxTrax we where finally able to get the van up on the hard pack and make progress towards camp again.

We moved quickly as the sun set and we knew that momentum was our friend in the soft stuff with our heavy vehicles. On the way the Van’s speedo started acting up and then the automatic transmission started slipping and acting screwy. Seemed to work fine in first and second, so that is all I used. We rolled into a very dark Afton Canyon Camp around 8:30 pm and set up camp after a long day of driving and recovery. Anthony cooked up some amazing carne asada tacos and we all enjoyed a few cold brews, but had to battle high winds the whole evening.

Anthony working the GPS and David getting serious about navigation;)

Anthony getting out of the soft stuff to come help rescue the Sportsmobile. You can see the deep tracks on the right of the photo, trenches left by the 10K lb van!

The beast very stuck in the soft stuff. This shot is actually after a bunch of work and a few feet of forward progress using sand ladders.

That “river bank” behind the van doesn’t look all that steep, but it had a very sharp incline. This is a shot of the recovered van back on “hard pack.”

We had to get after it to get back on a known trail and headed towards camp as the sun was setting quickly. No time for another recovery and momentum was our friend in the soft stuff:)

This guy was not afraid of us at all, was super quick and ate any scrap of food that managed to blow off the table with the crazy high desert winds.

Camp was right next to the rail line bridge and this guy came flying through.

Day 2 Reports: David, Anthony

The intense desert sun woke us all early on Day 2. I was very uneasy as to if I could, or should, even proceed with the transmission issues I had experienced the night before. Anthony and David ate breakfast, with breaths held, as I went for a few laps around the campground and surrounding area to assess the damage. Miraculously things seemed to all be working normally and we soon got on our way with big smiles for the adventure ahead.

Just out of camp we had some fun blasting through some small water crossings and enjoying the spectacular cliff faces as we exited Afton Canyon. It took a good while to find the start of the Mojave Rd, with many unnavigable or dead-end routes explored. Eventually with the help of 2 GPS tracks and a bit of luck we found the tell tale Mojave Rd. cairn markers, small piles of stacked stones. The cairns are easy to follow, and you just need to keep them on your left when headed east.

The first part of the road was full of steep undulations in the trail, or whoops. We then climbed out of the Mojave river basin up Shaw Pass, which was a short relatively technical section for the massive Sportsmobile. As we passed into the Mojave National Preserve and onto Soda Lake the van’s speedo and auto trans went all wonky again. Luckily I was able to move along just fine in 1st or 2nd gear, which was the appropriate gearing for most of the trail anyway. The salt pan, or playa, of Soda Lake looked like the surface of some far off planet. Luckily for us it had been very dry and the surface crust was able to hold our heavy vehicles. There is a large pile of rocks in the middle of the playa called the Traveler’s Monument, and as travelers on the Mojave Rd. we added our rocks to the pile. After making it across the playa and through a section of volcanic rock we found a nice little campsite to enjoy the shade of the Van’s awning and eat some lunch. Luckily we also got full cell reception in this spot and with the help of Yelp I was able to sort out a transmission shop that was less than 5 miles from the finish of the road.

After lunch we entered a large Joshua tree forest and made our way to the Mojave Mailbox. We all signed the guest book and enjoyed the “eclectic” finds around this area. We then did a long stretch of quality road into Marl Springs, where David was bold enough to try some of the water. A very long stretch of very large whoops followed that tested the suspension and departure angle of the Sportsmobile. The trailer hitch dug more than one trench into a trailing whoop! David found he had a slow leak in his aux fuel tank, but was able to field repair it with a hose clamp. We had some quick hard pack and even a small stretch of pavement after, that lead us into the Pleasant View School Campsite with plenty of daylight to spare. This is a really nice little campsite and we set up camp and enjoyed some well-earned cold brews.

As we started to settle in a convoy of 4x4s rolled up into camp and stopped with a bunch of guys getting out. Come to find out it was the Taylor Expeditions crew on a scouting mission with the owners of the Mojave Desert Outpost camp and Dennis Casebier. At first it was nice to just chat with fellow offroaders, but then we all realized that Dennis was THE Dennis who wrote the Mojave Road Guide Book that we where using. Very cool chance encounter! We settled in after the group left and had some night photography fun and enjoyed watching some kangaroo rats as they scurried about.

Morning light falls upon Afton Canyon Campground on day 2. Three very different overland camping option: roof-top tent, ground tent or inside RV bed.

Two small water sections early on Day 2 made for a great photo-op and tons of fun:)

Very cool sheer canyon walls on the eastern side of Afton Canyon.

Many scenes like this on the morning of Day 2 as we tried to find the tell-tale cairns that mark the Mojave Rd.

Traveler’s monument in the middle of the dry lake bed. Add your own rock as you pass through.

STAY on the road!

Sadly we had to cross pavement a few times on the trail. This was our first pavement and it just felt wrong, and as such we spent a few minutes debating ideas on how to proceed without tires touching pavement. In the end we figured it was best just to move on:)

The desert flowers were in full bloom.

David signs in at the Mojave Mailbox.

This one’s for you Grandma (FYI: my Grandmother has the biggest frog collection I’ve ever seen or heard of)! You need to stumble upon this yourself in the middle of the desert to truly appreciate it. There might be a nome village out there as well;)

David getting some water at Marl Springs. The stagnant water in the bottom of the trough had an amazing eco system growing in it;)

Check out that long squiggle of a road across the desert behind the van. Big off road mileage on day 2.

Pleasant View School camp site on night 2.

Anthony getting the shot. We had some fun playing with all sorts of night photography on this amazing clear desert night.

Day 3 Reports: David, Anthony

I got up early on Day 3 in order to cover the remaining 40 miles of off road trail and make it to the trans shop early enough for them to order parts, as the repairs would need to be completed the next day in order to make it to OEX on time. I did this section solo, as Anthony and David had lots more exploring to do and I was in a hurry. After rolling out of camp at the break of dawn I quickly found the Mojave Rd. cairns and with the sun directly in my face negotiated some super steep technical sections of trail. After miraculously clearing these obstacles half blind and without any issues I forged on into Joshua tree forest after Joshua tree forest. Sadly for me these are touch little buggers and one branch was able to rip my roof rack towers out of the roof rails. It took me about 30 min. to rebuild the rack in a different roof location while in a deep section of trail, a struggle that left me with many a small wounds. After that incident I was extremely cautious when threading my big wide van through the narrow curvy trail bordered closely by Joshua trees.

After some long fast sections, with short technical bits in between, I found myself descending a long steep technical rock section. Luckily none of the sharp rocks caused any issues, there was no up-hill traffic and I chose quality lines through the rubble fields. I was relatively home free at this point as most of the rest of the trail was pretty easy-going and allowed for high 2nd gear speeds most of the way. I brought those speeds to a quick smooth halt after hitting a small bump in the trail and hearing a large thud on the roof. The bump in the trail managed to sheer off the internal metal casting of the roof rack tower, which in turn dropped the fully loaded and now unattached rack onto the roof. There was no field repair for this issue so I disassembled the entire rack in the middle of the desert and proceeded to jigsaw puzzle all the large items into the van. Luckily for me the Sportsmobile interior is relatively large, my kayaks are relatively small and I have creative packing skills.

After this incident I kept a much slower pace and rolled the van smoothly into the finish of the Mojave Rd. at the Avi Indian Casino. Just a few miles down the highway, in 2nd gear with flashers on, I limped into the transmission shop. They quickly got to work ripping the trans out and accessing the damage. After they had ordered parts they gave me a ride back to the Avi Hotel and Casino. I spent the evening going for a run, cleaning off the desert grime, eating pizza, playing blackjack and seeing the movie “The Dictator.” Not the way I had planned to finish the Mojave Rd, but all good considering:)

Follow the cairns, not signs, to stay on the Mojave Rd.

Dropping down Piute Hill, probably the most technical rock section of the entire trip, just around the next corner. Very steep with lots of sharp rocks. Quite a challenge with such a big heavy rig and “street” tires.

In the end I had an incredible off road experience with amazing new friends, learned some off road driving skills, worked many kinks out of my overland vehicle, and made it to Overland Expo on time. I look forward to many more similar adventures in the near future, minus all the things breaking;)

-Extended FB Album (Lots more quality shots, check it out!)-


David and Anthony’s Mojave Rd Experiences:

-David Croyle’s (White Land Cruiser) Blog: Backroad Navigator (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, GoPro Video)

-Anthony Sicola’s (Desert Land Cruiser) Blog: Overland Nomads (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3)


Other Mojave Rd Resources:

-Quality guided adventures on the Mojave Rd. with Taylor Expeditions

Mojave Desert Outpost camp

Mojave Road Guide Book

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