Off-Road Travel: Mojave National Preserve Part I

Dec. 21, 2011 By Jaime Hernandez
Shane Casad leads the way in this ultra-cool Ford Bronco Adventure 4x4 truck.

When the weather cools down, the deserts of the west become a hot spot to visit.  Scenic landscapes, colorful history and adventure await you and your 4x4.

Over two years ago we did the Mojave Road, a historic wagon and trading route which crosses through the Mojave National Preserve. We had such a great time on that off-road adventure that we decided to come back for more.

See Related Article
The Mojave Road: East to West

Spanning over 1.6 million acres, the Mojave National Preserve has over 1,000 miles of dirt trails to explore, all in close proximity to Arizona, Nevada and California.

On this trip, we wanted to venture beyond the Mojave Road and explore other interesting areas within the Mojave National Preserve. We would still use the Mojave Road to access some of these places, but would eventually break off onto other dirt roads in the park.

Planning the trip began with studying a map of the Mojave National Preserve with a group of friends. We quickly realized how many different options there were, and that this was going to be an awesome trip!
FREE Mojave National Preserve Map [PDF]

A wish list was quickly assembled for our off-road adventure: the Afton Caves, Lava Tube, Aiken Mine, Vulcan Mine, Kelso Train Station and the Bonanza King Mine. 

This was a tall order, considering we had limited time and a lot of ground to cover in two days.  We agreed that we would do our best to push our 4x4s around different corners of the Mojave National Preserve in search of adventure. A date was set.

Kevin and Dan crossing the Mojave River.

We got an early start on our off-road adventure by camping at Afton Canyon the night before, just outside the Mojave National Preserve boundary. Traveling east from Afton Canyon, we crossed the Mojave River and continued toward Soda Lake following the Mojave Road.

Exploring a slot canyon known as “Spooky Cave” in Afton Canyon.

On the way, we made a stop at one of the many caves found around Afton Canyon. This particular cave is known as “Spooky Cave.” Formed by wind and water, the cave is carved into rock and dirt. Inside the cave, things get tight and dark--making it a little spooky, but fun.  
The boys enjoyed spelunking inside the Afton Canyon caves.

There are a total of three walls to climb inside the cave, with the last two having ropes. It’s like something out of The Goonies movie.

A littler further up the road we stopped to look at an old railroad boxcar that is buried in the wash along Afton Canyon.  There are different stories on where this car may have come from, including the great Mojave flood of 1928 and a train crash that occurred in the 1970s. In either case, the boxcar was victim to an accident.

Kevin takes a closer look at the old railroad boxcar that has now become part of the landscape surrounding the Mojave River and Afton Canyon, creosote bushes and all.

In those days it was cheaper just to bury the car if it was damaged beyond repair. They also didn’t have strict environmental regulations like we do today.

Back on the road, we continued due east towards Soda Lake. Shane Casad led the way in his ultra-cool Bronco, weaving back and forth around the creosote bushes and rocks marking the trail. 

We arrived at the boundary gate for the Mojave National Preserve. From this vantage point we could see that Soda Lake was dry and passable. On we went.

Soda Lake can be a tricky crossing during wet season. Water quickly fills the dry lake, turning it into one sticky mud bog.

Traveling on the Mojave Road, we reached Kelbaker Rd., located about 21 miles southeast of I-15 and Baker, CA. At this junction, one could take Kelbaker Rd (paved) to access other regions of the park or continue by dirt. We did the latter.

First stop after crossing Kelbaker Rd was the Lava Tube, located in the Lava Bed region of the Mojave. Our friend Kevin had been there before, so he steered us in the right direction. Heading east on the Mojave Road, take the Aiken Mine Rd. north for about 4.5 miles, and then take left at the road fork past a coral. An open area to park vehicles is at the base of a cinder cone.

Getting an inside look at the Lava Tube does require a little hike, 300 yards.  Earlier photos of the area show people having to scramble down volcanic rock to get into the Lava Tube. Today, a sturdy steel ladder safely brings adventure seekers below the earth.

Bring a good flashlight and mind your head, as the ceiling closes down sharply at the entrance to the Lava Tube. 

Once inside, the ceiling height increases, opening up to a dramatic underground cave. Formed by air trapped inside lava flow millions of years ago, colorful walls and ceilings decorate the inner Lava Tube. Spend some time and enjoy it. On sunny days, light beams down into the dark room through holes in the ceiling, giving it an awe-inspiring feeling.

After we got our dose of light from above, the group headed to nearby Aiken Mine.


Not too far from the Lava Tube is the Aiken Cinder Mine, once a busy mining operation that supplied aggregate and construction companies with volcanic cinder from the Mojave. The special material can be found in anything from highway roads to BBQs. It’s even used during the winter on icy roads instead of salt for added traction.

 A little dozer left behind at the Aiken Cinder Mine has been stripped of its diesel engine, but it’s still on track and has plenty of patina.

Even though volcanic cinder has many uses, in 1990 the Aiken Cinder Mine closed its operation, leaving machinery, conveyer belts, heavy equipment and various buildings behind. Being able to actually drive onto the cinder cone of the Aiken Mine and experience the mining operation makes it unique. 

You can walk around the Aiken Cinder Mine and explore, or you can just sit back and take it all in from a comfy chair. Our friend Shane gravitated to this old relic, from which he had a killer 360-degree view.

After spending several hours at the Aiken Cinder Mine, we started making our way towards the Marl Mountains where we would set up camp for the night.

The Aiken Mine Arch is a short walk from main camp.

Darkness quickly fell on the Mojave Desert floor. Shane led us into the night with his bright Baja Designs HIDs, making our travel time to camp much faster and safe. 


Since we were passing by the visitor’s mailbox on the Mojave Road, we had to stop and take a look. Matt had never been here, so we had to show him this amazing find.

While signing the visitor book, we heard something say “ribbit,” sure enough--frogs. Just a few steps from the mailbox we found a collection of frogs. Whether a novelty or just another desert oddity, the frog shrine was fun to look at and listen too.

We made it to the Marl Mountains before midnight. It had been a long day, and everyone was ready to hit the sack. A few night owls hung out by the campfire, melting the day away.

Get Ready for another exciting chapter of off-road travel in the Mojave National Preserve as we venture down into Kelso, leaving the Mojave Road. In Part II we explore the Vulcan Mine, Providence Mountains and the Bonanza King Mine.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the adventure so far. Maybe you’ll start making plans of your own to visit the Mojave National Preserve.

Here are a few resources to get you going.

Mojave National Preserve
2701 Barstow, CA 92311 760-255-8801

Free Maps - Mojave National Preserve
Mojave Guide Books & Maps Online Trail Guide & Topo Maps, including works from Wilderness Press, Adler Publishing and FunTreks.

Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association
Research and conservation of the natural and cultural history of the Mojave Desert region. Also publishes a very detailed guide to the Mojave Road, by Dennis Casebier.

Afton Canyon Natural Area
2601 Barstow Road Barstow, CA 92311 760-252-6000 Newsletter
Join our Weekly Newsletter to get the latest off-road news, reviews, events, and alerts!