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By Dave Boyer

Death Valley has become a favorite winter destination since I purchased my van in late 2005. With most of the High Sierra Nevada Mountain Range closed off due to snow, Death Valley usually offers a mild climate alternative. I always look forward to a desert region trip with a buddy and to meet up with friends for some off road exploration is always welcome.

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Normally I try to set up an annual trip just after Christmas and visit the desert during the New Year’s week. But this time I would miss out on bringing in the New Year at Death Valley because my van was in the shop waiting for some upgrades to be added. This is something we SMB owners seem to schedule on a regular basis and things at the shop were taking a bit longer than anticipated. Ever hear the phrase “A boat is a hole in the water that one pours money into”, well buy a SMB. It seems that I just keep tweaking my ride. I was anxious to check out some new high intensity lighting SMB added to assist the large LED light bar I had installed last summer that allows me to travel most any terrain at night. With the van being in the shop for a few weeks, and missing my annual desert run, I went into shaking withdrawals and needed a four wheel drive fix ASAP.

One of the Sportsmobile Forum members Steve contacted me and asked if I wanted to join him and another member Craig to do a number of runs both inside and outside Death Valley Park during late January or early February. Thankfully fuel prices were below 3 bucks a gallon, making  it easy on the pocketbook as well. It looked like the van’s upgrades would be completed by then so we set up the trip. I again asked my good friend Don who is also member of the Sportsmobile Forum group to join me. Don also knows Steve and Craig and we both have made a few trips together that I’ve posted about on this site.

This year’s precipitation around Death Valley happened to be heavier than normal with several storms hitting the park and the surrounding region. A weather front that was colder than normal had passed through a couple of weeks prior to our visit and deposited snow in several areas that we planned to visit. Of course I never realized how low the snow would accumulate. I mean I’ve seen it snow within the parks boundary, but not as low as this particular year. It was lucky that we missed the storms by about a week but in reality I would like have been crossing Mengel Pass when it snowed.

As it was, this would be the best trip into Death Valley to date.

Areas or trails visited:

1. Nor-Cal to Inyokern.

2. Mesquite Canyon Trail.

3. Last Chance Canyon Trail.

4. Trona Pinnacles.

5. Slate Range Trail.

6. Mengel Pass Trail.

7. Warm Springs Canyon to Monarch Canyon.

8. Chloride City Trail.

9, Echo Canyon

10. Racetrack Road.

11. Darwin Falls Trail.

 

Off to Inyokern:

I picked up Don and left out of the California Central Valley on Wednesday January 27th. We took highway 99 to Lake Isabella, following highway 178 to our first destination. On the way up 99 I saw a cool limo passing by.

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Nice color match IMO.

 

 

 

 

Highway 178 is kind of a nice drive, especially this time of year.

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While crossing the pass, we came across our snow just outside Lake Isabella. The snow made for some nice pictures.

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Mesquite Canyon Trail:

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Located close to the city of Inyokern just west of highway 395 on Highway 178, the Mesquite Canyon Trail starts off as a partially paved route just off Browns road which can be found within the city limits of Inyokern. The trailhead was a bit difficult to find but we managed to locate it using the GPS maps I had.

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The road soon turns to solid dirt and travels over flat ground that is dotted with typical high desert plants but excludes Joshua or Yucca trees. Soon the trail begins to pass over low lying hills as it becomes more remote.

The sun was setting fast and we would have to set up camp at night.

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Not too far up the trail, you’ll come to Sheep Springs. Arriving a day earlier than the rest of the group, we had hoped to find the Sheep Springs camp unoccupied. Being so close to Inyokern I was a bit apprehensive, but luckily it was empty. As an added bonus there was a rock fire pit and a couple of tables at the camp. Sheep Spring itself is actually active and usually has water flowing out of it, but I don’t know if it’s potable. After setting up camp in the dark we prepared for the evening. The night was cold and a bit windy, so after discussing the next days run while sipping on a few adult beverages inside the shelter of the van. We finished off the night with supper and ended our long travel day with duly needed sleep.

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Waking up on Thursday morning I was surprised to find an SUV in the camp. They had cameras out and were up on the ridge above us. I was also surprised to see what the surrounding area looked like. It was not like I expected.

The Cottonwood trees make the area look different than any other spot along the trail. It was definitely a natural camp and kind of “oasis” like. Before heading out on the trail we pulled out the Backcountry Adventures Southern California Book by Peter Massey and Jeanne Wilson. The trail is designated Sheep Spring Trail, Central Mountains #25. We did find the spring.

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The camp outlined in the book is a fine place to stay at especially because of the trees, but what makes it really unique are the numerous petroglyphs around the camp pecked into the volcanic looking rock. The native Indians typically marked areas pointing to spots that had game or water but the cliffs also offer a high point as a lookout. It was a no-brainer why early man sought out this spot.

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After milling around the area for a while looking at the petroglyphs, we headed out to complete the trail. The trail is marked as EP-26 (El Paso 26) for most of the route  but joins  or crosses other trails along the way. EP-26 runs through the El Paso Mountains and is a fairly scenic run.

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The trail is somewhat sandy on the way into the camp but changes after that. Its difficulty rating is only “3” according to the book, but this trail is not recommended for standard long wheel base low clearance two wheel drive vehicles.

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In fact  I had a  couple of  spots that gave  way along shelf  sections of the trail which raised  my  blood  pressure a bit.   For the most part  the trail stays well marked and generally appears as the main path.SONY DSC

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After passing through some of the shelf portions of the trail, it dropped over a steep wash that was questionable because of the rain and snow that had passed through a week or so earlier. I was unable to approach the steep angle correctly and dragged my tail end fairly hard but made it through. A regular body van would not have a problem at all. After that point on, the trail was very easy going.

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We passed a couple of camps, one being the Colorado camp. This area is dotted with mines and was once a hot spot for gold seekers. The background scenery was really nice.

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After passing Gerbracht camp, the Mesquite Canyon Trail joins up with the Burro Schmidt Tunnel Trail, (Central Mountains #24), and actually passes through Mesquite Canyon.

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This is arguably the most interesting part of the trail mainly because you’re driving in a wash.

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The route ends up on the Randsburg-Red Rock road which is a paved thoroughfare that leads east to the town of Garlock, or highway 395. Traveling west will take you to Highway 14 or in our case, the trailhead of Last Chance Canyon where we planned to meet up with Steve.

Last Chance Canyon Trail:

Last Chance Canyon Trail has been on my list of to do’s for a couple of years. Designated Central Mountains #23 in the Backcountry adventures book, the trail has a difficulty rating of five. That’s about the highest limit of difficulty I want to go with a vehicle as big as an SMB. What we didn’t know was what the recent storms had done to the trail but would soon find out. I’m not going to spend too much time discussing this trail because we were about to fail miserably. The plan was to link back up to the route Don and I had just ran, The Sheep Spring trail. It would never happen.

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The trail is located about 6 miles northeast of Ca highway 14 on the Randsburg-Red Rock road. When we got to the trailhead, Steve and his buddy Robert were waiting for us. After Steve introduced Robert to us, we made up some quick plans, aired down and were on our way heading towards the hills. The trail starts off flat on easy ground and basically we didn’t need four wheel drive.

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That quickly changed as we entered the wash. The canyon walls are not as vertical as some found in DV, but you’re still driving in a wash and this one had water flowing in spots.

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It wasn’t long before Steve was pulled over looking at a tough section of the trail blocked by large rocks. We all agreed to take another path and as Steve took the secondary route, it looked to me that he wasn’t  in four wheel drive.

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After traveling for a good distance in the wash, Steve found a sandy section of the trail and buried his rig.

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The next hour or so, we winched and pulled his rig out of harms way. As much as we tried, it seemed the front axle would not engage so the plan changed from adventure to recovery; we scrubbed our plans and attempted to turn round.

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I suggested that while returning to the trailhead it might be a good idea to follow behind just in case I had to do more winching. Once I was turned around and pulled over, Robert backed Steve right over a rock and got him high centered on his rear axle. 

 

 

 

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Now we were in a real jam. Every time you get in a situation like this you’ll learn something. Provided it’s something positive I’m happy to add it to my memory bank. We two blocked off my van but Steve was stuck bad. Luckily he had just bought a new Hi-Lift jack. Now I never thought they made a Hi-Lift jack that could handle the weight of an SMB, but that thing saved the day.

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Steve was able to lift his rear wheel high enough to stack rocks under the tire and basically engineered a ramp to drive off the rock without and damage. After that it was a simple matter of using my vehicle as an anchor until he was out of the main wash. The sun was starting to set and we wanted out of the canyon before it turned dark. After Steve passed me, he headed out. As I put all my recovery gear away, I got a call from Steve on the radio about someone else stuck.

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Coming around the corner I saw some guy in a 2WD pickup buried in the sand. What the hell was he doing up a wash in a 2WD vehicle anyway? I thought we would never make it out of there but the poor guy had been digging for hours and Steve was able to get him out fairly easy. Man I’ll bet that guy was one happy dude to see a big rig with winch pulling up to him. The sun had set by the time we made it to the trailhead.

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By the way, I was very happy with my new side lights. It knocked out the problem with going into a turn and not being able to see what I was driving into.

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Steve was a little worried about his rig but eventually we were able to get it into four wheel drive. Nobody knows why the linkage would not engage inside the canyon but Steve would have to live with the possibility of it happening again for the rest of the trip. Of course the rest of the group would never mention his dilemma during the remainder of the trip…..yea right 🙂 What a day! Now the drive to meet Craig and find our campsite for the night.

Trona Pinnacles:

The Trona Pinnacles are a set of unique rock formations located just a few miles from the small industrial community of Trona. Trona itself has a small convenience store that has gas/diesel as well as a deli. It’s also the last major stop until Panamint Springs.

We were to meet up with Craig at the Pinnacles but by the time we left out, the sun had set and Craig must have wondered what was taking us so long to rendezvous with him. Steve and I both needed fuel and filled up while passing through Ridgecrest. Don and I made a shameful pass through Taco Bell and followed an hour or so behind Steve. I’d never been to the Trona Pinnacles even though we had passed by it a few times. Apparently this area is the site of several movies, one being “Planet Of The Apes”. After grabbing some ice in Trona, we headed toward camp where the guys were waiting. Did I say waiting; I mean partying. On the way in my first mistake was driving into some kind of bog. I thought it was the trail and before I knew it, I was buried. Luckily I was able to lock up and get out. The terrain was weird; it was some kind of fine powder like stuff. Because it was dark when we arrived, I had a bit of trouble finding the path to where the guys had set up camp. Steve complained about the modulation of my CB radio and it didn’t help as we drove up to our second night’s destination. The guys couldn’t even understand me. This radio trouble would plague me on the entire trip. Luckily Craig guided us in with a spotlight to where they had setup. After arriving, I noticed that the ground was kind of like the bog I had driven into. It felt like I was walking on grass. The guys had saved a spot for me to park that was conspicuously distant from the other vans. I guess they remembered about my snoring. It was great to once again meet up with Craig who introduced his buddy Nick. We all had a good time that night as we sat around a fire Craig had built. The moon was full and a thin layer of clouds cause the moon to display a halo around it which added to the strange landscape offered by the pinnacles. Waking in the morning was a treat.

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I really didn’t know what to expect after sunrise. The Pinnacles are interesting and I soon found that they are Tufa Mounds similar to those found at Mono Lake. There is a vaulted head at the campground but that’s about it. This is a place to avoid during rain and we had to drive around any standing water.

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Several trails meander in and around the pillars but unfortunately we had to leave out do to time restraints so we never really checked out the area.

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I don’t know what kind of traffic this place gets, but I would think the weekends might be crowded during times of good weather. The trail actually leads out to highway 395 but that was the opposite direction of our next destination, so we just returned the way we came in.

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After passing through Trona, we traveled about 7.5 miles on highway 178 to the next trail.

Slate Range Trail:

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Craig chose this route to run. The Slate Range Trail is designated Desert #34 in the Backcountry Adventure book The route is sometimes known as the Emigrant Escape Trail and crosses over the Slate Mountain range that basically separates highway 178 with the southern end of the Panamint Range. Crossing over Manly Pass, the trail drops into Fish Canyon and in due course hooks up with the Mengel Pass route that leads into Death Valley.

 

 

 

 

The trail starts off as an unmarked dirt path off 178 that may be difficult to find. Craig knew right where to turn so we followed him and Steve up into the hills but stopped for a bit to let the dust settle.

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This trail was enjoyable IMO. There are a few steep sections that I would be leery about in wet conditions but we never had any trouble at all.

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Towards the top of the range we pulled over to take in a fantastic view of the Panamint Valley.

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Before we proceeded on into the Panamint Valley, Don snapped a group shot.

 

 

 

 

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Craig and Steve were in high gear and left us in the dust but I wanted some pictures and lagged back. Did I say this was a fun route? The hills made it so!

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Heading down into the Panamint valley we passed a historical marker telling about a grave site of a traveler named Father Fish who had died here trying to escape Death Valley.

 

 

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The trail was kind of rough on its last leg into the valley but really nothing bad at all.

 

 

 

 

Once we reached the valley floor the trail split.

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Crossing the Panamint Valley to the other side was impossible due to wet conditions so we traveled along the west side until we reached the Goler Wash and Mengel Pass. The valley floor was bad ass looking.

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SONY DSCThe trail out of Ballarat runs along the opposite side hidden to our view. That’s mud out there in the middle…no mans land.

Luckily  the path on this side was smooth, giving me a chance to catch up with the two speed demons.

Below, the guys are just entering Goler even though you can’t see them.

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Mengel Pass Trail to the Geologist Cabin:

Goler Wash and Mengel Pass, Desert #33 may be the most famous trail in Death Valley due to Charlie Manson’s stay at the Barker Ranch during the late 1960’s. Last year Steve wanted to do this run but we were uncertain of the trail condition and skipped it. I’ve wanted to see the Barker Ranch since my first trip to DV but as luck would have it, some jerk burned the ranch house down in 2009. Still, I wanted to see the Barker Ranch as it is part of America’s history.

After coming out of the Panamint Valley, Don and I finally caught up with the group at the mouth of Goler Wash but as soon as we got there, Steve and Craig headed out.

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Again we lagged back for some pictures. I was surprised to see green plant life at the beginning of the wash giving this part of the trail a distinctive look. Wicked but cool.

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Water was flowing in a few spots from the recent storms which probably supported the plant life. There were a few challenging spots but most of the drive on the west side of the pass was an easy run.

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This small dry fall shown above definitely required four wheel drive for a van as heavy as mine. I even engaged my front locker but actually didn’t need it. The rest of the route to the ranch was 2WD for the most part.

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The group pulled over for some lunch where we met a couple of vehicles coming from DV.

 

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We had all planned to stop at the Barker ranch but Craig and Steve missed the turnoff. The drive in off the trail may pose a problem with taller rigs, but the trail in is good as shown below.

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Rather than turning around Craig and Steve continued on while Don and I went in to see what was left of the ranch. It was a cryin shame! The main house was basically gone and only one small building was still standing. Inside that building was a post stating that a group of individuals are planning to rebuild the ranch house.

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                                                The picture above is before the house burned.

After leaving the Barker Ranch, we headed toward the pass. The sun was starting to fade as we headed down toward the Stripped Butte.

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It got a little rough but the rangers made it out to be horrible. It is a class IV or V trail depending on the weather, and I’m sure it changes year to year, but we just took it slow. The sun setting put off a show on the hills as it faded away.

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Some of the trail was a challenge, but didn’t stop my SMB.

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Steve shot some pictures of the more difficult portion of the trail on the way to the top.

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About an hour ahead of us, they made the summit when there was still plenty of light.

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The marker of Carl Mengel.

It seemed like the place to stack rocks with your own marker.

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Wonder if he still loves her?

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Where the hell was Craig?

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The taller hills were still in the light and provided a beautiful site of the telescope peak area.

We continued down the trail at dark and even though the pictures seem like it was fairly light out, in reality I needed the off road lights on. It was an interesting night run heading down the mountain. No wonder those guys were moving fast on the good parts of trail; the other side was really rough and slow going. I wouldn’t want to run this section without off road lights like I had.

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Craig and Steve had told us that they planned to stay at the Geologists Cabin provided it was unoccupied. Coming off Mengel, I didn’t have a clue where this cabin was but luckily Craig was able to recognize my light configuration and once again used his spot light to guide us in. Craig told Steve he thought I liked to drive at night but actually it was the amount of photography that slowed us down. I will admit that the new lighting made a huge difference while driving over the rough terrain. As far as our destination went, I’m glad our group had made it to the cabin early because while we were driving toward the cabin, another party of wheelers were heading their way. It must have bummed those guys out to see a couple of vans up there. Once at the Cabin, I was surprised how well kept it was along with how many amenities that were stocked inside the structure. Food, water, propane and even several BBQ’s were on site. Steve and Craig fired up one of the BBQ’s and were cooking up another grommet dinner. Looking at what they cooked up made me forget what was on our menu… not another Cup-O-Noodles? Instead, Don and I finished up my supply of Ballico burritos, something neither of us ever got tired of. The potato burrito is something you have to experience to remember. After returning from the trip I found out the Ballico store went out of business. Too bad! Their food was a main staple around home but the sign  hanging over the store since 1930 that said “I don’t know where mom is but pop’s in the cooler” is a thing of the past. That night we had a good time inside the cabin, and the homemade Mexican food hit the spot. Although Craig and Nick retired early on, the rest of use sat in front of a fire inside the cabin enjoying music, a few drinks, and some fine cigars Steve brought to celebrate the birth of his new son. After we all retired for the evening in our vans, Don had the privilege of staying in the cabin for the night.

I was up early for a picture before anyone else was awake.

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Don and I made up some espresso with Cask & Cream to go along with breakfast. We offered plenty to all and Robert took us up on a little “hair of the dog”.

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There was a log book that I signed into…the place is just way cool.

 

 

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The view from inside the cabin looking over the snow covered hills and Stripped Butte was striking. I almost didn’t want to leave.

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The Stripped Butte is a classic landmark.

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Nick, Craig and Steve discussing the trip.

This place would make a fantastic base camp, but we all packed up and decided to leave out toward out next nights stay at Monarch Canyon.  

I was told there are a few spots like this to use in the area and the cabins are stocked well. As long as they are taken care of and not damaged, the park service will leave them open to the public. Please clean up after yourself, pack out your garbage and if you have an extra bag of BBQ briquettes or a can of propane, leave them behind for the next group. This will insure the cabins will be there for future generations.

Warm Springs Canyon to Monarch Canyon with a pit stop at Badwater Basin:

The days plan was to leave the geologist’s cabin and head through Butte Valley to Warm Springs Canyon where we would check out the Warm Springs Mine and later Badwater  Basin.  I don’t think Robert  or Nick had ever visited  Badwater, so we would  make a quick stop at this tourist spot before heading toward Monarch Canyon.

Warm Springs Road is an easy route that most any SUV vehicle can do.

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The road was a little rocky, a little muddy and even had some snow around.

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The scenery is generally modest but with the surrounding hills coated with snow, the mountains picturesque rating jumped way up. We stopped by the Warm Springs Mine and the workers housing area.

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There is running water here along with a pool that must have been a necessity in summertime but I just wonder how hot the water got. I guess if water continually flowed through it, the temperature would stay more constant. Now it’s empty.

We left out for the mines. The trail was uneventful for the most part but still enjoyable.

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After getting our fill of walking into a few mine shafts, we headed toward Badwater. Warm Springs Road is a long haul all the way to West Side Road. Dropping into Death Valley itself was kind of nice.

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We aired back up and headed to Badwater where everybody grabbed a bite to eat at the basin. A few huge tourist buses pulled in and off loaded a bunch of folks which seems to be the norm here.

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      A couple of typical tourist pictured here. I wonder what bus they got off of  🙂

Everyone wants to see the lowest point below sea level in the US. In fact Badwater Basin has the honor of being the lowest spot in North America and comes in at the 8th lowest place on Earth below sea level.

On the way through Furnace Creek, I fueled up. A guy came up to me looking at the van and complemented me on it. He had a heavy accent and later Steve said he was from New Caledonia. I told him about the Sportsmobile Forum and he said he might look it up.

After leaving civilization we all headed off to the Chloride City Trail and a boon dock spot I frequent around Monarch Canyon. It’s a fairly tight camp but there is enough room for a few vehicles without having to be on top of one another. The mistake I made was not setting up my wind barriers for the night.

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This camp usually gets hit by wind and that night was no different. It flat got cold. Even with the pit-2-go, I was feeling the drop in temperature and the adult beverages didn’t help one bit…that is with the cold temperature. The booze itself was great! Don supplied some really fine cigars and the night, and even as cold as it was, we had a fantastic time. Nick really opened up around the fire and I think I laughed harder that night than anytime on the trip.

In the morning Craig and Nick took off for a hike to check out the area.

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It must have been one hell of a walk.

Monarch is a spot that is worth a visit. The trail leads down through various dry falls to the valley floor. The path holds some heavy brush that’s uncommon to see in such a baron zone.

Mid morning Craig and Nick broke the news that they decided to head home rather than follow us to The Chloride Cliffs. We wished them a safe trip home and broke camp. Later I realized that we didn’t get a group shot in. Crap!

Chloride City and the Chloride Cliffs:

Arguably one of the best views of Death Valley can be seen from the cliffs close to Chloride City located off the Chloride City Trail, Desert 41, situated about 10 miles northeast of California highway 190. This area was the site of a silver discovery during the 1880’s, but today nothing much is left of the once active mining town. The trail is fairly rough and requires reasonable vehicle ground clearance  and four wheel drive depending on the conditions. Some spots are a bit off camber. At 5200 feet, the views from the top are definitely worth the drive. When viewing the surrounding area and lower valley’s, clearer skies make a huge difference. The last time I visited the area, Death Valley was being pounded by a sand storm. Even though the temperature in the valley was around the mid 60’s, we had to suffer being exposed to howling winds well over 60 MPH which sported a static air temperature of 25 degrees. I can’t even venture to guess what the wind chill was back then. Fortunately this time around we had clear calm conditions, and because I had a new camera, I was anxious to check out the visibility.

After Craig and Nick had left out we headed up the trail to visit the cliffs. I knew there would have to be snow at the summit considering how cold the recent storms had been but the lower section was clear.

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Most of the trail is easy but some spots would be difficult for rigs like Sprinters.

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The views along the way were welcoming.

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The trail got a bit muddy.

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We encountered snow around Chloride City and I wondered if it was even going to be possible to reach the cliffs.

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Fortunately the snow wasn’t too much of a problem. We finally made the cliff area.

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At the cliffs we got out and walked to where some of the mines are. At the end of the trail is a good vista point.

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I’d like to camp up here sometime and get a few sunset shots of the Valley. Too bad it was so hazy.

The mines are open but whether or not it’s safe to enter, is questionable.

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Don took off to explore inside one of the paths that led underground. None of us had flashlights and we were unable to see some of the vertical drops scattered throughout this particular mine shaft, so were had to be careful. I wouldn’t take a kid in there unless heavily supervised. After walking out of one opening, Don all of a sudden popped out 20 feet above us.

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There were several shafts that linked up to each another. It was interesting to say the least.

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If you walk around the corner the rest of the upper valley comes in view.

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This is what it looked like in the 1800’s… you know, no color pictures.

Part of the mine.

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The walk down was easy; now back up… Crap, I’m always last!

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Actually the walk isn’t bad at all.

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“Man Steve, will you ever forgive me for running your rig up on a rock? Yea buddy, but from now on you’ll have to buy all the fuel… and don’t tell anybody about the four wheel drive thing. Now smile for the camera Robert”.

 

 

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Back to where we parked… looking the opposite direction from the main valley was scenic as well.

After leaving the cliffs we drove to the opposite side of the ridge for a few more shots and had some lunch.

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There was a lot of snow on the other side.

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The route back to the highway is a bit bland, crossing a few low level hills and then traveling over a long drive in somewhat flat terrain across the desert.

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The trail ends up on Nevada highway #374 at the California Nevada border not too far out of Beatty NV. I was glad that we didn’t have to worry about ending up on one of the many  trails that lead the wrong way into the desert. Because I had mapped the area years before, all we had to do was just followed my old GPS route out.

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From here Steve and Robert headed home while Don and I set out for Furnace Creek. We wished them a safe trip back. I really had a good trip with these guys and told them I’d be looking forward to the next group run.

A short trip to Echo Canyon:

It was late and while the rest of the crew were at or on there way home, we decided to pick something close by and my favorite camp in Death Valley is in Echo Canyon.

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As the sun was setting we drove into the middle of DV.

I was able to get off one shot looking down on the valley.

 

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I’ve written enough about Echo in other posts so I won’t spend much time here. Lets just say it’s close to a few necessities such as beer, ice, fuel, and food plus the drive into camp is fairly easy. That night we had good weather and it was much warmer than Monarch.

A trip to the Racetrack has been on a “go to see list”  for some time now so in the morning we broke camp as early as possible…the Racetrack is a long drive and we wanted to make it there during mid day if possible. I could have stayed in Echo for longer but something new is always welcome. We took just enough time for a few cups of coffee and were off.

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We stopped by for the usual supplies and a bit of breakfast. The restaurant can be packed at times but it’s usually worth the wait and the food isn’t bad.

The Racetrack:

Just its name peaks your curiosity. Both Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater are close by but Scotty’s is more of a tourist trap and both of us had been to Ubehebe. Of the sites to see in Death Valley, the Racetrack is only slightly dwarfed as an oddity compared to Badwater. Heck, were can you go in the US where aliens keep moving rocks around? I knew it was a long drive out to this famous site, but the Lippincott Trail was worth checking out as well even though it was probably closed for the season.

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The Racetrack road is a lot like Westside road with bone jarring washboard for most of the route which varies throughout the year. On our trip, the road was reasonable but even if it were rough,  the scenery with all the snow canvassing the hills would have made it well worth the drive.

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I  don’t know why the rangers try to scare people from taking this road. They claim it’s a tire eater and chances are high you’ll end up with a flat in the middle of nowhere. To me, the road looked well graded and as I mentioned, the washboard really wasn’t that bad.

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We stopped by Teakettle Junction and noticed it looked slightly different than some of the pictures I’ve seen in the past.

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Apparently the park service rebuilt the post that holds the kettles. I guess all good things come to an end. Time to start over just like the Barker ranch.

 

 

 

The Racetrack itself was flooded over on a portion of it and the rest was probably slick.

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I guess we might have found some of the famous moving rocks on the other side of the water covered playa, but time was short and we had to set up camp.

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There were a few rocks visible on the road side but no trails behind them so we moved on. At the end of the road we found a small campground that was empty and parked for the night. It’s one ugly campground and I’d rather be somewhere else if it was occupied but it did have a construction type head on site… and it was about as clean as a work site portable. We quickly set up camp.

Vodka and a couple of cigars were first on the agenda.

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The wind was a bit of a problem but nothing we couldn’t handle although after sunset the temperature plummeted. It wasn’t long before the party was moved into the van. At least we didn’t have to worry about the ice melting. After some hot homemade beef stew for dinner, we finally called it a night.

In the morning I noticed that we were really at the Racetrack.

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Don never heard a thing except my snoring, so the mystery remains; what does move those rocks?

We had to decide where to go next. With all the snow around, I was reluctant to do the Lippincott Trail. I’ve always wanted to do the Hidden Valley run, but again I didn’t expect to see so much snow and figured we wouldn’t be able to get through to Saline Valley road anyway. So we just drove out the way we came in. Back at Monarch canyon, Steve and Craig had commented about Darwin city. It seemed like a good choice so again we were off  to see something new.

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I took a shot of the Racetrack that was under water on the way out.

Darwin Falls Trail:

I wasn’t too thrilled leaving out the same road we came in on, but it did offer a reversed perceptive while viewing the canyon and surrounding area around the Racetrack.

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It would be a long drive to our next destination, one that we really didn’t have a clue about unless we revisited something. Neither of us wanted to do that. Sometimes it’s cool to just go for it and let the adventure take its own course. The town of Darwin is located outside the national park a few miles north of Panamint Springs. A paved road off highway 190 leads to the town. Darwin wasn’t set in stone so we looked over anything new that might do for the next camp. We stopped along the Devil’s Cornfield and the Big Dunes close to Stovepipe for a picture or two.

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Traveling back through Stovepipe Wells we stopped by the sand dunes where I spotted another SMB.

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Later we saw the same van headed into the Panamint Dunes area on a rough looking road. I’m going to have to look over that spot one of these days as there might be a killer camp off that road.

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We stopped in for some refreshments at Stovepipe Wells. I sure wish they would install some diesel pumps there.

Further up the highway, we made a stop at Father Crowley point. It looks to be a good place to watch military jet pilots practice, but I wouldn’t want to camp there. It’s too close to the highway and is basically a big flat parking lot type turnout that would only do in a pinch.

Time was getting short when we finally made it to Darwin.

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This town is a bit strange. It almost looks like it’s deserted but there are people around; we just never saw anybody. Nice surroundings though.

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I wish I could have got a few more pictures, but the sun was setting. I was taken back seeing the old style gas pump located on Main Street. Those things are worth some bucks! Leaving town, the road turns to a well paved dirt path and starts a climb.

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At one time, the Darwin Wash Trail was a toll road that was eventually paved, but we saw no signs of asphalt at first. It was built as the access road to Stovepipe Wells during the mid 20’s when automobiles entered the scene.

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We saw a burro along the way sticking its head out of the brush.

Some asphalt here and there would pop up from time to time.

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The trail was mostly class I and II but had a few sections that were steep and loose. Although four wheel drive is not mandatory, a good set of off road tires would help on the loose sections. I still had my hubs locked in ready to go when needed. About half way into the trail is a spot called China Garden Springs and that was are destination for our last night’s camp.  Eventually we entered a wash that was more scenic than I had imagined we’d see.

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Unfortunately it was now dark and I was only able to get off a few shots. There are several mining remains along the route.

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When we arrived at China Garden Springs we found an old foundation to set up on. The camp was surrounded by trees and the spring had water flowing across the trail. That night we set up the BBQ and had a good dinner.

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In the morning we looked over the camp. This was kind of a little oasis in the desert. There are several reeds to add to the scenic value but probably the most interesting discovery was the spring itself.

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The spring harbors hundreds of Coy or Goldfish of some species.

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There are also a few structures to check out. The site from up the hill was cool.

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From here there is a foot trail that leads down to Darwin Falls but the falls can be more easily accessed from further down the trail closer to Panamint Springs. After surveying the area it was time to pack up and leave out for home.

Just before leaving, a couple drove into camp with another SMB.

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We introducing ourselves and of course, as all SMB owners do, we started talking about our rigs, Sorry, as usual I didn’t take their picture and lost their names…crap I hate that!

Don and I took off the finish the trail.

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The picture below was by far the worst part of the trail but most 2WD vehicles should be able to pass over it in good weather.

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I was glad we ran the route from Darwin down to Panamint Springs. The view was impressive traveling over the pass and back down into Darwin Canyon.

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Once we made it down into the canyon we passed by the trailhead to Darwin Falls. There was no time to walk in to see the falls but I understand they are impressive so I guess it will give me a reason to revisit this spot one of these days. The rest of the trail was flat and level so visitors with 2WD who wish to visit the falls would be better off coming in from the Panamint Springs side.

This was a good run, not the best but definitely worth the time. At least I’ve got one more spot to stay at before actually entering the park. The trip was over and all we had was a long drive home ahead of us.

Conclusion:

I probably found more spots outside the Death Valley Park boundary to camp at than any of the trips I made before, and the recent snows added character to the scenery at almost every point along the way. It was great to do a group run with friends and meet some new people as well. Although Steve had a rough time in Last Chance canyon, it was a learning experience for all of us. The cabin stay outside Warm Springs Canyon really was the highlight of the trip in my opinion and Mengel Pass was one of the best 4×4 runs that I’ve done inside the Park to date. Running the last part of Mengel at dark was just “awesome”. I regret not taking the Pass in 2009 before the idiots that burned down the Barker Ranch preformed their dirty deed, but I’m glad I saw what was left of it. Even though the Racetrack was flooded, it was worth the trip and I plan to revisit the area soon.

Our trip home was long and uneventful but walking through the front door was kind of nice. After a good shower and something to eat, I downloaded the pictures and found myself sitting in front of the PC with a big smile. You know, it felt good to get home, but as soon as I saw the pictures I was ready to go back.

Thanks for visiting my site and hope to see you out on the trail.

Dave.