Our final planned destination on this Mojave trip was the Aikens Mine Trail, located in what is known as the Cinder Cones and Lava Flows National Natural Landmark, to hopefully locate a lava tube we could explore.
The Mojave National Preserve is a great place to see incredibly diverse evidence of our volcanic past. The previous day we had witnessed the result of an extremely powerful and violent eruption at Hole-in-the-Wall. Our trek this day would take us through an area of relatively recent volcanic activity characterized by thick basalt lava fields and approximately 40 cinder cones. The Mojave desert region has an incredibly fascinating geologically history, and if you're a geek like me and interested in learning more about it I found the best and most interesting information at the U.S. Geological Survey's website here. It does a great job of explaining the forces that shaped this diverse region.
From Kelso Dunes we headed back toward KelbakerRoad, which we took north back past Kelso, essentially making a big loop. This part of Kelbaker Road passes through thick black basalt lava fields and the horizon is dotted with red cinder cones.
I didn't see any signs marking the turnoff for the trail, but I had a waypoint marked in my gps. The trail starts off as an easy, sandy route that winds past a few corrals and water tanks. At one point it crosses the Mojave Road Trail (Old Government Road) and if you continue along the trail you'll eventually reach the spot where the famed Mojave Phonebooth used to be. Even though I had a waypoint marked for the lava tube about 4.5 miles in, I missed the trailhead on our first pass and we continued up the trail where the surface turned to the rough, rocky bed of the lava field.
I was glad I had ten-ply tires (Toad and I both wheel 35" Toyo Open Country M/T's) because those rocks looked sharp. This is the milder part of the trail right near the lava tube:
We drove for miles enjoying the surreal scenery until I looked at my gas guage and noticed I had less than a quarter tank. We stopped to check the maps and realized that we would be pressing our luck to try to make it to Cima Road. Besides, I still wanted to turn around and find the lava tube! So we found a spot to turn around and head back in the direction from which we came. This time, when the waypoint popped up on my gps I saw the trailhead:
There is an area for parking a few feet away where the 2WD road turns into the 4WD road (or vice-versa in this case). Then it's a quarter mile hike up to the lava tube on a well-defined path. The first holes you'll notice are "skylights" into the tube. A little further up the hill is the larger hole with a barely attached metal ladder to use to descend into the tube. We sent Bill down the hole first to test the ladder. And that way he could catch us if the ladder decided to let go of the side of the hole while Toad or I were descending.
As seen in this photo, after climbing down into the hole you can work your way down toward the left into the lava tube. The tube to the right of the ladder has been completely collapsed here, a scary reminder that playing around in here is not entirely without risk. The ceiling is very low at some points, but it becomes much higher in the main chamber. Light is provided by the skylights I mentioned earlier, but this is not a great place for the claustrophobic.
Here's a shot I took from inside the tube looking up that really shows the layers of basalt that make up this landscape:
After exploring the lava tube we continued on up the hillside. The sun was a bit lower in the sky now so Toad and I wanted to spend some time photographing the surrounding landscape while Bill and BullFrog found more holes into the lava tube.
Back in the jeeps we continued retracing our steps on Aiken Mine Road until we reached Kelbaker Road, then started making our way back toward Baker. Every few minutes one of us would get on the CB announcing the need to stop for a photo.
Baker came all too soon. After gassing up we were reluctant to end the trip so we found a Bux (has this always been here?), grabbed some caffeine and broke out the sandwiches from the lunch we never stopped to eat. We people watched the steady stream of customers, most likely on their way to or from Las Vegas since this stretch of the 15 doesn't lead to much else, and shared a few more laughs about our adventures. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset as we caravaned back down the 15 until Toad and BullFrog had to turn off to head up to canyon country and we continued down to Orange County.
The more I visit the desert the more I find to appreciate and photograph. Buying the jeep and modifying it for offroad exploration has been one of the best decisions I've made - in addition to the new photo opportunities, I've made some great friends who enjoy the exploring as much as we do. And there is so much more to see.
Our next trip to the Mojave will be the weekend of February 15th. We'll travel the length of the old Mojave Road with 15 jeeps split into two groups. That many vehicles (and more than 30 people) is going to put a definite damper on my photography, but I've been trying to do this trail since September and it's finally come together so I'm really excited about it. I'll probably use this trip more for scouting purposes, then plan a return trip when I have a better idea of the photo opportunities.