"Knowledge for the western
back roads explorer..."
A supplement to the Spring
Valley Lake Breeze
Story, photography and cartography
by Cliff & Ilene Bandringa
referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the Mojave", Afton Canyon is a colorful,
steep-walled canyon that was created by a massive flood nearly 18,000 years
ago. Today, the Mojave River continues to carve the canyon ever deeper
but at a much slower pace. This is one of the only spots along the river's
140 mile length where water flows above ground all year.
Although this Road
Trip requires a high clearance, 4WD vehicle, the beautiful canyon scenery is
also accessible on foot. Class A vehicles can park at the campground located
at the western entrance of the canyon and hikers can follow the road for as
far as they want to go.
Afton Canyon is not part of the Mojave National Preserve but, for railroad
buffs and nature lovers alike, it makes a great day trip to add to your Mojave
Unique and colorful geology
Hike to the "Caves"
Historical Mojave Road sites
Railroad trestles and bridges
Be sure to read the Trip Log for details about where you'll find these places
along the way.
Afton Canyon can be accessed from either end of this road trip and each end
has an exit from the I-15 freeway. The route we describe starts at the
Afton Canyon Road exit (western end), heads generally eastward, and ends at
the Basin Road exit. To take the trip in reverse, exit I-15 at Basin Road
and use the Other Way mileages in the Trip Log to guide
You will need a vehicle with both 4WD and high clearance to complete this
Road Trip. Although the starting and ending sections can be done with
a Class A vehicle for a short distance, there are two river crossings and patches
of soft sand that cannot be safely crossed without the required vehicle.
For those who do not have that type of vehicle, parking at the campground and
hiking into the canyon can also be very rewarding.
Be sure to have plenty of fuel and supplies before heading out on this Road
Trip. The nearest supplies are either in Baker (20 miles to the northeast)
or in Yermo (26 miles to the southwest). From time to time there are gas
stations and/or convenience stores at the other exits nearby but they are unreliable.
Restrooms are located in the Afton Canyon campground at the western end of
the Road Trip.
From Spring Valley Lake:
Drive out of the parkway and turn right on Bear Valley and continue to I-15.
Take I-15 north to Barstow/Las Vegas. Continue on I-15 north for just under
74 miles from Bear Valley Road to Afton Canyon. The exit is found 4 miles (the
next exit) past a rest area along I-15. Exit on Afton Road and turn right.
From the west (Barstow):
From the Main Street exit in Barstow, reset your odometer and go north on I-15
for 36.6 miles (58.9 km) to the Afton Road exit. At the top of the exit,
turn right (southeast) and the pavement quickly changes to a well-graded dirt
road. Follow the road for 3.4 miles (5.5 km) to the Afton Canyon campground.
The campground is where all Class A vehicles will need to stop and park, where
the restrooms are located and where the
Pyramid Canyon Hike starts.
This is also the point where the Mojave River enters the canyon (from the west).
From the east (Baker):
From Baker, go south on I-15 for 16 miles (25.8 km) to the Basin Road exit.
At the top of the exit, turn left (over the freeway) and continue on the well-graded
dirt road for 1.5 miles (2.4 km). At the junction, bear left onto the
less-traveled dirt road and follow the Other Way directions of the Trip Log.
Continuing on the the well-graded road takes you to the mine.
If you choose to travel through Afton Canyon from west to east, continue
past the Basin Road exit for 8.8 miles (14.2 km) to the Afton Road exit.
Getting out of your vehicle and hiking into one of the many side canyons
of Afton Canyon will certainly add to your enjoyment of this Road Trip.
We have only explored two of them so far, Pyramid Canyon (below) and the small
slot canyon described in the Photo Tour, but the topography of this area looks
very promising for many more interesting side canyon hikes.
This side canyon of Afton Canyon offers a great
hike into the heart of the heavily eroded landscape this area is known for.
Canyon Hikes of Afton
Along with the spectacular geology found in
Afton Canyon itself are other hidden geologic gems - slot canyons.
The entire length of the road through Afton Canyon is dirt and, as stated
in Getting There, you will need a vehicle with both high clearance and 4WD for
the spots with deep sand and for the two times you will cross the Mojave River.
At both river crossings, be sure to get out of your vehicle and test the depth
of the water before deciding whether or not it is safe for you to cross.
The Mojave River typically runs higher in the winter but summer thunderstorms
upstream can make the river swell quickly and generate flash floods so be cautious
any time of year. There will be times when even a high clearance vehicle
will not be able to cross the river.
Navigating this road can be tricky in certain sections so be sure to use
the Trip Log and the
Maps. Some sections have been
overgrown by the thick vegetation of the salt cedar bush. The best way
to get through these sections is to follow the previous tire tracks until the
road clears again. The salt-cedar, a very invasive bush, spreads quickly
in the washes of Afton Canyon and is an on-going problem for the B.L.M (the
organization who manages Afton Canyon). They have been working hard to
eradicate this non-native plant and have been aggressively burning them (which
seems to be the only way to actually kill them). You are likely to see
some of these burnt areas on your Road Trip [see
After the campground, the first river crossing is reached. Continue on the
road and you will pass an old railroad town named Afton where nothing is left.
Then, the second railroad bridge and river crossing on the road is reached.
You can park your vehicle just before the second river crossing and take the
short hike to the south to see the historic caves that were used when the historic
Mojave Road was in use in the 1860s.
After the second river crossing the road runs along the
railroad tracks for a short distance and then goes into the sandy bed of the
Mojave River. This is where you definitely need 4WD, otherwise you will
Another tricky navigational spot is at the exit of the canyon near the third
steel railroad bridge. A few hundred feet before the railroad bridge is
a road leading off to the right and up a hill. At the top of the hill
is a great view of the Devil's Playground. This road continues on and
will eventually lead back to the I-15 but we don't recommend it because it crosses
the railroad tracks at a point where trains are often stopped for long periods
After enjoying the view, turn around and return to the riverbed route you
were on. If there are no trains blocking the tracks, continue on this
road east and cross at the railroad crossing. Or, go under the railroad
bridge and continue eastward, following the best tire tracks/route until you
are lead to the right (south) and out of the riverbed. Follow this road
for about 0.75 miles (1.2 km) as it goes along the railroad tracks and then
turn left (north). Continue until it meets with the well-graded road of
the mine then take that road to the Basin Road on/off ramp of the I-15.
Many geologists believe that the dramatic, sheer walls of the Afton Canyon
we see today were carved in only a few days when a massive flood rushed through
the canyon approximately 18,000 years ago. Back then, the hills surrounding
Afton Canyon were a natural dam for the Mojave River and helped to create a
large, ancient lake called Lake Manix. From the mouth of today's
Afton Canyon, this lake stretched west almost to modern-day Barstow and southeast
into the valley that today is traversed by Interstate 40 and was approximately
1,800 feet (550 m) deep according to the shoreline rings that were left behind.
Geologists today have two possible theories as to how this large lake was
drained in such a short amount of time. One theory is that the Manix Fault,
a major fault that runs along the west side of the hills of Afton Canyon, moved.
This movement created a breach in the natural dam of Lake Manix and the huge
volume of water of the lake that had been held back now rampaged through the
canyon, completely draining the lake in as little as a few days! This
still-active fault moved again in 1947 and produced an earthquake registering
6.2 on the Richter Scale.
The other theory is that an extremely wet season filled the lake to the brim
where the water encountered a softer, more vulnerable section of the natural
dam. The water eroded this section to the point where the dam was breached
and, once started, the water could not be stopped. As in the other theory,
the lake was drained in a very short time - somewhere between three days and
Water, of course, travels downhill and the floodwaters from Lake Manix flowed
and spread out into the Devil's Playground, Soda Lake and Silver Lake (north
of Baker). After the creation of Afton Canyon, Lake Manix never formed
again and the official end of the Mojave River today is at Soda Lake with an
occasional overflow into Silver Lake.
Further evidence that there was once a lake here are the small, rounded rocks
you can see just off the paved road after you exit the freeway at Afton Road.
Pull off the road just southeast of the freeway overpass and take a look at
the pebbles on the embankment of right side of the road. You'll see that
they are "beach rocks"; tumbled, rounded and smooth (see pictures #2 & #3 in
the Photo Tour).
Mining in and around Afton Canyon has been going on for almost a century.
Magnesite (Magnesium Carbonate) was mined briefly in 1917. This mine employed
a 1,900 foot (580 m) aerial tramway (now gone) to carry ore from the top of
the canyon down to the railroad below. Although there was nearly 200,000
tons of ore on the side of the canyon (just east of the slot canyon pictured
below in the Photo Tour), only a few train car loads of ore were actually shipped
away to be milled. The rest of the ore is still within the southern wall
of Afton Canyon today.
As of 2003, there was a large limestone and marble mining operation on the
east end of the canyon. This operation is the reason for the well-maintained
section of road between the mine and the Basin Road exit. There is another,
older mine located about 0.2 miles (320 m) northeast of the third steel railroad
bridge on the east end of the canyon. These remains are easily accessed
In addition to its rich geologic history, Afton Canyon has a long and rich
human history, too. The canyon was, and still is, a thoroughfare for many
people traveling through this desert area.
Archeologists have collected artifacts from what was once the shoreline of
ancient Lake Manix that are evidence of an ancient race that once lived here
thousands of years ago. At the nearby Calico Early Man Site, just off
of I-15 near Yermo (northeast of Barstow), similar research is currently being
done and tools used by these ancient people have been found.
More recently, in the mid-1800's, the canyon became part of the historic
Mojave Road as it followed the Mojave River. Caves located about halfway
through the canyon were welcome sights to travelers who used them as an escape
from the hot, midday sun and, occasionally, as an overnight camp spot.
One of these caves was even big enough for them to pull their wagons into for
shelter. This section of the canyon was known as the "Caves" and is where
the canyon got its original name: Cave Canyon. It is also where the
highest and most noticeable nearby peak got its name: Cave Mountain. This
peak can be seen from many miles away, in all directions, and was used as a
navigational beacon for travelers of the Mojave Road. To see these caves
yourself, take the Caves Hike described below.
To see what the Caves section of the canyon looks like, go to the
Caves Hike photo tour below.
In 1867, a band of Indians attacked some travelers just after they left the
Caves following a lunch stop. A group of three passengers were in a mail
buggy headed for Arizona from San Bernardino when they were ambushed by 15 to
20 Indians who attacked with both guns and arrows. The travelers managed
to escape and hightailed it that night to the next stop at Soda Springs (now
called Zzyzx). One of the travelers, a doctor and an officer in the Army,
was wounded in the neck. Even though there were about 150 militia stationed
at Soda Springs, they decided not to go after the Indians. The Army doctor
died the following morning.
Although we don't know what it means, the name Afton came from the railroad.
Located just east of the current campground used to be a maintenance station
and siding that the railroad used until around 1980. The buildings and
rails were removed sometime after 1980 but evidence of the siding can still
be seen today between the bridge near the campground and the second bridge.
Because Afton Canyon was a high maintenance section of the railroad, the Union
Pacific kept workers here to monitor the condition of the tracks through the
Today, Union Pacific Railroad still uses the canyon as a vital mainline in
their system. On a good day, you can easily see several dozen trains pass
through and, since there is only one set of tracks through the canyon itself,
you can sometimes see trains sitting, waiting their turn on either side.
of Difficulty: 2 (see chart) Length: 0.5 miles
(0.8 km) round trip
10 feet (3 m) Main Attractions: Riparian area,
The hike to the Caves section of Afton Canyon is easy, short and includes
passing through some wetlands. In this part of Afton Canyon, the Mojave
River makes a wide, 180° curve that the road does not follow. There are
two caves here and, although the History section above says that one was large
enough for horse-drawn wagons to fit into, today neither cave is that big.
Start the hike by parking your vehicle near the second bridge, off the main
road, and follow the river, not the road, as you hike south (down-river).
The size of the wetlands area here will, of course, vary with the seasons and
amount of recent rainfall. This means that the path you follow into the
canyon will depend on where the driest route is on that day. Test any
soil that looks soggy with a gentle touch of your shoe before taking a step
and possibly sinking into water up to your ankle.
The caves are located on the right side of the canyon at about 0.3 miles
(0.5 km) from the second bridge and are near each other. We walked to
about the middle of the 180° curve and turned around.
Click on picture to enlarge
Pictures taken: November 2003 and February 2006
Western entrance to Afton Canyon from the Afton Road exit.
Just as the dirt road begins, after exiting the freeway,
pull over and look down the embankment on the right (south) side of the
road. There are many small, polished pebbles here that are similar
to pebbles found along a sea or lake shore. This was the shoreline
of ancient Lake Manix where the wave action polished them more that 18,000
years ago .
A closer look at these polished pebbles - a nickel is used
At this same spot, look up and south across the valley
towards the Mojave River and you can make out the "bathtub" rings of the
old shoreline of ancient Lake Manix.
Aerial view of Afton Canyon from about 30,000 feet (9,400
Same view as above but with callouts.
Same view as above but showing the Road Trip route.
Before reaching the campground, a side road heads off to
the right, under a railroad bridge, and leads to the continuation of the
The Union Pacific Railroad goes through Afton Canyon on
a single rail line. You'll see three steel bridges (like the one in
this picture) on this Road Trip.
After exiting I-15, the road goes through a canyon and
descends one last time to the floor of the Mojave River. The Afton
Canyon campground is in the distance. View is looking east-southeast
and is about 3 miles (4.8 km) from the freeway.
At the campground, there are about 15 campsites and each
has a table and fire grate.
One of the campsites.
Campers be aware: the railroad tracks are close to the
campground and the trains run all night long!
Looking through the first steel bridge.
The first steel bridge with a train. Notice that
the double stack trains barely fit under the steel crossbeams.
As noted in the Pyramid Canyon chapter, there is a gauging
station on the first bridge. A gauging station is used to measure
the volume of water flowing in a river.
Close up of the gauging station. Although the Mojave
River is one of the five largest rivers in Southern California, this is
one of the few spots where the water flows above ground.
Some burnt stumps of the invasive, non-native salt cedar
The first of the two river crossings is just after the
first steel railroad bridge. Be sure to get out and test the water
depth before attempting to cross.
During the typically dry month of February, the river crossing
can be very tame.
The wetlands of the Mojave River.
Looking west, towards the I-15, where the Mojave River
enters the canyon.
The second river crossing is at the second steel bridge.
This is where the Caves Hike begins.
Back on the road and after conquering the second river
crossing, the canyon becomes more interesting and colorful. Notice
the road leading to the short slot canyon on the right. Also notice
the Manix Fault contact spot (red and white soil) on the far canyon wall;
this is explained several pictures down.
A short distance beyond the previous picture, the river
drops down into the sands of the Mojave River. View is looking back,
up-canyon to the west. From this view, the short slot canyon is on
your left (right side of canyon).
Closer view of the short slot canyon after crossing the
Driving and then walking the small distance to the short
slot canyon is worth the effort. Hiking along the river (heading south
or down river) in the vicinity of the second steel railroad bridge are many
other slot canyons that we have not explored yet.
Another view of the slot canyon. A few thousand years
of erosion has cut through the loosely-cemented sedimentary layers
to create this little canyon.
Closer inspection of this canyon wall shows a crack that
reminds us of how quickly things can change in the canyon.
Looking straight up after reaching the end of the slot
View looking out of the slot canyon. As you can see,
it is rather short.
Looking up at some of the strata near the entrance of the
short slot canyon.
View from near the mouth of the slot canyon looking down-canyon
Just past the slot canyon, on the south side of the canyon,
is a good view of one of the contact spots of the Manix Fault that caused
an earthquake registering 6.2 on the Richter Scale in 1947. It is
movement along this fault that geologists think may have caused the rapid
draining of Lake Manix which, in turn, resulted in the creation of the Afton
Canyon we see today.
The walls of the canyon have many different colors which
translates to there being many different minerals here. Thanks to
the power of the Mojave River, these colors have been exposed for us to
A short distance down-canyon from the slot canyon (and
on the same side), are some mining ruins. These are the remains of
a 1917 magnesite mining operation. Although mining structures were
built, including an aerial tramway, the ore was never mined and is still
in the hillside today.
The canyon walls near these mining ruins are very jagged
and colorful. It is worth a stop here to closely examine their beauty.
More of the landscape along the south side of Afton Canyon.
At this point, the road through the canyon is a little difficult to follow
due to the thick vegetation.
Another view of the canyon landscape.
One of the many heavily-eroded walls you will typically
see on the south side of the canyon.
A train passes under some of the interesting geology of
The road passes by some very steep cliffs that rise above
the river floor.
Because the road follows the riverbed most of the time,
there are many sandy spots along the way. As you get out and walk
around, look for undisturbed patches of sand to see what kind of animal
tracks you can find.
More of the impressive palisades (or cliffs) you'll find
in some sections of the canyon. Many, like these are quite colorful.
Close-up of some of the colorful soil found on the canyon
Looking west from the middle of the Mojave River (which
is also the middle of the road).
(you may need to use the scroll bar at the bottom of your screen)
One of the sheer cliffs about halfway through the canyon.
Using a vehicle for scale gives you an idea of just how tall these walls
Looking down into the riverbed from the First Canyon Hike
of the Slot Canyon Hikes of Afton chapter. View is looking west, up-canyon.
Looking south from the riverbed of Afton Canyon towards
the First Canyon trailhead .
On the north side of the canyon (where the railroad tracks
are), there are many canyons that look interesting to explore on foot.
Train passing over bridge number 194.65. Just behind
this bridge is the beginning of the 194.65 Canyon Hike.
Same train as above but seen from the other side of the
View to the east and near the end of Afton canyon.
Here, the road is much more defined and close to the railroad tracks.
Almost at the end of Afton Canyon. The great expanse
of the Mojave Preserve will soon be in view.
Looking southwest back into Afton Canyon at its east entrance.
View looking east towards the Devil's Playground and the
Kelso Dunes from atop the small hill near the third steel railroad bridge.
Notice the train blocking the railroad crossing - this is the reason we
don't recommend continuing on this route.
One of the types of plants seen in Afton Canyon is the
beavertail cactus. They are easy to see
around the month of April when their brilliant purple flowers are in bloom.
Click on picture
Pictures taken: November 2003 and February 2006
View looking back at the second bridge where you started
the Caves Hike.
Cattails are plentiful in this part of the canyon.
Since some years are wetter than others, the amount of
vegetation found growing here will vary. The salt cedar you see here
is always a threat as it chokes out the native plant species.
Watch for interesting formations in the sand.
Both of the Caves are located at about 0.3 miles (0.5 km)
south of the second bridge.
View of the first cave that was a regular lunch stop along
the historic Mojave Road. These caves gave Afton Canyon its first
name of Cave Canyon.
Closer look at the entrance of the first cave.
Inside the first cave looking out. You can see the
second bridge in the background.
View of the second cave. Back during the heyday of
the Mojave Road, the caves were supposedly much bigger and entire wagons,
including their teams of horses, could be driven into the cave and even
Panorama of the 180° bend that the Mojave River makes in
this part of Afton Canyon.
(you may need to use the scroll bar at the bottom of your screen)
By using this Trip Log with your vehicles' trip odometer and/or your GPS
device, you'll know exactly which turn in the road to take and where the different
points of interest are along your route.
The top (larger, black) number in the Mileage column reflects mileage
based on our direction of travel as described in The Road
section above. The bottom (smaller, purple) number reflects mileage
based on travel from the opposite direction. Note: all GPS waypoints assume
Northern hemisphere latitude and Western hemisphere longitude
and use WGS84 datum.
What You Will See and Where:
Latitude / Long.
Junction of I-15 and Afton Road. Go southeast on Afton
Campground is on left side. First steel railroad bridge
is on right. Walk under bridge to reach Pyramid Canyon. First
river crossing is 0.1 miles beyond campground.
Cross under second steel railroad bridge and make second
river crossing. Trailhead for Caves Hike.
Into the main part of the canyon. Short slot canyon
(as seen in Photo Tour) is on the right (south) side.
Road continues to meander through ever-changing riparian
area - be careful to follow road.
First Canyon Hike (of the Slot Canyon Hikes of Afton) is
on right (south) side of canyon. 194.65 Canyon Hike is 0.2 miles south
of here on the north (opposite) side of Afton Canyon.
Road through riparian area ends. Head towards railroad
tracks and get on road that parallels tracks above riverbed.
Third steel railroad bridge. For a good viewpoint,
look for a road a few hundred feet before the bridge leading to the right.
Return from the viewpoint to this junction and cross underneath the bridge
to continue exiting the east end of Afton Canyon.
Getting to the junction with Basin Road. Turn right
towards railroad tracks, then left onto another road just before crossing
(don't cross tracks) to head east and parallel the tracks for about 1 mile.
road turns 90 degrees to the left (north, I-15) Turning left at the junction
on Basin Road takes you to the mine.
Road parallels railroad tracks for 0.5 miles and turns left.
Road continues 3.2 miles and reconnects with the well-maintained Basin Road.