With five sar missions in the last week, I left town (and cell service) for the weekend. Destination: Hartley Springs Campground. Located about 20 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes the decided (as best I’ve been able to tell) lack of a “spring” is the reason I wanted to go there. The intense 16/17 winter has left snow everywhere, even in July. Much of it will stick around until next summer. With that snow is melt, and with that melt is water. Combine warm summer air and you get mosquitoes: lots and lots of mosquitoes.
I can handle mosquitoes but purposefully putting myself into the midsts of clouds of them is insane. Yes, I know about permethrin and DEET. I use a tent. I have coils. But “managing” mosquitoes for a weekend is tolerable but best avoided altogether.
Not only is there no natural water in Hartley Springs Campground, but there’s also no plumbed water: you need to bring all your own. There’s also no trash cans, no bear boxes, and no real anything. Some porta-potties, picnic tables, and a fire ring is about as fancy as it gets. The upshot is that it’s free to stay there and maybe 10 minutes from June Lake (20 from Mammoth Lakes) if you forget anything or just want to buzz into town for a bit.
It was also packed: we got the last spot when we showed up on a Friday around 4pm. It’s a haven for dirt bikers and 4x4s as well, so expect lots of poorly muffled exhausts blaring around you. Not in a horribly obnoxious way, but definitely in a you’ll-know-you’re-around-dirt-bikes sort of way.
Verizon has a bit of coverage there, but no dice for AT&T. We had come through here a couple of months ago and there were little snow patches around so I safely bet that by now it should be bone dry and indeed not a single mosquito was found.
So especially in the non zany busy season if you’re looking for a free campground and can handle your own water and trash, give Hartley Springs a once-over. There’s a bit of dirt roading to do on the way in, perhaps a passenger car might have a tough go of it, but any AWD should be fine. I think I saw a couple 2wd passenger cars; I’d certainly give it a shot. If you do go up in a 2wd perhaps stick to a busier time period so that if you get stuck there’s a high likelihood that someone can help you out.
One thing I really dug about this trip was how free form the whole thing was. It reminded me a lot of sailing in the sense that with all that self sufficiency comes freedom. We planned on two nights near the Colorado River to meet up and start but after that it was an open road: think Thelma & Louise minus the ending.
Big Bend of the Colorado
Since I was coming from Mammoth and my buddy from San Diego, we met up near the starting point of the Mojave Road at the Big Bend of the Colorado, a Nevada state park with camping situated on the Colorado River.
It’s not a terrible campground, but it’s definitely a utility locale. It was expensive, bland, and you could hear engine brakes from the nearby highway. Oddly far from most businesses it was still unfortunately suburban at the same time. The bathrooms were clean and it’s super close to the start of the Mojave Road so there’s that.
We actually found a really cool place on our own but there was a huge pile of dead squirrels on it. Who brought the carnage? Beats me. I was fine with staying there and just parking a truck on top of the gore: out of sight, out of mind. My friend’s wife was a voice of reason however and we moved on. And lucky we did, because we found our way to Mid Hills Campground. With potable water, firepits, a picnic table, and a 5,000 foot elevation to keep things cool it was a great idea for the $12 nightly fee.
Mid Hills is also roughly smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Road and easily accessible in one night from the Colorado River in a day provided you aren’t stopping to smell every non existent flower.
From Mid Hills, we shot back onto the Mojave Road and quickly realized that we were probably okay on gasoline. It should be noted that probably being okay whilst in the middle of bum-fuck-egypt means you’re not really okay.
So we made a pit stop in Baker, California. I hope I do not offend any of Baker’s 745 residents by saying that there wasn’t much going on. And although it took us out of the wilderness a bit, there are practical matters to attend to (like ice and fuel), and additionally if the original Mojave Road pioneers had a Taco Bell up in Baker you can bet your ass they would have hit it up.
Fast forward maybe 100 miles from Baker, back on the Mojave Road: a couple of river crossings, a dry lake bed you can do donuts in, and the rock travel monument thing. We made it! We’re done, at least to where most people stop as the road technically continues on for another 11 miles.
Afton Canyon Campground, California
For most people Afton Canyon represents the end (or the beginning, if headed west-to-east) of the line, and as such the Afton Canyon Campground is a perfect spot to hang your filthy sun hat. Tables with awnings, potable water, and non-horrible toilets make this place functionally cool but the nearly constant rumble of freight trains and amazing scenery make it more than that.
The problem of course is that it’s eight million degrees there so unless you enjoy dying slowly of hyperthermia I think you’ll make your time here brief. Perhaps in the winter it’s a very different story: I checked the forecast for tomorrow (June 27) and it’s 109f.
As a final note, remember that the desert is weird. The alpine forests tend to have a mountaineer-ish vibe, and beaches have a chilled out vibe. Deserts just have a weird vibe. I’ve lived on the Sea of Cortez (including the summer), Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California: I’m familiar with deserts. There’s a certain kind of person who arrives at these hells-on-earth and sees them as a paradise. I can appreciate the desert for what it is but that’s a far cry from wanting to exist there long term.
Keep your wits about you. Someone killed all those squirrels and left their piled up corpses in the middle of an otherwise nice camping area. Could it have happened up here in Mammoth or down in San Diego? Maybe, but it didn’t. It happened on the Mojave Road and that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
I looked at my rather beefy selection of local maps and thought it might help some others figure out what they could use. For reference, here’s a link to the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center.
For anyone looking to explore the area a bit via their computer, check out CalTopo if you haven’t before. CalTopo also gives you some awesome route planning options and you can print out your maps from home (for free).