It all began, as the story goes, with an article in the October, 2005 OFF ROAD ADVENTURES four wheel drive magazine (pgs 40-42) that so captured my imagination that I just HAD to go there. I get these “musts” from time to time, and this one so consumed me that I spread it all over Ed4 and elsewhere. Its photos of Burro Schmidt’s cabin and tunnel, Last Chance Canyon, Bickel Camp, and an old hand-painted roadsign in the desert (that I never did find) combined with its accounts of the area and past adventures attracted me irresistibly. When my daughter, Mallory, whom I had unsuccessfully tried to get to go wheeling with me for all the years I’d owned my Rubicon, told me around Christmas that she would like to go on my next desert adventure wheeling trip, IT WAS ON!!! Just a few days after she’d returned from a trip to Europe, Mallory and I loaded up the Jeep, and trailered it down I-5, out highway 58 through the Tehachapi pass and towards the Mojave Desert. North up highway 14 about a dozen miles or so from 58, we stopped at the Jawbone Station, a Mecca for ATV and dirt bike riders. Zillions of them! We were the only Jeep rig there, but all made us feel welcome. A quarter of a mile on up the road, we stopped and visited at the BLM’s Jawbone Station Visitors Center (1-760-384-5400). Mr. Bob, the resident desert tortoise who is 112 years old, lives there, but he was not greeting folks that time of the year (he was underground and in hibernation). We turned off of 14 at the Inyokern turnoff to head east towards China Lake and Ridgecrest where we stayed at the Best Western China Lake Inn in Ridgecrest (comfy room, pool, continental breakfasts, friendly staff).
On day 2 (28 March, 2010), we are off in the Jeep heading into the desert to do the Last Chance Canyon and Burro Schmidt Tunnel runs. Today was a test run, the very first ever trail use, of my new Garmin 550t navigation device. It performed spectacularly. Using its route planner ability, I had preloaded the 18 GPS waypoints for Last Chance Canyon (10.6 mile run), and the 17 waypoints for the Burro Schmidt Tunnel trail (14.9 mile run) which were given in the book, Backcountry Adventures, Southern California by Peter Massey and Jeanne Wilson.. Said book had been recommended in the Off Road Adventures magazine article cited above, and had magically been provided to me by Santa (Mallory) for Christmas.
Mallory saw the desert for her first time! It was wonderful. We passed old mine tunnels and relics of old mining operations as we worked our way up the mountain from the Randsburg-Red Rock Road and into the Red Rock Canyon State Park. Desert scrub and creosote bush was the predominant vegetation. Such a difficult place to have worked and survived in the desert heat! Most of the way was easy driving, however there were a few waterfalls, one piece of awful off camber driving, and a vertical rock face we scaled that Mallory confessed later to think we could not make. We followed three other rigs up the canyon, passed on doing the Dutch Cleanser Mine loop road, and found our way to the Bickel Camp. Collectables from nearly 100 years were collected there, and photos were avidly collected by yours truly. My only regret is that a totally delightful vintage tin panel truck shown in the Backroads Adventures book had been removed from the camp and, per the caretaker on site, taken to the home of the president of Friends of Bickel Camp in Inyokern. Booooooooo!!!
After resting at the Bickel Camp, we followed our maps and GPS unit to the Burro Schmidt Tunnel near the top of Copper Mountain’s ridge in the El Paso Wilderness mountains. An eccentric old prospector named William Henry “Burro” Schmidt, who had tired of digging fruitlessly for the mother lode at too many prior sites to count, decided he would tunnel straight through Copper Mountain and find gold in a vein. He began in 1906, and came out the other side of the mountain in 1938, 1,872 feet later (or 2030 feet later, depending on whose literature you believe) as broke as when he had begun. He died in 1954, still looking for the big bonanza, bless his heart!
My daughter and I, accompanied by six other intrepid adventurers and a friendly pit bull, with two flashlights (mine and Mal’s), walked all the way through the tunnel and back (except for Mallory who hiked up and over the ridge to get back to the tunnel’s start with a few others). Exciting! Hard rock all the way; no shoring at all but for a few feet at each end. At the south (far) end, after a hundred yards or so of bending down because of lower tunnel ceiling resulting from Schmidt’s advancing years and shrinking stature, we came out onto a big tailings pile 1,500(?), 2,000(?) feet in elevation above the miles and miles of the great salt pan on the valley floor below us. A truly MARVELOUS view. We passed by the old Bonanza Gulch Post Office, a number of old mine locations, and through a beautiful area of Joshua and Yucca trees before finding our way back to highway 14 and thus to Ridgecrest. The Burro Schmidt trail was all SUV trails (easy driving).
On day three, my daughter stayed in Ridgecrest while I drove the Sheep Spring Trail (12 miles of moderate or easy trail) with one other Jeeper. We went up Mesquite canyon (a virtual freeway) off the Randsburg Road, and stopped at both Gerbracht and Colorado camp (mining center) sites. Only a fireplace and some foundations remain of the latter camp; nearly nothing remains of the former. As the trail wended its way along the southern boundary of the El Paso Wilderness where no motorized vehicles at all are allowed, the trail became more scenic, more difficult, and more beautiful. A large packrat’s nest in a wind hollowed sandstone rock reminded me of my garage with the door opened!
I came to the Sheep Spring advertised in the book, and was quite disappointed. Although I walked a length of the creek bed, all I found was one tiny bit of damp sand in a sharp turn in the watercourse, and that was located only after digging with my walking stick. No solace for the wild things there! However, all was not lost. A quarter of a mile farther down the trail, I came to a hillside where an underground water source was apparently year round. Man had developed a fenced off, cement encased sheltered pool of water under ground level which the wildlife accessed by walking down a concrete ramp. This made me happy. Near this developed water was the site of a Native American camp site. Across the dry stream from the camp was a hillside on which sat many large boulders. Among these boulders, some had petroglyphs made by the old ones. I found a beautiful turtle, and four other petroglyphs after extensive hunting (photos, of course, taken). I never could find the really nice petroglyph shown in the Backcountry Adventures article about Sheep Spring Trail although I tried. Both alack and alas plus drat!!!
And now for the MISERY! My daughter had picked up a bad flu or cold on her return from Europe. For three nights, I listened to her drowning in her lungs sleeplessly all of each night, struggling to breathe, and trying to tough it out to get through our desert trip. Finally, I had to take her to the hospital in Bakersfield to see a doctor. We decided to abort our trip and return home. So, we did not pass through the Panamint Valley Days encampment, see Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, Artist’s Palette, Furnace Creek,, Badwater, or stay in the Tepee at Cindy’s in the Tacopa hot springs area prior to visiting the China Ranch Date farm and hiking trails thereabout as we had been going to do. Que la lastima!! To her credit, Mallory says she wants to go on another desert trip another time when she is well. So-----Maybe I succeeded in infecting her with the RIGHT kind of bug----the wheeling bug!!
KEEP ON WHEELING!!