Lori Carey Photography

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Northwestern Mojave - Last Chance Canyon, Sheep Springs, Burro Schmidt Tunnel and Nightmare Gulch

Wow, what a fantastic weekend we had running with the Project-JK folks through the neopolitan ice cream colored hills of Red Rock Canyon State Park and the El Paso Mountains Wilderness in the northern Mojave desert. This area gets a 10 for the wheeling, a 10+ for the scenery, and a 10 for the cultural sites. The colorful landscape of Red Rock Canyon State Park has been the location of many films and commercials, including Jurassic Park. This is definitely a place that rates a return visit (or several) when I can take my time to do more exploring and really concentrate on the photography. Oh yeah, and the weekend definitely rated off the charts for the camaraderie.

El Paso Mountains Wilderness

When WoL posted up the trip as a newbie run (to get new jeep owners familiar with their jeeps and offroad procedures, techniques, etc.), a whole bunch of not-so-newbies signed up for the trip because this is such a great location and we ended up with 25 (maybe 26?) vehicles all together (we even had a TJ and an H3 join us). We split into two groups, with Trailbud leading the experienced wheelers in Group 1 and WoL leading the OffRoad 101 group. Since I was running with Group 1, I photographed our wheeling while the WoL team was back with the other group.

NotMySonsJK climbing out of the wash in Last Chance Canyon

The Last Chance Canyon trail starts in Red Rock Canyon State Park off Randsburg-Red Rock Road. Massey and Wilson rates it a 5 for difficulty because the formed trail rides alongside the river wash. To increase the difficulty you can ride in the wash and tackle rocky sections that require strategic wheel placement to avoid underbody damage and a little ledge climb. Of course this was the route we took. The steepest section of the trail can't be avoided; it's a low-traction climb out of the wash that earns the trail the 5 rating. There is a choice of choosing to climb on rocky dirt with better traction or smooth-faced rock that requires good tires. Guess which one we took?

Riding along in Group 1 we had Trailbud leading the way, FunN4Lo, NotMySonsJK, serveapurpose, Lensman, his friend Joe in the H3, MrBash, artpics and jkpirate. We started the trail ready for adventure while WayOfLife conducted a basics class for Group 2. I missed shooting the first obstacle, a little ledge climb because I was concentrating on my wheeling, but since I was near the front of the line I made sure to shoot on the next big obstacle and even let Bill take the wheel for one so I could shoot him.

Here's Trailbud climbing out of the wash:
Trailbud climbing out of the wash in Last Chance Canyon

FunN4Lo climbing out of the wash in Last Chance Canyon

and Lensman:

serveapurpose navigating a rocky section:
serveapurpose navigating a rocky section in Last Chance Canyon

MrBash having a little fun:
serveapurpose having a little fun in Last Chance Canyon

artpics putting his stock Rubi to the test:
artpics putting his stock Rubi to the test in Last Chance Canyon

jk pirate in the rock garden:
jkpirate in the rock garden at Last Chance Canyon

and NotMySonsJK watching his son at the wheel in the rock garden:

I've got to hand it to Joe; we gave him a lot of abuse about his H3 and he was a really good sport about it. We gave him even more abuse when he got hung up on the rocks a few minutes into the trail and we had to strap him out. He was still laughing and having fun when he got hung up again and the guys really let the abuse fly while strapping him off the rocks. Street tires are not a good choice for this trail unless you remain on the formed trail.

We reached a section that was marked closed, and not sure of which way to go we started heading down a trail that appeared to parallel the Last Chance Canyon trail to try to get WayOfLife on the CB. We had planned to wait for Group 2 before making the steep climb out of the canyon anway, so we found a spot that was bordered by beautiful pink cliffs where some of us stopped for us lunch while Trailbud tried to get WoL on the CB and FunN4Lo and serveapurpose went off to investigate another trail.

When Trailbud determined that Group 2 was at least an hour behind us and FunN4Lo told us they found an incredible overlook, the rest of Group 1 decided to ride up to the top. Wow, what a view (it's the first pic in this post; the elevation was 3800 feet and there was a nice cool breeze blowing. We found a mine shaft and a little ways down below was an old cabin. This area is filled with old mines and mining camps, including the "Old Dutch Cleanser", the Cudahy Camp and the Bickel Camp.

After enjoying the view and the breeze for a while we finally heard Group 2 on our CBs and headed back down to the wash to meet up with them. WayOfLife showed us where we missed the turn for the climb out of the canyon (oops!) and all 25 vehicles lined up in preparation to make the climb. Trailbud and I went up to the front of the line to (unsuccessfully) try to convince WayOfLife to let Group 1 in the front of the line, and as we were walking back to our jeeps someone asked me where my jeep was. Would you believe that Bill jumped in my jeep and took off into the wash to try to worm his way up front?! I think he was jealous that I was having all the fun again, but there I was with no jeep and the group driving off. I jumped into Trailbud's passenger seat, but my camera was still back in my jeep. The climb up that rock was really cool and I'm mad that I didn't get any photos of it, but at least Bill had a few minutes of fun even though he still got stuck in the back of the line (hehe).

Everyone did a great job with the climb, even the newbies with the stock jeeps took the hard line and I'll bet it really increased their confidence level with their jeeps. Once everyone was at the top Group 2 needed to stop for lunch and Group 1 was too hot to sit in the sun and wait, so we took off "supposedly" to head out toward Sheep Spring where many of us were camping for the night. I say supposedly because no one really knew where they were going. I won't name any names as to who was leading the group at what point in time, but we had a great time riding all of the different trails in the area! At one point we found ourselves at the 14, so we aired up the people who weren't spending the night while we tried to figure out which trail to take next. We were out having a great time and doing a lot of wheeling, and we weren't in any danger of being seriously lost, so I was having fun.

"Who's got the map?"
Who's got the map?

One surprising thing I noted is that while the wildflower bloom is almost over in most of the location's we've been, it seemed to be just getting started out here, even at the lower elevations. The joshua trees were just getting ready to bloom, and there were specimens of several different flowers at their peak or even still just budding. I haven't processed most of those shots yet, but here's a Mojave Aster I found at our "Top of the World" location:

Mojave Aster

We eventually figured it out and found our way to the campsite at Sheep Springs. We were hot, tired and dirty, but when Team Jasoncliff handed me a frozen margarita I was in heaven! Yes, they actually had a frozen drink maker hooked up to their jeep battery, I never did think to ask how they managed to carry/make enough ice to serve frozen margaritas to the entire crowd all night long. Wow, that was absolutely the best treat at the end of a hot desert day.

Things only got better as MrBash and his uncle started cooking up Armenian barbecue for everyone. OMG it was soooo incredibly good. The party was in full swing! It was a great time with old friends and new. Sticking around to camp for the night was the WayOfLifes, FunN4Lo, NotMySonsJK and his son Bobby (Fun's brother), MrBash and his uncle, Toad and BullFrog, TeamMazzman, JKPirate, jasoncliff and family, and Trailbud. JKTyrant and a buddy drove up that evening and joined us too. It was a long hot and since most of us had been up since 4am, after gorging ourselves on MrBash's barbecue, frozen margaritas, and of course the usual bottle of Jamesons, most of us went to our tents pretty early. By the way Trailbud, Bill said you passed his bottle around and didn't save any for him!

I was up before the sun and stumbling around in the dark trying to be quiet so I didn't wake anyone up, but I don't think I was successful. There were large rocks between me and my jeep and I kept tripping over them - I'm not very coordinated before my coffee. Got the fire going and put coffee on. Pre-sunup is always my favorite time in camp; a few minutes of peace watching the world coming alive again. We were surrounded by hills so I didn't get any good sunrise light once again. JKPirate was up shortly after I was, and then Trailbud who is another early riser. Everyone was excited about another day wheeling, so the rest of the group was soon awake and cooking breakfast, and we were packed up in record time. PoorDad had planned to ride up to meet us in the morning so he could do the trails with us, and we had some time to kill before he showed up. JKPirate had told me that there were petroglyphs on the hill behind our campsite so most of us took a walk to check them out.

Sheep Springs is historic Kawaiisu indian territory; it was an important water location for the indians and still is for the desert bighorn sheep. Most of the petroglyphs are Great Basin curvilinear or rectilinear shapes which are difficult to interpret because the elements may have meaning only known to the shaman who created it. The El Paso mountains are also the southern limit of the Coso Style bighorn sheep petroglyphs, which have boat-shaped bodies, skinny legs, and horns extending to the sides. On the hill behind the stream there are hundreds of petroglyphs carved into the rocks.

Kawaiisu petroglyph at Sheep Springs in the El Paso Mountains, California

I wish I had researched this location before we spent the night so I knew a little more about the petroglyphs beforehand. I can recognize a water glyph, and the sheep are usually pretty easy to recognize, but there are a lot of petroglyphs here that seem to be entopic image, created by the optic nerve of a shaman as he entered into a trance-like state as part of his vision quest.

On this one I can clearly make out three teepees at the bottom:

Kawaiisu petroglyph at Sheep Springs in the El Paso Mountains, California

We thought that may have been because this was the perfect spot for the indians to stay - it was high flat ground with a 360 degree view of the surrounding area and running water.

The view from the top of the hill at Sheep Springs in the El Paso Mountains

Kawaiisu petroglyph at Sheep Springs in the El Paso Mountains, California

Water glyphs point the way to the nearest water location(s). Usually once the water source is located, there will be more glyphs pointing toward other water locations. I found several water glyphs at this site.

There's a water glyph on the rear rock in this photo:

Kawaiisu petroglyph at Sheep Springs in the El Paso Mountains, California

and several included on the petroglyphs on this photo:

Kawaiisu petroglyph at Sheep Springs in the El Paso Mountains, California"

There are several grinding stations or milling sites at this location also.

A grinding or milling station at the Kawaiisu indian petroglyph site at Sheep Springs in the El Paso Mountains, California

Around ten PoorDad radioed in that he had missed a turn but was less than a mile from camp so we head out to meet up with him and make our way to the Burro Schmidt Tunnel.
Talk about a man on a mission, this guy decided to create his own shortcut through the mountains by hand-digging a half-mile long tunnel through the solid rock of Copper Mountain! It took him 38 years to complete the tunnel, and when it was finished he realized that it exited at a point too high and steep on the other side, and that there wasn't a way to get down to the valley. Poor But all was not lost; along the way he took out 20 tons of ore averaging $60 a ton in gold, silver, copper, iron, molydenum and tungsten.

Flashlights in hand we walked through the low-ceiling tunnel and enjoyed the incredible view on the other side.

Entering the Burro Schmidt tunnel

From there we moved on to Nightmare Gulch. Nightmare Gulch is seasonally closed or restricted for raptor species sustainability, but fortunately the trail was open and we got to enjoy the magnificent views. Bill decided that this was his to day wheel since I had all of the fun yesterday. It seemed even hotter Sunday than it had been the day before, and we all realized that this would be our last desert run for the season. It's a relatively easy trail, until WayOfLife decided to take a detour to a scenic overlook that took us down a long slick granite dome. I was glad Bill was at the wheel because those long steep hills just freak me out. I mean, it was really steep! I don't know why I have such an issue with it, I think it's the vertigo combined with a fear of rolling. I wish I took photos but I was too busy hyperventilating.

It was worth it for the view we got overlooking the pink, white and brown striped hills:

Then I found out that we had to drive back up the impossibly steep granite dome to get back to the main trail! It always amazes me how well my jeep performs on stuff like this, and I hope that I get over my fear of height and rolling to be able to conquer a climb like this myself. For now, Bill handles it like a champ so I don't mind letting him take the wheel.

There's an old talc mine we stopped to explore, but the shaft was closed off and we didn't find another way in. I didn't realize that this area was once ripe with petrified forest. Next time I'll know to look for the petrified wood, although collecting is prohibited. I have a really cool piece about 8 inches long and 2 inches wide that I discovered when I was diving a few years ago.

We exited back on Randsburg-Red Rock Road, aired up our tires and drove to the Jawbone Canyon staging area to dump our trash. From there it was bumper to bumper traffic most of time as we made our way back home.

There are lots more photos in the gallery on my website here, and MrBash put together a cool YouTube video. Thanks for allowing me to post it MrBash.

My jeep is the silver one with the PIAA lights.

Our trips for the next few months will be up in the Sierras and Big Bear.


  1. Beautiful summary of our trip. I'm not sure why, but I am unable to view the photos.

  2. Sorry double post...
    Beautiful summary of our trip. I'm not sure why, but I am unable to view the photos.


  3. Thanks MrBash. I found the problem and you should be able to view the photos now.

  4. artpics.

    Ahhh seems so long ago great times and the rubi is still stock apart form some trinkets

  5. Hey Rob, thanks for stopping by! When are you heading overseas?

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  16. Loved that area! First jeep trail I ever went on with serveapurpose. T