Down the Heart of Death Valley

Hottest (not this time of year), Driest (not this trip), Lowest (check that)

Dec. 3rd-9th, 2014

88 miles walked, 79 with pack, 9 without

“Death Valley!  Why?” was the standard reply when I told people that was where my next desert trip was going to be.  Fair question and, almost to a person, from folks who had never been there but had just heard or read about it.  Me too, I have walked a lot in the desert and traversed much more by car but had never been to this huge spread of the Basin and Range province and Mojave Desert.

Always in the back of my brain but sparked by this trip report that Bob found nearly ten years ago I slowly started doing research on possible trips in this massive park, the largest national park in the lower 48 states (3.4 million acres).  More thoughts and information on trip planning at the end of this report but two general logistical issues 1) there are very few water sources and essentially no natural water sources on the valley floors 2) much of the park is not accessible without a high clearance vehicle which makes dropping water in advance not very practical.

I decided that a walk down the valley, something like the trip report above, would give us a good introduction and maybe the quintessential DV experience but what does “walking down the valley” really mean?  Within the park, the valley stretches something like 175 miles from the head of Death Valley wash in the Last Chance range in the north to the Saddle Peak Hills in the south.  Only 108 off those miles are accessible from paved roads and the lower 33 of that are along a gravel road which I was not interested in walking down.  That left around 75 miles down most of the heart of the valley.

To make it more of a total picture of the park I wanted to include some time in one of the many canyons that drop out of the mountains on either side of the valley and Bighorn Gorge appeared to be the obvious choice for location and spectacular features.

The call went out and because of schedule conflicts only Mark was available for an early December trip.  He too had never been to DV but was very interested in its possibilities.  We had not walked together since the arduous 2011 Big Bend trip and this one loomed equally difficult, he was game.

One of the convenient parts of DV is that it is only two hours from Las Vegas so one should have an easy time getting there.  Dec. 2nd we left the farm at 4:00 a.m. for a 6:00 flight that would put us into LV at 8:30 Pacific time but after mechanical problems and exceedingly slow baggage claim we walked out of the airport 3 hours behind schedule.  The days are short this time of year and we had to hustle to get our caches dropped.

We knew that a storm system was moving in today and as we arrived at Furnace Creek at 2:00 the bulk of the precipitation had just moved through dropping almost a half an inch, more than one third the yearly total and the first rain since summer, and water was running across the roads everywhere.  We still had to drive 40 more miles up valley to drop a water and food cache and the flash flooding across the roads made travel very slow.  3:30 we pull over at milepost 23 on the Scotty’s Castle road, in a light rain we walk a mile down the alluvial fan to DV wash and drop 5 gallons of water and two days food.  As we climb back up to the car it is getting dark and too late to drop our 2nd food cache at the Visitor center at Stovepipe Wells.  We retreat to the Furnace Creek Ranch and get a room so we can sort and pack equipment in a dry and lit place instead of the campground.  Little did we know how much this moisture would tint the whole trip.

Dec. 3rd Trail Day One

Still on East coast time we were at breakfast at 6:00, finished packing and checked out by 7:30 for the 50 mile round trip to Stovepipe Wells (SPW) to drop more food.  Turns out the visitor center is irregularly manned so we went to the General Store where we were warmly greeted and they gladly took our bag and put it in the cooler.

Back to Furnace Creek visitor center for a permit and to continue the process of trying to find a ride up to the start at Ubehebe Crater.  The volunteers were somewhat skeptical of our plan but accepted it.  We tried at the restaurants, general store, gas station and reservation desk to find someone who wanted to make some extra money to shuttle us but no takers.  Not much traffic at the visitor center so we just went out on the highway and stuck out our thumbs.  Minutes later a wonderful couple picked us up who were headed to the Racetrack and could drop us at Ubehebe as they drove past.

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As we climbed the nearly 3000 feet up the valley the clouds got lower and then the rain started.  11:00 we got out at the crater overlook in 30 mph winds and clouds with a light rain/drizzle, auspicious start.  Clouds so thick you could not see down into the crater.

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The original plan was to head north down a wash into the badlands that are the remains of ancient lake Rogers at the northern tip of the Cottonwood mountains, intersect the Death Valley wash and then follow it south and cross the Ubehebe Crater road.  Because we were running late and the weather was so awesome we instead walked 2.5 miles back down the road to the DV wash and then headed south.

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With temperatures in the 50’s and light precipitation we had to keep moving to stay warm and there was no dry place to stop for lunch anyway.  This is not overhang/alcove country but we did find one sheltered spot to take a rest out of the drizzle.

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We had planned to camp about a mile or so north of Mesquite Springs campground but were running ahead of schedule.  We walked through the campground to fill up with water for the next 2 plus days, 9 quarts.  On down wash for a mile or so and we find a nice spot for camp.  The rain had now ended but the sky was still very cloudy and there were a few huge mosquitoes!  8.8 miles today.

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Dec. 4, Trail Day Two

Started at 12:30 when it began to sprinkle again.  We had brought a tiny 6X8 tarp just in case and quickly put it up and scrunched up under it for a few more hours sleep.  56 degrees the low.

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By the time we were packing up it was beginning to clear and look like a beautiful day.

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We were going down wash a few miles then up to Bighorn Gorge (BHG) which can be seen on the left with a small cloud peeking out of its mouth.

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9:00 we start the climb up the alluvial fan on the south side of the main BHG wash, up on the flats where the walking is much less rocky.

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The alluvial fans are one of the striking features of DV in their prominence and scale as they pour out from the mouths of the many canyons.

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Steep and steady with something like a 7% grade.  1000’ elevation gain in 3.5 miles to the narrow mouth of BHG.

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Early lunch and we drop some water to pick up on the way down tomorrow before we head on up canyon on an equally steep grade to the main side canyon coming in from the south by 2:00.  9.4 miles today, high in the 60’s.  We find a campsite up on a bench between the two canyons.

I go up the side canyon to explore and immediately climb a short pouroff and then run into a much larger one that I climb around to a ridge and decide not to continue further.  The geology here is very raw, like the rocks were just expelled from the earth.

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Enjoyable evening with some stars, the nearly full moon and a heavy dew.

Dec. 5, Trail Day Three

46 degrees the low and it has clouded back up.  The view down canyon from our camp.

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And the view up the main side canyon.

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We fill day packs and head up BHG proper, soon encountering the short climbs in the 3rd and 4th narrows

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and the many fossilized shells in the gray polished limestone walls

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and the parts of bighorn sheep that met their demise.

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It spits a bit of rain now and then as we make our way up through the 2nd narrows

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to the beginning of the 1st set of narrows below the ultimate 60’ pouroff.

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Our plan had been to climb the bypass and then go on up O’Brien canyon.  We back tracked to what we thought was the bypass and started up as it looked as if others had done so.  It was very loose and looked long and arduous.

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We paused, considered the weather and decided it was not worth it today and headed back down canyon.  As it turns out we had started up the wrong talus slope anyway and would have been really pissed if we had continued all the way up.

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Back down canyon the clouds dropped even lower as we neared camp.

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We packed up and walked back to the mouth of BHG, retrieved our water stash and then had a long lunch at the top of the alluvial fan, taking in the limited views south to Mesquite Flat.

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After lunch we started the long walk down the rocky fan in a southeasterly direction towards DV wash and our cache, dropping about 5 miles until we could find a tiny, less rocky, spot to roll out the sleeping bags.  9 miles with packs today and 5 more without.

Here is a map of the original plan for the first 3 days

Dec. 6, Trail Day 4

52 degrees the low and it finally appears to be clearing up with just a few clouds still hanging over the mountains.

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Early sun on the Grapevine mountains, did I say it was a rocky campsite?

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The long look back up the alluvial fan towards the mouth of BHG and the nearly 9000’ Tin Mountain.

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Another mile down the fan to DV wash and then about a mile down wash to our cache which we manage to walk right up to without using the GPS.  We take a good break to refill water and food and to drop the tarp and rain gear that we should no longer need.  These are the heaviest packs of the trip, mine at about 33# with 9 qts. of water and 2 days of food.

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We angle back south across the many small braids of the DV wash to get back to the main western arm that cuts the bottoms of the alluvial fans dropping out of the Cottonwood mountains, good walking in the wash and we make good time.  A shady lunch spot with the day’s highs in the upper 70’s.

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As we near the toe of the huge Dry Bone canyon fan the wash becomes more big mud flats as it spills into Mesquite Flat and we are looking for the old Westside trail that crosses the wash here.  We finally realize we are actually walking down it and adjust our eyes to fine details of where it runs.

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We follow the trail/road  southwest around the west side of the Niter Beds and closer to the Cottonwood mountains.  Hard to tell if the Niter Beds are actually deposits of Nitrate or Salt Peter as used in fertilizer or gunpowder but they are a vast area of white material.  A nice sunset from camp over the Niter Beds.  14.5 miles today.

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Dec. 7, Trail Day 5

Full Moon last night and a low of 46 degrees with an incredibly heavy dew along with more mosquitoes.

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A pleasant sunrise over the Funeral mountains

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Mark enjoys his tea from the warmth of the damp sleeping bag.

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While the sleeping bags are drying a bit I walk way out into the Niter Beds to see what is there.  Camp with the Cottonwoods behind.

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The view north over the Niter Beds with the big Dry Bone fan on the other side and the Grapevines behind.

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We make great time around the rest of the Niter Beds and as the old road turns more due south, to go around the sand dunes and connect up with the Cottonwood canyon road, we strike off on a beeline to Stovepipe Wells (SPW) across the toe of another alluvial fan with very a easy walking surface.  You can barely see SPW left of center in the haze at the base of Tucki mountain, 7 miles away.

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As we near the northern edge of the sand dunes we stop for lunch in one of the few spots of shade, SPW getting closer.  It has become more overcast so the temperatures were very pleasant.

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We cut across the dunes between the biggest ones further east and some larger ones west.  The dunes we did walk through were around 20 feet high and the walking was fairly firm and easy, maybe from the recent rains.

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Originally we were going to camp just north of the dunes but as we were running a half a day ahead of schedule we pushed on through to our resupply at SPW by 2:00.  The last 2 days of food and 7 quarts of water.  Back walking by 3:00 we have a 3 mile road walk past the big dunes to a spot near the Little Bridge canyon wash where we head up the incredibly rocky hill towards the power line that runs from SPW to Furnace Creek.

We reach the power line and begin to look for a somewhat flat and less rocky place to roll out the bags.  16.2 miles our longest day and we have a good sunset over the big dunes and the Cottonwoods.

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Dec. 8, Trail Day 6, we are headed under “water”

51 degrees the low and we wake to a clear morning with at least a 50 mile view north to the Last Chance range and from where we started.

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Did I mention it was rocky?  Camp amongst the baby head rocks with Tucki mountain behind.

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Today’s route would follow the power line east and south around Tucki mountain and down towards Cottonball basin.  For the first time in days we would have new views.  East across the Salt Creek hills with the Grapevines on the left and the Funeral mountains on the right.

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Seems a bit unorthodox, following a set of power poles but, where it exists, the barest track that remains from building of the line is somewhat less rocky and easier walking.  Can you spot the “road”?

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After a foot pounding 7 miles we drop below sea level for the rest of the trip and find a tiny patch of shade for lunch in the mid 80’s temperatures.  Post lunch we dropped down to the edge of the salt marsh of Cottonball basin.  We eventually find the old road but it is hardly easy walking across the salt heaved soil, at least there are fewer rocks.

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We reach the salt springs near the old West Side Borax Camp and I walk out across the salt crusted ground amongst the pickle plants that can live with high salts

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to some of the pools to look for the rare Pupfish that live in the briny waters, no sign.

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We work our way around the hills that border the marsh and reconnect with the power line at the base of the Tucki wash fan.  No sign of a road and yet more really rocky ground.  We slog on for a few more miles and stop a bit early at one of the few flattish spots we come across.  Hard day at 12.8 miles.

Dec. 9, Trail Day 7

46 degrees the low and again an incredibly heavy dew but a beautiful morning with the moon setting over the Panamints

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And the sun rising over Cottonball marsh.

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We head off down the power line and the walking gets much less rocky and we make great time to where it turns sharply northeast and runs across the salt flats towards Furnace Creek.  Our original thought was to continue on down the western edge of Middle Basin and the Devils Golf Course to the Westside Road (different from the old Westside Trail across Mesquite Flat).  That would mean 11 more miles to the road and then probably 4 more out to the paved Badwater road or we could cut across the valley for 4 miles and be done.

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I had looked at it on Google Earth and it looked feasible but the ranger gasped when I suggested it.  We figured we would soon know if it was possible and if not then a long afternoon was in store.  Off we went across the firmish but a bit slick salty flats that look like a cross between a freshly plowed field and a cattle feed lot.

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In a mile the crux would be actually crossing Salt Creek which was flowing well (with salt water) but turned out easy with both the remnants of the old corduroy/log road and some small rough bridges.  Mark crossing at the lowest point of the walk at -272 feet below sea level.

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Another mile across some salt crusted ground and then we skirted north to the edge of the Furnace creek property so as to not encroach on the Timbisha Shishone village.

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By noon we were standing at the reservation desk for the motel, trip done!  8.3 miles today.  Before showers we walked on down to the visitor center to retrieve the car and check back in with the rangers which is not required but they did greet us as “those guys walking the length of the valley”.  Beers, showers, beers, lunch, drying equipment, beers, dinner.  A good night’s sleep without mosquitoes.

Here is the map for the last 4 days of the original plan

Dec. 10, Tourist Day

Up early to retrieve our cache which is still a 2 mile roundtrip to the DV wash and back, the arrow points to the car on the Scotty’s Castle road.

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We check out the Salt Creek Trail, still no Pupfish (wrong season) and Harmony Borax works (this is the classic 20 mule team rig)

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Before we stop for lunch and a visit with the resident Road Runner.

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In the afternoon we head south, taking a detour down the Westside Road to check out Devils Golf Course.

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The mandatory stop at the lowest point in the U.S. (which is actually further out into the salt flats) with snowcapped 11,000 foot Telescope Peak in the background.

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On the way back to the car we notice a sign high up of the cliff that says “Sea Level”

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As we head back north we take the Artists Drive and stop to take in the colorful Artists Palette, with a new front moving in the colors were not as vibrant as they could be but amazing all the same.

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Before driving back to Las Vegas we made the impressive stop at Dante’s View, 5700 feet above Badwater (the white line in the lower center of the picture).  While this is not a very good panorama of the Badwater Basin and north, it does give you an idea of the scale of the area.

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Back to LV by dark and fly home the next morning.

Trip Planning notes and thoughts on Death Valley

While massive, DV is not really very well suited to long backpacking trips for the reasons I stated at the beginning, water and accessibility.  If you do a search for Death Valley Backpacking Trip Reports you will get very little info but there are three good sources of information.

As for maps, the Trails Illustrated Map is really only suited for getting a grasp on the large scale picture and lay of the land.  I used Gmap4 for route planning both for drawing and measuring routes and for also viewing the route in the satellite view.  I also viewed some areas closer for more detail in Google Earth.  For actual maps carried during the trip I used CalTopo which is very easy to save 7.5 minute scale maps as PDF’s and then have them printed out.  I had the entire route printed on 6 double sided sheets on 11”X17” paper at FedEx for $15.

For supplemental navigation we did use the Holux M-241 GPS data logger a few times to get exact locations (like for the food and water cache) and to record mileage.  We also took a couple of compass bearings when we were headed directly cross country but mostly you could always see where you were headed.

The weather was obviously a bit unusual but in general doing a valley floor trip is most comfortably done November through February.  There can be chances of very high wind events later up into the spring.  The days will be short no matter when you might go in the winter with only really a half an hour difference in daylight between December and February.

This was a good trip but I did not warm up to Death Valley.  Those of us who walk in the desert generally have a “home” desert that we first fell in love with and mine is clearly the Chihuahuan and Big Bend National Park, Mark’s place is the Grand Canyon with over 30 trips there.  DV is on a massive, huge, grand, impressive scale.  I expected that and looked forward to it.  Mark, who has spent much time in Alaska, said that it was on that kind of immense scale.  I think it is a place, like the Grand Canyon, that everyone should see at least once to begin to understand large places and feel small in the world.

At least in the main valley we never really felt solitude because we could almost always see a car, especially at night, even when as many as 7 miles from the nearest road.  There is also a great deal of jet traffic/noise from either military or civilian planes.  While the night sky is one of the best I have seen it is not as dark as some (like Big Bend) partly due to the lights of Las Vegas clearly visible on the eastern horizon.

I believe that DV National Park is probably best suited for those with 4 wheel drive or high clearance vehicles (there are more than 1300 miles of roads) and for day hikes.  It does appear that the focus for many regular visitors are hikes up into the many canyons, some of which can be done as overnights and a very few of them have some water too.  It is a very rough and raw landscape and probably the rockiest walking I have ever done especially the alluvial fans.  It is also so dry that there is not very much alive out there, either plant life or wildlife.  I came out unscratched, unheard of for a desert trip and we only saw a few coyotes, ravens and other animal sign.  I am glad we went, had a great walk and I encourage others to go see what is there.

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5 Responses to Down the Heart of Death Valley

  1. Caleb Boyle says:

    Hey Alex,
    Great report on your trip through DV! I enjoyed your photographs and your narrative about the geologic features of the valley– quite the harsh environment.

    If you need a backpacking partner for a winter trip here in the southern apps please hollar!

    Caleb Boyle
    (calebmboyle at gmail)

  2. Cindy says:

    Nice! I love Death Valley and go there every couple years to hike. Nice photos!

  3. Joanne Williams says:

    In 1972 my friend Anita Perrot and I walked the full length of Death Valley during the summer. At that time Death Valley was a National Monument and was approximately 172 miles in length. We started south of Saratoga Springs at the southern monument border, walked through the valley stopping at Furnace Creek Ranch for a couple of days and continued on to the then northern boundary, which as since been greatly expanded. Our walk took 7 days and ended on August 7, 1972. It was a long time ago and we have long been forgotten. But the story was covered around the world in newspapers and on t.v. at the time. Two women and Death Valley- it was an amazing and challenging opportunity!

    • Joanne, thank you so much for contacting me about your and Anita’s amazing walk. I cannot imagine doing it in the summer, you are two tough people for sure. I will try to find more sources of info as the few newspaper references I found have just a few lines.

      • Jo says:

        I remember a full coverage article in the Las Vegas Sun and the Orange County Register. I have saved some of the newspaper articles, they are getting rather yellowed with age, but still fun to look at from time to time. “You Are Another Myself”

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