Afton Canyon: Little Grand Canyon of the Mojave Desert

We had an amazing adventure exploring lovely Afton Canyon. The Mojave River flows above ground here and ranges from a small creek to a couple of feet deep depending on seasonal rainfall totals. Afton Canyon lies in part along the old Mojave Indian Trail, near the 35th parallel, that extended from the Colorado River to Los Angeles. Originally Afton was called Cave Canyon, or simply The Caves, stemming from three caves that were eroded into the canyon walls. The Caves was the usual camping place for wagon trains headed east the first day out of Camp Cady–a distance of 16 miles. It’s present name came later when Afton was suggested by a railroad stop of this name at the head of the canyon, and also by the mountain called Afton in the region. The canyon lies in the midst of barren hills and craggy mountains which form a fitting backdrop for the scene of the ancient land.

Stunning doesn’t even begin to describe this magical place! The Mojave River flows above ground in some areas of Afton Canyon although the river typically flows underground most everywhere else. It flows east and north here, eventually cloaking itself again under the arid ground.

We enjoyed fording the Mojave River in 2016.

Early Western explorers passing through this area included Father Garcés, Jedidiah Smith, Kit Carson and John Charles Frémont. Garcés explored the length of the Mojave River in early 1776, naming it Arroyo de los Mártires, “river of the martyrs.” He also called the canyon Sierra Pinta, painted mountain. Jedidiah Smith called the Mojave River the inconstant river. The mercurial river was also known as Río de las Ánimas, Spirit River, or the River of Lost Souls. It also has the accurate nickname of the backward-upside-down river because the approximately 110 miles long river flows the opposite direction of most inland rivers and is mostly subterranean.

The Mojave River was a little less deep when we crossed it back in 2013.

The Mojave Road is a rugged 4-wheel-drive scenic tour running from Fort Mojave on the Colorado River near Needles to Camp Cady near Harvard Road. In 1858, Afton Canyon was the U.S. Army bivouac site named for Major General George Alexander Hamilton Blake, then in command at Fort Tejon. Two of the three caves were destroyed by the railroad during construction. In 1874, John Platte Hight lived there and called it Caves Station.

Arbuckle Mine wasn’t named after the famous silent screen actor, Fatty Arbuckle, in case you’re wondering. The mine was located about 400 feet from the canyon floor (35.021987, -116.350769), and was a working magnesite (magnesium) operation until about 1918. There was a steep aerial tramway to carry the ore down the cliff and across the Mojave River to a railroad siding. Arbuckle Camp, the mining camp for the mine, was located west of the mine at the base of the cliff. Later, the mine operated as the Cliffside mine.

Looking at the sky through the top of Spooky Canyon.

Mojave River history author Erma Peirson was accompanied by Cronese pioneer Elmo Proctor’s son, Al, for her first visit to Afton Canyon in 1959 where she gazed upon the Mojave River. Sometimes the river is merely a trickling stream but other times it can cause ferocious flooding in Afton Canyon, as was the case in 1938. The old ghost town of Baxter is at the mouth of the canyon. It was once an important rail siding and mining center. In the end it lost its mining livelihood, as well as its name because an out-of-state town on the same railroad had the same name. Baxter was renamed Basin.

How can mere words describe this amazing natural wonder? Our 4X4 truck is literally dwarfed by the towering cliffs of this dry waterfall in Afton Canyon. The photos don’t do this miraculous place justice. A cross in the sky was the perfect touch. We heard later that some people refer to this area as Spooky Canyon but we found nothing scary about it.

Afton Canyon is nicknamed the Little Grand Canyon of the Mojave Desert. It’s highest walls rise up to 400 feet above the desert floor. This is truly one of the most beautiful natural areas we’ve visited in the desert so far.

The “Buried Boxcar,” now known to be at least two boxcars, is a railroad car that seems to have been intentionally buried by the Union Pacific Railroad Company after a steam locomotive derailment in the 1930s but there are other theories.

Basically, there are two schools of thought about what happened. One is the great flood of 1938 washed the boxcars down the river and buried them here. The more widely accepted theory is that the railroad intentionally left them here because it was impossible to salvage them after a derailment. How much the empty boxcars are exposed at any given time depends on the wind and sand.

This Union Pacific railroad bridge in Afton Canyon boasts 1929 as the year it was built and it’s still in use.

“Along a faint, remote wagon road, near the old Mormon Trail, is a rectangular mound of volcanic rocks marking a grave. Under a rock on top of the grave was an amber bottle containing a hand-written note in 1870s style penmanship that stated, “December 27, 1872, to whom it may concern: died this day of sickness; too far to travel so will put her here. Bonnie Keebler Harris, born December 1823 in New York, mother of five children. God rest her soul.” The original bottle is on display at the Bureau of Land Management Office in Barstow. The Mojave River Valley Museum installed a permanent marker to the site.”

Discovered this old mine amongst many in Afton Canyon. Magnesium is an important light-weight building material and incendiary chemical.

We enjoyed exploring the outside of abandoned mines in Afton Canyon. Wooden tracks are still visible where mining carts were used, although the rails are long gone. There was even an old mail box near the entrance site.

Bring your camera and binoculars! Afton Canyon has a diverse landscape of hills, canyons and washes. Multicolored rock walls and changing light conditions make for many photographic opportunities. Washes and stream channels are good hiking trails and excellent for experiencing natural conditions.

Sometimes you find the darnedest things in the middle of nowhere. Like this man. Standing next to an old bullet-ridden water cistern, likely dented by tumbling over rocks during many powerful flash floods in this dry river bed. From the looks of him, he’s traveled a long, long way. Not sure about the cistern though.

May I seat you? We found this wobbly table sitting on an old foundation in the middle of nowhere in Afton Canyon. We waited to dine al fresco with its million dollar view but alas no wait staff appeared. Perhaps we should have traded in our hiking boots to meet their fancier dress code.


Photo Image courtesy Google Earth

The 7 miles long Afton Canyon Natural Area is located 37 miles northeast of Barstow, California along Interstate 15 between the Afton Road and Basin Road exits. The canyon can be entered from either end. High clearance 4X4 vehicles recommended. There is no cellphone service in Afton Canyon.

Citations and Recommended Resources

Mojave Desert Dictionary by Patricia A. Schoffstall, Mojave River Valley Museum, Barstow, California; Second Edition, published 2014.

Mojave Road Guide, An Adventure Through Time/New GPS Edition by Dennis G. Casebier, published by Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association, 2010.

Southern California SUV Trails, Volume II by Roger and Loris Mitchell, published by Track and Trail Publications, Oakhurst, California, 2007.

Guide to 50 Interesting and Mysterious Sites in the Mojave, Volume I by Bill Mann, Shortfuse Publishing Co., Barstow California, Published 2000, Reprint 2004.

The San Bernardino County Sun; Desert Scenery is Hot Stuff for Area Campers by Gerald Burke, 30 Nov 1990, page 81.

Back Door to California, The Story of the Mojave River Trail by Clifford J. Walker, published by Mojave River Valley Museum, Barstow, 1986.

The Mojave River and Its Valley by Erma Peirson, published by The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1970.

3 thoughts on “Afton Canyon: Little Grand Canyon of the Mojave Desert

  1. I’ve gone there twice before and you found things I never knew existed. I’ll have to see if I can find them.

    1. Hi! Be sure to check on the weather and river depth before you go. The BLM was recently suggesting other entry points instead of the water crossing.

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