Burro Schmidt Tunnel: A Lone Miner’s Quest to Conquer a Mountain
Burro Schmidt Tunnel is an enigma. Hand-dug by a miner named William “Burro” Schmidt over a period of 38 years, the 2,500-foot-long shaft drills through a granite mountain in the El Paso Mountains of the northern Mojave Desert.
While technically overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the tunnel is a worthwhile place to visit for visitors to Southern California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park.
The roads to the tunnel are dirt and you’ll want an all-wheel-drive SUV at a minimum to access the area (don’t try to take the Last Chance Canyon trail unless you have a high-clearance four-wheel drive – there are other, much less arduous routes to get there).
Burro Schmidt Tunnel Details
- Season: Year-round, but hot in summer
- Location: Near Red Rock Canyon State Park
- General GPS Coordinates: 35.410432, -117.876058
- Management: U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Burro Schmidt Tunnel Overview
Born in Rhode Island in 1871, William “Burro” Schmidt ventured west to California in search of a better life after his six brothers and sisters died from consumption (aka tuberculosis).
He began his mining career in the Mojave Desert, where he spent years toiling under the scorching sun. Rippley’s Believe it or Not called Schmidt the “human mole” and a visit to the site of his tunnel high in the El Paso Mountains of the Mojave Desert explains why.
Driven by a desire to bypass the treacherous El Paso Mountains, Schmidt embarked on an ambitious project to tunnel through the solid rock of Copper Mountain. Over three decades, he painstakingly excavated the mountain using only hand tools, dynamite, and an unyielding spirit.
If you are visiting Red Rock Canyon State Park at the southern end of California’s Sierra Nevada, a visit to the tunnel is a fun excursion. As I said before, you’ll want an SUV with decent clearance to navigate the dirt roads to the mine and a good map (which are available at the Red Rock Canyon State Park visitor and can also be downloaded from the park website).
My family visited the tunnel at the suggestion of a park ranger at the Ricardo Campground visitor’s center for Red Rock Canyon and had a blast (miner joke!). We documented the adventure in the video below:
The tunnel is technically located outside of the state park and managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Nearby is the cabin in which Schmidt lived, which has substantially deteriorated since his death, and a caretaker’s cabin that was occupied more recently, but also in rough shape.
I read that ownership of the buildings and the tunnel has been disputed, which has lead to them led to their neglect. But I don’t have any proof, other than the article I read.
It’s hard to fathom what made Schmidt dig his tunnel. He apparently told people it was so he could transport his mining spoils to Mojave, but there is no evidence he ever found gold or anything else in the area. Burro Schmidt passed away in 1954, but his tunnel remains an enduring symbol of one man’s commitment to a dream – albeit one that only he seemed to understand.
About Red Rock Canyon State Park and the El Paso Mountain
Long before Burro Schmidt started tunneling his way through the mountain, the area was inhabited by the Kawaiisu and Serrano Native American tribes. These resourceful communities thrived in the harsh desert environment, adapting their way of life to the unforgiving landscape. The Kawaiisu and Serrano people left a rich cultural legacy, including intricate petroglyphs and pictographs, that provide invaluable insight into their beliefs and traditions.
The region’s geological history is a fascinating tale of shifting landscapes and ancient formations. The Mojave Desert is home to a diverse array of geological features, from towering mountain ranges and vast salt flats to volcanic cinder cones and unique rock formations. This captivating natural history has shaped the area’s flora and fauna, which have adapted to the harsh climate and evolved over millions of years. The iconic Joshua Tree is the most recognizable of the native plants and there are many in Red Rock Canyon State Park. The striking beauty of the landscape serves as a constant reminder of the immense power and wonder of the natural world.
The allure of gold and the promise of fortune brought a wave of pioneers to the region in the 1800s. The California Gold Rush transformed the area into a bustling hub of mining activity, with prospectors staking their claims and working tirelessly to extract the precious metal. This period of rapid expansion left a lasting impact on the landscape, as towns sprung up and miners reshaped the land in search of wealth.