The Mojave Road. It still stirs the imagination like few other places in this amazing desert. Before the railroad came along in the years after the Civil War, the Mojave Road was the preferred, and often dangerous, route from all points east, to the Southern California coast. Migrants, mine workers and military hardware made up most of the cargo, and the phrase “Riding Shotgun” meant just that. It was a tough way to travel.
First trekked by Native Americans, and followed much later by Spanish Friar Garcés, Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, John Fremont and others, ‘The Road’ was not an accident of design. Its 138 miles generally follow paths to water, about 20-40 miles apart. Rock Spring was an important stop along the trail. So much so that the U.S. Army designated it an official military post.
Formally established in 1866, and abandoned a little more than year later, Camp Rock Spring was the short-lived home for several units, including elements of the 14th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment, known as “The Golden Dragons.” A few years earlier, the 14th was engaged in combat operations during the Civil War, on the East Coast.
According to renowned Mojave Desert historian Dennis Casebier, Camp Rock Spring was established mainly to provide escort riders for the U.S. Mail that was then being carried over the Mojave Road. At the time, travelers were often the target of attacks by nearby Paiute Indians, and others who didn’t much care for the idea of Manifest Destiny. The mail was transported twice each week in each direction, sometimes in Concord stages, sometimes in light wagons, and sometimes by mule or horse, and almost always with an armed escort.
Besides the threat of Indian attacks during the Civil War years, the U.S. Government took the precaution of stationing regular U.S. troops in Southern California to counter an expected attack by Confederate troops from Texas. At the time there were strong ties to Dixie way out in the desert, and the government wasn’t taking any chances. Hence, Blue-Coats on the Mojave Road.
The 14th Infantry Regiment still exists to this day as part of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, New York. An interesting point; Fort Drum is named for General Hugh Drum. It may just be a coincidence, but in 1866-67, Camp Rock Spring was commanded by Lieutenant John Drum, the father of General Drum. Lt. Drum stayed in the Army, and was killed in action in the Spanish-American War.
Camp Rock Spring was a far cry from an oasis. Rations were nil and morale was nonexistent. Disease was rampant. Soldiers going AWOL was not uncommon. On a visit to the remote camp in 1867, the Secretary of War’s report stated that Rock Spring was “on the desert, a very disagreeable place for troops.” In 1867 orders came to abandon the camp for lack of water and to let the troops know at Camp Marl Springs assume the duty of watching over the area. Camp Rock Spring closed permanently in 1868.
Rock Spring is almost hidden in a canyon that passes through a mountain spur, just below the cabin mentioned later in the story. In the canyon, the spring bed is solid granite, with large boulders strewn about. During our visit yesterday, we noticed that the Spring is still there, though now just a trickle that ends in a small pond of stagnant water. Nearby are what appear to be metates scraped into the nearby granite. A metate is a Native American grinding stone tool used for processing nuts and seeds.
Nowadays, Camp Rock Spring is easily accessible by car. You don’t even need a 4X4 vehicle to navigate this well-tended part of the Mojave Road. In fact, we passed by some explorers who were driving a PT Cruiser. A friendly Ranger also drove past just keeping an eye on things. When the Mojave Preserve was created in 1994, the National Park Service erected the vehicle barrier to keep cars away from the spring, so you have to park a slight distance away.
For the more adventurous, an easy, well-marked hiking loop near the entrance will lead you to Camp Rock Spring and back. It is approximately a one mile scenic hike; one half mile each direction. There is a clean restroom at the parking lot and a picnic table under a shady tree. Dogs are permissible but they must be leashed. There are odd relics along the way, presumably staged by the National Park Service. Naturally, it is wise to leave them alone. The fine for looting on federal property is steep.
Above the ruins of Camp Rock Spring, Bert G. Smith built a rock house in the early 1930s. A veteran of World War I suffering from mustard gas exposure, Smith’s doctors advised him to seek a drier climate to live out his final days. Bert wasn’t expected to live more than a year due to health problems. In fact, he lived for another 27 years, defying his dire medical prognosis. More proof that the desert heals what ails you.
Bert Smith was well known for the goats that he kept, which provided milk for both him and his animals. The cabin and the remnants of a few wells and dikes constructed at Rock Spring Canyon in an effort to improve water production are all that remains and belongs to the National Park Service.
Rock Spring owes its historical importance to its strategic location in this pass through Providence Mountains. In crossing the East Mojave in an east-west direction over countless years of prehistory, the Native Americans used this pass and, of course, they used the water at Rock Spring. Petroglyphs embellish boulders near the spring attesting to their presence.
Near the many faded ancient petroglyphs are indications of more recent visitors. A few years before the U.S. Army took command, Private Charles Stuart, a musician with Company B, 4th Infantry, California Volunteers (predecessor to the State Militia), passed through Rock Springs with a military unit on its way to Camp Drum, in Los Angeles. The day was May 16, 1863.
Exactly a year later, on May 16, 1864, Stuart (Spelled “Stewart” in military documents) was again at Camp Rock Spring. One guesses that to mark the occasion, Private Stuart left his name painted on the rocks.
There were many such inscriptions in the old days, but time has erased most of them. As anyone familiar with the military knows, give a GI some spare time, and he’ll find something to do, even if it’s not in the regulations.
At times in the past, there has been enough water at Rock Spring to create swimming holes for homesteader children. It has also experienced torrential flash floods. Cattle ranches are still in the area, and it is normal to see the loose animals grazing all around this area.
We noticed various animal tracks such as coyote, bobcat and big horn sheep imprinted in the soft sand at the spring, as well. Bees buzzed past our heads and lizards scampered into the brush. The lure of water in the desert is an open invitation to all. The water in this spring is not potable for humans.
Please be aware that if you plan on staying near Rock Spring, or any of the other springs, it is a good idea to set up camp at a designated site a good distance away. Animals still rely on these water sources, and they shy away from people. If we’re there, they won’t be.
A few hundred yards below Rock Spring, the wash joins Watson Wash, the main wash from Pinto Valley, and turns south. On the north side of Rock Spring Wash, just below the canyon mouth, there is a small shelf of land elevated above the wash. This spot of about 5 acres, is sheltered by the mountain spur of which Rock Canyon passes. In earlier times, it provided protection from Indians, and later, white men, from winds from the west and north. This is an important factor where the elevation is near 5,000 feet, and ice frequently forms in the winter.
There are a few foundations, rows of rocks, and the visible signs of a dugout or fallen tunnel; but for the most part, the structures at Camp Rock Spring are gone. However, the scenery remains the same. The area around Camp Rock Spring is not very different from what it was before the white men came. The preserved natural integrity of the immediate site and surrounding country is one of the most important qualities.
Without a doubt, the National Park Service, and volunteers do a great job of keeping Rock Spring in great shape. We observed absolutely no trash and no vandalism. Remarkable, in this day and age.
If you are in a car, we recommend you return on the graded road you came in on. Not much past Rock Springs, the Mojave Road grows challenging at a Class III level with a steep climb and soft, sandy road. We hope you enjoyed Camp Rock Spring as much as we did.
Camp Rock Spring by Dennis G. Casebier
Tales of the Mojave Road, The Military by Dennis G. Casebier
Mojave Road Guide, An Adventure Through Time by Dennis G. Casebier
Back Door to California: The Story of the Mojave River Trail by Clifford J. Walker