The Grand Canyon of the Mojave

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Water still flows most of the year through this mini Grand Canyon. Her sheer walls in every imaginable shade of pink tower 300 feet above the Mojave Rive. Four major trails of varying lengths take you past these varicolored cliffs and through nooks and crannies visited long ago by Native American people, Spanish missionaries and explorers, and mountain men. This rare ribbon of greenery in a unique geological setting also harbors an abundance of wildlife and birds.

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Known as the "Grand Canyon of the Mojave," Afton Canyon contains spectacular scenery. Not only does the canyon exhibit beautiful examples of wind and water erosion, but the colors in the side walls look as if someone poured various shades of red and green paint over them.

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The canyon was formed 12,000 to 19,000 years ago when Lake Mannix drained. As this huge lake drained, it cut the canyon nearly to its present depth. Periodic floods continue this work.

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There is always water in Afton Canyon, and it is one of three places along the Mojave River where there is year-round surface flow. The presence of this water in Afton canyon is extremely important for wildlife.

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Afton Canyon is designated as a watchable wildlife area and a visit can be inspiring for avid wildlife enthusiasts. Bighorn sheep live in the area and may be seen coming to the river to drink. Various kids of raptors nest on the canyon walls. If you camp at the campground, be prepared to share your campsite with kangaroo rats and roadrunners.

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Other popular activities are rockhounding, hiking, photography, horseback riding, and touring along the historic Mojave Road which runs through the canyon.

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Afton Canyon can be reached by taking the Afton Road exit off Interstate 15 located 36 miles northeast of Barstow. Follow the graded gravel road for three miles to the canyon.

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binocularsViewing tips for this area

Fall and spring are the best times to view area wildlife, including birds.

Summer is very hot. Limited water is available at the Afton Canyon campground.

Keep your distance from the water, so animals can drink.

Be careful with children and pets - trains still use the railroad.

Be aware that rattlesnakes can be present during spring, summer, and fall months.

To protect sensitive resources, vehicle use in Afton Canyon is restricted to routes which are designated open. Routes approved for use include the Mojave Road, that goes the entire length of the canyon.

Other restrictions are posted at all entrances and at the Afton Canyon Campground.

The canyon is within a cattle grazing area, but an exclosure fence has been built to keep grazing cattle out of all but a few areas, and to keep out vehicles.

Be sure to see tips for "Ultimate Wildlife Watching."

compassHow to get here

From Barstow, take Interstate 15 east for 35 miles. Take the Afton exit south. Drive south three miles on graded dirt road to parking area for the fully-developed Afton Campground. Visitor information is available at the campground and at all entrances into the area.

rulerSize: about 4,000 acres in the canyon are included in the 42,000-acre Afton Canyon Natural Area.

clip boardManaged by: Bureau of Land Management, Barstow Field Office.

infoFor more information, contact: Bureau of Land Management, Barstow Field Office.


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Afton Canyon's surface water makes it unique in the southern California desert. Known locally as "The Grand Canyon of the Mojave" for its dramatic geological formations, this is one of the only places where the Mojave River flows above ground year-round - providing significant riparian (riverbank) wildlife habitat amid the desert. Since prehistoric times, the natural bounty created by this water source has made Afton Canyon a focus for living things. Dense willows and cottonwoods shaded the river, and thickets of mesquite produced bean pods for food. The ponds, marshes and streams provided habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species.
      An invasion of saltcedar reduced wildlife populations to a fraction of what they once were. But animals not seen in the area for more than a decade are now returning, due to efforts by the Bureau of Land Management, in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Game. This program, one of the largest riparian restoration projects in the state, is attracting many of the birds and other animals that once lived here.

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Animals you may see hereBighorn Sheep:

Birds: More than 180 species of birds have been spotted in Afton Canyon. These include rare species such as vermillion flycatcher and summer tanager. The canyon's river and marshes draw winter waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds. Great blue herons, snowy egrets, white-faced ibises and other birds live in the shallows. Common flickers and ladder-backed woodpeckers are once again utilizing snags that have been made accessible through saltcedar removal. More than 85 species of migrating birds have made stopovers, including merlin, osprey, and Swainson's hawk. The steep, inaccessible cliffs of the nearby Cady Mountains provide excellent feeding and nesting areas for a variety of birds of prey, including golden eagle and prairie falcon, and their activity in the canyon is increasing.

Other wildlife: Desert bighorn sheep can now reach the waters of the Mojave River that were once blocked by salt cedar, and a herd from the nearby Cady Mountains comes to the riverbanks during the evening or early morning. Western pond turtles, frogs and fish live in the waters. Other animals that frequent the area include quail, chukar, kit fox, desert cottontail, American badger, mountain lion and bobcat. The endangered Mojave tui chub, the only fish native to the Mojave River, may be re-introduced to specific sites in the canyon in the near future. The surrounding desert is home to desert tortoises and many snakes and lizards, such as sidewinders, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, side-blotched lizards, and desert iguanas.