Saturday, March 15, 2014

The First of Many Trips to Death Valley

Death Valley, February 2014

I love the beauty and history of the desert.  A trip to Death Valley has always been on my "bucket list," but until recently I haven't had an opportunity to visit the park because it's quite a long distance from home, and it's not somewhere to visit alone.  I joined a local 4x4 club as a guest for their annual February Death Valley run.

Death Valley is not a hardcore 4wheeling area like Johnson Valley is, but the club definitely seeks out the more challenging trails that are far off the beaten path.  With that said, a very reliable and street-friendly rig is a must since we spent 7-10 hours per day behind the wheel, both on-road and off; this is not a trip for trailered or unreliable rigs.

After a long day's work we drove 8 hours to our a hotel in Ridgecrest, California.  Still groggy for our 7:00am driver’s meeting (vehicle safety checks, CB and Ham Radio coordination, and a discussion of the general gameplan) was followed by a drive to the ghost town of Ballarat, CA within Panamint Valley where we aired down our tires.  Fans of the show Top Gear America may recognize Ballarat’s goofy general store from their Season 2 Episode 4 show in which they drove a Jeep CJ, Chevy Blazer, and Ford Bronco across Death Valley:

Airing down in Ballarat
After passing a large active gold mine, the graded dirt road becomes an ungraded dirt road before turning into the Panamint Mountains by way of Goler Wash.

The trail's entrance to Goler Wash
This trail follows the bottom of a steep rocky canyon in which flash floods regularly occur.  This is a trail that changes drastically in difficulty depending on how recently thunderstorms have washed out the trail, and whether the county has come back in with their maintenance crew.  Last summer’s torrential thunderstorms apparently really tore up the wash and made it nearly impassable, but since it had been recently repaired, we required no diff locks this time.  When Top Gear's trio went up Goler Wash, Adam managed to break the C-clip rear axle on his Bronco while throttling it hard up the waterfall section, so his co-hosts naturally left him behind to die:

Goler Wash is incredibly beautiful, so I was grateful for a couple brief stops to give everyone in our group a chance to catch up.

Goler Wash is somewhat of an oasis, with spring water seeping out of the rocks and allowing some plants to grow.  Countless barrel cacti cover the cliff walls.

Barrel cactus

Canyon walls are covered with barrel cacti

Continuing up the Panamint Mountains and out of the wash, we eventually come out at the top of Mengel Pass, named after Carl Mengel, a miner who lost one of his legs in a mining accident in Nevada before coming to Death Valley to continue his search for riches.  At the top of this windy pass is a tall rockpile monument inside of which is reported to be not only his ashes but also his prosthetic leg.

Short break atop Mengel Pass
Carl Mengel's ashes & prosthetic leg are in there somewhere
We dropped down into Butte Valley, from which the beautiful Striped Butte rises.  We ate lunch at a seemingly abandoned ranch cabin, where all the wild burros in the area apparently make pests of themselves.  We saw only two of the countless Death Valley burros while we were there, but burro trails are everywhere through these mountains and valleys.

Looking out over Butte Valley

Striped Butte dead ahead

After crossing Butte Valley, we continued over the next pass and dropped down to Warm Springs, the site of some of the last operating mines within Death Valley National Monument.  A large mining camp was built here in the late 1930’s, taking advantage of the constant flow of water out of the hillside and the proximity to several talc and gold mines, including the large White Point Talc Mine which we explored.  This turned out to be quite a lush oasis in the middle of such desolate, rocky terrain.  The huge cedar trees provide expansive shade, and several large buildings and a swimming pool were built in the 1960’s to house and comfort the miners after what must have been incredibly tortuous working conditions.

White Point Talc Mine

Unfortunately, mine entrances are all gated.

Also on site are the remains of a gold mill that was built in 1939 to process ore from the Gold Hill Mine farther up canyon.  The mill contains a power-driven arrastra with an oil-burning hot-shot engine that drove an elaborate arrangement of flywheels, a belt and pulley system, and drive shafts that operated the mill machinery.  Also included are a Blake jaw crusher; a cone crusher; bumping and concentrating tables; a cylindrical ball mill; an ore bin and chute; an unloading platform; a conveyor system; and other processing equipment.  Since all this equipment remains in remarkably good condition, it’s cool to be able to see what mid-century mining was like, but I’d still rather visit as a 4-wheeler than live there as a miner.

We continued down into the actual Death Valley, and the road gradually turned from ungraded rocky trails to graded washboard gravel, until we finally reached asphalt where we aired our tires tires back up for the long highway drive through Stovepipe Wells to Beatty, NV.  On our way, we passed through Badwater, CA.  At 282 feet below sea level, this is the lowest point in North America.  There’s a cool sea level marker on the hillside above, but what really puts this depression into perspective is the Panamint Range from which we just emerged; an absolute wall of rock stretches as far as the eyes can see, with Telescope Peak looming above you at 11,049 feet above sea level just 15 miles away from Badwater.

At this point dusk was setting in and we had a lot of highway miles to get up and over Daylight Pass and into Nevada’s Oasis Valley where we were staying the night in a motel in the town of Beatty.  Normally we have a real appreciation for small towns, but perhaps we wouldn’t have been in such a hurry if we knew that we were going to have such a horrible dinner at the World’s Worst Denny’s located within Beatty’s Stagecoach Casino.  I know the entire town shouldn't be judged by the performance of one restaurant's waitstaff, but I have honestly never received such horrible service in my entire life.  At least there was a big collection of old currency in the casino for us to ogle.

The next morning, we fueled back up and had another driver’s meeting before heading back towards Death Valley.  Instead of crossing into the park on asphalt, we turned off the highway and aired our tires back down for the long one-way dirt road over the incredibly scenic Red Pass to the Leadville ghost town.

The panoramic views from the top of Red Pass are gorgeous.  The early morning light really illuminated the broad range of colors that make up the rock and soil in this region of the mountains.  Unfortunately, it's difficult to capture this splendor in photographs.

A brief stop at the top of Red Pass to take in the vista

The valley in which the Leadville ghost town is found

We continued down into the canyon and stopped at Leadville to explore the mines and remnants of the town.

The large pile of mine tailings is the ghost town's defining landmark

It was fun to explore the buildings and mines as a break from all the driving, but we were all anxious to continue onward to Titus Canyon:

Titus Canyon is a narrow gorge with 150 foot high walls of rock towering over a smooth, flat sandy bottom.  The road is maintained for 2wd high-clearance vehicles (but that doesn’t stop tourists in rental convertibles from driving here and dragging their bellies over the occasional rock) so there was nothing challenging for us, but it is well worth the visit because this is one of the most scenic drives you’ll ever make in your entire life.

If we weren’t so pressed for time with so many more miles to cover, I would have liked to get out of the Jeep and explore the canyon some more.  This is one of the sites where Indian petroglyphs can be found; we only got to glimpse them as we drove past.

Titus Canyon opens up into Death Valley on a vast alluvial fan.

Our next stop was the Ubehebe Crater.  This is a gigantic hole in the ground that was formed when magma superheated a large quantity of trapped groundwater; the steam pressure caused the ground to erupt, throwing old rock and new magma into the air and depositing it all around the resulting crater.

Before another explosion scattered our Jeeps across the desert, we continued onward to another famous Death Valley site called The Racetrack.  A few tourists passed our big lineup of 13 Jeeps and 1 Nissan Xterra as we were stopped on the side of the trail to air our tires down even further; they surely wondered what we were doing, but our trip leader knew what was ahead of us: 28 of miles of some of the world’s worst washboarded road, where super soft tires and high speed were going to be needed.

It didn’t take long for us to make up the 10 minutes we lost by stopping to air down; as the tourists trundled along at 5-10mph, getting beaten to death by their street-pressure tires, they couldn’t see backward through their own dust clouds that our fast-moving group was rapidly approaching.  Our trip leader wasn’t afraid to use her lights and horn in traditional desert racing style to signal to these slow-moving vehicles that they needed to pull over and let us pass.  I don’t think she ever had to nerf any of them, but I still don’t think any of them realized or remembered that her Jeep was only the first of 14 vehicles in the group.  As the 2nd in line, I put my high-powered LED light bar to good use, making my fast-approaching Jeep visible through the dust cloud as I barrelled down on them at 50mph just as they were thinking that they were going to pull back onto the road.  I can only imagine what they were thinking as not one, not two, not three, but FOURTEEN vehicles flew by at Warp Speed, with dust and gravel flying everywhere.  Anyone who’s experienced in the desert knows that soft tires and high speed is the only way to travel over these horrific washboards.  What took us 40 minutes to travel must have taken these other cars at least 2-3 hours.

The Racetrack is a dry lakebed across which rocks mysteriously move.  Theories about the forces of wind and mud abound, but nobody’s ever actually witnessed them moving so there is no official scientific explanation.  As a result, I have always wanted to see it for myself.  We took an hour break here for lunch, during which we walked the half-mile across the playa to where the majority of the rocks can be found.  They range in size from little pebbles to 150 pounds or more, and they don’t all move in the same direction; every rock has left a unique trail in the dried mud, some over a quarter-mile long!

Racetrack rocks range in size from pebbles . . .
. . . to boulders . . .
. . . to everything in between

While most visitors turn around here to enjoy those 28 miles of washboard road all over again, we continued onward and followed the 4x4-only route: Lippencott Pass.

This infamous trail isn’t difficult, but it’s not one for the faint of heart.  It is a very narrow, off-camber shelf road carved out of nothing more than loose rock.  There are numerous cliff-side washouts that afford the drivers straight-down views to the canyon floor below, where we’d surely wind up if we didn’t carefully watch our tire placement along the edge of the cliff.

At one point, our trail leader slammed her passenger-side front tire into a boulder while she was concentrating on the stability of a washed-out section of the road, and the sudden stop was violent enough to slam her arms against the steering wheel and causing some bruising, and also knocking her steering out of alignment.  A particularly scary moment occurred soon after as some more of the road started to crumble from beneath another one of our group’s Jeep’s tires when the driver got a little too close to the edge.  And another one of our group's Jeeps sliced its passenger-side front tire’s sidewall on a rock because he was hugging the high side of the trail a little too closely in an effort to keep the driver’s side tires from going off the cliff.  It takes some effort to enjoy the incredibly scenic views down the canyon and across the Saline Valley since so much of your attention must be focused on keeping your Jeep on the road!

Looking down into Saline Valley. Inyo Mountains in the distance.

We all had scuffed sidewalls from hugging the high side

Once we arrived in Saline Valley, we had an even longer washboarded road to drive.  From the near-90-degree temps at the valley floor’s elevation of 1,100 feet, we eventually climbed to 7,600 feet in the Inyo Mountain Range where we found snow.  Along the valley floor we passed salt marshes and countless washes.  We would have made Robby Gordon proud if he was there to witness us hitting the Baja-like silt beds at 70mph, hearing the tires sing as they churned through the powder and threw gigantic clouds of dust into the air that could be seen for miles.

Some of the long grades, combined with the additional load on the engine from soft tires and soft terrain made engine temps rise.  Our trail leader’s radiator cap blew its seal, so she rolled to a stop in a cloud of steam.  Since we needed to let her engine cool before the radiator would accept any more water, this was as good a time as any to regroup since miles had separated our group from front to back.  This was where the long-range communications afforded by ham radio far outshined the poor range of CB radios.

The HEMI-powered Jeep and a couple others were also running hot, so hoods went up as we took a break and inspected our vehicles.  I found that the rivets holding part of the retainer strap on my jerry can mount had broken due to my slightly overenthusiastic crossings of the washed-out sections of the road, but luckily I somehow hadn’t lost the entire jerry can.

After we got our leader's radiator topped up, we continued our climb to the top of the Inyo Mountains uneventfully, with the hot engines appreciating the slower pace and the much cooler temps.

We eventually reached pavement again, where we stopped with a gorgeous sunset over the Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada Range as we regrouped and aired our tires back up for the short drive down to dinner and our motel in the beautiful town of Big Pine, CA.

After a much-appreciated shower and a deep sleep, we had breakfast at the same wonderful diner at which we’d eaten dinner: The Country Kitchen.  We fueled up again and spent the day enjoying the sights on Highways 395 and 88.  It took about 8 hours to get back home, but the drive was relaxing and enjoyable.

We definitely want to return to Death Valley because there is so much more there to explore - we barely scratched the surface of everything the park has to offer, yet we wouldn’t want to miss running these same trails all over again!  A Jeep or a dual-sport motorcycle is definitely the way to visit the park, because a single-purpose vehicle limits where you can go and what you can see.  It’s unfortunate that we live so far away from Death Valley, but anytime a 3- or 4-day weekend presents itself, this is definitely a destination to put high on the list.

Be mindful that this is not a place to explore off-pavement alone and unprepared - the best trails take you dozens of miles from the nearest asphalt, so vehicular breakdown or simply getting lost could truly become a life-threatening occurrence.  At the bare minimum, even if like us you have an experienced guide leading you, you should carry Tom Harrison Maps' Death Valley National Park Recreation Map.

If you've never been to Death Valley before (and even if you have) you also really ought to bring one or all three of these offroad guidebooks: Guide to Southern California Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails and California Desert Byways: 68 of California's Best Backcountry Drives and California Trails Desert Region.  I own all of them and can vouch for how much information they provide, which really helps increase the amount of enjoyment you can get from a trip like this.  Plus, as an added benefit, each of these books also covers numerous other trails outside of Death Valley and can help you enjoy years of backcountry exploration.


  1. Enjoyed your story and pictures, I hope Colleen did a good job washing the Jeep for you after the trip! P.S. In my experience there is no such thing as the worst Denny's...they all suck. - Dad

  2. eToro is the most recommended forex trading platform for rookie and advanced traders.