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Photo taken by Rudolph D’Heureuse on a survey expedition in 1863, shows the camp at Soda Springs, now known as Zzyzx. The view provides a glimpse of the desolation of the freshwater springs along the Mojave Road. Soda Springs/Zzyzx is about 10 miles south of Baker, east of the 15 Freeway. (Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)
Photo taken by Rudolph D’Heureuse on a survey expedition in 1863, shows the camp at Soda Springs, now known as Zzyzx. The view provides a glimpse of the desolation of the freshwater springs along the Mojave Road. Soda Springs/Zzyzx is about 10 miles south of Baker, east of the 15 Freeway. (Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)
Mark Landis
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Imagine a scene in a movie about the Old West, where the characters are in a desperate search for water in the desert, stumbling across a barren landscape under a scorching sun, and carrying an empty canteen past a pile of bleached animal bones.

Those scenes were reality in Southern California’s vast Mojave Desert. There’s no shortage of harrowing tales about near-death experiences with thirst and desperate battles for survival.

A handful of freshwater springs spread across the Mojave Desert provided an essential lifeline to early travelers crossing Southern California’s great, arid expanses. Some of the springs are so small, they may only be distinguished from their surroundings by small clusters of greenery.

From footpaths to wagon roads, transportation across the desert was dependent on the water, and the trail routes and roads through the region could be traced from spring to spring.

The springs also sustain the local wildlife.

There are many springs in the Mojave Desert, but those that became the mainstays generally had consistent, though sometimes meager flows, and they were usually 10 to 30 miles apart. The springs also provided some feed for livestock, but the grass was often inadequate.

Photo taken by Rudolph D'Heureuse on the Mojave Road during an 1863 survey expedition, showing the fort at Camp Cady, along the Mojave River. The site was a major water stop for emigrants and traders. The military outpost was operational from 1860 to 1871 and was located about 3 miles southeast of the Harvard Road exit on the 15 Freeway, about 30 miles northeast of Barstow. (Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)
Photo taken by Rudolph D’Heureuse on the Mojave Road during an 1863 survey expedition, showing the fort at Camp Cady, along the Mojave River. The site was a major water stop for emigrants and traders. The military outpost was operational from 1860 to 1871 and was located about 3 miles southeast of the Harvard Road exit on the 15 Freeway, about 30 miles northeast of Barstow. (Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

Mormon pioneers in the 1850s to 1870s wrote about the scarcity of water in the Mojave. They noted when their livestock began to falter from a lack of food and water, they would be slaughtered.

When larger groups of emigrants began traveling the desert roads, they realized large numbers of people and animals could overrun the amount of water supplied by smaller springs. The large parties began to split themselves into smaller groups and space out the wagons so the spring could recover enough to supply the next group.

The primary emigrant and trade routes through the Mojave Desert were the Old Spanish Trail and the Mojave Road. The Old Spanish Trail ran from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles. In the 1860s, the section of The Old Spanish Trail in the California desert became known as the Mormon or Salt Lake Road, and it connected Salt Lake City to Los Angeles.

The Old Spanish Trail in California and the Mojave Road were originally footpaths between desert water sources developed by Native Americans as trade routes from the interior desert to the Pacific Coast.

When Spanish explorers came into the Mojave Desert region in the 1770s, the Native Americans acted as guides, and led Spaniards from spring to spring.

This map shows the Mojave Road and the Old Spanish Trail in Southern California's Mojave Desert. In the 1860s, the Old Spanish Trail became known as the Mormon Road or Salt Lake Trail due to the heavy traffic of Mormon emigrants and traders traveling between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. (Map courtesy of Dave Barton)
This map shows the Mojave Road and the Old Spanish Trail in Southern California’s Mojave Desert. In the 1860s, the Old Spanish Trail became known as the Mormon Road or Salt Lake Trail due to the heavy traffic of Mormon emigrants and traders traveling between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. (Map courtesy of Dave Barton)

Padre Francisco Garcés, a Franciscan Missionary, is the first White man credited with crossing the Mojave Desert in 1776, on trails that would become part of the Mojave Road and the Old Spanish Trail.

In his journal, Garcés noted some of the well-known water sources. Using current names, they included: Piute Springs, Government Holes, Soda Springs, and the Mojave River.

Famed explorer Jedediah Smith followed sections of the Native American trail through the Mojave Desert in 1826, and portions of his route later became the Old Spanish Trail.

In 1829, Mexican trader Antonio Armijo led the first commercial caravan from Abiquiú, New Mexico, to Los Angeles on the Old Spanish Trail.

The Old Spanish Trail/Mormon Road merged with the Mojave Road at a junction just east of today’s Yermo. The trails met there, and continued a southerly route along the Mojave River, and then crossed the San Bernardino Mountains via the Cajon Pass. Near Devore, the trail split and went southeast to San Bernardino and west to Los Angeles.

The monument at the site of Camp Cady in 2002. Monuments and plaques can be found at many sites along the Mojave Road and the Old Spanish Trail in the California desert. (Photo by Mark Landis)
The monument at the site of Camp Cady in 2002. Monuments and plaques can be found at many sites along the Mojave Road and the Old Spanish Trail in the California desert. (Photo by Mark Landis)

Although often dry in hot months, the Mojave River provided consistent water and grass along 127 miles of desert. Water was easily reachable in the dry sections of the river by digging down a few feet.

When travel across the desert roads increased in the late 1850s, the U.S. government began establishing small forts at strategic water holes to protect travelers and trade along the routes. The government maintained various Mojave Desert outposts from 1859 until 1871.

These are some of the important springs in the Mojave Desert on the primary trade routes:

The Mojave Road, also known as The Old Government Road, was established in 1858. It was previously a footpath known as the Mojave Trail. The road stretched about 150 miles westward from Fort Mohave on the Colorado River, to Yermo.

• •Pah-Ute Springs & Fort Pah-Ute – Military encampment.

• Rock Springs – Military encampment.

• Marl Springs – Military encampment.

• Soda Springs, which became Zzyzx Springs around 1944 – Military encampment.

• Camp Cady on the Mojave River – Military encampment.

The Old Spanish Trail, was established in 1829. In the late 1850s, the Southern California section became known as The Mormon or Salt Lake Road. The trail crossed into Southern California near the community of Charleston View, about 55 miles east of Las Vegas.

• Resting Springs – Military encampment

• Salt Springs

• Tecopa Springs

• Bitter Springs – Military encampment, on Fort Irwin Military Base, not accessible to the public.

• Mojave River – The trail met the Mojave River at Forks of the Road near Yermo, and it followed the partially dry river into the San Bernardino Mountains.

Travel on the rugged desert roads declined dramatically in the 1870s and 1880s when railroads were built through the region. After that, the roads were only used occasionally to supply mines.

Today, the quirky names of some of the springs can still be seen when driving along the desert highways. Most are little more than a dot on the map and a curiosity to travelers.

The Mojave Road has become a mecca for off-road enthusiasts, and in cooler months, caravans of Jeeps and other 4×4 vehicles still use the road.

You can find more information about the roads, trails, and springs in the Mojave Desert at the National Park Service’s Mojave National Monument site at:

National Park Service’s Old Spanish Trail Information:

Mark Landis is a freelance writer. He can be reached at Historyinca@yahoo.com.

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