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Mojave Hikes Recall Early Struggles of Pioneers

December 16, 1990|JOHN McKINNEY

In 1865, Ft. Piute was described by a visitor as "a Godforsaken place--the meanest I ever saw for a military station." It's doubtful that many who visit this tiny, lonely Army post in southeastern California today would disagree. It makes the post where Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) was dispatched in the movie "Dances With Wolves" look accommodating by comparison.

Ft. Piute still seems stuck in the middle of nowhere. It's on the eastern edge of the 1.5-million-acre East Mojave National Scenic Area, east of Lanfair Valley. The ruins of the fort, along with pretty Piute Valley and Piute Creek, add up to an intriguing, way-off-the-beaten-path tour for the adventurous.

Ft. Piute, at the southern end of the Piute Mountains, was established to provide a military presence in the desert, and to protect pioneer travelers on their westward journeys.

As was the case in much of the West, Indians resisted the intrusion of settlers on tribal lands. There were frequent attacks on westbound settlers and mail wagons traveling the route from Prescott, Ariz., to Los Angeles. Conditions at the outpost were intolerable for many soldiers stationed at Ft. Piute. Desertion was a regular occurrence, and the outpost was officially staffed by just 18 men of Company D, 9th Infantry Division, in 1867-68.

Today, the small, primitive installation lies in ruins. Its thick rock-and-mortar walls have been weathered and crumbled to a height of just two or three feet. The stone outlines of the original buildings delineate three connecting rooms that served as tiny living quarters, corral and cookhouse.

The hike along Piute Creek is of more than military interest. The only perennial stream in the East Mojave National Scenic Area, Piute Creek is an oasis-like area where cottonwoods, willows and sedges flourish. Bighorn sheep frequently visit this watering site, as do a large number of birds. (This is a fragile ecosystem, not a recreation area. Visitors should treat the creek gently.)

The hike explores Piute Creek and gorge, and gives visitors a chance to walk a portion of the historic Mojave Road. Following the Mojave Road Trail, as it's called, lets hikers walk back in time and get a glimpse of the hardships faced by early pioneers.

There are a number of good trails in the East Mojave National Scenic Area for the first-time visitor. The Ft. Piute area is not one of them, though, because the roads and paths are unsigned and sometimes hard to follow.

Experienced hikers and repeat visitors, however, will thoroughly enjoy their exploration of Ft. Piute.

It's strongly recommended that hikers contact the California Desert Information Center in Barstow and pick up a couple of good maps and the latest road and trail information before heading out to the remote reaches of the East Mojave National Scenic Area.

Weekdays, the Needles office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is also a good bet for information.

Directions to trail head: Head west on Interstate 40 and take the turnoff for the road leading to the hamlet of Goffs. Pass through Goffs and drive about 16 miles along Lanfair Road to a point about 100 feet beyond its junction with Cedar Canyon Road.

Turn right (east) on a road that goes by four names: Cedar Canyon Road, the utility road, Cable Road, Pole and Road. The latter three names arise from the fact that the road follows a buried telephone cable.

Drive east, staying right at a junction 3.7 miles out and sticking with the cable road about six more miles to another junction where there's a cattle guard. Turn left before the cattle guard on another dirt road and proceed a mile to a corral and the unsigned trail head.

The hike: From the corral, head almost due south toward a gate, about half a mile from the start, that lets you through a fence and onto the old Mojave Road. (Don't forget to close the gate.) Now you begin climbing Piute Hill. From atop the hill, catch your breath and admire the view of Table Mountain directly to the west and Castle Peaks to the north. One look at the road gives you some idea of the hardships experienced by pioneers who passed this way 130 years ago.

Piute Hill was said to be among the most feared obstacles of the Westward crossing. In 1867, Brig. Gen. James F. Rusling described the ordeal of crossing the hills as "the worst climb I encountered in my entire tour across the continent."

Hikers can still see the deep ruts carved in the rock by the heavy wagons. On the way to the fort, you'll pass along loose, sandy trail near Piute Creek, where there's nice picnicking. (Note: The water in the creek is not safe to drink.)

About half a mile from the fort, you'll cross the creek. The Mojave Road narrows. Look sharply for the Piute Canyon Trail coming in from the west; this will be your optional return route. Continue on a slight descent to the fort.

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