Sand In My Shoes: The Other Mojave

An adventurous trek to the desert leaves crowded cities behind and gives you a chance to capture unique photographs of an arid landscape

Cleanser Mine, El Paso Mountains, Calif.

Encompassing some 25,000 square miles of real estate in southeastern California and southern Nevada is the great Mojave Desert. It generally gets an average of less than 10 inches of rainfall a year and lies from 282 feet below sea level to nearly 12,000 feet in elevation. Temperatures can range from below 0º F to over 130º F. It’s a land of extremes. While there are modern cities within the Mojave Desert, like Las Vegas, it’s the wild countryside, ghost towns, abandoned mines and the unique flora and fauna that draw many people to explore the wide-open spaces. For me, it’s a place where I can get away from the 20,000,000 other people who live in Southern California—where there’s enough peace and quiet to actually hear your ears ringing from the absence of sound.

Besides famous places like Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park, there are also hundreds of thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land within the Mojave. BLM land is subject to rules of behavior within its boundaries, but they’re less restrictive than national parks (see the “BLM Land” sidebar). It’s possible to set up camp in just about any place you like. Old mining trails and microwave-tower maintenance roads can be used to access beautiful and remote areas. One such place is near the quaint old railroad station town of Amboy, Calif.

Amboy is one of the oldest recorded townships in California, founded in 1858. It was a heavily utilized stopover and rest site for old Route 66 in the early 20th century and still has a chloride mining industry just outside of town. As with many of these old desert communities, there’s a long and colorful history associated with the unusual folks who settled here. At one point, the population numbered over 700.

Flowering dune primrose, Mojave Road, Mojave Desert, Calif.; Greasewoods and sand, Mojave Road, Cady Mountains, Calif.; Desert tarantula scampering across rocks, Panamint Mountains, Calif.

Today, there are only several people living here, and the only travelers who come are either lost or those who purposely made the trek to see it or the moderately famous Amboy Crater. The 1,500-foot-diameter black volcanic cinder cone juts out from the surrounding desert. It was active a mere 10,000 years ago, only an eye blink in Earth time. Hiking here gives one the feeling of walking on another planet.

Just a few miles to the east is an access road that serves a microwave communications antenna complex in the Bristol Mountains. We got lucky when we arrived in our Jeeps® as the entrance gate was unlocked, so up the winding trail we went. At the top, near 4,000 feet, sat the actual microwave antennas with a handful of workmen performing maintenance. They said it was fine to visit as long as we left before they were done. The views were spectacular, with a cool breeze blowing across the crest. You could see for over 100 miles in any direction with little evidence of man-made structures. It had been awhile since I had breathed such clean air.

Sunset across hills, Panamint Mountains, Calif.

We headed back down to explore some abandoned mines we noticed on our climb up the mountain. In fact, the Mojave has many thousands of old abandoned mines aside from a few still-active ones. First with mules, then with early automobiles, men came to seek their riches. A few succeeded; most vanished into history unknown. Everything from bauxite to zinc has been torn from the ground. Most desert off-road trails are merely access points to some of these forgotten grubstakes. While change comes slow to the desert, time hasn’t been kind to many of these paths. Some barely register as “roads.” Each mine has its own identity and sometimes its own color. Exploring the deserted habitats is always exciting, as one never knows what one will find. Of course, when one thinks of a deserted mine, it’s gold and silver that gets the imagination going. Millions of dollars of both were wrested from the solid rock, and many fortunes were made and lost through the years. Some of these excavations are actually on the map with names like Castle, Orange Blossom, Vulcan, Old Dale and Rose of Peru. Most are not, their names and stories lost to time. The first one we visited wasn’t on the map, but that didn’t diminish the excitement as we pulled up after a grueling ride on a 4×4 trail.

We could tell it was a big operation from the size of the tailing mound and the narrow-gauge rail tracks still in place on the main floor. In some concrete at the mouth is scratched: “November 18th 1927.” I can’t help but wonder what happened to the men who labored here, and whether or not they “struck the mother lode.” Most likely, there was some success but nothing substantial, and they simply moved on. Exploring these man-made caverns is dangerous, and caution must be observed. Only a few of these holes have been rendered “safe.” Never bypass a barrier. There are vertical shafts, and the shoring, if there is any, is old and splintery; lengths of wire and sharp, rusted metal lie everywhere. In addition, the cool dark environs make for a nice home for rats, snakes and scorpions. Even if the temperature is a blistering 100º F-plus outside, it can be 20º cooler a few yards in the tunnel. We tried to imagine what it was like to toil here, day after day, digging and blasting through solid rock in the bitter cold of winter and the broiling heat of summer. At least they had clean air and alone time. These mines are kind of a time portal to a different era and a different way of life. Most of them, especially the older works, have a pretty small footprint that just seems to go with the desert.

The miners aren’t the only ones challenged by the harsh conditions of the Mojave. Taking images here can be tough, as well. The heat, cold, wind and sand all conspire to exact a toll for the privilege. While the first three usually can be dealt with by timing, the fourth element is present all the time. Remember, it’s not just big grains, but astronomical amounts of fine dust that are attracted to a lens or charged-up sensor. Even a lens cap won’t keep it out for long. As an experiment one calm morning, I placed a newly cleaned wide-angle lens with cap on a table. I spent about 15 minutes doing chores and then checked. Sure enough, more particles than I could count had already found a home on the UV filter. So it’s best to avoid changing lenses as much as possible, and make judicious use of a good blower brush.

For traveling through the varied terrain in the Mojave Desert of California and Nevada, Joseph Dovala has rigged his Jeep® with a unique “camera trunk.” It consists of a Hardigg Storm Case attached to a trailer hitch rack, and it keeps his photo gear safe and protected.

My vehicle of choice for straddling those narrow, rut-filled backcountry trails is my Jeep® Wrangler. It’s less than ideal for packing camera equipment and all the other gear one may need so far out in the sticks, plus passengers, but it navigates the terrain well. I’ve tried many storage iterations and have finally settled on a kind of “camera trunk.” I took a Hardigg Storm Case #2720 and mounted it to a trailer hitch rack. All the gear is padded for the rough ride, and most importantly, I have immediate access to it without moving seats, other gear, etc. It doesn’t hurt that the case is water- and dustproof!

I’ve had success in all seasons, and each has its advantages. Springtime, after some good fall and winter rains, can be especially beautiful with the bounty of wildflowers. Everyone else has the same idea, of course, so be prepared for crowds. Death Valley has even had traffic jams during bumper flower years. Spring tends to be quite comfortable as well, so that’s when most people tend to visit. Summer is scorching, obviously, but the advantage is that you’ll have very little company and long afternoon light to work with. Brief stormy weather might even happen in late summer and early fall, giving a different look to the landscape. It’s also worth considering the effect the high temperatures have on digital sensors. If the camera cooks in the summer sun, then even lower ISO settings will produce lots of noise. Fall is another popular time, as the days may be quite warm but the nights begin to cool off. Late-blooming flowers and more critter activity generally rule these months. Winter brings cold temperatures and often heavy winds. The lower elevation of the sun lights the earth with beautiful color. Elevations above 2,000 feet may even get a blanket of snow. The desert in a white coat is spectacular.

To be sure, the remote desert isn’t for everyone. Once away from the towns that sprinkle the vastness, there’s little in the way of services or accommodations. Most unimproved roads require high-clearance vehicles at least. You need to be self-sufficient, because if you get into trouble, you can’t rely on calling AAA for help. Few remote areas have reliable cellular service. If, however, you long for open space and a kind of simple beauty, then the outback of the Mojave just might be the place for you.

Joe Dovala is a professional photographer who’s well known for his underwater images. Besides salt water, another ocean intrigues him, and that’s the Southern California deserts. To see more of Joe’s photography, visit his website at


BLM Land

The Grazing Service was merged with the General Land Office to form the Bureau of Land Management in 1946. Their mission: “To establish public land policy; to establish guidelines for its administration; to provide for the management, protection, development, and enhancement of the public lands; and for other purposes.” The term “public lands” means any land and interest in land owned by the United States and administered by the Secretary of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management, without regard to how the U.S. acquired ownership. Hmm, probably don’t want to delve too deeply into that last part. Basically, the BLM has the very difficult job of deciding how to allow best use of public land for all.

There are a number of different types of BLM areas, and they encompass nearly 30 million acres:
National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Scenic and Historic Trails and, last but not least, Conservation Lands of the California Desert. Some allow hunting, in season, and/or extraction of resources, like mining and grazing for animals. Free access is allowed through most of these lands except in certain situations; for example, if a particular area contains an endangered species or there’s an ongoing revegetation effort, restrictions may apply. In short, as long as you use “common sense” and don’t abuse the land, clean up after yourself and heed local rules, you’re free to explore and enjoy at will.

Contact: BLM,