Pros & Cons of Exploring the Road Less Traveled
It doesn't take long exploring off-road before you come across an unmarked trail you have no idea about and can't find on your guide book, GPS or whatever other mapping device you're using. While there are many positives to exploring off the beaten path, there are certain risks too. Exploring the unknown isn’t for everyone. Let's go over some of the pros and cons so you can decide what's right for you on your next off-roading adventure.
CHOOSING A ROUTE
The Mojave Desert has a vast network of Jeep trails. Many of them date back to the days of Westward Expansion and were the overland routes used by emigrants and pioneers in the 1800s. There are dedicated off-road trails created by Jeep clubs working with the various land agencies. Still others are routes created by miners and prospectors seeking gold during the Gold Rush era. And some, like the famed Mojave Road, were originally ancient trade routes used by Native Americans.
Even the most complete trail guide book or web site can only cover a fraction of the routes, including back country road guides for popular locations such as Death Valley. These roads often don’t even show up on GPS or navigation maps (although they are shown on true topographical maps). With so much open desert to explore, it would be a shame to limit yourself only to trails that have write-ups in books and on forums.
If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you probably realize that I love to explore the trails that aren’t often traveled. If I spot a turn that looks interesting, I'm bound to say, “Hey, let’s go check out that trail.” Sometimes it’s a bust, and sometimes I hit the jackpot. That’s what keeps it interesting.
GOING OFF GRID
Pro #1: Some of the best sights in the Mojave Desert are still well-preserved secrets.
Despite this being the age of the internet and social media, there is an unwritten code that there are some locations people won’t share online because they don’t want to make them too easy to find and risk vandals accessing the sites. This is especially true for places such as well-maintained cabins and archaeological sites. If you want to find them, you have to get out there and explore on your own. Turning down random unmarked side trails is how we found the well-kept cabin in the salt flats outside of Death Valley, and we found the Kopper King mine and cabin purely by chance when we decided to take a trail that looked interesting.
Con #1: You need the skills to venture out, and there are instances where you might have to turn around.
You can easily get lost if you don’t have good navigation skills, and the Mojave Desert is not a good place to be lost. You won’t know the condition or technical difficulty level until you actual travel the trail. It’s important to know the capabilities of both you and your vehicle. Don’t let your ego get in the way of making a decision to turn around if the trail gets too sketchy.
We managed to find ourselves at a dead end surrounded by mountains and with no option but to backtrack 20+ miles while exploring the El Paso Mountains. When we decided to explore the trail beyond the Death Valley Mine in the Mojave National Preserve, we had no idea what we would find because most people turn around after visiting the mining camp. We reached a section of trail that was so steep, rocky and off camber that there was no way we would chance it alone.
Pro #2: It’s the best way to find solitude.
Trail runs as a social event are a lot of fun, and there is safety in numbers (the best advice is to never 'wheel alone), but sometimes we just want to find some peace and quiet in nature. The better known a trail is, the more likely it is that you will run across other people. We often spend days traveling more than a hundred miles on little-known Jeep trails without every seeing another person. There are times when we feel like we are the only people alive on the planet.
Con #2: Solitude has its downside.
If you run into trouble, there is significantly less chance of someone passing by to rescue or assist you. That is a very big risk to take on if you are ignoring common advice to never go alone. You need to make sure that your vehicle is in good working condition, and you need to make sure you are well-prepared for anything that could happen — not just with gear, but also mentally.
Pro #3: There’s a great sense of adventure in not knowing what lies ahead.
Some people like to stay in their comfort zone, but some of us thrive on the rush of always experiencing something new.
Con #3: You could drive right past something interesting and never even know it.
We’ve done that more times than I’d like to admit. I typically find out when I get back home and start researching the area we visited. We've missed out on many significant petroglyph sites and even drove right past a large crater when we took a trail that turned out to lead into Bendire Canyon.
Explore while you still can! Off-Road Travel Management Plans are being implemented across the Mojave, and many sub-regions now have stricter regulations about trails. If a trail in these areas isn’t marked with Open Route signage, it is a closed trail. Make sure to check on any restrictions before you head out.