Calico Mountains 4WD Road Trip:
The Calico Mountains near Barstow offer a treasure trove of hiking and opportunities for exploring back roads, along with unusual geologic formations and classic California mining history. Best known for the Calico Ghost Town, not many people are aware of what lies behind the famous ghost town. Several days can be spent exploring the different corners and fascinating places to see in the Calico Mountains. The virtual road trip on YouTube (see below) will take you on an introductory tour through the heart of the Calico Mountains.
Not only are the Calicos full of history and geologic fascination, they live up to their name by being very colorful. Exploring the Calico Mountains can easily take a full day, but after you see them on this introductory trip and discover all of the inviting dirt roads, you may find yourself going back many times (like we do) to check out all of its hidden corners.
This trip requires that you have a 4WD vehicle with good ground clearance. You need to also have experience in driving on rough terrain because there are challenging spots along the way. Your vehicle could sustain some serious damage if you are not familiar with its limits. If you don’t have such a vehicle, you can still drive a portion of the trip and get a glimpse of what’s inside the colorful Calico Mountains. Read on and we’ll tell you where only 4WDs should dare to tread.
Be advised that of all the maps we’ve looked at covering the Calico Mountains, none of them cover the roads mentioned in this article. Mule Canyon Road is on the map, as well as an extremely rough 4WD road through Odessa Canyon (which we don’t cover in this article), plus a few other roads, but most other roads are not mapped. Even the BLM map shown on the kiosk posted in some places in the Calicos does not show all the roads. Aerial imagery available on Google and Bing on-line maps are really the only good source of maps, but even those don’t show spots that are impassable. So having a good instinct for trail finding and being aware of previous tire tracks is important when exploring the Calicos.
Lots of Mines
As mentioned, the Calicos are also full of historical mines. There are literally hundreds of open mine shafts scattered throughout the Calicos so be very careful. Some mines are vertical shafts (deep holes in the ground) that anyone could easily step up to, loose their footing, and fall into. There are even a few vertical shafts right next to the road so, even as you step out of your vehicle, pay attention and look before you step! You are a long way from getting any help and some of the shafts are deep enough that you may not survive. That said, don’t let this keep you from exploring. Just be aware and use caution.
Mule Canyon (Getting There)
Our trip starts by driving up Mule Canyon. Exit I-15 on Calico Road (which is one exit beyond Ghost Town Road as you head northbound) and head north, towards the hills for one mile. Turn right onto the dirt of Mule Canyon Road, reset your odometer to zero and, if you’re driving a classic 4WD vehicle, get out and lock in the hubs because you’ll need 4WD in about 2.5 miles.
Incidentally, the Calico Road exit off I-15 is close to the small town of Yermo. There are a couple of businesses located on the main street through town, which is old US 91. This was home to the original Del Taco, which is no longer there (the oldest Del Taco now is in Barstow near Route 66 and First Ave). Yermo is also the location of a sizable rail yard for Union Pacific, which is the location where train crews are changed going north to Las Vegas or south into Los Angeles.
The road you are now driving on got its name for a very good reason. Remember the famous 20-mule teams that brought ore across the desert from Death Valley? Well, after they were used at the borax mines there, the same mining company brought them here to be used. Further up Mule Canyon was a large borax mine that operated in the last part of the 1800s. At the time, the Calicos were the world leader in borax production. Ore was brought from the mine to the town of Daggett on this road where it was then shipped out by railroad. If you look behind you, you’ll see the old road continue across the valley towards Daggett. Later, a narrow gauge railroad was built on top of the road you are now driving. That operation lasted until about 1905.
Soon, you will be in Mule Canyon. You’ll notice the colorful hills of different hues indicating that there are many different types of minerals in the dirt. In 1.4 miles, you’ll reach several rocky outcroppings known as Camp Rock. This area is popular with people who enjoy exploring by motorcycle or quad-runner. Often, those people will park their RVs here to camp. It is common to see many people camping here on weekends and it can even be a little crowded.
At 1.9 miles from the pavement, we’re going to leave Mule Canyon and turn left. Mule Canyon Road continues several miles to the east and can easily be explored on 2WD. At 2.1 miles, you’ll pass through some contorted landscape. This is evidence that the Calico Mountains are heavily faulted and earthquakes are common. Park off the road here to get out and see all the crazy formations on both sides of the road. This faulting can be traced in both directions for several miles.
Below are some pictures of what you will see along the way.
The spectacular overlook into Odessa Canyon
Shop for Mojave Desert items
Scroll down to see and shop for Mojave Desert related items from Amazon.
Books Recommended on Amazon
Virtual Tour on YouTube
Continuing a short distance, our next stop is at 2.3 miles. If you don’t have a 4WD, don’t go past this point. Here is a parking area on the left where you can hike about half a mile to see Kramer Arch. If you’re really good with your 4WD, you can attempt to drive it, but the road is very rough. This natural arch, located due west of the parking area, is a prelude to the wild and crazy landscape you’ll see further along on this trip.
Our first rough section of road is at 2.5 miles and this is where you’ll need that 4WD. Here is also where we’ll start seeing a lot of mine shafts including a vertical shaft right next to the road. The road is very steep here and the difficulty is compounded with big chunks of old pavement. In the 1950s, this road used to be paved and was a one-way scenic loop that regular automobiles could travel on but it was washed out during a downpour. Before tackling this section of road, you may want to get out and walk the hill so that you are familiar with what you are about to be driving over. This rough spot is only the beginning of your 4WD driving challenge, as there are more bumpy spots over the next half mile. Make sure to start out in your vehicle’s low-4WD setting.
As you follow the main road that heads west, you’ll pass by a few more mines and some distorted landscape and, at 3.1 miles, you’ll come up to the top of a ridge of a deep canyon. Here, the road turns right (north), but before continuing, use the large turnout near the turn to enjoy the view into the deep canyon below. This is Odessa Canyon. Opposite the turnout (across the canyon) are the remains of the huge Odessa Silver Mine. This mine operated between 1882 and 1896 and was one of the biggest producers in the Calicos. All you will see today are many holes, or mining adits, where ore was taken out of the hills. Watch our virtual tour to see what the remains of the mine looked like in 1950.
Continuing on our trip, head north on the road along Odessa Canyon. In 3.7 miles, the road will descend into the canyon and, at 4 miles, make a left turn out of the canyon onto a well-defined dirt road. Continue following this road as it turns left and right and slowly gains elevation. In about 4.7 miles, you’ll reach a summit and see a vista of the Calico Mountains to the west. You’ll also see the bizarre workings of the Bismarck mines just below. From the summit, bear left on the road (bearing right will be a more challenging downhill) and then turn right to reach Bismarck.
Bismarck is the site of numerous mining operations. Although most of the mines in the Calicos were for silver, many different minerals were extracted from the Bismarck, including gold. The last operation at the Bismarck exposed all of the older underground workings and left them looking like gigantic open caverns. Geologists refer to this style of mining as “gopher digs”. We’ve explored a lot of old mine sites across the Southwest but we’ve never seen a mining operation quite like this one.
Park your vehicle along the road that goes to the left of the first diggings you see. This is also a nice high spot to survey the surrounding area and the valley below. Although it is very dangerous to walk through old mines and we don’t suggest you attempt it, we’ve seen many people explore the workings of the Bismarck. When you do explore the area, don’t miss the diggings above the area where you parked your vehicle and don’t forget to watch where you step. If you continue walking to the south, towards the valley below, you’ll see numerous digs.
We’re ending this introductory trip into the Calico Mountains here but there is so much more to see here that you just can’t squeeze it all into one day. There are so many roads leading off in different directions and they’re all screaming to be explored! You’ll be like us – going back over and over.
Stay tuned on our blog for more trips into the Calicos in the future. There are plenty of great places to visit in these mountains.
Mule Canyon Rd intersects with Calico Rd
Help us fill up our tank with gas for our next trip by donating $5 and we’ll bring you back more quality virtual tours of our trips!
Your credit card payment is safe and easy using PayPal. Click the [Donate] button to get started: