In 1973, the Bureau of Land Management announced that they were going to close two major areas in the California East Mojave desert as Wilderness. They were the Turtle Mountains and the Whipple Mountains.
This caused a great deal of consternation on the part of my two desert-exploring buddies and myself as we had never explored the southern half of this mountain. We had two weeks until the closure took effect. Plans were made to return to the desert in the following two weeks and see as much of these two areas as possible.
Early October 1973, finds our merry band driving East on State highway 62. After passing the road junction at Rice, California, we slowed our vehicles and watched carefully the North side of the road where we would see a dirt road from the Northwest. Spotting the road, we left the paved hiway and soon found ourselves driving alongside a dirt flood-diversion levee, thence up and out onto the desert. The Turtle Mountains were before us. After many hours of driving, we had arrived!
Now we looked for a campsite that would be our base of operations for several days. Soon found, we stopped, stretched our legs, unloaded the motorcycles, opened the ice chests and settled-in. What a view!
Next morning we studied the topographic maps and began the usual rituals of motorcycle preparation, pausing from time to time to stare at the mountain. Soon, with preparations done, we started the motorcycles, and proceeded up the graded dirt road that would be our guide up through the wide Vidal Valley.
After about four miles, the road forked. To the left was the steep and rugged road to Horn Spring. To the right the road continued at a lesser elevation to Castle Rock. We chose the road to Castle Rock, the Mopah Range, and the twin Mopah Peaks.
The road climbed up and down the slight rises and drops, winding through the upper part of the valley. The vegetation here was mostly low straggly bushes, sage-like, frequently punctuated with low red barrel cactus, and lots of small to medium rocks.
Now we could see Castle Rock (an old eroded volcanic core) and beyond were the twin Mopah Peaks. As the gravely road would pass West of the core, we stopped for a breather. We could not have asked for better weather! Well, October is the start of our “desert season”.
As we passed the West side of Castle Rock, the twin Mopah Peaks come into view. Vegetation on both sides of the road begins to thicken. The valley remains pretty level with seasonal water runoff flowing into this part of Vidal Valley. Washes near the base of the Mopah Range intermittently drain the East side of the valley. Three miles from Castle Rock and with the Mopah Peaks towering, we come to the end of Vidal Valley.
Here I took several pictures scanning in a circle, to look back into parts of the Mopah Range. Note the larger red-thorned barrel cactus. The desert here looks quite self-protective. Time to turn around and see if we can explore Horn Springs and a promise of a mill site deeper into the Turtle Mountains, themselves.
Quickly we returned to the fork in the road and after consulting our map, proceeded Northwesterly up the other graded road into the Turtles. This road was far different than the road in Vidal Valley! When we paused to rest ourselves and cool the motorcycle engines a bit, the view was spectacular! Really rugged desert mountains with a mixture of colors, light and dark.
At these stops one could look along the sides of the road and find broken chunks of green copper-stained rocks as well as the usual rusty stain of iron on quartz. From time to time one could see small tailings piles running a short ways down the side of the mountain where some prospector or miner had done some exploratory work to see if a vein or contact surface with different rock might bring potential mineral wealth.
We continued our slow ascent by road, the terrain becoming increasingly rocky and steep. Around a bend, and before us, lay a mill site, quite probably Horn Springs, as the road ended here. The mill, no longer here, was built upon a raised earth “bench” above the intermittent river that showed in it’s now dry bed, the forces of runoff water as it ran by the bench.
Across the sometime stream, the walls of the Turtle Mountains climbed very steeply. In an effort to obtain a continuous source of water to run a mill, the spring had been deepened and surrounded by a square-shaped concrete enclosure. On top of the enclosure a wooden structure had been arranged, probably to support a pipe to the mill equipment.
From the foundation slabs, as well as scraped earth in the shape of houses or other buildings one could get a pretty good idea of how the mill area must have looked when it was occupied. It is always an amazing adventure to me to come upon areas where buildings once stood, and now nothing is left but rusty cans, some broken bottles and other castoff things.
While my friends explored the area, I climbed a few hundred feet up a steep ridge to photograph the entire scene below. Back down on the riverbed, I examined the well. Sand and mud from years of rain storms had filled it in.
Time to return to camp and enjoy a well-earned rest and to feed a hunger-growling stomach. We had made great progress today. Tomorrow would bring another exploratory ride further into the heart of the Turtle Mountains, but that is an adventure for another time in Jerome’s Notebook. I hope you enjoyed the trip as we did. -- Jerome W. Anderson