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|March 2017 — Death Valley National Park|
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Copyright © 2015 - 2020 Larrie Easterly
Entrance Sign — Photo Galley
The camper van that we usually take on trips is in the middle of an interior remodel and is not four wheel drive (4WD). That meant that our Toyota 4Runner would get to go. The 4Runner is a good vehicle to take on solo camping trips. It holds all my camping and camera gear with enough room left over for me to sleep in it. We used it in 2016 on the Oregon Geological Expedition and it worked out very well.
The next two and a half months were spent working on the van remodel and researching Death Valley. The trip leader had the campgrounds and travel routes worked out for the DV portion of the trip so I did not have to do any of that. My time was spend time figuring out routes to get down there by March 19th and home by the 29th. This involved calling my friend Donna about the best route to take to Reno, Nevada, researching campgrounds that were along the route in the Ultimate Public Campground App and making lists of food, camping and camera gear to take along.
January, February, and March were unusually rainy, cold and snowy in Oregon. The March 17th departure date arrived and I was very ready for the warm and dry of the desert. Temperatures for the week we would be there were predicted to be in the upper 70s to low 80s during the day with clear sunny sky's.
The first part of the trip was a ten run down I-5 to Mount Shasta, CA then across to Susanville, CA and on to Reno where I spent the night. The original plan was to camp the first night near Susanville, CA. That plan was scrapped after research showed that all of the National Forest campgrounds in the area did not open until April. Plan B turned out to be a hotel in Reno, NV.
Mono Lake — Photo Galley
Alabama Hills — Photo Galley
Several of the group were already there. Introductions were made all around and we talked and visited until the rest of the group arrived. Then it was on to a local restaurant for dinner and more conversation, sharing of cell phone numbers and overall trip instructions. After dinner it was back to Alabama Hills for the night.
The Vehicles — Photo Galley
Darwin Art Gallery — Photo Galley
From Darwin we took a dirt/gravel road to Darwin Falls. From the parking area to the falls is a 2.2 mile round trip hike. While there was gold silver and other valuable minerals in Death Valley the most precious resource was water. Without it people could not live and mining could not take place.
Darwin Falls — Photo Galley
We were using 2 way radios to keep in communication during our trip. As we were walking up to the falls I happened to look down and saw what I thought was a collapsible metal pointer. Thinking it was a piece of trash I picked it up and absentmindedly put it in my pocket. At the falls we met some of our traveling companions, one of whom had just fallen in the pool while trying to wash her hands. She had asked her husband to hold her stuff and realized that she had lost the antenna to the radio she had borrowed.
Sharon asked what it looked like and we realized that what I thought was a pointer was actually the antenna. I searched my six pockets and could not find it. I was sure that I had put it in my pocket but it was not there. We looked for it all the way back to the cars but did not see it. Once we got to the cars I reached into the pocket for my keys. Mixed in with the keys was the the antenna.
Indian Paintbrush — Photo Galley
Warm Springs — Photo Galley
The hot springs is a small oasis in the middle of the desert. There are palm trees, other trees and grass around the spring. The rest of the area is barren desert. There are several soaking pools and even a sunken bathtub where you can take an open air shower. If you decide to go to the hot spring area be prepared to see things you may not want to see. Clothing optional for all ages all the time. This applies to the soaking pools, shower, pit toilet area and campground.
The next day several of us used the soaking pools and shower before heading out on the days adventure. Leaving Lower Warm Springs we headed northeast past Palm Springs and Upper Warm Springs into the Saline Mountains and Steel Pass. The track up to Steel Pass was, like most of the roads we would be traveling on, was rough and rocky. To make up for the road conditions the views of the surrounding mountains were beautiful. The road, if you can call it that, got rougher and rougher as we continued to climb. My full attention needed to be focused on the track at all times so that the ride would be as smooth as possible for me and as easy as possible for my stock 4Runner. Many times my comfort came in second.
Most of the people on the trip were driving modified 4WD vehicles. The modification included 3 to 4 inch body lifts, larger tires and other accessories to help them navigate rough terrain. They handled the rough and rocky sections of the road much better than my 4Runner did. Makes me think about upgrading the 4Runner so that it handles this type of terrain better.
One of the tricks to driving on rough gravel roads roads is to lower the air pressure in the vehicles tires. The lower pressure makes the tires more flexible and smooths out the bumps. It you decide to lower your tire pressure be sure that you are carrying an air compressor with you so you can air them back up to normal driving pressure when returning to pavement. Driving at highway speeds on under inflated tires can be dangerous.
Steel Pass — Photo Galley
The owners of most of the vehicles traveling with the group had little problems because of the raised the bodies of their vehicles and taller taller tires. The 4Runner does not have those advantages so I needed to be extra careful. The spotters, Charles, Chuck, Ace, and Frenchie did an excellent job of guiding me over the three ledges. The only damage was some scraped plastic on the passenger side running board. It sounded much worse than it actually was.
The rest of the way down the Saline Mountain Range into Eureka Valley was fairly easy. The road was rough and rocky so the going was slow. Once we got onto the valley floor the road turned into sand so our speed picked up and driving was easier. We made good time.
Eureka Dunes — Photo Galley
It took me four tries to find the right place to park the 4Runner. The first place was on some white sandy material that I did not like the feel of. The next place was on brown dirt. It had a slight sulfur smell to it. The next spot had the same smell. The last spot did not smell at all. As I looked around the rejected campsites and could see small bright yellow looked like sulfur. This is probably what was causing the smell.
After we were all setup a white rental car stopped and asked for directions to Eureka Dunes. They were suppose to meet the rest of their geology class Central Washington University there. After dark they came back and told us that they had come across a stranded vehicle and were wondering if we could help them. Chuck and Frenchie from our group followed them to the broken down vehicle. They found that the rough washboard road had vibrated the battery hold down clamp loose causing the battery to shift and short out the electrical system. Chuck and Frenchie were able to reposition the battery and install a temporary hold down. Once the this was done the car was able to be restarted and they were able to continue on their trip.
As we were about to leave on Tuesday two young women came into camp to ask for help fixing a time. Chuck and I took them back to their Toyota Tundra pickup and showed them how to change a flat tire. Just as we were finishing the rest of our party showed up. There was much joking and laughing about how the woman’s husband owed her big time for sending her on a camping trip with tires that needed to be replaced. After finishing the tire replacement we went our separate ways.
Wild Horse — Photo Galley
Gold Point Store — Photo Galley
After buying supplies we headed back onto pavement towards Beatty, NV. This turned into a problem for several of us. Driving on rough gravel roads requires you to stay focused on the road so you miss the larger rocks that can damage your vehicle. We found that when we were on pavement we tended to lose focus and not pay attention to the road. I resolved this by turning up the stereo. It also helped that some of us were low on fuel. Several of us stopped along the side of the road to refuel. I had not used any of the ten gallons of space fuel that I carried. Charles put five gallons of my spare gas in his rig so that he could make it to Beatty.
While the rest of us got gas in Beatty Roger and Susan stopped at a tire store to replace one of their tires that got damaged on Steele Pass. It is not safe to travel the back roads without a good spare tire. After Beatty we stopped in the ghost town of Rhyolite.
Bottle House — Photo Galley
Stovepipe Wells is operated by a concessionaire to the National Park. There is a hotel, gift shop, restaurant, gas, general store and campground. This would be our base of operations for the next two days. The good things about Stovepipe Well is everything but the campground. It is a gravel parking lot with spaces for about 100 plus vehicles. There are a few low bushes scattered around the edges. The great thing about the place is the pool and showers. To access these go to the hotel reception and ask for a shower card. The $4.00 cost gets you unlimited access to the pool and showers until midnight of that day. We shared the shower cards and all got showers that night.
We tried to leave each campsite by 9:00 am and get to our next campsite or back to camp by 3:00 or 4:00 pm. Wednesday was no exception. Since we were staying two nights at Stovepipe Wells Len, Minor, Charles, Debbie and Ace left their trailers in the campground when we headed out to run Titus Canyon. We headed east up Daylight Pass Road and turned right at a not very well marked dirt/gravel road toward Chloride Cliffs.
Cousin Jack's House — Photo Galley
Backtracking to pavement we turned right then left on to another semi hidden dirt road. After a few miles this road turned into a narrow oneway track that led up over and through the Grapevine Mountains. It is a beautiful drive through canyons and along narrow cliffs as you rise above the valleys below. The colors of the rocks and vegetation took my breath away. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Leadfield — Photo Galley
A few more miles brought us to Titus Canyon. The gravel track twists and turns its way down through the narrow canyon for several miles. The road goes down hill as the canyon walls get steeper and taller until it pops out high above Death Valley. The exit leads to a parking lot. From this point the gravel road is two-way and follows the alluvial fan slope down to Scotty's Castle Road.
By now it was about 4:00 pm so we headed back to the campground at Stovepipe Wells. As we headed into the valley we could see that the wind was blowing the dust around. Once we got onto the valley floor we could see that the wind was blowing the dust and sand from the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes into a full fledged dust storm. Cooking outside at the campground was out of the question because of the 25 MPH gusts and sustained winds of 12 to 15 MPH. The group decided to head to the restaurant for dinner and conversation. We had a great time and then headed back out into the storm and to our vehicles to hunker down for the night. The wind continued to howl most of the night. It gently rocked the 4Runner as I slept.
Thursday dawned clear and sunny. The storm had blown itself out sometime during the early morning only leaving a gentle breeze to greet us. We said goodby to Carl who needed to pack up his gear and headed back to New Jersey. The rest of us decide to spend one more night at the campground so we left the trailers there and headed southwest towards Emigrant Canyon. The road up the canyon is paved for most of the way up to the charcoal kilns. It was a pleasure to drive on pavement instead of gravel and rock.
Charcoal Kilns — Photo Galley
Skidoo Mine — Photo Galley
The structures at the mine are rundown with some restoration work done to stabilize the buildings.. The mine extracted gold from quartz using a hammer mill process that was operated by water pressure. The hammers, sluice tables, ore carts, and other mining equipment are still there. Heading back along Emigrant Canyon road we turned right and drove across an alluvial fan along a very rocky track. This track eventually led upTelephone Canyon and under its overhanging ledges and eventually to the Tucky Mine site. The mine is one of the few that you can still enter. The mouth is probably 15 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Frenchie has done extensive exploration in the mine and told us that it has many levels and horizontal shafts.
Cabin — Photo Galley
While at the gas station we saw the two women we had helped with the flat tire. They were changing a tire, their third. They thanked us again for the help and we wished them well on the rest of their journey.
Borax Wagons — Photo Galley
Our first stop at Furnace Creek was the Death Valley Visitors Center. From there it was a relaxing lunch on a lush green lawn and a tour of the town. The town is privately owned and items such as gas and camping are much more expensive than than at Stovepipe Wells. It is a quaint place that reminded me of the old west section of Disneyland. There is a general store, several restaurants (closed between breakfast, lunch and dinner), a museum and a post office. I had purchased a couple of post cards at the store and addressed a note to each of our two grandsons. At the post office I asked for two postcard stamps. The only ones the clerk had showed images of warm water sea shells like you would find of the coast of Florida or Hawaii. I started laughing because here we were in the desert and the images on the stamps were from lush tropical locations. The clerk knew exactly what I was laughing at and said that those were the only one she had. Unlike most post offices she hand canceled the stamps with the Death Valley postmark.
282 Feet Below Sea Level — Photo Galley
We continued south on Badwater Road turning right on to West Side Road and then left on to Warm Springs Canyon road. Both have a dirt/gravel surface with lots of lose rocks and washboard. We stopped to camp at the Warm Springs Mine site. This was a talc mine. The talc was used to manufacturer talcum powder. The entrance is gated off to prevent entrance. As you look at the hillside you can see the layers of talc sandwiched between other rock layers.
A short walk up the road are several well made buildings and a swimming pool. These were constructed by the mining company to ease the rigors of life in the desert. We hiked up behind the structure along a narrow path that led to a spring. The path leads to a tiny canyon where warm water pours out of a crack in the rock wall into a shallow pool.
Warm Springs Mine — Photo Galley
Saturday morning it was time for the group to break up. Frenchie, Len, Debbie, Brian and Natalie, as well as Roger and Susan departed for their respective homes in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. After saying our goodbyes the remaining six vehicles headed east through Warm Springs Canyon and Butte Valley. As usual the road was rough and rocky in spots, smooth and dusty in other areas. The views of the mountains and rock formations were out standing.
The most impressive rock formation we came to was Striped Butte. The butte sits is a broad valley high up in the mountains. The butte gets is name from from the alternating light and dark colored steeply tilted limestone that make it up.
Striped Butte from the Geologists Cabin — Photo Galley
The road to the west winds its way up the southern part of the Panamint Mountains to Mengel Pass. The road gradually deteriorating into a steep pile of rocks in the narrow pass. This was the most challenging part of the trip for me and my 4Runner. The vehicles that normally travel this route have a body lift and taller tires than normal. Having none of those advantages I slowly and carefully guided my vehicle over the obstacles with the help of Charles and Bruce who were acting as my spotters. All was going well until I made a mistake and turned the wrong way. My left front tire slid against a large bolder resulting in snapped off valve stem.
Mengel Pass — Photo Galley
Once at the top of the pass we changed my tire and had a bit of lunch. Since this was a Saturday there were lots of other vehicle coming up and down the pass. It was quite busy at the top.
From Mengel Pass we worked our way down the east side of the mountains to Barker Ranch. The ranch was built in 1940 by the Thomason Family to support their mining operation. In 1956 the family sold the ranch to the Barkers who expanded the main house to accommodate their large family. In 1968 Charlie Manson traded a gold album from the Beach Boys to the family as rent and moved his “family” to the ranch. The rest is history. There was a fire that pretty much destroyed the main house in the 90s All that remains is some stone walls and rundown outbuildings.
We continued following the rough road to the west and into Goler Wash. In the desert the term wash is used to describe a river bed that only has water in it after it rains. Goler is no exception. The bottom of the wash is a mix of gravel and sand that has been compacted by the vehicles that have driven over it. Partway down the trail we came across a spring flowing down the trail enlivening the trees, bushes, and flowers along its path. The trail winds it way down the mountain between towering cliffs until it emerges onto the alluvial fan at the base of the mountains.
Rain Over Manley Peak — Photo Galley
Morning came after a long night sitting around the campfire. We packed up the rigs for the final time and headed for the semi ghost town of Ballarat. There we aired up our tires made a monetary donation for a soda and to help with the upkeep of the town. Then it was time for our final goodbyes. Minor, Chuck, Charles and Sharon all headed west towards, home while Bruce, Ace and myself headed north back to Stovepipe Wells. Ace needed fuel before continuing back to Colorado. Bruce needed ice for his cooler and we needed to transfer the food he put in my refrigerator the night before back to his cooler. Once the food and ice were back in his cooler we said our goodbyes. He headed north to travel the Big Pine Road while I headed for the campground.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes — Photo Galley
All week we had been getting up around 7:00am doing morning activities and hitting the road about 9:00am. Even though I was on my own Monday was no exception. The night before we were told that high winds and blowing dust were expected in the valley Monday mid day. I wanted to be gone before the wind picked up and the dust started blowing. The National Weather Service was predicting 50 mph winds that day for the valley. Having experienced one sandstorm the Tuesday before I wanted no part of another one.
The choice of places to see was narrowed down by the upcoming storm. The the wind was expected to be from the northwest. The best solution appeared to head north to Ubehebe Crater and Mesquite Springs Campground. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the Stovepipe Well were on the way so a quick stop was made at each location. The sand dunes were impressive. The well got its name from a stovepipe that was installed above it after the well was covered by a sandstorm.
Ubehebe Crater — Photo Galley
Camping Setup — Photo Galley
Dawn came with reduced wind and a clear sky. Packing up the 4Runner for the last time took longer than usual. All of the items on the roof rack needed to packed inside for the drive to Las Vegas. Loading the items inside streamlines the 4Runner for better gas mileage on long drives.
Mesquite Springs is at the north end of Death Valley. There are several possible paved roads that lead out of the valley to Las Vegas, today's destination. The one I chose was at the south end and went through Shoshone, CA and Pahrump NV. This route would take me past areas of the valley we had not traveled through on the official trip. The south end of the valley was just as beautiful as the other areas that we traversed.
Continued on the Las Vegas trip report.
Summary Am not sure I can express how grateful I am to my traveling companions that were along on the trip. It was wonderful to meet and get to know a little about all of you. I had a great time and have fond memories. Happy travels to you all.
Statistics Total days on the road: 12 Total miles from home Las Vegas: 1,885 Total miles in Death Valley: 790 mostly dirt, gravel, sand, and rock
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282 feet below sea level
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