The Southern California desert is a powerfully vast, beautiful, harsh and dangerous landscape. It is an intense place to visit. Hidden in that wild is a treasure trove of adventure that can also provide a window to our past. One particular area is full of abandoned mines and the supporting structures, all in various states of decay. And all mostly vacant, and probably dangerous. Here’s how to find them and what to bring to ensure your safety…
First, a word of warning
When heading into the desert, precautions should be made for ample food, plenty of water and emergency supplies, even if you are just planning to visit for a simple day trip. The desert and it’s environment should not be taken lightly at any time of the year. Weather can change in an instant and catch you off guard, sometimes forcing you to stay put for hours or days longer than expected. Seriously, it’s happened to me. So always be prepared, and expect the unexpected. A long time ago someone much smarter and wiser than I, but probably not nearly as handsome, once said: “hope for the best but prepare for the worst”. That’s a mantra that I repeat to myself every time I load my Jeep for any desert or backcountry trip. That’s including day trips, overnighters and especially multi-day camping/excursions.
Where are California’s abandoned mines?
Myself and a few friends, Dave and Louie, decided it was the perfect weather to plan an overnighter in a remote part of the Southern California desert near the Southeastern tip of Joshua Tree State Park. Fall and Winter are the best times to visit this area. The days are cooler and the nights can get down right cold. On this trip the weather forecast was sunny and low 60’s for the days and a chilly, mid to high 30’s at night. Perfect!
This vast desert area sits east of Indio, north of Interstate 10 and South of Highway 62. It’s known to be a great place to challenge your 4×4 driving skills over a slew of fun obstacles while taking in the beautiful desert terrain. This area is also known for its large amount of abandoned mines, some from as far back as the 1880’s that were left to rot. Others were in full swing all the way into the early 1990’s. This area is wild, raw and unforgiving. None of the mines we visited were blocked off or even labeled…they were just giant holes straight down into the Earth and a few shafts into the side of mountains.
Extreme caution and common sense must prevail when exploring old mines. As you would expect, they are fragile, unpredictable and really, very dangerous. I am in no way suggesting that you venture into any abandoned mine…at any time…ever. That being said, we did go a little ways into the Gold Standard Mine…but more on that later.
Camping in the Southern California Desert
The goal of the trip was to do an overnighter somewhere deep in the area we were wheeling in. I had been to this particular patch of desert before, last February with my son Nolan, but never actually got all the way back to the Brooklyn Mine…so that was the unofficial goal of this trip. Once you exit Interstate 10 and go north on Cottonwood Road for a few miles, you will come across a dirt road on your right. This is a great place to stop and air down your tires. This is the Southern trail head to Old Dale Road. It’s here where you can either stay to the left or go right. To the left is Old Dale Road. That’s the direction to go to get to the Brooklyn Mine Jeep Trail intersection. You will know you are at the intersection because there is a sign marking that turn off.
Up to this point if you had a high clearance 2WD vehicle, and you aired down your tires, you would probably be able to get to this cut off and maybe a little further up Dale Road. But once you make the turn at the cut off, a 4×4 is strongly suggested as you head deeper into the desert on the Brooklyn Mine Jeep Trail. A slightly modified 4×4 is absolutely essential to get all the way back to the Brooklyn Mine.
While slowly navigating your way from Old Dale Road out to the Brooklyn Mine on the Jeep Trail, you will come across a plethora of old mine relics. Old mine camp waste, scraps of metal, mine specific tools, hollowed out husks and skeletons of old cars and trucks, as well as big water tanks. You will also see a lot of old cement structures. Make sure to get out of your vehicle and explore all of the history of this place. Again, use extreme caution when walking and exploring this area. Remember, there are gaping holes in the Earth that are not marked in any way. OK? OK. Have fun!
Stuff You’re Going to Need
Knowing that it was going to be cold on the days that we would be doing this trip, we packed warm clothing and cold weather gear. I brought a 20º sleeping bag, and a four season/windproof tent. Also, a down filled jacket, long pants, long underwear, a beanie, wool socks, a merino wool neck buff and good gloves. It was important to be able to make a fire, which we could do with no problems out in the desert. Where we ended up making camp for the night was Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land so we could build a fire and disperse (wild) camp on this land. Remember, your are in a very remote location, there are zero services provided. You must bring everything you need, and then some. And what you pack in you must pack out.
And now that I am on that subject…let’s talk pooping. Bring a shovel. When you camp like this you need to poop in a hole. When you’re done, you cover it back up with dirt. Do not put your toilet paper/flushable wipe in the hole with the poop…you need to put that in a ZipLock baggie (that you brought with you to the place that you dug the poop hole) and take it home to dispense of it. Seriously, that’s what needs to be done. But if it seems like something you can’t do, might be worth bringing a portable camp toilet.
Don’t Go it Alone
You should not do trips like this alone. It is a great idea to have at least one other vehicle with you. It’s a good idea to have ways to communicate with the rest of your party. You are going to be out of cell service in a lot of these places, so a two way radio is a must have. It can be a CB or Ham radio, both of which are available as in-vehicle mounted or hand-held types, or a good set of Walkie-Talkies. You also need to have some sort of offline GPS navigation device to keep you on track so you don’t get lost out there. I use a CB Radio and my Samsung tablet in “airplane mode” with a great app called Gaia GPS for all of my comm and navigation.
How to find the best camping spot
As we headed deeper into the canyon, the terrain was getting very rocky. We had to climb a deceivingly steep and very narrow shelf road to get up to another mine we wanted to see. I was leading the way and didn’t realize how steep or how narrow the hill was until I was half way up. It looked a lot safer from the bottom. Dave and I are in Ol’ Blue, my 1995 Jeep XJ (Cherokee). The road was about as wide as Ol’ Blue…maybe a smidge wider….just for reference. There were some washed out sections that got a little crazy. Not to mention the boulders we had to crawl over…it was going to be a slow climb. I couldn’t really do anything about it as I wasn’t about to back my way down it. So, I put her in 4 Low and slowly and carefully crawled up the hill. The point is, it’s better to have a too-capable vehicle than not. If in doubt, best not to attempt it.
At the top of the hill is the Los Angeles Mine, shown in the photos above with the rickety old ladder in it.
Once we got ready to leave, we looked down the other side of the hill and saw what appeared to be not only the Brooklyn Mine, but a small structure that appeared to be a left over mining cabin. Was this a possible place to set camp for the evening? Maybe. There’s only one way to find out. We quickly got back in to our Jeeps and headed down the steep shelf road to the Brooklyn Mine and this mysterious, lonely cabin.
Yes, this cabin was great! A perfect place to stop and set camp. It was obvious that it had been used before by others as well. There were so many things left behind for people to reuse. There was firewood, tables, a BBQ, a bunch of trinkets, an old Coleman stove and a sign-in sheet/book. It felt very communal being there. The community that is of the outdoor enthusiast type, for the most part, are a conscientious, friendly and caring group…and the shape that we found this cabin was proof of that…and that’s pretty awesome. So obviously, Dave, Louie and I agreed that the “tread lightly” ethos must be applied here. Upon breaking camp, we left a donation of firewood and left the cabin exactly the way we found it.
We really found this cabin to be the perfect spot. We had an amazing night out there. Great friends, good conversation, good food, and good beer…an all-around good time. Camping can be pretty magical like that.
The temp dropped pretty rapidly. At some point while sitting around the fire, right before heading off to bed, the temperature gauge on my watch read 42 degrees fahrenheit. This was around 10:30 pm. We knew it was going to drop into the mid-30’s fahrenheit for the evening low, and like I said earlier, we were prepared for it by bringing the right cold-weather gear.
On the Way Out
Morning in the desert was beautiful. The sky was clear with not a cloud in it, the temp was hovering around 45 degrees. Between the three of us, we made a quick and delicious breakfast of turkey bacon, eggs, avocado and some oatmeal. Top that with some steamy, delicious cups o’ coffee…again magical. Food just tastes better in the wild. With nice full bellies, we started to break camp. We picked up every thing we brought, put all of the trash in my Trasharoo and headed out. We had one more stop on the way out of the canyon: The Gold Standard mine.
It was a slow crawl on the canyon floor. There were a lot of boulders to crawl over and some narrow spots between rocks where Dave had to get out to spot for us. Speed was the enemy…and would almost certainly mean some damage would be done to the Jeeps. So, slow and steady it was. Eventually, we got to the mine. It was actually pretty close to the campsite…maybe a little over a mile. We hiked up past the old mine debris and the skeleton of an old 1930’s dump truck, being slowly swallowed by the hillside. When we got up to where the mine shaft would be, we were surprised that it was so well preserved. After a little bit of a discussion on the safety of us actually going in to the big hole in the side of the mountain…we ventured in.
Upon entering the shaft, we noticed that almost instantly that it was at least 20 degrees warmer in there. For some reason, that made me a little spooked. It’s creepy in these shafts, make no mistake. After venturing about 200 yards into the Gold Standard mine, we all got a little freaked out and decided we’d gone deep enough. We kinda hightailed it outta there, got in the Jeeps and started heading back to the main part of the Brooklyn Jeep Trail. Once it hooks back to Old Dale Road, we turned right to go out over the Pinto Mountains. A left turn here would’ve taken us back the way we came, back to Joshua Tree.
The terrain changes as you start the ascent up in to the Pinto Mountains. This is where the the Colorado Desert meets the Mojave Desert. Of the two deserts, the Mojave is cooler. The flora starts to change from the very rocky terrain that’s scattered with ironwood trees, cactus, chollas and ocotillos of the Colorado, to the soft sand and familiar sight of the Joshua Trees of the Mohave. Here, too, a slightly modified 4×4 is best on this trail as the narrow, steep and sometimes off-camber climb is rutted and heavily smattered with embedded boulders, some of which are up 16″ exposed. So, as you may have expected, slow and steady wins again.
Once you’re down from the Pinto Mountains, you will find yourself staying on Old Dale Road, at this point also called Gold Crown Road. This is the main road that will take you all the way to Highway 62.
Right before you get to the pavement of the 62, there’s a sign and a little shade off to the left. This is a good place to stop to air your tires back up. We ate some lunch and reflected on the awesomeness of the camp spot we scored. We talked about some of the history of the area we just explored. All and all, it was a really great trip, good job team!
The Southern California desert can be tamed and enjoyed if you take the time to research and learn about the area you are traveling into, and you take proper precautions before venturing out. Safety and survival should not be taken lightly, due diligence on your prep is of utmost importance. Always respect the area you are in, tread lightly, pack out what you pack in and leave it as you found it for future users.
All that being said, maybe next time, if you’re lucky, I’ll tell you the story about the time Louie and I got caught in a flash flood at the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It’s a great story and a perfect example of what not to do.
For now, venture forward, be careful and have fun!