Copper City Limited Use Area

May. 01, 2004 By Michael Mansfield
What is it that makes you want to get out and ride? For each of us this is something a little bit different. Even so, we each have our favorite type of riding and favorite place to ride. I like desert riding and my favorite place to ride is the Copper City area outside of Barstow. It is a Limited Use area managed by the BLM. Even though one must stay on established trails that are posted as Open Routes, there are still many miles of incredible trails to ride.

Bands of color from red to brown to white to green to purple. These are the hills above Rainbow Basin. You can see how it gets its name.

The thing about desert riding is that there is truly a wide variety of terrain. Most of the variety is caused by variations in soil type. Deserts tend to be full of all varieties of rocks and minerals. Each of these rocks and minerals breaks down at a different rate. Rocks and minerals also tend to be found in deposits of like types. The real beauty of the desert is that the deposits can sometimes change every fifty feet or so, resulting in a plethora of variables that sometimes boggles the mind.

As a casual observer watching the desert flow by as you drive to or from Vegas, or even as a casual reader of ORC, one might get the impression that desert riding means either sand or rocky hardpack. While this is somewhat true, what the casual observer misses is that there is a massive range of soil types that ranges from fine blow-sand to massive rock monoliths, and in a days ride it is possible to experience almost everything along that dirt continuum.

The Copper City area is roughly triangular shaped, bordered on one side by Rainbow Basin and the Black Canyon Wilderness area, on another side by Fort Irwin and the Goldstone Tracking Station (NASA) and on the third side by Irwin Road. Within the area is possible to stumble upon mining claims (some still active), an FAA Tower, Microwave Towers, small pockets of civilization and at least one old miner's cabin that is maintained by the locals as a party hangout. Most of the Open Routes are near the peak of the ridge between Rainbow Basin and Superior Dry Lake and are easily accessed off of Copper City Road.

The Copper City area is composed mostly of decomposed granite. This is a soil type that drains well and that also resists rutting or whooping. In the Copper City area the riding ranges from steep hillclimbs to long wide washes. But it's the in-between stuff that is really the most fun. Most of the mid sized hills in this area have trails running along the ridges and in the bottom of the valleys. The ridge trails tend to be very smooth and coated with a fine crystalline topcoat. The valleys are like sand washes, but the sand is not very deep and is the same crystalline structure, so it is easier to navigate than deeper, finer sand that is found throughout the desert.

What is truly amazing about the Copper City area are the incredible views. One of the most incredible sights that I have ever seen in the Mojave Desert is an area called Rainbow Basin, aptly named for its incredible variety of multi-hued mineral deposits. The Copper City area backs up to the Rainbow Basin area, and from many of the trails in the southern part of the riding area one is afforded incredible views of those same multi-hued hills and crags.

If you have the time it is worth taking the short side trip into Rainbow Basin for a view of the desert like you have never seen before. The entrance to this area is off of Fossil Bed Road, which is less than a mile from where Copper City Road intersects with Irwin Road. This is especially important if you are bringing kids because they will thrill at the narrow passages and brilliant colors of the loop that runs through Rainbow Basin. Unless you have a dual sport you won't be able to ride through this area, but it is worth the extra two miles to make the drive through this magical little place. Don't attempt this with a large or long trailer. I have make this loop with a full size lifted Chevy Blazer in the past, so it definitely possible to get through with a large vehicle, but there are some fairly tight turns at the beginning of the loop and the vertical canyon walls do not allow much room for backing up or making three point turns. This loop is well maintained by the BLM and almost always appears to be freshly graded.


More variation in color. This area is directly behind Rainbow Basin.

On the northern side of the Copper City area one is rewarded with a view of the giant valley that leads down to Superior Dry Lake. So what's the big deal about a dry lake? Why is it called Superior? That I don't know. But what is a big deal is the incredible forest of Joshua Trees that fills nearly the entire valley. In fact, the entire area is populated with tremendous numbers of Joshua Trees. This is special because Joshua Trees only thrive in a very specific elevation range with the proper weather conditions. The Copper City area is one of these areas.

As with any Limited Use Area, it is important to stay on the posted trails. The good news about this area is that most of the trails are posted as open. Perhaps this is because this area was never used as a "cross country" area and therefore doesn't have enough scarring to cause the environmentalists to cringe. Regardless, it is a gem of a place. It is also a rather large and hilly area, so it is very easy to get lost. It is a good idea to keep a bearing on the tallest feature in the area so that you can keep some idea of where you are in relation to where you started.

From the access points off of Copper City road, most of the open riding area will be to the West, towards the Black Canyon Wilderness area. One of the best staging areas that I have found is just North of the FAA Tower. The tower is accessed by following a power line road at the crest of the ridge on Copper City Road. You will find that this tower is shown on both the AAA map of Southern California as well as the BLM maps of the area. The unfortunate thing about the BLM maps is that they are in quadrants and the Barstow area falls at the corner of four different quadrants, so to have all of the pertinent information about the area surrounding Barstow you will have to purchase four different maps from the BLM. These are available from the local BLM office in Barstow at six bucks a pop.

Another one of the great things about the Copper City area is that many of the trails will offer the requisite challenge to the more experienced rider while also being passable by those with less time behind the bars. As with most desert riding areas, the real challenge is in going fast. This makes it a perfect area for families, which is most of what you will encounter if you decide to take the effort to check it out.

Did I mention that is easy to get lost in this area? I can't stress this enough. I am originally from the desert and know most of the desert surrounding Barstow like the back of my hand, so if I say it is easy to get lost here you will want to be extra careful. While this can be an imposing thought, what it really means is that you should take your time to get to know the area before venturing too far from the truck. Just remember that if you keep going you will eventually hit a wide dirt road that leads to pavement, a paved road that leads to town, a Wilderness Area that is well marked or a military base that is completely off limits. If you have a basic understanding of the layout of the area this should tell you which direction you need to go to get back to where you started.


This is the view to the northwest from just below the FAA tower. Joshua Trees all of the way to the horizon. Also note the lack of whoops in the trail. This place is an off road paradise.

So, the next time you are looking for a really special place to go to experience the desert as it was meant to be experienced, think about visiting the Copper City area outside of Barstow. And if you do decide to actually get your ass off of the couch and venture out to this part of the desert, please be courteous to the other folks that are there to experience this wonderful place with you. This area attracts families who spend long weekends camping out in the area, many with young children just learning to ride, so be courteous and pick up after yourself. There is more than enough room for everyone here.

To get to the Copper City area, first find your way to Barstow. Once you find Barstow, find Main Street. Take Main Street to First Street. First and Main, hmmm, if you haven't figured it out yet you are now right in the middle of Barstow. Get on First Street heading north. You will know you are going the right direction when you find yourself crossing over a high narrow steel girder bridge. This bridge takes you over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks and is immediately followed by a concrete bridge that takes you over a wide, dry, riverbed. Once over the riverbed take the first left. This is Irwin Road. Follow Irwin Road out of Barstow and up into the hills. After a couple of miles you will cross over the top of the first set of hills and descend into a long, wide valley. The first large marked dirt road on the left that you will see is Fossil Bed Road. The second large marked dirt road that you will see is Copper City Road. At this point you are only a short distance from off road nirvana.

Before you leave home do yourself a favor and find a San Bernardino County map. You can find Barstow on most Internet maps, but you won't find much helpful detail of the Copper City area. There are no maps of the trail system in the Copper City Area, so be prepared to spend some time learning your way around. Again, the Automobile Club of America map of San Bernardino County gives the best detail that I have found for this area.

© 2004 Roost Productions

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