Towering mud cliffs, colorful sunsets and a hidden slot canyon await the adventurous en route to Las Vegas.
Often called the Grand Canyon of The Mojave, Afton Canyon is a little-known gem along the road to Vegas, excellent for a pit stop or a quiet camping trip (never mind the trains; they're part of the charm.)
Look for Afton Road, before the town of Baker. Hang a right and go about three miles. RVs are good to go for the campground, but don't try to cross the river without a high-clearance vehicle. If you do have a high-clearance vehicle, cross the Mojave River – which flows year-round, attracting a wealth of birds and wildlife – and head through the canyon about five miles. Hang a left when you can and you can get back to the freeway on a good hardpack road.
It's pretty hard to get lost. Good hardcore jeep trails are on the right side of the canyon if you desire. High on the hillside is a massive iron cogwheel that was used to transport ore to the canyon floor a hundred years ago.
Wear climbing shoes to go up to it. Forget ropes – it's a mudcliff.
This colorful eight-inch-long lizard was utterly unimpressed by me.
The area was formed when the ancient Lake Mannix drained suddenly. Now you'll find towering mudcliff walls, a slot canyon, mining ruins and some of the best rock collecting in the easily accessible Mojave. Personally, I've had some great adventures and some bad luck there.
On my last trip I went alone. In July. It's the Mojave Desert, so as you might expect, it was hot. But I've never been one to abandon a quest when there was nobody who wanted to go.
I pulled into the empty campground, high noon on a Tuesday, backed into a spot, pulled forward off the hardpack and quickly became stuck in sand to my axles.
Not one to panic, I went for a hike up the canyon closest to the campground for an hour, expecting fellow travelers to show up and lend me a hand. None came.
I found an old road sign near the scenic train trestle bridge (pro tip: go under the bridge as a train goes over to experience a fast-moving freight train inches from your head), dug out under my rear truck tires, and placed the jack on the sign under the truck to keep it from sinking into the deep sand. A few gathered branches under the front tires and I was free of the trap. I was careful not to drive off the hard-packed trail as at this point I had drank most of my water, was sweating heavily and imagining vultures circling over me.
It was awesome!