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Video: The Mojave Road

A self-supported, single-day mission across one of the loneliest stretches of land in the west.

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There aren’t many cycling adventures left that nobody has attempted before, so when I Googled “iconic OHV routes” in a search for somewhere untraveled, one result intrigued me. After close to two decades of chasing the setting sun, there are few California landscapes I have yet to see for the first time, but there are some big chunks of the more distant reaches of the state missing from my personal Strava heatmap. The Mojave was one of those.

I had driven through it many times, on the way to Vegas and beyondski trips to Salt Lake City, mountain biking in Moab, and along its southern fringe to the Grand Canyon and the piney plateaus of northern Arizona. And the high desert pays us a visit annually when the sundowner winds blow hot and strong down coastal Southern California canyons. Now, thanks to Dennis Casebier and the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association, I can now claim a more intimate connection with the endless washes, Joshua Trees, and drifting sand.

From the Colorado River to Camp Cady near present-day Barstow, the Mojave Road is 140 miles of history: centuries of Mojave Indians traveling from spring to distant spring, a few short decades when wagon trains traversing the vastness bought supplies from California to mines in Arizona, a ranching backwater, and a World War II desert warfare training ground.

Not coincidentally, the route links life-sustaining desert springs spaced a day’s travel by foot apart, at 30-mile intervals, more or less, if the springs are flowing and accessible, that is. By the early 1900s, the railroad rendered the doubletrack surplus, and then Casebier painstakingly resurrected it as a motorized recreation trail in the last quarter of the 20th century.

In my research for this project, I found sparse accounts from bikepackers traveling through the Mojave National Preserve, but, as far as I can tell, nobody had attempted to pedal it unsupported in a single push, crossing the desert in one day, reliant only on the springs. I did learn that outside of my pedal-powered bubble, the Mojave Road may still be off the figurative beaten path, but it is a well-established route among the 4×4 campers presently branded as ‘overlanders.’ 

It intrigues me that so little cross-pollination has occurred between these overlapping groups of outdoorspeople; it seems there is a lot of opportunity to experience interesting landscapes by mountain and gravel bike, since the average speeds are similar and we seek out the same terrain, solitude and historical sightseeing.

As it turns out, the full tally of sandy miles was just too far to safely travel in a one day, even for a professional on a relatively cool early spring Sunday with favorable winds. The 122 miles I ultimately completed from Fort Mojave to Afton Canyon are a realistic challenge for a fit and well-supported rider on a mountain bike equipped to tackle the sand. 

I cannot in good conscience recommend attempting the route self-supported as I did; the distances between springs are not insignificant and the supposed year-round water sources may be nothing more than a worthless trickle. Even at my fast pace, the 3-and-a-half liters of water I carried between springs should have been 5, which meant two long stretches of fairly serious dehydration between water stops. This ride isn’t a race, rather it is a water-limited adventure, a logistical challenge, and a dawn-to-dusk tracking of the sun’s arc across the desert sky.

Check out de Jong’s Strava route of The Mojave Road here.