The Mojave Road most closely echoes the path 19th century westbound settlers and eastbound government supply teams followed between the Colorado River near the AZ/CA/NV junction and Barstow en route to Los Angeles. This 35th parallel route based on Indian trails has also been called the Old Spanish Trail, Old Government Road (how it appears on many navigation system maps), and the Mohave Road. It was preferred for having more temperate weather and reliable water than routes further south. Desert travel particularly was all about water at regular intervals.
Much of the Mojave Road is under National Park Service purview in the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve, encompassing a big chunk of southeastern California. Nestled between two interstates, there are paved access roads to north and south, so you needn't run the entire distance if only a few areas interest you.
It is home to geologic formations from mountains to lava beds and tubes, Joshua trees, and after rains like this winter, beautiful wildflower blooms. You'll see old mines and rail lines, and hear the "singing" sand dunes at Kelso (which I'd categorize as more of a monk's chant). We saw birds of prey, wild burros, lizards, and rabbits, and heard or saw evidence of coyotes, cows, and roadrunners. All the while figuring a rattlesnake could be behind any bush. The plan was to enjoy the mesquite scents and make a few stops (the Rock House, Mojave Mailbox) but otherwise make a non-committal east-to-west camping trip of it.
Do as much or little as you like, though the NPS does remind you the desert can be an inhospitable place. Cell service is hit-or-miss, and they specifically recommend against relying solely on automotive GPS navigation. Lower elevations average triple-digit highs four months of the year while upper elevations get snow; in February the temperature at our 2,800-foot campsite dropped to freezing while days were sunny and moderate.
If the entire road is open, it's about 135 miles from the river to western end, but in February expect portions to be closed, potentially making it many miles longer. A 2016 washout closed one section west of Fort Piute for which friends of the desert have established a 14.2-mile detour by the Leiser Ray Mine, while the NPS's 29-mile route of powerline and graded dirt roads lets you make better time. Since the park service site listed Soda Lake "impassable," we had to go at least that far to see for ourselves.
With no traffic – we saw only two other groups in three days – and a truck like a Taco TRD Pro or a Raptor you could cover the road in one day, but if you plan on any exploring and driving only during daylight, allow two nights. It doesn't get much better than a loaded Power Wagon, which has plenty of room for camping supplies, an able chassis, and a comfortable cab.
One could argue a Power Wagon is more able than necessary for the Mojave Road, and as long as everything's going your way it is. However, with questionable weather, that dry lake that wasn't, a long-wheelbase two-wheel drive and a highway-tire four-wheel-drive truck in the convoy, and solo exploring on the agenda, extra capability is always welcome. And then there's the fatigue-fighting factors of relaxed body motions on the trail and a quiet highway ride because from almost anywhere the Mojave Road is a highway ride away.
Southbound from Vegas the PW loafed along with revs in the teens, and despite big towing mirrors sticking out remained quiet enough for normal conversation via Bluetooth. It was also hushed enough to notice when the cylinder-deactivating V8 switched to V4 mode, or maybe feel it; 3.2 liters makes a big four-cylinder, and if you're attuned to such things you'll recognize it. Since this stretch is primarily downhill, I score nearly 20 mpg, which is not to be repeated on the trip. With mileage off-highway anticipated at 10 or less, I gas up at the Avi Casino near Laughlin, Nevada, where it's $1.30/gallon cheaper than the interstate exit stations at Needles, California, just 15 minutes down the road.
Finding mile 0 isn't simple, but Dave Barton's mapping (detailed, updated satellite-image guides based on Dennis Casebier's Mojave Road Guide) gets me to the Colorado River, here 500 feet above sea level. Climbing westward with Barton's notes, basic dead reckoning skills, and the Old Government Road marked on the nav screen, I summit (2,663 feet) the Dead Mountains having logged 11.3 miles on a 10-mile route. And no, the extra distance wasn't wheelspin. Even though four-wheel drive isn't needed, with it engaged and at speeds less than 18 mph the Power Wagon allows its front anti-roll bar to be disconnected for a much gentler ride. Plus having it in four creates less ripple for whoever might follow.
Crossing highway 95 (well marked 4.5 miles south of the Cali-Nev state line, if you choose this portal), the road is a white ribbon etched in the scrub to the base of the Piute Mountains. I meet San Diegans and former Chargers fans Pete and his wife who have "left the NFL, Super Bowl, and Greek food behind" and hit the road in their ZJ Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited V8 with upgraded tires and a roof-mounted tent.
The NPS road closure means backtracking a known road, and I make better speed here than on the interstate. The Power Wagon's extra compression suspension travel, well calibrated Bilsteins, and flexible sidewalls (it's the only three-quarter-ton truck on Load Range D tires) make it surprisingly good for a 7,400-pound truck that also manages highways well. It's a blast literally and figuratively down to the rendezvous at Goff's schoolhouse where Route 66 and Lanfair Road meet. A short trip north nets us a campsite where we discover how bright the LED bed lights really are on a crescent-moon desert night, despite Las Vegas's aura easily discerned from 70 miles away.
Since any speed sections beyond this point will be brief and free of sharp turns, we air down the tires by half, as much for comfort as traction (air is available at interstate stations and we're carrying a small compressor just in case). You can do the trip on street pressure but it's better with less.
There are some rutted sections and small mud holes, but washboard and silty two-track are dominant. Once or twice we drag a differential along a dirt crest and the 2WD truck needs a second try or go-around but it never needs the tow strap. Our group consisted of reasonably skilled drivers and we had the equipment needed to get out or make repairs.
I use the power folding mirrors off-road more than on pavement, in for brush clearance or low-lying sun glare, out to verify no one catching up from behind or noting a cairn at a junction (rock cairns mark most junctions, always on the right traveling west). The shift lever's a convenient handrest but I often trigger the +/- shift button doing that, so maybe the switch should go a little further inboard on the next version. Compared to my buddies in second- and third-generation Ram diesels, I'm living the luxury life – save end-of-the-train dust.
Elevation gain keeps outside temperature the same for nearly three hours in rising desert sun, and on open sections it's clear I've lost some power and the turbodiesels haven't. They're clearly beating me on consumption too, with my trip computer showing 8-9 average mph and mpg, and we're all approaching half a tank despite them doing 150-odd highway miles beforehand. Still, 8 mpg gives me a 200-mile range with a five-gallon fudge factor for gradients, so the reserve fuel can isn't needed.
The road crests at nearly 5,200 feet and there's plenty of snow on east- and north-facing mountains, which top 7,700 feet in the Preserve, but I don't rub it in mentioning heated seats and steering wheel after exploration stops. The Hemi's 391 cubes get as much credit for engine braking as the crawl ratio, and I've single-pedaled most of the road, while the manual-gearbox Cummins pilot hasn't used any feet once the clutch is engaged.
As we approach Soda Lake morning of day three, the white alkali in the distance has blended a mix of light and brown, like sugar dusted on a chocolate cake, and the two-track trail shows more muddy holes. The young ones were loaded into the Wagon and low-range (open diffs) engaged for a little mud play, and my hearing will never be the same – yeah, it would have gone through in high-range, but low makes it easier to spin the tires clean. I think the wallpaper looks better dirty.
Soda Lake is essentially the giant alkali clay basin that absorbs water carried from the San Bernardino Mountains by the Mojave River. Attempting to reach the traveler's monument about two-thirds across it, we sent the 4WD regular cab onto it first, and, once mud began accumulating on tires and directional stability at 3 mph became an issue, reached consensus we would indeed call it impassable with our convoy. We know the 4WD could have gone further, and the Power Wagon beyond that, but we'd had fun so far and the concept of coupling three of them just to get across didn't appeal. And there was rain on the horizon.
So we headed north to Baker, aired up, and set sail for home, the Power Wagon again cruising along soothing and effortless at 70 to 75 mph, doing better than 15 mpg. Instead of using a three-quarter-ton to tow a four-wheeler out there, the Power Wagon was versatile enough to keep us comfortable the entire trip. Maybe that's why the $60,000 sticker no longer seems quite so shocking.