Last Chance Canyon, the El Paso mountains and the Burro Schmidt Tunnel (February 18-19, 2017)

A month or so ago, my lovely girlfriend (who is now my fiance…!) forwarded me an article that featured a number of lesser-known attractions that could make for fun trips, all located in California – and one of the entries was about the Burro Schmidt Tunnel in the Mojave Desert.

Immediately it got added to my ‘list’ of places to check out. Shortly after that, Presidents Day weekend opened up on my calendar, so I decided to plan a trip – and the Tunnel, being top of mind, was the destination.

The plan was to take off on Saturday morning and go find a cool place to camp in or around Red Rock Canyon State Park and then spend the weekend exploring the area. The group ended up being relatively small – myself and my buddies Blake, Steve, Jesse, Jesse’s stepson Novak and the adventure poodle, Lyla. We wanted to get out on Saturday, but decided to hold back a day and wait out a bit of weather – which worked out for the better actually.

We met up at 9:30a in the parking lot at the visitor center at Red Rock, and then set off to find the Tunnel right away – which was about 12 miles away, about half of which was off-road so the going was slow and it took about an hour to get there.

The maps we had were great (Avenza PDF Maps and Google pretty much) and led us directly to the Tunnel. There were probably 30 other people there – all on dirt bikes and ATVs; lots of families.

We took a few pictures – Lyla found a great spot to relieve herself right by the plaque which had a bit of history – and decided to walk the half mile through the Tunnel.

Because of all the foot traffic, lots of dust was in the air and it was a bit hard to breathe – but other than that nuisance, the experience was super cool! Most of the passages were tall enough that I could stand up straight – and just the sense you got being in that space was pretty exhilarating. Lyla was her usual self, very happy and inquisitive – but never more than 5 steps away from her daddy!

When we started to get close to the exit, it was getting brighter and brighter and Lyla sprinted ahead to be the first one out – just to make sure it was safe and there were no zombie squirrels hiding. There was a group of other people gathered at the exit, and taking pictures of each other in front of the Tunnel hole; Lyla comes bursting out and startles everyone! From back in the Tunnel we could hear them scream and laugh and then oooh and awe over the cute puppy who had just surprised them. It was great :)

Upon exiting, the view was pretty spectacular! There was a small ledge that could fit maybe 20 people, surrounded by pretty steep slopes. We were smack-dab in the middle of a canyon flanked by two large hills and in the distance was a valley with what looked like a shallow lake that had formed by the recent rains (we’ve been having a record winter in California, precipitation wise).

After spending an hour or so exploring the Tunnel area, it was time to go find a campsite. Right away upon leaving we experienced what was to become the major ‘obstacle’ of the trip…Jesse’s 1998 XJ was a bit hard to start…it took 3 cranks and the ‘check engine’ light promptly came on…but it started and seemed to be running fine, so off we went. The a little while later we encountered what officially was ‘obstacle’ number 1 – a shredded sidewall. Steve must have been looking at the amazing scenery all around, and accidentally clipped a jagged-ish rock that had fallen into the road. Bad tire placement led directly to a flat. Quick to change the spare though, so and we were on our way again.

We came across the ‘Historic Bickel Camp‘ which we had no prior knowledge of, so obviously stopped for a little while to explore.

After leaving Bickel Camp, we were cruising through a lot of canyons and came across a couple abandoned old mining cabins. Pleasantly surprised not to find vandalization, we stopped to #exploremore !

On we went. After a few more miles of off-road driving we stumbled on a sign that indicated this was actually the historic ‘Bonanza Trail‘ and we had come across their old post office. We had spotted a couple cool camping spots along our way here, including the old cabins (there were no signs indicating that was prohibited – and we of course would leave the place cleaner than we found it) but none that had everyone’s agreement. Then we spotted some flat ground, up in the hills behind us, looking down on the old post office. There we went, and there we all agreed was the best place to make camp.

We scouted the area and found what looked like caves – but upon a little closer inspection, they were entrances to a network of tunnels…right behind our campsite! Kinda creepy and kinda cool at the same time – the fact that we weren’t really surprised to find old tunnels and mines in the area where we were, and a little bit of exploration while the sun was still out, convinced us that we didn’t need to worry about goblins or scary creatures coming out of the tunnels at night.

We then got our vehicles into position, where easy access to all our gear and supplies faced camp…or so we thought. Jesse’s jeep wouldn’t start; it kept turning over – but nothing. We opened the hood and checked the plugs, the fuel lines – all the stuff you would think, and couldn’t figure it out. We determined the problem was there was no spark to the plugs, but couldn’t diagnose much further than that. The crank sensor was the leading culprit, but after changing that and the problem not being solved – professional help was enlisted, and we learned that it was actually a broken magnetic piece in the internals of the distributor (which we opened, inspected and mistakenly deemed ‘OK’).

So the Jeep was stranded, and we with it – but we were camping and had dinner, beer and a whole lot of firewood. Good times were had!

Monday morning came around, and we were up around 7am – to the delightful sounds of a light morning drizzle which stopped after only 15 minutes or so. The air was brisk, but the sun was shining and we had a plan! We were only 5-6 miles away from a main highway, and had two working vehicles and all the vehicle recovery supplies we’d need. After a delectable breakfast of freshly made donuts and sausage (huge shout out to Tembo Tusk and their amazing product, the skottle!) we headed out.

A few hours later (we had to do some scouting of trail conditions to make sure it was safe to tow the Jeep behind the Tacoma) we reached highway CA-14 – and were lucky enough to have cell service. We called AAA (anyone who owns a 4×4 and uses it should be a member – and by all means, opt for the upgraded memberships when they become available! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the 100 mile tows – once even had to tack on a 100 mile tow to a 300 mile tow…and trust me, you don’t want to have to pay out of pocket for something like that…!) and an hour or so later, were safely on the way back to LA.

Another adventure in the record books :)

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