Oatman via Needles and Topock

Southbound on Needles Highway from Laughlin, continue past the Avi turn-off. It's 15 miles to I-40 at Needles over a roller coaster road that sinks and rises across wide, deep washes. The curves are easy and the traffic's usually light.

You can get right on I-40 on the outskirts of Needles and zip to Topock at 70 mph. Or you can wander into Needles on the I-40 "Business Loop" and check out a rough and ready Western railroad town.

Follow the "Loop" signs and zig-zag 1.5 miles til you see the railroad tracks a short block to your left. Running next to the tracks is Front Street, and that's where you want to ride.

Parallel the tracks for a few blocks and you'll dogleg around "El Garces", the boarded-up remains of what was one of the fanciest stations on the line back when people rode trains. There's a half-acre park of green grass and tall palm trees in front, well kept, in contrast to the peeling paint, razor wire, and missing windows of the old station. The Needles Museum is across the street.

Dogleg around the park, toward the rail yards, and continue along the tracks on Front Street. Facing the railroad are old frame houses, shady bungalow motels that went out of business decades ago, and discreet workingmen's honkytonks. Wailing train whistles and the bells from distant crossings echo off vacant warehouses. There's the flavor of the old Frisco waterfront here facing the Santa Fe tracks on Front Street.

Too soon Front joins Broadway, and a half-mile further you're on I-40. It's a ten mile flight over the desert to the river crossing at Topock.

On Old Route 66 in Arizona

You'll see three pipelines suspended across the river as you run on to the I-40 bridge. The middle one is carried on an arched suspension bridge, the first highway bridge built across the river in 1917.

Take Exit 1 off I-40. You can pull off to the right and enjoy the view.

The view from off the slab: A broad bend in the Colorado River, and the "Needles".

Turn away when you can and cross over the interstate. Follow the tracks west 200 yards. You can keep going straight, on to a dirt lot below the railroad bridge, to picnic and swim with the freight train hoboes; or you can follow the pavement as it ducks under the tracks and takes off north.

Heading north, beyond the tracks you'll pass the Topock Marina. The road runs easy curves through a thick cool forest of tamarisk trees. Topock Marsh, a backwater of the Colorado, is on your left.

The road climbs out of the trees on to the open desert. At mile 5, you'll see the town of Golden Shores. In the distance beyond you can see the sugarloaf shape of the Boundary Cone, 15 miles away. It's a landmark travelers over this desert have steered by for centuries, guarding the western end of the route through the River Range.

There are two gas stations in town, a block or two west of 66. Next chance to re-fuel eastbound is 45 miles away in Kingman. To stay on the old road, bear right at the first Y. A few more blocks and you're back in open country.

In case you feel lost, at mile 6 there's an official sign. Half a mile further, the road cuts through a 1200-acre Off-Highway Vehicle playground. Elsewhere in the Range, off-roaders are restricted to existing roads, trails, and washes, or barred entirely.

The old-time wagon and stage drivers were also limited to following the washes in this rough-cut country. Hauling supplies and passengers into the mountain mining camps from steamboat landings down on the river, their teams could only last by working with the terrain rather than against it.

But we're not out here driving mules. Automobiles came naturally and early to the mining men of the desert, and their big roaring engines allowed adventurous desert drivers to cut a more direct trail from the Boundary Cone to the railroad bridge at Topock. They drove their vehicles hard, right across the grain of the country, sliding down into the washes and clawing their way back up and out to the next one.

HONORED ANCESTORS: Off-roaders on the planked railroad bridge at Topock, sometime before 1917.

Photo courtesy of the Mohave County Historical Society


 
 

Running at right angles to the deep-cut washes, the pavement dips, twists, and climbs like an asphalt anaconda. Just like the old days, but the traction is better.

After several miles of wrestling a live road across the washes, things get a bit less strenuous and you can spare an eye for the scenery. Not for long, though - like any wild thing, this road'll bite you if you don't watch it.

The high ground on the east is a tilted, fractured lava flow called Black Mesa. The many washes and old trails lead up to abandoned mines. Hidden back in the buttes is a smuggler's airfield. If anyone got rich here, they kept it quiet.

THE BOUNDARY CONE. Whack it open and fly over the rise? You can't see the hard left just over the top.

The Boundary Cone looms large and you can see where the red rock of the peak was forced through the purple lava at the base. The road bends around to the left and climbs.

At mile 21 the road cuts through a thin dike extending westward from the Cone. A jeep trail along the dike runs across the desert to the bed of the old Milltown Railroad, and eventually down to Highway 95 in Mohave Valley. More on this next month in "Roads and Trails in the River Range".

Once you pass the dike, you're in gold country.

FIRST RESPONDER. Always ready to "help out" anyone who's run off this lonely road.
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joe@gazette9.com

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