If you live in southern California and are looking for off-road adventure, you should definitely consider going on a Millen Adventures trip. This past weekend I had a the fortune of tagging along on their signature Palm Springs to Las Vegas trip. Ryan Millen and his team have created an all-day adventure that zig zags through diverse desert habitats while giving drivers plenty of opportunities to test their skills on a variety of terrain.
I left my house before dawn on Saturday morning to meet up with Millen at his Huntington Beach shop. Rather than drive my own truck on this adventure, I chose to ride shotgun in Millen’s race proven FJ Cruiser. I figured being a passenger would be the best way to get the experience and allow me to see everything the adventure had to offer. Plus, how often do you get the change to ride with a driver who’s conquered the Baja 1000, Taupo 1000, and the Trans Siberia Rally?
We left his shop in Huntington Beach and rendezvoused with the group just outside of Palm Springs. After a quick radio check, we headed down the road to the gas station and topped off the tanks. Once everyone was back in the trucks, we were on our way.
We drove a couple of miles outside of Yucca Valley, hit the end of the asphalt, and aired down the tires. Millen gave everyone an overview of what to expect for the day’s trip as well as made sure we all followed a couple of safety guidelines our on adventure. It was finally time for the real adventure to begin!
The first leg of the trip we crossed through rocky desert terrain as we climbed into higher elevation. Within no time at all, the surrounding started to change from critters and cacti to high desert shrubs and trees. We even started to see Joshua Trees as well. This stretch of road was also the first chance we had to open up the throttle and hit some of the whoops at speed.
Nothing puts a smile on your face more than catching a little air and feeling that brief hundredths of a second where the rules of gravity seems to not apply. I can tell you that jumping a fully race tested FJ Cruiser is a dramatically different experience that doing it my own FJ. Let’s just say the coming down part is a lot smoother and you’re not worried about looking in the rear view mirror for a debris field!
As we made our way north, we passed through what looked like remnants of old mining operations. The shrubs and trees gave way back to the jagged rocks and sparse brush. As we drove these seldom traveled dirt roads, the strangest things would sometimes appear off to the side, like a random hull from a boat raised up on stilts. It made you wonder about the story behind it and how this barren wasteland became its final resting place. Was someone going to restore it? Did it get left behind after a trailer broke down? How long had it been there? These are the things we all love day dreaming and thinking about.
It was getting close to lunch time, but Millen had one more place to show us before we took a break. After a long stretch of open dirt, we took a side route that went between two small hills. As we came down into the small valley, we were greeted with a small dry lake bed. The flat stretch of parched, cracked dirt was strangely beautiful.
You couldn’t help but imagine a time when it was full of water and life must have been thriving. Everyone got out, grabbed the cameras, and we all took some shots of the vehicles. It was also a perfect time to take a group photo to commemorate the trip. After leaving the lake bed, we drove through some whoops that were absolutely brutal in nature. The best way to describe it was trying to ride a bucking bronco on a boat that’s rocking in choppy seas.
After the whoops subsided and we got back to some soft dirt, we made our way to the “famous” Slash X Ranch Cafe. If you’ve ever been to the Slash X, you can already picture it in your head. For the all the newcomers, it’s the place you go when you’re out in the desert around Barstow and you need a cold beer or are getting hungry. It’s no frills, the service is almost nonexistent, and the food simply fills the void until your next meal. It’s just something you do when you’re in the area. Oddly enough, people seem to love it on Yelp.
While we were there, a group of Raptor owners showed up after spending the morning romping hard across the open desert. I can only imagine how fast they were blazing across the wide open dirt and what it would be like to hit the whoops in one of those trucks!
With our bellies full, it was time to head to Barstow to top off the fuel and begin the afternoon portion of our adventure. We left Barstow on the 15 and quickly jumped on an access road as we got outside of town. We picked up a dirt two-track that paralleled the railroad and headed east back out into the desert. After miles of dirt we came across one of my favorite parts of the trip, Afton Canyon.
Afton Canyon is about as close to a desert oasis as I’ve ever seen. As you descend down into the canyon the first thing you notice is the increasing amount of greenery. Shrubs, trees, and reeds can be see in the distance. There is no doubt that water is definitely nearby. As you get closer to the picturesque railroad bridge, you see the Mojave River. I can only imagine how relieved travelers a hundred years ago must have been to stumble across the desert gem.
There were a couple of water crossings on our route and the water was surprisingly nice. If we had more time, it would have been the perfect place to stop for a break and cool off. Afton Canyon has a large campground that I’d love to return to someday. However, I think I’ll wait until the weather is just a little bit cooler.
As we made our way out of the canyon there are hundreds of mud caves and that line the southern wall. They definitely caught our attention and we even found one big enough to park all of the trucks in and take another group photo. It was incredible to feel the temperature change between the shade of the outcropping and the direct, hot sun. It was a great reminder that while Mother Nature loves to share her beauty with us, it’s always best to be prepared and ready for anything.
As we continued east, we made our way through a vast expanse of sandy desert that looked to be a river bottom miles wide. The dried weeds wrapped around the base of the shrubs and the giant railroad ties seemingly in the middle of nowhere gave us a glimpse of how wild the desert could be in a flash flood or extreme weather.
After skirting some large sand dunes, we found an old black top road that was slowly be reclaimed by the desert. Within another decade or so you’d be hard pressed to find any traces of it left. We followed that road for a short time and made our way to the Cinder Cone National Landmark in the Mojave National Preserve. I had no idea this incredible place even existed!
Not too far after you begin the Lave Tube Trail, there is a pullout on the side of the road. Millen has us stop to get out and take a look. A small marker with an arrow points up the hill. As we hiked up the short trail, the first thing you see is a rather large hole in the ground. The hole is part of a lava tube that’s only partially exposed. About 50 feet farther up the trail is an even larger hole with a metal stairwell that descends down into it.
We climbed down the stairs and entered the lava tube. The first thing I noticed was a rather large lizard looking back at us. I’m not exactly sure what it was, but we all kept a fair distance and took some photos of it before it crawled back into the darkness of the lava tube.
We explored one part of the tube and crawled into a large room. The ceiling was partially open letting daylight fill up the room. It was an impressive place to explore and the cooler temperatures of the lava tube were a welcomed break from the heat up above. We spent some time looking around and taking photos of the tube. Part of me thinks it was because it was interesting, and the other part thinks we all just enjoyed the cooler weather too much to leave. However, it was getting late and we needed to get back on the trail.
After passing through the Cinder Cone National Landmark, we drove through one of the most incredible expanses of Joshua Trees I have ever seen. Thousands of them dotted the landscape on both sides of the road. They’re strangely beautiful and mysterious as the same time. I couldn’t help but take photo after photo of them as we drove by in the truck. I’d be hard pressed to pick my favorite part of the adventure, but seeing this many Joshua Trees all in one place had to be near the top of the list.
With another 20 to 30 miles of dirt road behind us, we got back out to the highway east of Baker. While the rest of the group was going to continue on to Las Vegas, it was time for me to head home. I had a full day planned for Sunday so a late night in Sin City wasn’t in the cards. I said my goodbyes to the group and headed back to Los Angles in the chase truck. As I made my way home on the super slab, I couldn’t help think about what an incredible day I just had. Between the lava tubes and river crossings, to the Joshua Trees and the dry lake bed, the desert is an incredibly interesting and diverse place.
I learned a lot from Millen while riding shotgun for the day. Where many see miles and miles of nothing, Millen sees hidden gems that he can’t wait to share with guests that go on his trips. Not only is he passionate about the places he explores, his love of the driving experience getting there is contagious. As we discussed throughout the day, life is too short not to get out and experience what’s around you. I saw things on this trip that I would have normally never experienced or made the time to see for myself.
If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend going on the Palm Springs to Las Vegas trip or any of the other trips that Millen Adventures offers. A trip to Baja is definitely next on my list. All of Millen’s trips are fun, full day adventures of off-road driving with incredible views and sights along the way. Not only will you have a great time, but you’ll have a heck of a story to tell your coworkers when you get back to the office on Monday!