The Bradshaw Trail. Most of us have heard about the Southern California Jeep trail, but few truck camper owners have explored it. When we first started researching this road in preparation for the 2020 Truck Camper Adventure Overland Rally, we found very few mentions of it in truck camper forums. Sure, plenty of Jeeps and other 4×4 vehicles have tackled the dusty, 4×4 dirt road over the years, but precious few truck campers it seems. Fortunately, team member Alex Blasingame was “game” to reconnoiter the route in his Ford F-250-Lance 815 beforehand in order to provide our 15-vehicle caravan with latest intel before we tackled it.
What exactly is a caravan? According to the Webster’s Dictionary, a caravan is a “group of vehicles traveling together usually in single file.” This form of travel is preferred because it often involves a company of travelers on a journey through desert or hostile regions. It also provides safety in numbers and help in the event of a mishap. Airstream founder, Wally Byam, made RV caravans famous in the 1950s as Airstreams embarked on amazing month-long journeys in foreign lands and continents. This two-day caravan on the Bradshaw Trail didn’t exactly occur in “hostile” territory, but it it did skirt dangerous territory in the form of an active military gunnery range. Why risk it? Read on.
Bradshaw Trail History and Info
The Bradshaw Trail (SR301), also known as the Bradshaw Trail National Backcountry Byway, is located in Southern California’s Riverside County. Approximately 77 miles long, the 4×4 road basically runs parallel and south of Interstate-10 with the eastern entrance near the Wiley’s Well BLM Campground near Blythe. The western terminus of the trail ends at Dos Palmas near the Salton Sea 200 feet below sea level. The trail was created in 1862 by one William Bradshaw, entrepreneur and gold prospector. It was built to connect San Bernadino, California to the Colorado River Gold Rush fields near La Paz in what was then the New Mexico Territory. By 1863, it had become a well-traveled overland stagecoach route, which included a small ferry to cross the Colorado River. The fee for the five-day stagecoach trip from San Bernadino to La Paz was $40.
The original Bradshaw Trail, approximately 180 miles long, followed an ancient Halchidoma Indian trade route in the Colorado Desert and took advantage of existing wells and watering holes (Norton Allen’s artistic classic remains one of the best maps of the original stagecoach route). Traveling east from Dos Palmas the trail meanders through a pass between the Orocopia Mountains to the north and the Chocolate Mountains south where you can find the most prominent landmark on the Bradshaw Trail—the Eagle Pass Railroad Trestle. Continuing east, the 4×4 trail passes by Canyon Spring, skirts the northern end of the Chuckwalla Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range—which is still in use today—then passes through a gap between the Mule and the Little Chuckwalla Mountains. As you travel east, the elevation gradually increases from 200 feet below sea level to 1,600 feet above sea level near Canyon Spring.
Three dirt roads connect the Bradshaw Trail with Interstate 10 to the north, Summit Road (C041), Gas Line Road, and Graham Pass Road (C081). Any one of these three roads can be taken to shorten the drive or as an alternate means of getting on the trail.
Riverside County reportedly grades the Bradshaw Trail once or twice a year, but you’ll still need a reliable 4×4 truck to negotiate the numerous stretches of soft sand and washes that can be found along the route. Airing down your tires is strongly recommended (35 psi front, 45 psi rear is what we used for our load range E tires); otherwise, you’ll find your fully-inflated tires stuck in the deep sand at some point. It’s also a good idea to have a shovel and a traction board or two on-hand in case you need it. Of course, you’ll need an air compressor to reinflate your tires before returning to pavement. Removing your lift jacks in order to improve your rig’s departure angle is also recommended, but not mandatory.
Boondocking is permitted north of the trail except in those areas declared off limits by the Bureau of the Land Management (BLM). Of course, it’s in your best interest to stay out of prohibited areas on this trail. Who wants to camp in an active military gunnery range anyway, right? If you prefer more organized camping, two BLM campgrounds can be found on the eastern end of the trail. The aforementioned Wiley’s Well Campground, a BLM Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA) facility is the most accessible, while the Coon Hollow Campground, another BLM LTVA facility, can be found about a 1-mile south of Wiley’s Well. Both LTVA campgrounds offer individual campsites with picnic tables, shade ramadas and grills, but, unfortunately, no potable water. A $4 fee is charged for overnight use, $40 for 14 consecutive days, or $180 for six months.
The Bradshaw Trail Caravan
Our desert caravan consisted of 14 truck camper rigs and one Jeep Wrangler, which was driven by yours truly. Alex and Julie Blasingame took the point in their Ford F-250-Lance 815, while “tail gunner” duties were filled admirably by Jeff and Jeannie Reynolds in their Ram 2500-Laredo. I took photographs and video of the event, as my wife, Karen, piloted our Ram 3500-Laredo.
The rest of the expedition caravan consisted of Bob and Sheila Eckert hauling a Lance 825, Randall and Jeanne Grepling carrying a Hallmark Everest, Dave and Pam Lindahl carrying a Hallmark Cuchara, Steve Luoma and Judy Brainerd hauling an Arctic Fox 811 with a single slide-out, Kevin and Linda MacAfee hauling their new Bundutec Odyssey, Pres and Janice Meyers driving their ill-fated Alaskan 10, Rick Miller and Malia Dailey carrying a Hallmark Ute, Con and Erin Nguyen hauling a Northstar Laredo, Thom Price carrying an Outfitter Apex 8.5, Tim and Brenda Tahitinen carrying a Northstar 650, and Walt Simpson hauling an old Lance 825.
As you can see most of the caravan consisted of mostly small hard-side campers and pop-ups, the only exception of which was Steve Luoma who bravely tackled the drive in his Ford F-350 dually and Arctic Fox 811.
To our knowledge, this was the largest number of campers to explore this historical road at any one time. Hand-held FRS radios (CH-2) were used to coordinate activities and provided an enjoyable source of banter throughout the two-day expedition. The pre-brief was held in Quartzsite the night before where call-signs were exchanged and the route and the itinerary were discussed. Technically, the Bradshaw Trail extends further east through what is now farm country, but the decision was made to start at Wiley’s Well.
After dumping our waste tanks and fueling up the following morning, the caravan left Quartzsite in single-file for the one-hour drive to the eastern entrance next to the Wiley’s Well Campground. Here we aired down our tires before embarking on the trail. The area received a pretty big rainstorm during the night, prompting the BLM to mark the trail’s entrance with warning signs indicating possible flooding in washes due to the recent rains. Flooding is always a danger in the desert whenever mountains are in the area. Fortunately, we had no trouble with flooding though we did encounter strong winds throughout the day and night from the low pressure weather system passing through the area.
A few stops were made on day one. Anyone driving the Bradshaw Trail has to stop and see “the boat,” which has remained an iconic fixture along the trail for years. The boat, which is actually a mold, was supposedly on its way to Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain in Niland as part of his Noah’s Ark display, but an act of vandalism after a flat was encountered, forced Leonard to abandon the entire thing along the trail (for those traveling this route east to west, we highly recommend visiting Salvation Mountain after completing this drive).
We also came across an old Alaskan camper that was abandoned in a deep wash. Somebody spray painted, “$200 OBO” on what remained of the camper. Obviously, there were no takers. There has to be an interesting story about how this old camper got here, but we were unable to learn anything about it. Other stops on the Bradshaw Trail were made as well to read kiosks, to take in lunch, and to stretch our legs.
Of course, the best thing about the Bradshaw Trail is the scenery. It was breathtaking.
“Early spring flowers brightened the drive with Ocotillo orange colored plumes and nearly fluorescent pink colored barrel cactus,” Janice Meyers recalled, who participated in the event with her husband, Pres. “Light rains kept the dust down which was fortuitous while driving desert dirt roads in a caravan. Stormy clouds offered beautiful skies with sun rays bursting through one minute and a distant rainbow appearing the next.”
Plenty of spots exist where one or two campers can comfortably boondock for the night, but finding a place large enough for 14 campers was a bit harder. Fortunately, we found the perfect location with a large flat, open area at the Gas Line Road intersection. This location is a good 50 miles from the Wiley’s Well entrance, which made the duration of day-two quite a bit shorter.
“We camped under the full ‘Snow Moon’ adding to the beauty of the desert. Sadly, we could not enjoy the night with a group campfire as rain and wind moved into our circled wagons of truck campers. However, all were safe and snug inside our campers and we were delighted to awaken to clear skies and the fresh scent of rain washed cacti, rocks and plants,” Janice recalled.
The most challenging part of what is a generally an easy drive, is on the western side of the trail. A deep dip, which requires careful negotiation in a truck camper, can be found at the junction where the Bradshaw Trail meets the Summit Road. Taking this dip slow and using a spotter is highly recommended (Alex did an admiral job here spotting and helping the caravan navigate the steep slope). Moreover, the sand gets deep and the route less defined as you pass between the Orocopia Mountains to the north and Chocolate Mountains to the south. This is where you can also find the Eagle Pass Railroad Trestle. Stopping here for a photo op (and lunch) is highly recommended. The trestle has been a fixture of the Bradshaw Trail for years. Talk of it being torn down has been going on for years, but apparently the excessive cost of demolishing such a large structure is preventing it from happening.
If you hate washboarding, you won’t like the final stretch before reaching Dos Palmas and Highway 111. Not only is the washboarding severe here as you descend toward the Salton Sea, but the ripples in the road are very pronounced, causing our rigs to waddle back and forth like a penguin (this part of the drive can also be seen in our video). Fortunately, this part of the drive is marked by spectacular views of the sea and the distant Santa Rosa Mountains to the west, so it wasn’t that bad, though you’ll need to take it slow to prevent trashing your camper’s interior.
For those traveling east to west, getting off the Bradshaw Trail near Dos Palmas can be a bit tricky. We recommend taking turning left (south) at the Bradshaw Trail Trailhead to reach Highway 111 rather than turning right. If you take a right at the trailhead, you’ll be forced to follow the Coachella Canal for 10 miles before passing through a maze of dirt roads to reach highway. This is the route we took and it caused a little confusion.
So what would we rate the Bradshaw Trail? If you’re doing it in a Jeep, the trail is easy. But if you’re doing it in a truck camper, it’s a little bit harder. On a scale of 1 to 10, we’d have to give it a difficulty rating of 3. This is because of the deep sand, the poorly defined route on the western end, and the numerous washes that you must drive through. Like we said, airing down your tires is must, but this actually makes the drive much more enjoyable and less jarring as you pass over obstacles and rocks. And speaking of rocks, the only mishap we had during our two-day caravan was a single flat. One of the inner dual wheels on Steve Luoma’s Ford got punctured by a sharp rock that got wedged up in between the wheels. In spite of this minor setback, we still had a terrific time.
“It was great seeing a variety of rigs on the trail at the same time,” said Keven MacAfee who participated in the caravan with his wife, Linda. “We both thoroughly enjoyed both the camaraderie within the group and the opportunity to navigate an historic trail once traveled by stagecoach.”
The 2021 Truck Camper Adventure caravan on the Bradshaw Trail was just as fun. The video can be viewed by clicking here.
Nice write-up Mike! Looking forward to the 2021 rally!!