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).
The entire social media presence of Mammoth Lakes is on the “buy sell trade“. Someone stole your fishing pole? Need a place to rent? Heard a weird noise? It all goes there.
So I’m sitting on the couch doing my EMT+W homework and Charlotte hands me her phone and says, “You see this?”
So some realities start to collide:
a) I’m on a search and rescue team, with the sole desire to help people who are in various shades of screwed.
b) I’m literally sitting there studying how to help people (medically, but the point stands).
c) I have a gassed up off road rig with a big winch on the front and a bunch of recovery gear sitting in the driveway, backed in.
So I call the dude up. We make plans to meet in 15 minutes and I text another buddy of mine from Mono SAR who’s got a likewise dope 4×4 set up.
Mind you, Friday morning there was another guy posting about he got stuck out at Lake Crowley which I handled myself before work with just a simple tow strap. But for this big ass Ford Expedition it required nearly 25,000 pounds of pull power.
Two winches, two snatch blocks, me revving my engine to keep the electricity going, and the stuck Ford with street tires in 4L. We popped the guy out, told him we hoped he had a better time in the Sierras, and to hit us up anytime he’s got problems.
Honestly it’s really nice to be a position to help people. I feel like not only do you get a chance to come to someone’s aid when they’re in a tough spot, but doing it for free with a cheerful attitude can really spread some positivity in this world.
It’s fairly well known that our country is quite polarized politically and ideologically these days. Half the people in that shot above probably voted for Trump, the other half hate his guts. There are ties that bind us only if we form and tighten those accords. Lincoln famously said, “We must not be enemies, but friends.” Not only do we need to keep from loathing one another, but we must also purposefully reach out and be kind.
So I’d ask of you the same thing I’d ask of myself: try to help folks out in whatever way you can. Not for money or notoriety but from the simple truth that living in a world where we are kind and helpful to each other is the only kind of world we want to live in.
I sometimes refer to Mammoth as “outdoor Disneyland”. Minus surfing, the Eastern Sierras has nearly iconic status for anything set in the wilderness. Racing down snow covered mountains, climbing up ice shoots, fishing in gurgling creeks, and mountain biking through beautiful forests: you could do it all in the same day if you had enough time.
So today for lunch we headed over to one of the nation’s best skate parks here in town, then hit the dirt roads cutting through Sherwin Creek Campground and made a left towards Laurel Lakes.
Fortunately for me and the kiddos, we we had a nice drama free time. In fact, I only drove up halfway yesterday by myself and traversed the rest on foot to get a sense of what was going on. Satisfied it was within my and my truck’s ability range, I thought it would make a great lunch stop.
An advantage to going places that are a pain in the ass to get too is that there’s less folks there and the people who do make it happen tend to be more experienced and thus more responsible. There was barely any trash and minus some tree-trunk carvings from local kids it was in perfect condition.
I’m not sure of the camping restrictions up there, but there are some tastefully laid out fire rings. If you get up there, please be responsible and treat the place with the respect it deserves.
This is also the road you can take to Bloody Mountain, although we stopped before the final switchback sets: there is still too much snow.
If you have a couple of hours to kill, a high clearance 4×4, off road tires, and a locking dif or two, head on up. Alternatively you could mountain bike or hike the one-way ~4 miles: there’s little traffic on this route and it’s pretty easy to see folks coming ahead.
As a final note, the first thing I set up these days for any kind of backcountry stop is a trash bag. Not only do you have a quick spot to toss your own things, but having a big bag around makes you more likely to pick up existing trash that someone else didn’t address.
Buzzing around town today we rolled north into the 4×4 trails past Shady Rest. There’s some neat stuff over there: nothing super technical but it’s gorgeous and has been effectively off limits due to snow for the last six months.
For 20 minutes we bounced around the gorgeous trees, the FZJ-80’s OME suspension laughing off anything we hit. I saw some water ahead: no big deal.
The ground got soft, and we sank in like a stone to a dead stop. Hub deep on the driver’s side: both tires. The stereo kept pumping but I instantly knew it was un-stucking time.
We had no cell reception so I couldn’t call anyone, but what kind of self respecting off road enthusiast needs to call help just to get unstuck? I had a Warn M8000 winch (up front), straps, an axe, and a Hi-Lift. Missing were my traction pads and shovel, and really I should always have a shovel.
I of course considered winching: it’s a big powerful piece of gear. But I wanted to go backwards because the next 100 feet was more super soft mud and ten feet behind the truck was solid ground. Going further with just me and the family with no cell service seemed a little risky. I’m a coward: sue me.
My plan was to basically jack up the wheels that were spinning in mud and get something under them that could grip a bit. Right next to the truck were a bunch of downed smaller trees and branches: perfect. Out comes the axe to shape things for what I’m needing.
To lift tires out of the muck with a Hi-Lift you need:
A platform to put under the jack. Like snowshoes, you need to spread the surface area out otherwise the jack will just get pushed down into the mud. I carry a huge piece of 2 1/2″ thick 1’x1′ and it’s been working great.
A Hi-Lift. Especially if you have a lift kit and/or oversized tires you’re going to need an insane amount of jack height. With the wheel attachment this might not be so bad, as you’ll keep the suspension compressed as you lift up (I think).
Once you’ve got the hole the tire was in exposed, jam some crap in there. Rocks, (already downed) trees, (already downed) branches, traction pads, etc. A note on traction pads: I have some and have used them a few times. Get bright orange because they tend to get really smashed down into the mud/snow and can be almost impossible to see and are quite tough to retrieve. If you can find some natural stuff and don’t hurt anything, I’d vote for that. Save the traction pads for when you don’t have a gazillion downed limbs laying around.
It definitely looked bad, out there hacking up wood with an axe and jamming them into a muddy hole to be driven on, but I don’t really see any actual environmental impact aside from the heart palpitations I may have some put some Green Peace observers through.
And the end result is rather boring but you can see below, out the vehicle goes without much issue. I had my center dif locked and was in 4L, for any off road dorks reading this.
Some lessons I learned:
Bring your gloves. I had left mine in another bag, and especially when working with the winch it becomes almost necessary. My nitrile gloves were a poor excuse.
Lube the Hi-Lift. More.
When working the Hi-Lift, you need to put your back into a bit and, while not jerking it about, make sure you’re powerfully going all the way and all the way down. It took me a while to master the descent until I understood that.
Consider putting an old t shirt, some cardboard, or really anything sacrificial between your Hi-Lift and whatever point it’s contacting otherwise it will chip powder coating and paint.
Don’t view getting stuck as the end of the world. It’s like having a somewhat empty kitchen: you’re not going to die, and it’s a great time to experiment with what you’ve got. You’ll learn a lot and provided you don’t get hurt and make the situation worse it can be down right enjoyable.
It’s not fancy, it’s not sophisticated, and it really only works best in warm and windless conditions. But if you’re looking for a simple shower, consider this.
They key ingredients of this is (obviously) straightforward.
First, you need a way to get a solar shower up in the air. A big stick I had ontop of the roof basket worked great, the tail end strapped down with a bungie. A folded up camp chair, a shovel, or a hi-lift would work great too.
You want something other than dirt to stand on, but lucky for you I’m sure you carry a piece of wood for putting under a jack so that works just great.
Try to anticipate your showering if you’re using a solar shower: deciding to shower “now” means cold water. Deciding you want to shower later in the day means warm water.
Flatter sun showers work better to strap down on a roof rack (prior to your shower) than my smaller/ligher version pictured. I’m still not sold on the idea of strapping a full shower to the rook basket while bouncing around driving in technical terrain as I think it’s a great way to rip/thrash/bounce the bag to death. But on flat roads or stopped, it’s a great idea.
I’ll be adding little snippets about my experiences on the Mojave Road which you can find via my handy #MojaveRoad tag.
Shortly after I fell in love with my 1994 Land Cruiser, I read up on “overlanding”. Subcultures have their own vocabulary, partially to convey meaning and partially for identification. Sometimes hilarity ensues such as this gem:
I spent two years cruising in Mexico.
When sailors toss this gem around, it means one thing. To a gay man in a nightclub, it means something entirely different.
So in four-wheel-drive circles (or ‘wheelin), “overlanding” basically means really long drives across varying terrain whilst being self sufficient and probably sleeping in a tent of some type.
The Mojave Road is roughly 160 miles long (counting detours and shenanigans). I stumbled across it when looking for “overland routes” on Google one day, and realized that it:
Did not seem insanely technical. You need to know how to drive off road, but you don’t need to be happy making 5 miles a day via winching and swimming (ala Camel Trophy).
Was relatively close by. Starting in Laughlin, NV I left Mammoth Lakes and was having a beer at our campground right after sunset.
So I called up one of my likely-as-poor-a-decision-maker-as-myself buddies and asked if he wanted to do it with me. Less than 10 seconds later came the affirmative, so we made plans in early spring of 2017 to tackle it later that May.
It was a pretty cool six days and five nights out of my and my kids’ lives doing this trip and rather than try to summarize it all here I think I’ll break it into pieces. Click on my cool #MojaveRoad hashtag (once I’ve written more than this one).
For now it’s good to be home, it’s good to knock out some laundry, and it’s good to not have rivers/trains/winds howling in the air all night long. I’m back to the peace of tranquility of bears and snowstorms here in Mammoth Lakes, CA.
In sailing, a joke exists that there are three types of sailors. Those who’ve grounded, those who are lying, and those who will soon. Much the same exists for driving offroad and getting stuck.
If you drive graded dirt all the time or limit yourself to mall crawling, “recovery” can seem like a worst case scenario. But at least for me in the 16/17 winter up here in the Sierras I’ve pulled three vehicles free, shoveled out half a dozen, and high centered myself thrice (counting today). I have a winch, strong attachment points, big ass shackles, a real no-shit shovel, two recovery straps, some chains, and traction pads. None of that keeps you from getting stuck but it will give you a fighting chance to get out of it.
Things get snow-stuck in all kinds of ways, but usually the most pain-in-the-ass is the high center. Simply put, you compact so much snow underneath the bottom of the vehicle that you create (via the pressure of your axles/difs/undercarriage/etc) a solid block of ice that is supporting all the vehicle’s weight.
This of course is a problem because if the cool new made-of-compacted-snow jack stands under your truck are holding you up guess what isn’t? That’s right, your tires. So your tires sit there spinning happily in the air, laughing at you and all your locking differential technology. In fact, the more the tires spin, the deeper they make their little holes, compressing the snow further and further under the vehicle. It sucks.
When high centered, your options are limited. You can attempt to shovel out the snow which is fully caked under your vehicle, but remember it is highly compressed to the point that you are nearly going at ice blocks. Plus, you’re coming at it from the sides and will have a hell of a time getting an angle. I’ve only seen this work when one axle is stuck. If both are, which means the entire undercarriage is, read on.
You can use a winch or a buddy’s truck with a strap, but basically you’ll need to drag the vehicle where it’s got to go. As a bonus you can toss some traction pads under the tires (the orange things strapped to my spare tire in the picture above). An upshot with snow is that for the most part it’s fairly slick so once you get out of the augered holes that your tires have made, you should be able to move.
The third mechanism falls into road-building albeit no dynamite required. If you have a hi-lift jack (and bumpers/sliders you can attach to) then you can lift the vehicle up and off it’s high centered mess, jamming rocks/dirt under the tires to make a solid track for the wheels to travel on. Likewise, you can shovel out the part in the middle (ahead of the vehicle) where you would get high centered again. This is grueling multi-hour work to even make it 100′, depending on the snow conditions.
If you’re dangerous, stupid, and lucky, you could always try using a blow torch to melt the snow. Make sure you film this so if you ignite the gas tank the video can go on youtube and make a lot of money for your family.
Obviously the easiest thing is simply to avoid the problem in the first place. If the snow is more than a foot thick (or taller than the bottom of your axles), don’t go into it. Remember that snow cats exist for a reason; wheeled vehicles can only do so much in snow.
Additionally, be careful about driving around early morning. The snow is harder then so you’ll float a little better. The same route when tried a few hours later could prove impassible. In the first picture above, way in the background there’s a subaru; it’s not going anywhere for weeks. I’m assuming it got out there on a cold icy night, and is now surrounded by soft spring snow.