Mining for History in the Mojave Desert's Kessler Peak Trail
The Mojave National Preserve is one of my favorite places to explore. Located between the better-known Death Valley National Park to the north and Joshua Tree National Park to the south, the 1.6 million acre Preserve has few paved roads, but a vast network of off-road trails waiting to be explored. It is best known for the historic Mojave Road, the 138-mile east-to-west trail that travels between water holes and old army outposts, traveling through land that has remained relatively unchanged since prehistoric times, but few explore beyond that.
The northeast corner of the park near the Ivanpah Mountains has the largest concentration of old mines and camps to explore. We had been invited to visit an old miner cabin that had been recently restored by volunteers in cooperation with the National Park Service, so we decided to make a day of exploring mines and camps in the area. I plotted a route that traveled through the Piute Valley between the Ivanpah Mountains and the Mescal Range.
Starting Out on the Kessler Peak Trail
The Kessler Peak Trail starts on Cima Road, 11.7 miles south of Interstate 15. The trail is unmarked, but is approximately a half-mile south of the Teutonia Peak trailhead. An alternative way to access the trail is at the famed Mojave Cross memorial on Sunrise Rock, directly across from Teutonia Peak. Continue east past the memorial and the unnamed trail will intersect Kessler Peak.
The trail begins as a wide and sandy road. As we drove through the Joshua trees, we noticed how green and alive the desert was from the recent rains. It felt lush compared to the harsh and brittle browns of winter, and the juniper trees were loaded with berries. There is a small creek crossing that might be flowing after rain. There was just enough water flowing to get my Jeep covered with mud when we crossed.
Several nice primitive campsites, complete with fire rings, dot the course along the first few miles. I marked them on my GPS for future use... I'm always plotting my next trip!
What to Expect
The trail became rougher as it climbed up the mountain. This year’s storms had created some washouts and high clearance is definitely required. The main trail is easy to follow despite no signage, but there is a spiderweb of offshoot trails along both sides for you to explore.
Exploring Evening Star Mine
Abandoned mines and old camps are scattered throughout the Ivanpah Mountains. The best known mine is the Evening Star Mine, which began as a copper prospect by J. Riley Bembry in 1935. It later become the only producer of tin ore in the Mojave desert. You can’t miss it because it has the largest standing headframe in the East Mojave, with a crusher at the top. The mine shafts have been closed by the Park Service, but you can still peek inside and there are a few other structures to check out.
Restoring Riley Camp
Farther down the trail, another side trail leads to Riley Camp, the former home of J. Riley Bembry. Bembry was a World War I veteran who came to the Mojave desert in the 1920s. He put his explosive skills to work mining the Ivanpah Mountains. By the time he died, he had placed 56 claims. Bembry erected the Mojave Cross in 1934, which is now maintained by the Barstow VFW. He was well known throughout the area, and over 100 people attended his funeral in 1984.
Riley’s Camp consists of his home, an assay office (which some believe might actually be a laundry,) and a powder magazine for dynamite. The cabin is currently undergoing restoration, so I didn’t want to disturb anyone by poking around to take photos. I took the photo shown here in 2009 before the restoration began. If you visit Riley’s Camp, please be respectful of the hard work the volunteers are doing.
There's Ore in Them Hills
We continued exploring offshoot trails and enjoyed discovering several old mining cabins nestled at the base of the mountains. This one had an old teardrop trailer attached to the cabin.
In addition to the Evening Star Mine, some of the other mines located in this area are the Morning Star Mine, New Era Mine, Silverado, Standard, Sussana, Copper King, Iron Horse and Blue Buzzard.
Preserving History at Mining Cabins
I’m pledged to secrecy about the exact location of several of the cabins, as they're slated for restoration efforts and the volunteers are hoping to protect them from further vandalism. Hopefully soon these will be able to offer more of a picture of what miner's lives were like.
I loved the roof top porch on this cabin. It had a great view and I imagine it was a beautiful to spot end the day and watch the sun set in the West.
You can also find many old vehicles and machinery out here, metal telling the story of the harsh elements.
The Kessler Peak Trail climbs to 5,200 feet and the temperature is much cooler than down on the valley floor. Despite the fact that it was August in the Mojave desert, it was actually pleasant.
My favorite cabin was perched high on a cliff, with a magnificent view. The water tank above had a pipe running to the kitchen sink. This cabin is another in the midst of renovation. The major cleanup work has just started and it’s still pretty nasty inside. Again, if you have the opportunity to visit these cabins, please be respectful and do your part to help preserve this wonderful history.
There are hundreds of jackrabbits here, be on the look out so that you don’t run one over!
A small cemetery along the trail contains the grave of J. Riley Bembry and a few other locals.
Getting Back to Civilization
The trail slowly descended back down to Piute Valley. When you reach a tank, you can continue heading north to Interstate 15 and visit the Iron Horse and Blue Buzzard mines, or you could head east to search for the legendary River of Gold at Kokoweef. We needed to head south to meet up with the person who invited us out there, so we turned onto Zinc Mine Road.
More Surprises Found on Zinc Mine Road
Zinc Mine Road turned out to be a bit rougher than Kessler Peak. Kessler Peak was mostly sand, but Zinc Mine had loose rocky sections. On the sandy sections, there was sign that wild burros use the trail as a travel route, but we never spotted any. The only known fossilized dinosaur tracks in California were found in this area, and I found Native American pictograms while on a short hike as well.
Right before we reached Cima Road, we came to Ord Tank, a water tank and corral. A large covey of quail startled me as I walked over, a reminder of all the life to be found in the desert. From there, we traveled to our secret hideaway, a restored cabin with an incredible sunset view. After a relaxing dinner we watched the Milky Way rise, and I thought that this wouldn’t be a bad place at all to live.
Know Before You Go
You can see Cima Road from Ord Tank. This route is 15 miles, not counting any side trails. Make sure to fill your gas tank before entering the Mojave National Preserve; there are no services in the park and there are few paved roads leading to civilization. There is a gas station where Cima Road meets Interstate 15. The next closest is in Baker, on the other side of the park and can be reached via Kelbaker Road.