Thursday, Feb 24, 2011
As usual this time of year, Matt and I have been dreaming of sunshine and warmer temps. We were intrigued by Death Valley on our last return from the southwest. Thanks to our great friends, Cathy and Rick, we had read Death Valley in ’49 by William Lewis Manly. One of our goals this trip was to reconstruct his route as he and the Arcane and Bennett families struggled across Death Valley as gold rush pioneers in 1849. By the way, Manly’s book is a great read for anyone interested in life as a single male adventurer in our country during the 1800s.
Day one of the trip, or rather, night one, began at 9 p.m. as soon as I got home from work. We left Salem in driving rain hoping to get to the coast before a predicted late season snow storm decended on the Willamette Valley. We drove to Bandon, arriving 1am and camped the remainder of the night in a friend’s driveway near Bandon Beach.
Next morning we had a delightful breakfast at The Minute Café in Old Town Bandon with our dear friend, Bob, and then headed south on 101. Highway 101 courses through the redwoods in southern OR and northern CA, so it’s a stunning drive even in the rain. Pushing hard to stay in front of the storm mass close on our heels, we spent our second night in a rest area off Hwy 99 south of Stockton. The steady rain masked the traffic noise.
Saturday, Feb 26, 2011
We headed east over Tehachapi Pass with no difficulties, then cut north and east to Ridgecrest along Hwy 14 and Hwy 178 into Panamint Valley. Our conversations were increasingly about the likely route followed by Manly and Rogers as they hiked out of Death Valley after leaving the Arcane and Bennett families at Furnace Springs. They promised to return with supplies after finding a route to CA the others could survive. Astonishingly, they succeeded and no lives were lost in the Bennett/Arcane party. Other pioneers in Death Valley at the same time were not so lucky!
As we entered the southern end of Panamint Valley, we watched a huge sandstorm develop just east of us in Searles Valley. Its course paralleled ours until we saw the leading edge disappear over a pass through the Slate Range. As we traveled further north then cut east through the Panamint Valley, the sandstorm reappeared to the south and east of us, funneling up the same valley. It was an awesome sight as it filled the southern horizon and began to blot out the mountain ranges on each side.
Fortunately, we were able to stay in front of the growing sandstorm while crossing the Panamint Mountains and descending into Death Valley. Visibility was poor all around due to the sandstorm behind us, increasing clouds from the west piling up over the Panamints, and clouds moving in from the south over the Amargosa and Grapevine Ranges on our east side.
We settled into Mesquite Springs campground at the north end of Death Valley (not far from Scotty’s Castle).
The winds were quite fierce and cold, and rain began falling sometime in the night. By morning the rain was alternating with snow and hail. By the time we got moving from camp, snow was continuous and blanketing the ground. We drove to Scotty’s Castle for some photos, but, between the cold wind and the slushy snow, we didn’t spend much time out of doors. Still, it seems very fortuitous that we could see the valley during a snowstorm!
Afterwards, we traveled the highway south to check out Furnace Springs, which is a total geek hole. We caught some sun in the southernmost part of the valley, and the temps rose to the 50s briefly; but the winds remained so strong that we were either inhibited by the cold or by the dust clouds swirling from the sand dunes. There would be no hiking today.
We circumnavigated the valley in a spectacular drive, coming to rest again at Mesquite Springs. Although it will be cold tonight, the rain and snow should end. We have high hopes for hiking tomorrow.
Feb 27, Sunday
Our first hike was around Ubehebe crater and Little Hebe crater. Not really a hike but more of a stroll, yet the scenery was spectacular. Ubehebe crater is a volcanic pit with impressive colored and crevassed walls. It is surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides. The air feels and looks clean and clear, and the remoteness and the varied topography are both inspiring and soothing to the soul. I was surprised by my response to Ubehebe as I thought it would be boring. Quite the contrary, I felt a release of tension and a calming sense of “peace and tranquility” (it even looked like a moonscape).
From Ubehebe crater, we drove to the Titus Canyon entrance off Scotty’s Castle Road. Titus Canyon is a popular hike in the Grapevine Mountains of the Amargosa Range on the east side of northern Death Valley. Titus Canyon, however, has a one-way dirt road accessible from Beatty NV, (east of Death Valley), that traverses its entire length. We felt there was too much potential for overuse. However, Fall Canyon just north of Titus could also be accessed from the Titus trailhead, so we headed for it.
Our major hiking guide is Hiking Death Valley by Michel Digonnet, and we highly recommend it to anyone interested in Death Valley. He describes in good detail many hikes, and he has a special interest in the geology and origins of Death Valley. Reading about the different rock formations and then finding them for real in your surroundings adds another layer of intrigue while hiking. This is a good thing, because there are practically no animals to distract you and very little vegetation as well. You have to admire the sturdy plants and critters that do manage to survive these extreme conditions.
The hike into Fall Canyon was mildly arduous but well worth the effort. Hiking was slowed by the loose gravel of the canyon floor, as well as our poor winter conditioning. The canyon is nothing less than spectacular with towering rock walls and lots of twisting corridors and overhangs. The hike seemed long, and just when we were about to falter, the fall for which the canyon is named appeared. It’s a vertical 18 ft slick rock that looked too technical for us to free climb, but there is a bypass. The bypass involved a short but easy free climb, then a traverse over a narrow ledge that rises gradually about 25 feet, and finally a climb down into the wash above the fall.
Having accomplished our goal of reaching the main fall, we stopped for lunch and a brief rest. Above the fall is a narrows where the towering walls pinch in towards each other, deeply shading the canyon floor. Here we found fanciful white stone intrusions in the base rock that looked almost like hieroglyphics.
The hike back out of Fall Canyon went a lot faster and easier as it’s all downhill. Although the slope is gradual, the loose gravel took its toll on our quads and calves. All in all, it was an immensely satisfying first hike in Death Valley.
Monday Feb 28
Today we began by leaving Mesquite Springs campground and driving to Beatty NV to fuel up, do laundry, buy food, and most importantly, shower. It’s a long way from Death Valley to anywhere. We breakfasted in Beatty, did our chores, ate a dynamite lunch at KC’s Outpost and returned to DV in time to hike Desolation Canyon. This hike was only slightly over 3 hours but was incredible!
The canyon is indeed desolate of vegetation and living creatures (although we did see a small lizard). But it is composed of sandstone and clay walls that curve and carve a deep channel winding always upward for a couple miles. The surface was much firmer than Fall Canyon and easier to walk. There were a few falls to free climb that were fun but not frightening.
The real delight was at the end of the trail where we climbed onto a ridge ~1000ft above the valley floor. The vistas in every direction were indescribable. This hike only took 3+ hours-just right after yesterday’s 5 hr hike.
Mar 1 Tuesday
Monarch Canyon was the goal today. The first hour of the hike is trailess-just head out across the desert, following the advice of our guidebook, Hiking in Death Valley. It was fun to walk the desert and view the plants, yet easy to avoid the occasional cholla and prickly pear cacti threats. This hike we saw more wildlife sign than any other hike yet. Not surprising since the main attraction is a perennial waterfall and spring. We heard birds we never saw. We were buzzed by a hummingbird. We saw several small lizards and one fast little runner we couldn’t identify-a small rabbit or ground squirrel?
As we moved deeper into the canyon, the walls became a veritable mosaic of different rocks, tilted and jumbled and marvelously discordant. There were two short waterfalls to clamber up, then we came to an impassable 110ft waterfall.
It’s like magic to see actual pools of water in the desert. At the bottom of the lowest pool we could see part of a skeletal backbone and ribs and near the upper pool was a partial skull-clearly a bighorn sheep. We also saw butterflies. Lots of anthills and communities of ground holes littered the canyon floor and wash. We could only guess what occupants resided within–rabbits, ground squirrels, foxes—snakes???
4.5 hours in and out with lunch at the waterfall made for a near perfect day. Desert hiking is hard on the feet and the knees, I’m finding out. After our canyon hike, we drove over the Panamint Mountains into Panamint Valley to look at Ballarat ghost town as a possible campsite, but we didn’t like the looks of it. We returned to Wildrose Campground in Death Valley NP where we could camp for free. Only one other van was spending the night so we were pretty much alone with a gorgeous view through the pass toward the west and the sun setting behind the Inyo Mountains.
Wed Mar 2
To my dismay, my left knee developed aching and mild swelling after three days of hiking, so we decided a day off was appropriate. After a leisurely breakfast, we drove to the charcoal kilns located just a few miles from Wildrose. Charcoal was used to process silver ore. http://www.flickr.com/photos/8524489@N07/536474600
The kilns are startlingly odd in their beehive appearance and isolated location in the pinyon pine forest on Wildrose Mountain. It was just a gorgeously perfect sunny warm day, and the picture taking opportunities here were great fun.
We spent the rest of the day driving the length of Death Valley to the south and then west up Warm Springs Canyon Road. This dirt road to Warm Springs was 10+miles of very rough gravel and rocks. The Ruby Slipper valiantly plowed on but, at a pace of 10-12 mph, it seemed forever before we reached the Warm Springs site. It used to be a talc mining camp, and there were abandoned buildings, a large spring, a neglected nasty swimming pool (nice camp in its day) and some mining equipment to view. When we arrived, there were 6 motorcycle guys who left shortly thereafter. Within 10-15 minutes, a caravan of three 4WD vehicles arrived, clearly intent on spending the night, so we rode the dusty trail back to the main highway and returned to Wildrose Campground. The distances are so extreme, and the roads (except the main paved ones) so rough, it takes a long time to get anywhere.
Thursday Mar 3
My knee feels much better after the rest, so we picked Darwin Springs for our last hike before leaving DVNP. So glad we did because it turned out to be the best yet! Darwin Springs is actually in the Panamint Valley (although still part of DVNP) in the Argus Range. We had concerns because the access road, although gravel, is relatively short (3 miles), and the hike into the first waterfall and springs is rated as very popular and frequently visited. Fortunately, we started relatively early, carrying our breakfast with us and reached the first waterfall in solitude.
The first waterfall is only a 1.5-2mile hike on pretty nice surface most of the way. There are a few short crosses over the creek, but they’re easy to make. We listened to cactus wrens sing and watched goldfinches bathe in the shallow creekbed. The sound of water is magical in this desolate country.
The real miracle of Darwin Springs lies up canyon from the first waterfall. There are a couple of boulder climbs necessary. They are a little technical but not difficult. Most people don’t climb them. They have no idea what they missed.
Within a very short distance are two back to back waterfalls that drop between steep slickrock boulders and towering walls– absolutely beautiful.
Beyond these two waterfalls, a tiny spray of water barely visible hinted of even a third. It was necessary to climb about 60 feet up a loose rock talus, then walk around a ledge and down a short series of rocks to arrive at the top of the 2 waterfalls, where the third towering waterfall dominates in all its grandeur. It is truly mindblowing.
There remain so many canyons and hikes we didn’t have time for, and many more we couldn’t access without 4WD. I feel we had a good introduction to this marvelously unique world, but now it’s time to say “Good-bye Death Valley.”