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ADV NewsExploring The Vast Mojave Desert On The KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

Exploring The Vast Mojave Desert On The KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

Shifting sands of time uncover a legacy of abandoned hopes and dreams.

Published on 01.05.2023

Looking at a map of Southern California, civilization starts to thin out as you move east from Lancaster, and virtually ceases to exist once that eastward journey passes Barstow. It’s an adventure rider’s paradise, with endless challenging terrain and interesting sites left over from millennia ago, as well as artifacts from this land’s recent expansion into modernity.

There are places you should go, and places you should not. Prepping bikes for an adventure ride in a Barstow Walmart parking lot seems like an appropriately innocuous thing to be doing, especially when it’s sanctioned by the management. Having an overzealous security guard attempt to kick you out of the place might feel like a less-than-ideal start to a journey, but there are much worse things that can happen in this corner of California.

KTM 1290 Super Adventure R In The Mojave Desert

I digress. This was an excellent few days of riding for an upcoming installment of Trail Tech’s new “ADV Weekend” video series. I have explored this area for many years, and am likely thinking of past scars. While our recent trip went fantastic, sketchy stories make for good reading, so as a brief example of what not to do out here, where our group turned right, on a past journey in this area I turned left…

In spite of what a GPS might indicate, some roads are not roads. How these digital lines sometimes come to be included on maps is anyone’s guess. What appears a navigable route might actually be a river bed, or a single track, or in the case of one early journey through this area, barely visible remnants of a jeep trail from the 1950’s that leads directly into a treacherous valley filled with barbed wire, unexploded bombs, and signage with bold red letters reading “USE OF DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORIZED.”


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Much better options exist for adventure travelers. Falling squarely in the “prefer not to be shot” category, is virtually the entire Mojave National Preserve. Leaving Barstow and heading east, after only a few miles almost any right turn made lands rider and bike in an endless desert. Fortune favors the prepared out here, and this is a very large desert. While this massive landscape seems to shrink as experience there grows in direct correlation to miles racked up, one flat tire, mechanical failure, or other trail delay can become a stark reminder that “lighthearted” adventure out here is throwing caution to the wind. 

Bizarre History

Have you ever thought about what the last word in the English language is? Moreover, have you ever considered inventing it? If not, simply make the journey from anywhere in SoCal towards Las Vegas, shortly before reaching the giant thermometer of Baker an exit sign on the 15 freeway will provide insight. The bizarrely named “Zzyzx Road” (pronounced “Zye – Zex”) leads to a compound founded in 1944 by a radio evangelist named Curtis H. Springer.

Zzyzx in The Mojave Preserve

Springer wanted to coin the last word in the English language. Specifically, the last word in “health,” and health was the last thing it was related to. Having made millions broadcasting a form of hope over the airwaves, Springer capsulized that hope into five seemingly disconnected letters to represent a false hope of “healing” natural hot springs, which were actually tubs placed in an oddly random spot in the desert and fed by a hidden boiler.

Zzyzx in the Mojave Desert

The U.S. government eventually caught wind of the shenanigans, and shut down the operation in 1974. In spite of its checkered beginning, the Zzyzx facility located on Soda Dry Lake eventually came under the control of the California University system, and began a new phase of use as a desert research center. Given the location, UCLA students aren’t commuting out here on a regular basis, so most of the place still appears largely abandoned. Popping in as an adventure rider offers a glimpse of yet another truly bizarre thing in the Southern California desert.

Getting There

The Zzyzx facility was, in the grand scheme, just a stone’s throw from the beginning of this weekend’s journey. Our group camped just a mountain or two west of this spot the first night at Rasor Dunes.

Rasor Dunes on the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

Connecting the dots between these two points can be more challenging than one might think. Any place with “dunes” in the name means sand, and there is plenty of that to be had in this portion of California. Sandy roads leading southward from our campsite dive straight into the deep stuff. Even turning left just before the dunes to head towards Soda Dry Lake, riders through this area will have to navigate very sandy roads, and even some dune-like conditions along the way. Fortunately, a KTM 1290 Super Adventure R shod with Bridgestone AX41s is a good mix to tackle this terrain.

Rasor Dunes on the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

I’ve got plenty of hours on my personal 2017 KTM 1090 Adventure R as well as a test unit 2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S, both of which share a similar chassis with the previous-gen 1290 Super Adventure R. For 2021, KTM shortened and revised geometry of the frame, lengthened the swing arm, redistributed weight, and further refined the suspension of the 1290 SAR, which were welcome changes to have floating over this deep sea of sand fully packed for an extended adventure.

The Hills Have Eyes

Crossing Soda Dry Lake in the Mojave National Preserve

If Soda Dry Lake receives significant rainfall, it becomes a muddy mess which is almost impossible to traverse on two wheels. While there was still evidence of a recent heavy rainfall, high winds a few days before our journey helped to dry the lakebed out, allowing us to reach the sandy and rocky roads to the east. Located in the center of Soda Dry Lake is a big pile of rocks known as the Traveler’s Monument. 

The origins and purpose of this homespun monument are unclear. Theories range from potential navigation aspects to the idea people just like to pile rocks in random places. Regardless, another monument with a much more mythological description known as “Shaman’s Eye” juts out of the earth 23 miles away as the crow flies. 

Riding to Shaman's Eye in the Mojave National Preserve

As this desert was being formed, a column of basaltic magma formed inside an active volcano. After everything cooled down, the softer rock surrounding the column eroded away, revealing a huge monolith with a uniquely positioned hole in the center. During the winter solstice this oculus lines up perfectly with the setting sun, and casts a beam of light onto the desert floor. Native American Legend holds that the Great Shaman descended through this eye and created humankind. Maybe things were hopping here back in the day but if this was once the cradle of civilization it sure has fallen from grace. The closest evidence of modern civilization around here in the present day is a defunct fuel station at Halloran Summit.

Only around 30 miles into our multi-day journey thus far, and we’ve already encountered sites of a charlatan and a shaman, with a mysterious pile of rocks (literally) thrown in for good measure. As hard-core as adventure riding can be, the travel guide sometimes reads like a Monty Python script.

Be Prepared

Departing from the tale of the trip for a moment, a comment on being prepared (as best as you can be) out here is merited. I’ve ridden many thousands of miles through deserts all over the world, and they constantly remind me who’s boss. Even here in my “backyard” the smallest of mishaps can quickly turn into a serious situation. Case in point – I was trying a new setup for carrying water this trip. Essentially a water bladder in a sheath attached to the outside of a soft pannier. It’s an excellent system for carrying plenty of extra water without all that weight on your back. The desert showed its unique form of aim on one trail, when after coming to a stop a fellow rider in our group pointed out there was a stick protruding from my soft luggage. 

Long sandy roads in the Mojave Preserve

With bull’s eye precision, a hefty size twig poked its way directly through the small gap in the pannier attachment points, found the one hole in the water carrier sheath, and stabbed a nice wound in the base of the inner bladder. Losing water out here is never a good thing. Fortunately, we were riding during an extremely cold winter, which means less water is used during the day as compared to riding in the blistering heat of summer. Even better, the desert was magnanimous in that it decided to remind me who’s boss less than 10 miles from the Cima fuel station where more water could be obtained.

Riches From The Ground

Riding the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R to Evening Star Mine in the Mojave

About three miles after veering off Cima road into the desert, a four-story semi-preserved successful mistake can be found and explored in the middle of this otherwise empty section of desert. Evening Star Mine began as a copper claim in 1935, but spent the next four years changing hands and producing nothing from its ever-deepening shafts. Finally, in 1939, riches were struck but it was not the copper that was expected. The miners struck tin, and would extract over 400 tons of tin ore and concentrate over the next five years before abandoning the site.

Exploring Evening Star Mine in the Mojave National Preserve

Caution is merited whenever exploring old structures like this in the desert, but the Evening Star mine is an excellent example of a massive wooden structure that is still withstanding the test of time, including the huge ore crusher still in place at the top of the head frame.

Acts Of Congress

At the point where our track would again jump Cima road and veer back into the dirt, an understated monument can be found directly adjacent to the road. The “Mojave Cross” was first erected in 1934 as a memorial for those killed during World War I, and has since become a memorial “to the dead of all wars.” This simple monument has been steeped in controversy throughout its history. It has been the subject of multiple lawsuits over the years, at one point stolen and recovered 500 miles away from the site, and eventually reintroduced in 2012 with the help of an act of congress. In addition to being a memorial, the cross also happens to mark the location of several convenient camp sites within a small radius of its perch on the side of Cima road.

Visiting Mojave Cross on the KTM 1290 SAR

The Streets Are Paved With Cinder

The harsh nature of living and working in the Mojave Desert can be felt while exploring the old abandoned mining sites. There are structures out here which have been abandoned much more recently as well. Approaching the Aiken cinder mine at first can give the impression of an active industrial operation. Huge machines strewn about, with massive cinder piles positioned like they were recently extracted and being processed make you feel like you can almost hear the huge diesel generators powering machines which are throwing rocks around. In reality, as soon as you stop and shut off your bike, your ears are met with an eerie silence emanating from the perfectly still mechanical monsters.

Aiken Cinder Mine in the Mojave National Preserve

Aiken mine saw its last rocks tossed around in 1990 when the operators abruptly walked away. Their departure was so sudden that all the machinery and 7.8 million tons of cinder product was left in place like the entire crew just clocked out mid-shift and never returned. To provide a sense of scale this operation has, by some estimates 70% of the cinder used to make the sidewalks and walkways of Las Vegas was extracted from Aiken mine, and that was only a fraction of the 1.4 million tons of cinder sold from this location.

Riding the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R in the Mojave Preserve

A Retreat From The Desert Heat

Just over the hill descending a steep and rocky road from the massive man-made artifact of Aiken mine, is a popular natural wonder which is definitely worth a stop and the short hike to check out. Mojave’s Lava Tube Cave is a 500-foot-long tunnel formed long ago by an underground river of lava. Visitors can descend a short metal staircase and crawl through a narrow opening which reveals a large underground cavern, complete with “skylights” which produce dramatic beams of light descending to the cave floor at certain times during the day.

Lava Tube in the Mojave Preserve

While I had been here previously, and experienced the welcome cool of the underground chamber during a hard ride, for this trip I had other duties. Namely fixing a front flat tire on my Super Adventure R — another reminder to respect the extremely rocky terrain of this desert even when the fun and scenic trails can beg you to push speeds.

A Different Kind Of Field

Aiken mine and the Mojave Lava Tube are interesting and unique examples of how volcanism affects this portion of the massive Mojave Desert, but these are only two examples. Taking a huge step back to gain a broader perspective of this area reveals these sites are part of the Cima Volcanic field. Covering 230 square miles, around 40 volcanic cinder cones and 60 lava flows can be found dotting and snaking through the field. Some of these features are millions of years old, while the most recent are estimated to be as young as 10,000 years old. 

Cima Volcanic Field
Viewing the Cima Volcanic Field

Adventure riders here can throw up hypothetical goal posts at either end of this field and plot numerous courses to explore through the area. If hiking to the top of volcanic cinder cones isn’t your thing, petroglyphs of indeterminate age, petrified trees, and even fossilized “lava falls” can be found.

Pre-Apocalyptic Sites

Goldome Mining Complex on the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

Even more recently abandoned than Aiken mine, the Goldome Mining Complex was bringing on new employees as recently as 1996, and by some estimates was still operating until 1998. In addition to the abandoned mining operation here, the 1890s ghost town of Vanderbilt lies nearby. Records of past ownership are hazy at best, in keeping with the vibe of random papers and magazines which can still be found littering the floor of the old office building.

Metal sides of buildings and huge storage tanks have been carved up and painted with unapologetically creepy scenes featuring skeletons, machine guns, and of course, clowns. One known fact about this site is that the Desert Protection Act of 1994, which created the Mojave National Preserve, led to cessation of operations here by restricting mining within the preserve. Hand-painted “keep out” signs on posts seem more intended to add to the apocalyptic vibe of the place, rather than actually doing anything to prevent would-be disaster tourism.

Exploring Goldome Mining Complex

A History Of Violence

The inappropriately-named “Hole in the Wall” should actually be plural. This popular camping area is surrounded by pockmarked cliffs which tell the story of an incredibly explosive event around 18.5 million years ago. A gas eruption blasted a cloud of ash and rock which covered over 230 square miles at supersonic speeds, and eradicated all living things in its path. Rocks as large as 60 feet across, the largest ever documented by such an explosion, hit the mountains at Hole in the Wall like a massive geologic shotgun blast. In the ground beneath the pockmarked cliffs, fossilized remains of plants and animals can be found from this explosion, as well as rocks welded together by the heat.

Looking at Hole in the Wall in the Mojave National Preserve

From a hole in the wall to holes in the ground, around 20 miles southwest of Hole in the Wall is an extensive series of diggings and shafts comprising the Hidden Hills Mine. Much more than a single mine, the area surrounding Hidden Hills is pockmarked with tunnels, remnants of structures, and occasional “safety” barriers which have been constructed more recently. Readily accessible just off an easy-to-moderate level dirt road, and only about five miles from Kelbaker Road, the Hidden Hills Mining area is an interesting detour which highlights the bustling industry that once existed in this now desolate area.

After passing a dilapidated windmill just off the main dirt road, a well-preserved wooden hopper, old ball mill, and series of concrete foundations are the first things that greet visitors here. Both the scale of these structures and size of the tailing piles offer a hint of how much material was pulled from the ground here, and offer a hint of the level of caution that should be taken exploring the endless sketchy tunnels and shafts that snake deep into these hills.

A Sandy Road Home

It’s amazing how many things have names in the desert. The desolate areas of Southern California are so vast and so seemingly random that it’s a bit of a surprise when even casual research reveals that virtually every sand dune, rock outcropping, or flat space has a name on a map somewhere. Case in point – the Granite Mountains. What seems like just another collection of huge rocky hills when seen from Kelbaker Road is actually a small mountain range that even has its own teaching center, established by UC Santa Cruz in 1978. For our part, sandy paths through the Granite Mountains provided the perfect route to depart the pavement of Kelbaker road and descend some fun trails with amazing views of the Kelso Dunes in the distance.

Granite Mountains Mojave Preserve

These past couple days of travels were quite unsupported. The route was such that no facilities for food, water, or fuel were available, and would not be until again reaching pavement at the very end of the trail. With its 6.1 gallon fuel tank, I was on the largest bike of the group but we all had sufficient range to explore an off-road route from Kelso Dunes which none of us had ever taken.

Kelso Dunes Mojave Preserve on the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

Before setting out into roughly 30 miles of unknown desert, we paused at the Kelso Dunes. Among the tallest and most vast dune fields in the U.S., the tallest dune in this collection is almost 700 feet high. No attempts to ride through this dune field were made as vehicle traffic is prohibited. Hiking is allowed however, and for those with the energy and around an hour to spare, a three-mile hike can be taken to the highest point where extensive 360-degree views are provided of the dune field and mountain peaks of the Mojave Preserve. If the moisture content in the sand is correct, these dunes produce a unique sound when running or sliding down which has been described as “booming” or “singing”.

Exploring Kelso Dunes

Great Expectations

Feeling like one part bike review and two parts exploration, this trip underscored how much what you are riding affects your experience of a place. I had ridden a few different machines through this general area, including a KTM 1090 Adventure R, and skirted portions of it on a KTM 1290 Super Adventure S. Testing out the 2022 1290 Super Adventure R revealed several welcome changes. When the going gets really rough or sandy, generally smaller and lighter is preferred but the 1290 SAR felt surprisingly agile and approachable, even when compared to my 1090R.

2022 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

Much of this likely has to do with the altered/shortened geometry. Bringing the bar closer to the seat makes the 1290 feel more “dirt bike like” when compared to the more stretched out feeling of the 1090R, or even the earlier 1290 Super Adventures. Reworked suspension further enhanced the smallish vibe of this behemoth bike by giving all the weight a light and manageable feel without being too harsh – surprising as I only recall bottoming out the forks one time during the entire trip (which led to the front flat mentioned earlier). Ironically, the only thing I felt like I was missing from the older 1290 models was something considered to be a flaw — heat dissipation from the engine. Among the various improvements made to the 1290 SAR in  2021 are modified baffles to better direct engine heat away from the rider. If it had not been so freeking cold this entire trip, this would have been a good thing.

2022 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

A smaller and lighter bike would have arguably been a good call for some of the more technical bits of this multi-day journey, but when the going got smooth and fast, having a comfortable seat, 160 horsepower, and 102 ft-lbs of torque to play with is more than a little addicting. In the end it goes back to the idea of improving off-road riding ability to better handle these large machines in the gnar, so you can enjoy all of their benefits for longer adventure rides.

2022 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

Brand and model considerations aside, adventure bikes are arguably the most effective way to string together visits to this many quirky sites, completely self-supported and over the span of just a few days. It’s amazing how far we have come in this regard. Early exploration of these deserts required vastly more time and carried far greater risks. Today, adventure riders can pop out into this vastness with potentially their only concern being getting back to the road before night falls. In spite of all our advances, we still seem to have a tradition in the desert over the past couple hundred years of turning great expectations into abandoned sites. More stuff for future generations to visit I suppose.

If you are looking to embark on your own adventure in the Mojave Preserve, check out our Mojave Ride Guide that visits many of the sites in this story and more. Here you’ll find GPS tracks, maps and additional information to help you plan your trip.

Photos by Jon Beck, Spencer Hill, Rob Dabney & Jeff Santry

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.

Author: Jon Beck
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Jeff Santry
Jeff Santry
January 5, 2023 6:18 pm

Awesome write up! Makes me want to be back down there riding.

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