It’s no secret that the Mojave desert is a hotbed for fans of overlanding— the outdoor sport that involves driving off-road vehicles deep into the backcountry. In many ways, the Mojave’s current magnetism for the overland community goes back hundreds of years, long before Jeeps, Earthroamers, Land Cruisers, and Tacomas were invented.
The predecessors of today’s most popular overlanding vehicles (not to mention most types of RVs) were the stagecoaches and wagons that traversed the California desert, delivering mail, goods, and passengers to remote mining towns and settlements. One of those, the oddly named Zzyzx, California, is still an amazing place to explore on four wheels, with abundant overland trails.
Overlanding Trails in the Mojave Desert
One of the most popular, and iconic overland trails in the Mojave desert is the aptly named Mojave Road. Once it was used by the Mohave Indians, and was first traversed by missionaries in the 1700s during Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition. Later, the U.S. military expanded what was then known as the Old Government Road for use by troops between Mojave Fort and Camp Cady. Today, it’s popular with the 4x4 set, running 117 miles from Zzyzx to Piute Spring near Barstow.
The Mojave Road
Depending on the time of year, sand, snow, and even cactus spines can present additional challenges, and make your overland drive even more exciting. And either direction you drive, you’ll be rewarded at the end with either the Colorado River or Mojave River— a nice sight for sore eyes after days of desert driving.
The Mojave Road makes for a stunning two or three day trek with plenty of twists, turns, and chances to test your mettle against technical terrain. You can camp along the way in Afton Canyon, a BLM campground with water and and pit toilets. There are also a handful of RV parks and KOAs closer to Barstow that, if not on the Mojave Road, are at least in the vicinity.
Photo credit: Nicole R.
At the opposite end of the trail is the oddly named Zzyzx, California, formerly known as Soda Springs. For many years, this desert spring was a waystation for anyone traveling along the Mojave Trail, before it became a road. Later, it was considered important enough that military garrisons cropped up around it.
Eventually, a town was founded by a charlatan posing as a doctor who rebranded Soda Springs as Zzyzx, hoping to brand his spa destination in such a way that it would appear clearly at the end of every dictionary. Despite the cunning PR strategy, Soda Springs never became the next Allegheny Springs or Breitenbush, but the peculiar name of Zzyzx stuck.
Aiken Mine Road
10,000 years ago, the Mojave Desert was even hotter than it is today— because it was flowing with lava. You can still see the cinder cones dotting the landscape from Interstate 15 as you drive north from Zzyzx to Baker, California, and then down Kelbaker Road toward Kelso. A popular overland trail called the Aiken Mine Road juts north off Kelbaker Road between miles 15 and 19 toward a lava tube left behind during the last eruptions in the Mojave.
Photo Credit: Amanda D.
You can absolutely get out and explore the lava tube, which is accessible by ladder, before continuing on for the rest of the Aiken Mine Road’s twenty four miles to where it eventually reconnects with I-15. Along the way, you’ll have a prime opportunity to observe the 35 cinder cones in the area.
Most are no longer pristine, thanks to the mining that took place here before national protections were put into place. They are still beautiful though, and a fun insight into the geologic history that made the Mojave the playground overlanders love today. Bring along a camp grill as part of your overland equipment and eat out under the stars!
Even More Overland Trails
The Mojave Road and Aiken Mine Road are two of the most popular overland trails in the Mojave Desert, but there’s many more to explore, too. The Colosseum Mine trail weaves through the Clark Mountains past an old open-pit gold mine, ghost town cabins, and the famous Kingston Range Wilderness Area. There you’ll find the Kingston Wash Trail, a recognized OHV route that connects to the Excelsior Mine Road.
Photo credit: Stephanie W.
Cow Cove is a short overland trail with exciting payoff near the Mojave Cinder Cones. After turning west off Aiken Mine Road near Button Mountain, you can park on the wide dirt road and hike a mile or more into a field of scattered basalt that speaks as loudly as the cinder cones to the area’s volcanic history. Even more spectacular, however, are the ancient petroglyphs carved into all that basalt, a little treasure left behind by the Mohave people for whom the park is named.
In the springtime, it’s hard to beat the overland trails near Cima Road for the profusion of wildflowers and cacti. Get out and hike the Teutonia Peak Trail if you feel the need to stretch your legs. It’s a 3 mile lightly trafficked out and back trail up a 5,000 foot mountain overlooking this relatively lush corner of the Mojave. Near Cima there is also one of the largest stands of Joshua Trees you’re likely to see, as well as the famously round Cima Dome.
As you explore the numerous old mine trails, modern overland trails, and seldom-trafficked highways of the Mojave Desert, it’s incredible to think about how ancient most of these thoroughfares are. Whether they were footpaths used by the Mohave and missionaries, old wagon and stagecoach lines, or paths cut by mining companies looking for gold, these overland trails have stories. So next time you get the itch to kick your 4x4 into gear, head to Zzyzx!