4x4 Adventure FJ80

By Land: 4×4 Adventure through Joshua Tree

When you hear 4×4 adventure, some of the first things that may come to mind are ambitious rock crawling, navigating narrow roads, lifting a wheel or two, maybe shoveling some dirt to fill giant holes. That’s what 4×4 adventures are all about and what gives us that anxious excitement the night before a big trip. But what generally doesn’t come to mind is doing all of that in pitch black sky that only a new moon can provide. On top of that, the sub freezing February temps added that little edge to the adventure. Oh, and Jon’s Jeep doesn’t have a working heater.

That’s how our Joshua Tree 4×4 adventure began. A long Friday night drive on the dreadful freeways of Los Angeles out to 29 Palms. Our destination: California gold mines and the long forgotten town of New Dale for a little metal detecting.  We found most of the road hit hard by rains that winter, leaving deep cuts and washed out sections that put our vehicles precariously close to rolling off the edge. Those rains also dislodged a lot of large rocks which we now had to navigate over or around. My FJ80 with a Jeep XJ and Chevy Colorado in tow spent the next 3 hours carefully navigating until we decided we had enough and posted up camp at the OK Mine. It was 1:30am.

Virginia Dale Mining District

Metal detecting
Metal detecting New Dale

Morning arrived nice and early and we set off for on foot to see what we could find while we warmed up our bodies from the previous night. Chuck and I took the FJ out to pick up a friend who had parked his Acura TL on the outskirts of the mining district. Getting out from where we came in was a 4×4 adventure in it’s own right. We picked him up and got the caravan packed up. 

In the late 1880s the area we now know as Joshua Tree State Park was one of the epicenters of the gold rush in Southern California. The area supported over a twenty different mines and 3,000+ miners scouring the hills looking for gold and other precious metals and we wanted to explore some of the remnants of those fortune seekers. 

First stop was the town site of New Dale. Now, some people like to call this a ghost town, but let’s put that to bed right now. It is nothing more than the faint traces of foundations once supporting stone walls and piles of rusting tin cans. But that doesn’t mean you don’t break out the metal detector and see what you can turn up, this is an adventure after all. It’s hard to believe that a community of thousands lived in this little pocket of barren desert. but whatever valuable treasure (or trash) they left behind eluded us today.

Arrastra
Abandoned Arrastra in Virginia Dale Mining District

The rest of the day we set out to some of the local mines in search of gem stones or maybe an old coin or two. Each mine seems to tell a little different story. Some were worked later in the 20th century, some had large stamp mills, and some used more traditional and old fashioned means to extract their precious metals. When looking over the landscape it’s hard to imagine what life was like for those miners, but at least they had a killer view.

On one of our first stops we ran into an arrastra next to a deep mine shaft. An arrastra is about as old as you can get for ore processing technology; just a primitive circular mill built right into the ground. You find them scattered throughout the southwest as Spanish miners used to use them to process ore before transporting it back to Mexico. At some point 150 years ago there was a mule walking in circles all day around this thing.

As we continued our desert 4×4 adventure, we got plenty of use out of our 4WD. While none of the roads were very difficult, they certainly aren’t passable by anything without some ground clearance. All the while you get some amazing views looking out from the Pinto Mountains south towards Joshua Tree. This time of year really makes for that perfect crisp weather you learn to love in the deserts of the southwest.

The Mission Mine

Ore Crusher
Mission Mine ore crushing equipment

When we finally reached the other end of the Virginia Dale Mining District, we paid a visit to the Sunset and Mission Mines as our next 4×4 adventure stop. These mines briefly operated in the early 1980s bringing a little bit of life back into the area for a couple of years. Sadly, time hasn’t been kind to the ruins of the Mission Mine. Most of the equipment has been stripped for scrap in the past decade, but the remnants of a large lode processing operation can still be seen.

I’m somewhat familiar with the history of this particular mine, I knew the previous owners and spent some time exploring the operations before they started to disappear. The shaft below extends almost 700′ straight into the ground with several horizontal levels as you go. The old miners were chasing a massive ore vein which you can still see visible on the surface. There is still a lot of precious ore left below in the shaft, but nothing we can safely get to. The last attempt in the 80’s yielded an impressive report of the district itself and detailed examination of the mine operations, but ultimately the venture went bust and the cost to restart an operation today doesn’t make it worth it. I couldn’t imagine the work involved in even getting a working road into the area today.

Gold Rose Mine Camp

Helping Hand
Lending a helping hand to capture gem stones

After stretching our legs at the Mission Mine, we set out to find our camp for the evening. Located right outside the northern border of Joshua Tree, the Gold Rose mine is long abandoned. Recently, travellers have gone out of their way to turn the ruins into a comfortable camp and staging area. A supply cache, fire pits, sleeping areas, and plenty of other emergency gear are safely stashed away. It’s always good to leave something behind if you can spare it for the next person. It made for a great setup for the evening and provides nice shelter from any wind. We had more than enough room to accommodate our three trucks. You could easily setup a camp for a dozen people here if you need. Maybe a future 4×4 adventure with a few more friends next time.

As the day was started to wane, Jon and I wandered off to examine the Gold Rose property. And we were glad we did. Our only find of the day was a nice pocket of chrysocolla / malachite. This means there was likely a decent amount of copper in whatever hill we were standing on. For us that means we get to put a couple of blue rocks in our pockets to take home. To be added to the growing pile of desert treasure no doubt. It also gave us an excuse to break out the rock hammers and watch as the sun began to set.

Campfire
Enjoying company and keeping warm around the fire

Back at camp the rest of the crew was just starting to get a fire going; we knew we were going to need it to keep nice and warm after last nights adventure. We tossed about 5lbs of marinated meat right on the fire and I heated up some wild mushroom risotto I had made just for the trip. It’s always a great experience to eat a good meal cooked right over the fire out under the open sky. I’ve come to enjoy not bringing along stoves and propane cans and various cooking utensils. It feels good to embrace the simple act of meat over the fire. It always tastes better too.

As we stayed warm by the fire with food and drink, the sky rewarded us with a beautiful view. The humbling Milky Way galaxy overhead. This is one of the treats waiting when you get out of the city light. Eventually we called it a night after a full day of adventure.

The Next Desert 4×4 Adventure

The drive back from a trip is always bitter-sweet. These short weekend trips¬†are never really enough to satisfy the desire for adventure, but the memories they create certainly last a lifetime. I’m sure there will be many more trips out to the deserts around Joshua Tree for Jon and I. Hopefully our friends too. Maybe next time we’ll head a little farther north and look for the legend of Hermit John’s gold…

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