- Location: Mojave desert between Barstow and Baker. From Interstate 15, take exit 221 for Afton Road (38 miles northeast of Barstow, 24 miles southwest of Baker and 74 miles southwest of the state line). Follow Afton Road 3.5 miles to the campground. The road is dirt and rough in some spots but should be navigable by most passenger vehicles. The road may be closed due to weather conditions. Check here before your trip.
- Agency: Bureau of Land Management/Barstow Field Office
- Distance: 4 miles (round trip to caves via the Mojave River; 3 miles round trip via the road)
- Elevation gain: 250 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG
- Suggested time: 2.5 hours
- Best season: October – April
- Dogs: Allowed (exercise caution on hot days; the terrain may be difficult on their paws; some stream crossings may be necessary)
- Cell phone reception: Weak at the trail head; none in the canyon
- Water: There’s a faucet at the campground but it is requested that it be reserved for campers.
- Restrooms: Vault style toilets at the campground
- Camping/backpacking: Afton Canyon Campground, $6 per night
- Recommended gear: sunblock sun hat hiking poles
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Inland Empire
- More information: Trip descriptions here and here; article about the area here
- Rating: 6
The stretch of Interstate 15 between Barstow and the Nevada state line may be best known for Zzyzx Road and the giant thermometer at Baker, but another attraction sits a few miles off the freeway: Afton Canyon. While the nickname “Grand Canyon of the Mojave” may be a little generous, Afton is well worth exploring, especially if you are on your way to Las Vegas and need to stretch your legs.
The area is quite young by geological standards, estimated to have been created 19,000 years ago. The mostly underground Mojave River is forced out into the open here by impermeable rocks below the surface. Vegetation includes native desert willows, catclaw acacia and non-native salt cedar. Because the hike follows the course of the river, the exact route may change depending on water levels.
A good destination, as described below, is a pair of caves about two miles from the campground. From the lot, continue east on the dirt road paralleling the railroad tracks. As the road bends south, stay straight on a road bed for a short distance and then descend via a short use trail on the right (the trail to the left may look more user-friendly but ultimately it leads to a series of dead-ends that require difficult bushwhacking to get back on course). A short passage through some brush brings you to the stream bed of the Mojave River. Head east, following a faint trail along the north bank. From here, take the path of least resistance. You may have to dip in and out of the stream to avoid high brush on the sides of the river. Exercise caution on the muddy banks and also be aware that the water in the wetlands may be deeper than it appears (adults may expect it to come up to their calves; higher for kids.) If you are hiking with small dogs, you may want to carry them over some of the spots.
Whichever route you take, your guide will be the tracks and road just to the south. After about a mile, you should see a white railroad trestle. Here, the river and canyon bend south and cross under it. On the opposite side of the trestle, the canyon heads briefly east through more wetlands. Navigation is somewhat easier here; you will still be wading through the stream but there is less bushwhacking and the water level tends to be lower. Your destination is a pair of caves on the north (right) side of the canyon. Just before them, you’ll do a little bushwhacking through some salt cedar brush plants. The first cave will be right in front of you; a second can be reached with a short scramble up the rocks. The cave coordinates are N 35 01.754, W 116 22.300.
After enjoying the caves, you can continue farther along the river or retrace your steps. An easier, if less interesting, option for the return is to follow the dirt road that runs below and then to the right of the trestle (watch out for four wheel drive vehicles which frequent the road – and trains.) The last stretch of road before the campground may be washed out if the water is high so if you opt for this route, you may need to cross the trestle.
Text and photography copyright 2017 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.