Mojave Preserve & Havasu Bluegrass

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  Mojave National Preserve              Lake Havasu Bluegrass Festival 

March 2, 2010: Yesterday I set out on my first motor home trip of 2010, following a route I have taken many times, especially around this time of year - south on State 99, east on State 58 from Bakersfield, and southeast on I-40 from Barstow. My ultimate destination is a bluegrass festival at Lake Havasu, AZ, which I'll get into later.

My first stop is the Mojave National Preserve, which occupies much of the land between I-40 and I-15 to the north, touching the Nevada border in spots, and reaching west to a line that runs roughly southeast from the town of Baker. It's the third largest unit of the National Park System in the continental United States, a land of sand dunes, cinder cones, lava flows, rugged weathered mountains, and high desert vegetation, including a dozen kinds of cactus. One small section of the Preserve lies north of I-15, and contains the highest point in the Preserve, above 7,000 feet.

There is limited camping, and I'm at one of the few spots that accommodate motor homes, Hole-in-the-Wall campground, about 10 miles north of I-40 on Essex Road and another ten miles on Black Canyon Road. The campground has no hookups, but does have water hydrants, toilets, picnic tables, and an information center.

I arrived about 5 o'clock last night, with the sun low and temperatures lower, and didn't do any outside activities except for short walks around my camp site. I had dinner, did a little TV watching and a lot of reading, and went to bed early. I would have done more TV watching and probably stayed up later, but generator use is limited to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., pretty much eliminating my prime TV time. (I watch DVDs that I bring along, so program schedules are not an issue).

However, I am very happy overall with this place. There is an extensive variety of desert vegetation, very much like the areas I have hiked in the Tonto National Forest east of Phoenix. A half-mile trail to the information center had signs and a brochure identifying at least seven kinds of cactus (not including the barrel cactus which are plentiful nearby); and a dozen different shrubs. Since it's too early for spring flowers, a lot of these shrubs look quite similar, but a few are very distinctive. The area around the campground has hundreds of these plants, but despite the somewhat inhospitable appearance of the landscape, it's easy to walk through the desert and make your way between the cactus and thorny shrubs without incident. The most common plants are cholla cactus and Mojave yucca.

For reasons I can't explain, my older grandson and I became fascinated by barrel cactus when we went walking in the desert east of Phoenix in the mid 1990s. We would not see any, then we would come to an area where there were several dozen. I finally realized that they prefer rocky hillsides. West of the camp, I went up a very low hill, by which I mean it was about 20 feet higher than the surrounding country. It was quite rocky and covered with barrel cactus, but as soon as I reached the more level, sandier area at the bottom, there were none to be seen.

The most dramatic feature of the area is the "wall," a long black and tan volcanic ridge, with a vertical cliff rising a hundred feet or so at the bottom. This rock is weathered into dramatic shapes, and directly west of the campground, there is an opening where the wall is only a third as high as the rest, creating the "hole." Beyond the wall higher mountains, dotted with snow, are visible. These colorful layers were formed by volcanic eruptions 18.5 million years ago. There was no lava, but thick layers of ash and rock fragments welded together as they cooled. Gases trapped in the ash created holes that were enlarged by wind and rain.

From the Information Center, a one mile loop trail goes around a nearby mountain and the striking butte that stands guard over the area. The trail is fairly level most of the way, first skirting the base of the wall, with many examples of barrel and other cactus growing on the rocky slope at the bottom. The trail then passes through the edge of a flat valley with an old ranch, marked by two windmills. Next it enters Banshee Canyon, a narrow slot canyon, where two groups of iron rings have been placed in the rock to facilitate the climb up and out of the canyon. Soon after the final steep area, the trail comes out just up the slope from the info center. A worthwhile side trip here is a very short trail marked "overlook," which gives you a view down into a grassy "valley," just a few hundred square feet of flat land pretty much inaccessible except by climbing through an even narrower slot canyon with no trail.

During my visit the info center, I learned that the record for the oldest person to climb the rings was 93, so I vowed to be back in 24 years to break it. The weight record is over 400 pounds, but I'll leave that one alone - I don't know how such a person could get through the narrow fence gates, much less climb the rings. (2020 Update: I went to Mojave Preserve with my daughter Teri in 2019. I discovered that at age 79 I could no longer navigate the Ring Trail, so the previous record is safe.)

I also learned the answer to a minor mystery that has interested me for several years. A few miles west of Baker on I-15 you will find Zzyzx Road. I always suspected it was a made up name, intended to be the last entry in an alphabetical list of the world's roads, and I was very close to being right. In the 1940s Curtis Springer developed the pond at Soda Springs, and operated a resort there. Like so many latecomers, he imposed a new name on a place that already had a perfectly good one, with the express intention of creating the last word in the dictionary. It's now a part of the Preserve, and also home to the California State University Desert Studies Center.

As might be expected, the vast majority of the Preserve is primitive and not readily accessible. There are many roads recommended only for high-clearance four wheel drive vehicles. Black Canyon Road  turns to dirt just past the campground entrance, but the 20 miles from I-40 are mostly good two-lane blacktop. The main visitor center is at Kelso Depot, on Kelbaker Road, about 22 miles north of I-40. Kelbaker Road joins I-40 about 20 miles west of Essex Road. It is possible to get there from Hole-in-the-Wall camp without going back to I-40, but 15 miles of the trip would be on dirt roads.

Six miles west of the junction of Essex and Black Canyon Roads is the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area and Mitchell Caverns, a limestone cave that offers a tour each weekday at 1:30. I'm considering going there tomorrow, and either staying in the small campground there (only six campsites available) or coming back here.

Later (during quiet time): As far as animal life, I've seen lots of birds, a few lizards, a rabbit, and two very fast moving animals, probably of the squirrel or rat family, that zipped from one hiding place to another so quickly I could not see what they looked like.

The weather has been cool and windy in the daytime, and cold and windy at night - not a heavy wind, but a strong breeze most of the time. There were some thin clouds last night, with a few stars visible at the highest point in the sky; and the moon shining through. Around 1:30 a.m. the moon was almost completely clear, and it was so bright I felt I could walk out into the desert and see well enough to avoid spines and thorns.

Tonight, a little after 7, it was clear except for some cloud banks low in the sky, and with very little light interference, the stars are brilliant. The Big Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, and something that's probably Mars are all visible, along with many bright stars. The moon has not yet come up, but when I went out just now for another look, the clouds are rising up all around, blocking out large sections of the lower sky.

I just put my thermometer out on the picnic table, and after it's had time to adjust, I'll add a time and temperature note here:

Tuesday 8:30 p.m.: 42 degrees
Tuesday 9:30 p.m.: 42 degrees
Wednesday 4 a.m. 40 degrees and very windy
Wednesday 8 p.m. 35 degrees
Thursday 3 a.m. 32 degrees with a slight layer of frost on the picnic table
Thursday  5:45 a.m. 38 degrees, frost gone, and a hard wind

March 4: Yesterday I considered driving down to Mitchell Caverns, then back to camp, but decided to just stay around camp all day. I did a few short walks, and sat outside reading quite a bit. In the mid afternoon I started the generator, and came inside for TV and supper. It was windier than the previous day, and not very pleasant to be outside. However, the night sky has been spectacular until the moon rises, late at night, at which time the waning moon (a little more than half) washes out most of the stars.

This morning I got everything loaded up for the trip to Lake Havasu City, about a hundred miles from my camp site. The trip went smoothly and I was set up at Lake Havasu State Park by noon. The festival here started about eight years ago in Parker, down the road about 20 miles, but a price increase for use of the county park there forced a move. There is not as much room here, and I was concerned I might be far from the stage, but actually I am closer than I have been at Parker the last few times I went. The festival was here last year, but I didn't come, so this location is all new to me.

Lake Havasu is formed by Parker Dam, and is well known as the site of London Bridge, which was moved here in sections a few decades ago. I've driven through town once before, and saw London Bridge Boulevard, but so far I haven't seen the bridge. I won't make a special trip to see it, either.

The festival is put on by L & S Promotions (Larry & Sondra Baker), who also do the Plymouth Festival, which I like because it's a little smaller. Promoters are faced with the dilemma of having a small festival, which is more enjoyable for some people, or having a larger event that can support the hiring of several top name bands. This is one of the big ones, and I'm looking forward to the usual mix of groups that are new to me, groups I've heard of but not seen, and old favorites from previous festivals. (It turned out that I have previously seen all the groups here.)


March 5: It was a day of good bluegrass, good weather, and gathering with good friends. The groups today were all ones I've seen anywhere from once to a half-dozen times. Most familiar to me was the Dalton Mountain Gang, from the Fresno area, who have appeared at several events in Clovis barely a mile from my house. I've seen them at several festivals; in fact, they have been at the last five festivals I've attended.

The outstanding group of the day was Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, featuring three musicians who won the honor of best of the year on their instrument - Marshall Wilborn, bass; Jessie Baker, mandolin, and Cleveland, fiddle.

The appearance of Wayne Taylor and Appaloosa included a special treat - he was joined by his former colleague with the U.S. Navy Band, banjo player Keith Arnason, who is on leave. Wayne retired a while back and has been touring with his own band since then.

Most festivals start with a brief welcome from the promoter and maybe a local politician, followed by the national anthem. This was scheduled for 9:45, so I wandered down to the stage area a little after 9:30. I was surprised to see a large audience already gathered, since most people usually straggle in after this ceremony ends. Then I was annoyed to discover that for some reason the music had started early, and I had missed most of the first group's performance. I was still slightly annoyed by the fact that my neighbor had been running his generator at 6:30 a.m., a half hour before the "legal" start time. Eventually a light bulb came on and I realized that there is a time change when crossing into Arizona. This state does not observe Daylight Savings Time, so in the summer there's no change, but of course, it's not summer, despite the nice weather.

The setting is very nice, about 100 feet from the lake, with the water partially visible through various obstructions to the west. The weather was perfect, warm enough to wear a T-shirt all but the last half hour or so. There were some thin clouds, and there is a possibility of rain tomorrow and Sunday, which would be the opposite of perfect, so we'll hope it does not materialize.

As always happens when my old classmates Bryce and Alma Green and their family are present, I was invited to dinner tonight. We had excellent prime rib, cooked to perfection by John and Marie Upton, plus the usual trimmings.

We had a large group, including Bryce's brother and sister in law whom I had met at the Quartzsite festival two years ago, his cousin and wife who were also at Quartzsite, the Greens' son and daughter-in-law, who have been at the Plymouth festival, a nephew, and a couple from my old home "town" of Bootjack, whose older brother I knew fairly well. Two of the couples were just here for a visit and dinner, and are camped nearby, but won't be at the festival.

Now it's a little past nine and I am in for the night. That's 9 Arizona time, 8 California time.

March 7
: The perfect weather continued on Saturday, but today (Sunday) it turned horrible. I'll get to that in a minute. On the positive side, Saturday was maybe a bit warmer than Friday, and the music was just as hot. A group that I thought was new to me (although I have some of their recordings) was Don Rigsby and Midnight Call. After watching them for a while, I realized I had seen them at one of the Plymouth festivals.

My favorite group of the day, the main one that drew me to this festival, was Nothin' Fancy, a group from Virginia that puts on a highly entertaining show. They were the last act of the day, and played for 90 minutes, instead of the usual 50.

Luckily all the groups scheduled for Sunday had already appeared at least once, since as far as I know they did not appear on Sunday. During dinner last night (at the Green camp, naturally), we had rain off and on, with a fairly hard sprinkle while Bryce's son Lemuel was barbecuing. It was not enough to hurt the cooking, and they had the awnings out, so we were comfortable eating outside, although the rain pretty much had stopped by that time.

It rained a little off and on during the night, then started coming down hard and steady by the time I got up about 8:20. When it was time for the music to start it was still raining, and I accepted the fact that this would be a two-day festival. At most festivals I would have waited it out to see what the afternoon would bring, but I planned to leave by 2:30 anyway. I sat in the motor home reading, waiting for the rain to slack off so I could go down and retrieve my chair. By 11 a.m., it not only had not slacked off, it had become a very ambitious, hard, wet rain. I got my umbrella and walked down to the audience area. There were only a few people around, standing under awnings, many chairs were gone, and the vendors were either gone or packing up.

I stopped at Bryce and Alma's trailer to tell them goodbye, and got underway about noon. The hard rain continued well into California, to about 50 miles east of Barstow. It was 3 p.m. as I approached Barstow, so I decided to eat lunch in a Mexican restaurant, then stay at the RV park where I've stayed several times before. It turned out to be full, and the only other "park" I could find was the kind that has made "trailer park" a term of derision. I decided to go on to Mojave, another hour further, although the only park there is just a couple of steps better. As I approached Boron, half way between Barstow and Mojave, I saw a sign for an RV park, and pulled in there. It's nothing fancy, but is fine for an overnight stay, and I won't be sitting outside anyway. I am far enough along on my return trip that I will be home by early afternoon Monday. There were a few sprinkles and one hard shower between Barstow and Boron, but it cleared up overnight.

Boron is every bit as charming as its name implies, located in a particularly drab part of the desert. The vegetation is mostly low sage and creosote (no yucca or cactus), and the nearby hills are low and plain looking. Some of them are actually tailings from the borax mining in the area that gives the town its name. On the plus side, its just a few miles from Edwards Air Force Base.

The reason I wanted to get home early is my other big spectator interest, hockey. Our local Junior A team, the Fresno Monsters, are in the playoffs, and this is the second round. I'm missing the first game today, and since it's a best two of three, tomorrow could be the end for us or our opponents. The team has had a spectacular season, eliminating their first round opponent in two games last week, so hopes are high. (We lost the Sunday game in overtime; won the game Monday night, and had our hopes dashed in an overtime loss Tuesday.)

I took advantage of my early stop to wash dishes and vacuum the motor home, meaning two fewer things to do after I get home. There was a slight mishap in the bathroom, during which I learned how much toilet paper a ShopVac can suck up in three seconds (a LOT). But it's now 6:30, the chores are done, and I plan no more work today, just reading, writing and TV watching.

March 10
: I got an early start Monday, getting on the road just after 8 a.m. Although it was mostly sunny in the Boron area, I could see clouds over the mountains to the west (southern Sierra and Tehachapis), and thought I might end my trip as it began, with rain. However, it turned out to be fog through the Tehachapi pass, very dense in places, causing me to slow down to 45 and 50 MPH. The worst thing about driving at a safe speed in the fog is the realization that someone is coming along behind me at an unsafe speed, but I made it through without incident, and got under the fog as the road descended west of the pass.

The weather was mostly sunny down in the San Joaquin Valley, and I arrived home a few minutes past noon. Despite the Sunday washout, the two days of music were great, and I am ready to return to Mojave Preserve for another visit some day.

--Dick Estel, March 2010


(Photos open in a new window)


Mojave National Preserve 

Dick's motor home with the "wall"
and the "hole" beyond
The colorful volcanic wall Looking west from the campground
The south end Snow-dotted Providence Mountains beyond the wall Table to mountain to the east
Cliffs to the east, morning Same cliffs, afternoon This butte stands guard over the area
Rocky hillside, the favored
spot for barrel cactus
Barrel cactus and Mojave Yucca Close up of barrel cactus
Even closer Silver cholla Pencil cholla
Pencil cholla close up Pancake cactus Cliffs behind the information center
The center is dwarfed
by adjacent hills
Waves of volcanic ash
are frozen in place
Hillside along the Ring Trail
Windmill at an old desert ranch southwest of camp Approaching Banshee Canyon Entry to the canyon
A good place to store rocks The rings Upper end of canyon
Hidden valley from overlook
near upper end of canyon
    Match bush, so called because its resinous branches are highly flammable
Lake Havasu Bluegrass Festival
Dalton Mountain Gang Town Mountain Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice
Wayne Taylor & Appaloosa Keith Arnason & Wayne Bluegrass Brothers
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper Michael James King Band
Tony Mabe, James, Ron Spears Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen Don Rigsby & Midnight Call
Nothin' Fancy Lake Havasu View across the lake to California
    Festival program cover    

Related Links

Mojave National Preserve Hole-in-the-Wall Camp Barrel Cactus
Banshee Canyon Zzyzx Curtis Springer
California State University Desert Studies Center Zzyzx Road Providence Mountains State Recreation Area and Mitchell Caverns
Kelso Depot Lake Havasu State Park Lake Havasu City
Parker Dam London Bridge L & S Promotions
Edwards Air Force Base Boron Dalton Mountain Gang
Town Mountain Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice Wayne Taylor & Apaloosa
Bluegrass Brothers Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper James King
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen More Mojave photos Don Rigsby and Midnight Call
   Nothin' Fancy   

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Updated September 19, 2020