Terra Galleria Photography

Afton Canyon: the Unknown Grand Canyon of the Mojave

No Comments

Only a few miles removed from Interstate 15, Afton Canyon remains hidden and unknown to the millions that speed across the desert. Last year, I abandoned my plans to explore Afton Canyon at a river crossing after estimating a depth of more than 18 inches. This year, I came equipped with a Jeep with which I embarked on a series of off-road trips, determined to see what had eluded me.

The Afton Canyon Road

The quickest access to Afton Canyon is from the west, by leaving Interstate 15 at the Afton Road exit (Exit 221) between Barstow and Baker, 36mi from Barstow and 26mi from Baker. A well-graded unpaved road leads to the canyon floor at the Afton Canyon Campground in 3.5 miles. Right past the campground, you come across the obstacle after that had stopped me, a section of more than a hundred yards of road flooded by the Mojave River, an unusual sight in the desert. Although the river itself is extremely shallow, that section was more than knee deep.

That crossing is the only serious obstacle, as other fords were much shorter. For the length of the Afton canyon, you could follow several different tracks. If you follow the best one, you could make it with any high clearance vehicle, however, as it is not always clear where to go, I was glad to have good off-road capabilities, for instance when I drove along the riverbed, which is often the most straightforward of several routes.

I had spotted on the map a road that lead back to I-5 from the eastern end of the canyon, but it looked quite rough. By chance, I encountered a caravan of off-roaders who were all driving vehicles with impressive lifts – my only human encounter in Afton Canyon. They discouraged me from continuing, so I backtracked via the Canyon to I-5. Maybe because this time, emboldened by the ease of the morning’s crossing, I went too fast, or maybe because water levels had changed at midday, water seeped into the car despite its high clearance. Lacking better tools, I spent fifteen minutes to scoop out most of it with an empty can, but the floor of the car remained damp for almost a week.

The Mojave River

For much of its course, the Mojave River runs underground, and Afton Canyon is one of the few places where it reliably runs on the surface, a rare sight in the desert. It is no more than a thin ribbon of water, at most a few inches deep, and flowing slowly, but its absolute clarity was mesmerizing, especially in that arid environement. The photographic challenge was to find a stretch without tire marks, as many had driven along the riverbed.

Given the trickle of water, it would be quite surprising that the Mojave River had carved such a large and deep canyon, sometimes nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Mojave”, with sheer walls more than 300 feet high. Back 15,000 years ago, the huge Lake Mannix drained, creating the unlikely canyon.

Side Canyons

Although from a distance those canyon walls look monolithic, they are full of nook and cranies that reward off-trail hiking. The run-off from the surrounding mountains has cut fascinating narrow secondary canyons.

The road runs on the north side of the Mojave River, but noticing tracks on south side, I forded the river and followed them to reached what looked like an unmarked trailhead. I followed a desert wash and was soon surrounded by steep badlands eroded from conglomerate rock.

On the side, what looked like detached rock flakes were the entrances of a few narrow slots. They were just a few feet wide, and several stories tall, and littered with boulders that made the progression strenuous. Unlike the Navajo sandstone slots of the Colorado plateau, the walls were not smooth, but instead knoby.

I looked for an area where the sun had reached the opposite upper wall, creating with its reflected light a warm glow. Even though it was midday, I was glad I had brought the tripod with me, since with the lens stopped down for depth of field, the exposure was several seconds.

I have seen more spectacular canyons, but that I discovered this one by roaming around without guidebooks – inexistent for the area anyway – and directions made it more special.

Part 5 of 6: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Leave a Comment