Over the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend, Chris and I visited Death Valley and crammed in as much sightseeing as we could. It had been seven weeks since I’d done any hiking. Shortly after Thanksgiving I began having some pain in both knees which I think may be rheumatoid arthritis, and I just hadn’t felt like hiking since then. However, when the time came for our annual January trip to California, I was eager to get outdoors for some hiking and camping. A friend had heard about my trip plans and recommended that I read Death Valley in ’49, which really enriched the trip ’cause I had been completely unaware of the 49ers’ plight in the area. We left my house late Friday afternoon, stopping twice for fuel and once for “camping supplies,” and arrived at our planned campsite at the Pads just west of Death Valley Junction before midnight. We stayed up late, enjoying a camp fire and the aforementioned camping supplies.
I slept comfortably all night. On Saturday morning we headed into Death Valley National Park, first stopping at Zabriskie Point and then hiking to the natural bridge in a canyon not far from Badwater Basin.
Next we stopped at Badwater Basin and hiked onto the salt flat among a horde of other people. That would be the most people we’d see all weekend–the remaining places we visited were fairly remote and less visited. From Badwater, we headed back north and checked out Artist’s Drive and the Artist’s Palette, then visited the Borax Museum and the Harmony Borax Works at Furnace Creek.
After a quick stop at Stovepipe Wells, where I should have fueled up but didn’t ’cause I still had half a tank, we gained some elevation driving up into the Panamint Range. At the former settlement of Harrisburg we poked around some old buildings and mine tunnels. Farther up the road we enjoyed some very nice views into Death Valley from Aguereberry Point. In Wildrose Canyon we saw some large charcoal kilns. There were quite a few people there, including some women from Utah who had locked the keys in their Toyota pickup and received some help breaking in from another group at the parking area.
We’d hoped to make it to Ballarat before darkness came, but fell short. Instead, we kept driving south until we crossed into Searle’s Valley where we found some cell service. We were well outside the park and could enjoy another camp fire this night. We went to bed early and planned an early start the next morning. I slept poorly and developed a sore throat overnight, which plagued me the rest of the weekend. We awoke to find that we were camped on a huge tailings pile near some sort of quarry.
After breakfast and packing our gear, we headed back north into Panamint Valley and wandered around the old town of Ballarat. There are several old buildings, vehicles, and mining equipment nearby, as well as a cemetery. An old Dodge truck was purported to us by a resident of the town to have belonged to Charles Manson. The resident also told us about Manson’s name carved into a door frame inside the old jail, but the accompanying date is well after Manson was arrested and jailed.
From Ballarat we drove north toward Panamint Springs. I had planned on fueling up there, but fuel was an outrageous $4.50 a gallon (for comparison, it averaged $2.20 at home) and they didn’t take credit cards at the pump. I’d noticed that fuel was $3.15/gallon at Stovepipe Wells the previous day, and the computer on the Jeep estimated 37 miles left until the tank was empty, so we decided to risk taking the 30-mile drive to Stovepipe Wells, even though there was a steep mountain range between the two towns. We foolishly decided to detour a few miles down a dirt road just to see a couple of old abandoned cars, then got back on the highway where it climbed east over the Panamint Range. The remaining fuel range didn’t drop as quickly as I’d imagined during the drive up the mountain, but driving down the other side it dropped alarmingly fast. With 12 miles left before reaching Stovepipe Wells the computer said 0 miles to empty. We managed to make it to the station without running out of fuel, and surprisingly I could only squeeze 18 gallons into the tank (the owner’s manual says it will hold approximately 20 gallons). We left the park again briefly and visited the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada, and the nearby Goldwell Open Air Museum.
We re-entered Death Valley National Park via the one-way road through Titus Canyon. It was a very enjoyable drive with mining ruins, petroglyphs, and narrow, towering walls in the lower part of the canyon. We cruised toward the northern end of Death Valley and checked out Ubehebe Crater just before sundown, then headed south toward Racetrack Valley as it grew dark. It was fully dark when we reached Teakettle Junction, and we turned toward Hidden Valley to find a place to camp. With no cell service and no camp fire, we turned in very early that evening. It was eerily foggy and everything, including our sleeping bags, got soaked with condensation. I awoke in the night to relieve myself and noticed that the fog had cleared, but at our 5:30AM wake-up call it had returned.
On Monday morning our first order of business was to visit the nearby Lost Burro Mine. The road climbed about 500 feet in elevation, which put us just above the fog. We looked in some old mine buildings and tunnels that surprisingly still held many artifacts. A short hike from the mine put us on a ridgeline that separates Racetrack Valley and Hidden Valley. Both valleys were beautifully filled with fog.
We descended back into the fog and drove to the Racetrack. First we walked across the playa to the Grandstand, then drove a little farther south and found some rocks that had left tracks across the now-dried mud. On our way out of the valley, we stopped at the Ubehebe Mine, where there were several mine tunnels with tracks still lying in place along their bottoms. That was our final stop of the trip. From there we headed back toward Utah, getting to my house at around 9PM. We’d driven 1,400 miles (about 400 miles of which were in and around the park) and seen and done a lot in three days. It wasn’t the usual getaway from cold, snowy weather at home since we’ve had such a dry and mild winter, but it was still nice seeing some new country and hiking after so many weeks of being sedentary.
Photo Gallery: Death Valley