California’s desert river provides the impetus for exploring mountain scenes, museums, and a ghost town “” all found between Baker and San Bernardino.
By Bert Millspaugh, F272425
Southern California’s Mojave Desert is the home of a strange river that tumbles down the wrong side of a mountain, flows in the wrong direction, runs beneath its own riverbed, rises occasionally to the surface, and then disappears under desert sands.
But this is nothing new. The Mojave River has been behaving this way for hundreds of years, puzzling Spanish missionaries, American pathfinders, and desert newcomers. Over the years the river has been used as a trade route, a missionary trail, and an emigrant pathway.
Today the river is again offering its water and shores to the modern pioneer “” the RVer. Many large recreational areas have been built along its 147-mile length, with most of them containing excellent campgrounds for motorhomes. All are easily accessible from Interstate 15. This article will follow the Mojave River and its recreation sites from north to south, beginning near the town of Baker and ending near San Bernardino.
Millions of years ago, this desert land was lush. But eventually lakes became crusted salt playas covered by desert sand. As if to protect itself, the Mojave River went underground to prevent the loss of its water by evaporation. Today, except after periods of heavy rainfall, it travels beneath the sand of its own riverbed, surfacing only where underground obstructions force it into the desert sunlight.
Modern-day adventurers should begin their journey where Father Francisco Garces discovered the Mojave River in 1776 at the eastern entrance to Afton Canyon. The Spanish missionary had crossed the dry desert from the Colorado River, tired and thirsty, when suddenly the waters of the Mojave appeared out of the sand. Garces noted in his diary: “I found a streambed filled with rather brackish water.” He followed this river toward the Pacific coast, a route Indian traders had used for hundreds of years.
In 1826 American trapper Jedediah Smith reached the stream and named it the Inconstant River. Captain John C. Fremont dubbed it “Mohahve” in 1844 after Indians living along the Colorado River.
In 1851, members of the Mormon Battalion led the first wagons along the river and, in 1885, the first train followed the riverbed. Prior to World War I, automobile enthusiasts braved the ruts and rocks of what later became U.S. Route 66 and State Route 91. Today I-15 follows most of its length.
Perhaps the strangest caravan to travel the old river trail was Lieutenant Edward Beale’s herd of camels in the 1850s. It was part of an Army experiment called the U.S. Camel Corps. Beale was assigned to lead an expeditional land survey that included 25 camels among a retinue of soldiers, horses, and mules.
Afton Canyon Natural Area, operated by the Bureau of Land Management, offers today’s traveler the same solitude it gave Father Garces. Visitors can view the wildlife and enjoy the narrow stream (the river runs aboveground here) surrounded by multicolored cliffs. Cathedral-like spires eroded by rain and wind reach skyward along clay plateaus reminding one of medieval fortresses standing guard over the winding trickle of water.
Afton Canyon Natural Area is three miles off Interstate 15 between Barstow and Baker. The preserve is sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of the Mojave.” Its no-hookup campground is primitive compared to the other campgrounds along the Mojave River, but it offers a quiet peacefulness that is missing in most. The campsites are found among willows and cottonwoods where the snowy egrets fly silently above the marshes. For camping information, phone (760) 252-6000 or visit www.ca.blm.gov/barstow.
After visiting Afton Canyon, travel southwest on I-15 to visit the old mining town of Calico, a ghost town brought back to life. The lovely multicolored rocks there “looked as purty as a gal’s calico skirt,” according to a local miner, and so the town got its name. Today Calico is a popular tourist destination. Born in the silver rush of 1881, Calico produced $86 million in silver and $45 million in borax. After silver went bust in the 1890s, the town survived for a while on borax revenues.
Calico owes its revival to Walter Knott, founder of the Knotts Berry Farm theme park in Anaheim. Knott purchased the Calico property in 1951 and set out to recapture the town’s heyday by restoring many of the dilapidated structures. In 1966 he donated the site to San Bernardino County, which now operates Calico as part of a 480-acre regional park.
Visitors to this hamlet of the past can ride the Calico-Odessa Railroad; tour the tunnel of the Maggie Mine; inspect a house made of bottles, as well as a mysterious “crooked” house; and view historical documents from Calico’s years of glory. Actors in period costumes bring the past alive with gunfights, and stagecoach and train rides are offered. And when it’s time for a snack, try Lil’s Saloon, one of three restaurants on Main Street. A variety of stores, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith, and a gold-panning operation also will amuse and entertain you.
Various festivals are held at Calico throughout the year. The most renowned is the Ghost Haunt in October, which takes visitors to a “haunted” silver mine, provides rides on a train of terror, and visits scary parts of China Town. This President’s Day weekend “” February 15, 16, and 17, 2003 “” a Civil War re-enactment will take place at Calico. Military drills, skirmishes, and battles will be presented twice each day. An Abraham Lincoln re-enactor will review the troops, talk about the Civil War, and read the Gettysburg Address.
Calico Ghost Town is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to dusk. The shops and attractions are open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children 6 to 15, and free for children age 5 and under.
Calico also has its own campground, located in the canyons below the hamlet. The campground is as green and shady as the hills surrounding Calico are stark and barren. It offers 46 full-hookup sites, 58 partial-hookup sites, and many amenities. Admission to the ghost town is included in camping fees, except during special events. For more information about the RV park or Calico itself, phone (800) 862-2542 or visit www.calicotown.com. To reach the ghost town, take Calico Road north off I-15 nine miles east of Barstow.
Other points of interest within the area include the colorful hills behind Calico and the massive Barstow railroad terminal. At the Calico Early Man Site, east of Calico off I-15, scientists found prehistoric stone tools in 1942 that are believed to be more than 50,000 years old. Visitors can take a guided tour of the archaeological site and view examples of artifacts. The site is open Wednesday through Sunday, and a small admission fee is charged. Phone (760) 252-6000 for more information, or visit www.ca.blm.gov/barstow/calico.html.
The town of Barstow once was a river junction of the Old Spanish, Mormon, and Mojave trails. It grew with the rush of prospectors in 1881 and the founding of an Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad terminal in 1886. Its current circumstances place it at the intersection of I-15 and Interstate 40, making it the hub of railway and roadway traffic to and from Southern California. Its main street is part of historic Route 66.
Barstow capitalizes on its historical importance with a variety of antiques shops that line the memorable roadway, as well as many museums. The Mojave River Valley Museum contains a collection of artifacts that begin with early man (from the Calico Early Man site) and includes gemstones and minerals, historical photos, and items from today’s space exploration. Probably the most unusual item on display is the “headless horseman,” the skeleton of a man without a skull that was uncovered in the desert in 1965. Outside the museum is a Santa Fe Railroad drover caboose, historical mining equipment, and an early 20th-century iron strap jail. The museum is open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and admission is free. Phone (760) 256-5452 or visit www.mvm.4t.com.
Barstow’s Desert Discovery Center, a BLM-run museum, offers exhibits such as tools from the Calico Early Man Site; footprint castings of prehistoric camels, horses, bear-dogs, saber-toothed cats, and small dinosaurs; and a desert trail that visitors can explore. But without a doubt the most amazing item featured is the second-largest meteorite ever found in the United States: the Old Woman Meteorite. It weighs 5,128 pounds now; a 942-pound piece of the original meteorite was removed for study by scientists with the Smithsonian Institution. Like most large meteorites, it’s composed mostly of iron.
The Desert Discovery Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; phone (760) 252-6060 for more information.
If you remember Harvey Houses, legendary in Western railroad travel, you’ll want to be sure to visit Barstow’s former rail depot/restaurant/hotel complex. This building was called Casa del Desierto, or House of the Desert. The Harvey House restaurant was one of many that once existed throughout the West at Santa Fe Railroad stops. The restaurants provided good food, served by women in distinctive black-and-white outfits who were known as Harvey Girls.
The restored building sports Spanish-Moorish-style architecture. It opened in 1911, closed in 1971, and was recently renovated to look as it did when built. It is not yet completely occupied again, but two museums are located in different wings of the building. The Barstow Route 66 “Mother Road” Museum displays photographs and artifacts related to the road, and offers a gift shop with books and souvenirs. The Western American Railroad Museum is filled with railroad artifacts, including dining-car china, watches, and maps. Outside, an engine, a passenger car, and two cabooses are displayed. Both museums are open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and admission is free.
The area’s beautiful desert land is revealed at Owl Canyon and Rainbow Basin, eight miles north of Barstow. Semiprecious stones, petrified wood, and animal fossils have been found entombed in the sediment in this area. Nearby, the massive Mojave National Preserve contains an immense variety of desert plants and animals. Golden eagles and red-tailed hawks glide on warm air currents above sidewinders, desert tortoises, majestic bighorn sheep, and mule deer. A primitive BLM campground is located in Owl Canyon. Phone (760) 252-6000 or visit www.ca.blm.gov/barstow/basin.html for more information.
Our next stop along the Mojave River trail is 840-acre Mojave Narrows Regional Park, just south of Victorville. This preserve encompasses a verdant valley above a rocky gorge that locals call the “Narrows,” where the Mojave River once again rises to the surface. Here, the most famous bridge to cross the Mojave River “” Rainbow Bridge “” was built. Its height ensured that raging flash-flood waters would not wash it away. Today the Rainbow Bridge still stands, but a modern four-lane span has replaced it.
Camping at Mojave Narrows offers plenty of family fun. Kids like to join in fishing, feeding ducks and geese, and rolling in the grass. Lakes with intriguing lagoons are stocked with trout and catfish, and rowboats and pedal boats are available for fishing or pleasure. Horses may be rented for trail rides at the park. For those who like to go on foot, 10 miles of hiking paths are available, and a paved nature trail accommodates wheelchairs. Acres of picnic grounds await the visitor. The pastureland within the park contains an abundance of cattle, horses, and even a few camels. Could they be descendants of Lt. Beale’s herd? Beavers, coyotes, bobcats, and smaller animals live in the park, and more than 150 species of wild birds and waterfowl have been seen.
The campground at Mojave Narrows Regional Park was designed to accommodate RVers, with level pads and several camping areas for large groups. Full hookups are available. For more information, contact the park at (760) 245-2226 or visit www.co.san-bernardino.ca.us/parks/Mojave.html.
One of the biggest landmarks in Victorville is the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, accessible via the Roy Rogers Drive exit off of I-15. A statue of Trigger stands outside, and his “hoof prints” lead you to the door. Inside are hundreds of exhibits containing personal and professional memorabilia belonging to Roy and Dale. The museum will take you back to the days when the original Sons of the Pioneers music group was popular, and Roy was the “King of the Cowboys.”
This will likely be your last chance to see the museum in California, for it is being moved to Branson, Missouri. As of presstime, officials at the museum had not yet set a final closing date, but they said the museum would remain open until sometime in March 2003. For updated information, phone the museum at (760) 243-4547 or (760) 243-4548, or visit www.royrogers.com/museum.html.
The history of the Victorville area is detailed in the Victor Valley Museum & Art Gallery, where stories from the past join cultural arts of the high desert of the Mojave. A painting of Father Garces and a desk and hutch that belonged to John C. Fremont can be seen near a historic stagecoach that traveled the old Mojave River road. The facility is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m. Phone (760) 240-2111 or visit www.vvmuseum.com for more information.
Following Father Garces’ trail upriver as it disappears beneath the sand, we arrive at Mojave River Forks Regional Park. This reserve is 15 miles south of Victorville near the confluence of West Fork and Deep Creek “” or the Forks, as it is locally known. In 1971 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built an earthen flood-control dam across the Forks; in 1973 they added a 600-acre campground on a flat plain just above it. The campground offers full-hookup, electric-only, and no-hookup sites. Rest rooms and showers also are available.
RVers who stay at this campground will find themselves parked in the high desert country among tall juniper and sycamore trees, with level sites, picnic spots, large group areas, and wooded nature and equestrian trails. A variety of squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and quail can be seen, and in the evenings, mule deer often browse within the park boundaries under a mantle of stars.
A hike up Deep Creek is a must for those staying at the Forks. The dry, barren hills slowly become covered with trees, and tumbling waterfalls appear. The cool ponds in this area become swimming pools for many young campers and hikers. Nearby Hesperia Lake is regularly stocked with fish. For information about camping at Mojave Forks, phone (760) 389-2322.
The last stop along this Mojave River journey is Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area, on the timber-covered slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains. The lake was formed by the 249-foot-high Cedar Springs Dam as part of the California Water Project, which brings water 400 miles from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The state park and adjacent National Forest land combine to provide more than 5,300 acres of recreational space. Deer, bears, and many other wild animals roam the forest, and the lake provides territory for waterfowl.
The recreation area has facilities for camping, picnicking, fishing, swimming, waterskiing, and boating. The marina offers rental boats, fishing supplies, and snacks. A no-hookup campground with a 34-foot length limit, a dump station, and coin-operated showers is available; phone (760) 389-2281 for more information. The recreation area can be reached from the Mojave Forks campground or by taking State Route 138 from I-15 north of San Bernardino.
Father Garces crossed the mountains near here and continued on to San Gabriel Mission. And although the end of the trail is in sight, it’s only the beginning of your Mojave River adventure. Whether you come to look into the past or just to enjoy a weekend, these stops provide wonderful opportunities for both.
Barstow Area Chamber of Commerce
409 E. Fredricks St.
Barstow, CA 92312
Victorville Chamber of Commerce
14174 Green Tree Blvd.
Victorville, CA 92392
In addition to the campgrounds mentioned in the text, the following commercial RV parks (which offer full hookups) can be found in the area. This may not be a complete list, so please check FMC’s “Business Directory” (found in the January and June issues of FMC magazine and online at www.fmca.com) or consult your favorite campground directory.
35250 Outer Hwy. 15
Yermo, CA 92398
Shady Lane RV Camp
36445 Soapmine Road
Barstow, CA 92311
Victorville/Inland Empire KOA
16530 Stoddard Wells Road
Victorville, CA 92392
Desert Willow RV Resort
12624 Main St. W.
Hesperia, CA 92345
San Bernardino KOA Campground, C8606
1707 Cable Canyon Road
San Bernardino, CA 92407