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By Dave Boyer

Death Valley Christmas / New Year’s run.

Death Valley is a great park to visit with an off road vehicle. Unlike many of the National Parks located in the US, Death Valley is covered with vehicle trails that range from easy to expert class making it well suited for a large van such as a Sportsmobile. If you factor in the size of this place, you’ll find Death Valley is a wonderful place to explore with a 4×4.

Last year I made a trip to Death Valley (see the 2006 posting) with a good friend and SMB forum member Don Dunbar of Merced Ca. That trip just happened to be our first visit to the Death Valley and surrounding area. The trip was fantastic but the park is so big we really only scratched the surface. During that week the weather wasn’t exactly on our side, and forced us to deal with constant high winds that enveloped the valley. I’d never seen a sand storm of that magnitude and a week of being sand blasted grew old in a hurry. But other than the constant high winds, it was a very rewarding adventure. Finally the weather calmed down and there was one day of relief. The trip ended with a great night in Echo Canyon.

Well I contacted my buddy Don to set up a similar trip to bring in the 2008 New Year. I was stoked.

Even though this run had no fixed set of plans, we did have a few ideas. The trip ended up in this order:

1. Red Rock SRA (California)

2. Echo Canyon. (Base camp during our stay).

3. Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road.

4. Titus Canyon.

5. Hole In The Wall Canyon.

6. Trail Canyon.

7. Cottonwood Canyon.

8. Johnson Canyon.

9.  Marble Canyon.

10. Upper Echo Canyon.

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We left out of central California just after Christmas 2007 planning to spend 10 or 11 days in the Death Valley area. The plan was to hit a standard campground either somewhere around Lake Isabella or around highway 58. Red Rock State Park on the other side of the Sierra’s got the vote and would be the first stop. During the first trip, Red Rock seemed like a good stop to give us a quicker path to DV. On the bad side it was further than where we had planned to camp and the California Highway Patrol didn’t really like my enthusiasm toward trying to get there in record time. I made a big mistake leaving my radar detector at home and flew past a cruiser doing 72 in a 55 zone. Of course my excuse failed miserable and having a CDL made things worse. Crap, next stop Red Rock SRA @ 55 MPH.

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Red Rock was basically void of the masses as it usually is at this time of year which made it a good spot for a quick stop.

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The wind was somewhat calm but it was still very cool. I got some nice snap shots before the sun set.

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Last year, Don’s tent (a cheap Coleman tent) was ripped up by the high winds. He was now sporting a brand new Cabelas dome tent that could survive most any weather condition. Don bought a fantastic tent, but it’s difficult to set up. He plans to purchase a small high quality tent that can be set up faster while on the move.

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Don’s tent has the ability to set up the fly first and then set up the tent itself. This works great in wet weather. With camp set, preparations were made for the night.

We decided to bypass the fire and enjoy the heat of the Sportsmobile where beers flowed like water. I think the California Hi-way Patrol helped out in my consumption of alcohol this night. Thank you officer. OK it was my fault, but I do have problems with a little trailer supposedly having the same characteristics as a full blown semi. Welcome to the California. After a good sleep at Red Rock we awoke to coffee and a shot of a unique vehicle.

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I wonder what the mileage is with something like this.

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I started the espresso to clear my head of the cobwebs caused by the California Highway Patrol…Ok I’m still venting.

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One thing we found out was how bad the water is at Red Rock. Don’t drink it! After a quick breakfast I shot some more pictures.

 

 

This State Park is somewhat trashy but the unique rock formations are very interesting. I even saw an animal I have never seen before pop its head out of a hole.

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This campground actually seems more like typical California desert with several plants that are hard to find in DV.

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We left toward DV via Ridgecrest where I picked up a radar detector before we were off toward Stovepipe Wells. No more radar tickets if I could help it. I had never been through the Panamint Valley, so it was new territory for me.

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We passed through the small community of Trona that had diesel fuel at a small convenience store.

 

 

 

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We also saw the small ghost town of Ballarat in the distance where the road straightened and the terrain flattened out, but most of the drive through the valley was uneventful or at least I thought it would be.

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Looking toward Ballarat and the Panamint Range.

Just after the Ballarat turn off, I decided to push the speed a bit and took it to just over 60mph. Then the detector went off. Laser, yikes! As I slammed on the brakes I could see nothing in either direction for miles. I wondered what the range of the detector was or if I had a defective unit. All of a sudden a jet fighter flew over about 100 feet off the ground. It was like a bomb went off! The radar detector freaked me out enough but the noise of that jet spun me a bit. SOB used me as a target. Later I found out the Panamint Valley is a military flight training area. Somewhat rattled, we drove on to Stovepipe Wells.

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The trek over the Panamint Range took longer than I thought but I was able to see some color in the hills typical of many areas in DV

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Along Highway 190.

Pulling into the Stove Pipe Wells we looked for diesel. Where? I sure couldn’t find it but didn’t spend too much time searching as it was getting late on us and I had plenty. We left out for Furnace Creek stopping along the way to check out the sand dunes and the Devils Corn Field, most of which looked the same as last year.

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We stopped at Furnace Creek for fuel and ice before heading toward our destination.

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While picking up our park registration at the visitor center, another SMB pulled in behind me.

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This would end be total of 3 SMB’s were seen on the trip; two at Furnace Creek and one in Marble Canyon but I never talked to any of the owners. Leaving out of the store and visitor center the drive went quick to reach Echo Canyon. The trail in was the same as the year before, partially needing four wheel drive but nothing outrageous. We got our old spot back at Echo Canyon and set up camp. Although there are several spots to camp at in Echo, some are better than others and I had my fingers crossed all the way in. That night we had a great time unwinding from the long drive while sitting around a fire and having a good barbeque.

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We discussed our plans for the week and what we were going to do the next day. By the end of the night we had a destination picked and decided to crash out.

The next day with a little espresso and some hair of the dog, we trashed our pre-made plans. Because Don’s tent took so long to set up, the idea that Echo would be a good base camp to work out of while exploring the lower section of DV gained beaucoup merit. Also prioritization had to be factored in not knowing how the weather was going to treat us. First stop would be Titus Canyon. This was one we missed last year due to trail closures because of poor weather and being the Rangers said it was now open, Titus became the #1 objective. Also the Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road had eluded us due to time restraints so it fell in place as a must see as well. This short one way road is easily passable during good weather with any car and should not be passed by. It’s a drive that offers exceptional scenery that is different than anything else I’ve seen in DV. The best time to visit this area would be towards dusk but as close as it was to Echo, it made sense to make it our first run of the day.

A trip down 20 Mule Team Canyon.

Despite the name, the 20 Mule Team Canyon road was never used by the 20 Mule Team freight haulers but was used by smaller freighters of the era. Today a drive on this road really makes you feel like you’ve been thrown back in time. The Canyon road should not be confused with other 20 Mule Team trails that ran out of the Eagle Borax Works located in the center of Death Valley and those west of the Panamint Range.

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After seeing the Twenty Mule Team Canyon Trail we headed out but it put us a little behind schedule. The plan was to head out of the park via Death Valley Junction, through Lathrop Wells to the town of Beatty Nevada. Actually the route through Furnace Creek is shorter, but a steady climb toward Beatty might cost more in fuel due to the uphill climb. Between Lathrop Wells and Beatty is a small trail to a spot called Big Dunes. From the highway the sand dunes looked interesting but we didn’t have the time to explore. Also the ghost town of Rhyolite Nevada located close to the entrance to Titus Canyon is something I wanted to see. There was no time to explore either of these places…maybe another year.

So we were off on our journey to Titus. The highway drive wasn’t real fun. Like everything in Death Valley, long drives seem to be common. Generally I prefer to camp close by an area I want to explore but the Echo camp is a great spot to camp and I felt the trailer would be more secure there than other spots in Death valley. Half way to Beatty out in the middle of nowhere we saw this place.

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What were they thinking? The beer sign was obviously too small!

Beatty was where we could get Nevada priced fuel and grab something to eat. I wanted a little bucket for the fire pits ashes and possibly there was a place that had a container or metal bucket. There is a guy that has all kinds of great army surplus stuff but he was not open, so we fueled up and prepared to leave town. Thinking the guy was at lunch, we hit a one horse casino, won 30 bucks cashed out. Being the surplus guy was still gone to lunch we left town but fifteen minutes inside that casino left us smelling like an ash tray. Lovely! From Beatty the 1-way trail through Titus Canyon was not far down the highway.

A trip down Titus Canyon.

Titus Canyon is probably the most unique tourist drive visitors can take within the parks boundary. I think most two wheel drive vehicles with the correct tires can do this drive but I would check with the rangers first. Poor weather can turn this road into a tougher run. During our drive the trail was very good and a car could have made it. If you want to be surprised of the uniqueness of this wonderful drive, skip to the next section. But pictures can’t really compare to the real McCoy, so if you want a sneak peek of Titus, continue on.

From Beatty we traveled down Nevada state route 374 to the Rhyolite City turnoff and continued on the dirt lane until the sign to Titus Canyon appeared. The road into the canyon starts off through flat terrain then steadily climbs up toward Red Pass.

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The bad thing about this trip is you will probably be tailgated by a number of vehicles trying to haul ass on this trail. I have never seen so many SUV’s on a trail anywhere. Prepare to pull over several times along this route to let people by. This was my big gripe while driving this route. It’s best to avoid weekends if feasible. The beginning of the climb out of the desert toward the upper mountain range is mostly wide open rolling hills.

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As the mountains grow higher you begin to see more color and steeper cliffs.

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The canyon in the background (we think) is called Titanothere Canyon where fossil remains of prehistoric creatures were found dating over 30 million years old. This is looking back from Red Pass.

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The trek toward the pass is somewhat spectacular but it soon becomes apparent why Titus Canyon is rated as one of the best drives through the park.

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At the top of Red Pass, which is at 5,250 feet, there is a spot that is definitely worth pulling over. It’s a must to get out and take a look around.

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It is evident why this is called Red Pass.

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The trail winds down toward the canyon through the Grapevine Range along a smooth shelf road that would be bad news in rainy conditions for two or four wheel drive vehicles.

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The red clay looks like it would be rather slippery in wet conditions. The amount of green colors in the rock is vivid and the contrast is striking.

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One thing we noticed was the green color of the rock in places. This seemed much more evident while contrasted by the red clay.

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The trail soon brings you to an old mining area called Leadfield which is considered an old ghost town but there isn’t much left to see now. Notice how the area looks turquoise in color. This is how it truly looks in winter during partial overcast late in the day.

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After some meandering throughout the more open area, the trail begins to narrow which makes Titus what it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We found this section to be one of the smoothest roads on our visit, no washboard within the canyon itself, and a very well packed trail probably due to the heavy traffic. Of course every trail can change day to day or week to week at Death Valley.

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The rock seemed to be frosted over but it was in the 60’s.

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There was also a diggings in the mountain but we didn’t have time to investigate it.

 

 

 

 

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Odd rock formations and colors were worth getting out for a closer look.

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Titus is one of the coolest drives in the park. The canyon is fairly wide at this point with tall vertical walls but would soon narrow.

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We had a guy on are butt and let him pass.

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This is a major problem with this run. Nobody drives at the same pace, so pulling over like I did here to snap a photograph is almost impossible. It was lucky that nobody showed up as I backed back to where Don shot this picture from.

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There are some tight curves but even a large vehicle like a Unimog could negotiate this path. Closer to the end of the trail might be questionable.

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Sections of the canyon become wider and then narrow down a bit. The vertical walls are a site to see and better than Echo Canyon, but unlike Echo it’s accessible by most any vehicle when the road is in this condition. It gets a lot of traffic but wouldn’t you love to camp in this canyon? It’s probably one of the reasons why none is allowed.

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Thankfully nobody was behind us, and we were able to get out and explore a bit. The walls made your voice echo like being in a cave. It would neck down even more up ahead.

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This is a spot that was somewhat narrow. We got out and could hear folks walking around exploring the canyon. Voices travel quite some distance here. This is the end of the canyon. I still think a larger rig could get through this provided it’s not a massive vehicle. Long wheel base vehicles are not allowed so a typical RV should avoid this route. The rock formations here are something else. This is where it’s best that nobody is coming down the trail behind you so you can get out and explore but it might be better to stop at the mouth and just walk back up.

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The trail breaks out on to a large alluvial fan. From here the road is 2-way and leads to the highway. For times when the road is closed due to poor weather, many people drive up the 2-way road to the parking area and walk up the canyon to check it out. Like voices, vehicles can be heard coming at you, so it’s pretty safe to walk the canyon.

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You can barely see a parked vehicle and one coming out of the canyon area. I strongly suggest that people who don’t have the time to do the entire run (or don’t have a 4×4 when it’s required) to visit the lower portion via the 2-way road and walk up the canyon. At least you can see one of the few narrow washes located in the Death Valley region.

We headed back to camp and as usual stopped by furnace creek to pick up some fuel, food and beer.

Hole In The Wall, and Trail Canyon OHV routes.

After the long drive up to and through Titus Canyon the day before, we decided to check out something off West Side road, a drive we had taken the year before. The night before was one of our early to crash nights, so in the morning it was time to haul ass and hit the road. It was good to get an early start. The year before a gentleman had told us about the “Hole In The Wall Trail”. Being its just south east of the Echo trailhead, it seemed like a spot to look over and quickly explore the area. Our goal was to check out Trail Canyon off West Side Road but the short drive to the “Hole In The Wall Trail” would only be a slight delay for what was planned for the day.

A drive through “The Hole In The Wall”.

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The trail goes east about 4 miles off highway 190 and begins as a level, loose gravel road and continues this way to the actual spot that the trail is named after.

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This section of the road is similar to the start of Echo Canyon.

 

 

 

 

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Basically you’re driving up a wash. It would be interesting to see this during a heavy rain storm.

 

 

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I wasn’t real impressed with the scenery on the way in and surprised that the Hole In The Wall itself is not an actual hole, rather a fairly wide path that cuts through a mountain ridge.

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The mountains are quite tall and somewhat colorful, but the area  was a bit more bland compared to other places we had been. Maybe some flowers and greenery would help but that happened to be about 3 months off.

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In my opinion, this is one big creepy looking mountain!

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After passing through the ridge, this slightly bumpy road degrades a bit and becomes fairly rough with larger rocks to negotiate, but is still suitable for higher clearance stock two wheel drive pickups or SUV’s.

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Leaving the trail can be a problem for vehicles without some sort of off road capabilities such as all wheel drive, a lockable rear differential, or full time 4WD. The routes terrain is very similar on either side of the wall; both areas being a flat type wash with limited vegetation.

 

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At the end of the trail is a nice spot to camp and is a site I think I’ve seen in some older western movies.

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There was a group using the site and one of the 2WD pickups got stuck. Luckily they had enough manpower to push back onto the trail. The map shows a path continuing but there were signs posted that we were at the end of the road and off roading was prohibited from that point on.

 

We spun around and headed out toward West Side road. The view looking back at Hole In The Wall appeared more scenic probably due to the sun angle.

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Before you pass back through the gap there is a fairly nice spot to boon dock.

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It looked like the road once passed through here but in the picture you might be able to see a pedestal indicating it’s off limits. This spot would be a good base camp being the road to the highway is not too far away.

Back on asphalt we headed down to West Side road. I was shocked to see how much this road had changed in one year. The washboard was gone which was nice but the salt flats were far less impressive. The vivid white salt beds from last year were stained a brownish color. Several miles along West Side road, the sign showing Trail Canyon appeared.

The Trail Canyon off road route runs basically west in a slightly uphill grade off West Side Road for about 9 miles to where it dead ends. There was supposed to be some kind of mining camp at the end of the trail that we had hoped to see.

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At this time of year the only scenery offered on this section of the road are views of the Panamint Range and the valley floor.

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As so many places in Death Valley it takes a good rainy season between November and January with sporadic showers into February to make for a great flower bloom around March. This particular time of year was dry looking and didn’t offer much. Maybe another year.

 

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A couple of hikers in the middle of nowhere.

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Other than some great views of the valley most of the trail was slightly disappointing but if you’re looking at it from a geological standpoint, this place is loaded with history from what I’ve read.  There was one spot where the trail dropped into a wash that was a little off camber. Other than that, the trail was a flat steady uphill climb.

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Then along the way this thing appeared.

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Making a statement?

The trail looked well traveled in spots but other place it looked like nobody had been down it for a while.

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Inside the canyon, more vegetation appeared. I’d like to see it in springtime.

It seemed the trail just came to an end or we missed something. There were no signs any buildings or a camp. 

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My guess is this little wash might pack a punch during rain. At one time there was a road to Augberry Point but it is now only a hiking trail. We spun around and headed back somewhat disappointed with the lack of scenery. One of these days I’d like to go back and find that camp.

 

 

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The picture above is one great spot to camp but was posted off limits.

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Like the previous run we made, this trail is more scenic when dropping back into the main valley.

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As I commented, springtime wild flowers could make all the difference but not at this time and we returned somewhat disappointed.

Artist Pallet one the other side of the Valley has been an elusive spot to date and  was hoping to make it there before the sun set.  From what I’ve seen, Artist Pallet is one of the most colorful spots in Death Valley. Again we never made it before dark and just headed back to camp.

The next day we planned to get breakfast at Furnace Creek and head toward Cottonwood Canyon. A sit down breakfast sure sounded good.

 

Cottonwood Canyon.

In the morning we kept our plans to check out Cottonwood Canyon. Apparently there were ancient Indian writings on the rock walls in a section prior to the start of Cottonwood itself. This would be a long trip so we figured a breakfast stop was due. We headed to fill up my fuel tank and our bellies.

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Even though the place was packed, breakfast was pretty good, reasonably priced and sitting down being served is always nice for a change. A different kind of vehicle was at Furnace Creek fueling up.

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I complain about the mileage of my van, but that thing must really suck down the fuel. Something really cool reveled itself when the wife came out of the back. It was a full plush RV disguised as a military vehicle. Unfortunately I didn’t get a tour before they drove off.

Finally we were back on the road, our hunger satisfied, and eager to explore one of the areas slated as one of the better drives in the park.

Cottonwood Canyon trail starts just north of Stovepipe Wells on the road to the aircraft landing strip.

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Although it’s primarily flat, the road is very sandy at times especially at the start.

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Two wheel drive vehicles might get stuck if wind has blown in large amounts of sand over the road. This trail meanders a few miles through the loose gravel and sandy spots until it reaches a parking area. On this trip we found several two wheel drive vehicles at the tail head of the OHV route. The trail here begins to degrade and two wheel drive vehicles should not go any further but it’s an easy trail for any 4×4. High clearance 2WD vehicles with a limited slip differential, locker, or  AWD should be OK on much of the route. The trail is marked as a Jeep trail or OHV route because it follows a wash. Again, I’m fairly sure this 4×4 trail (as most in D.V.) change from year to year depending on the wet weather.

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During heavy rain this would be a shallow river. You can see where water has cut through the sand and gravel during heavy rains. Soon the wash narrows and the trail follows a more vertical rock wall type canyon.

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This is where many of the Petroglyphs start. This short section of wash narrows down at this point, and here you see the 2000 year old Indian art work.

About Petroglyphs 

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It’s all very interesting and I was surprised to find a 2000 year old Indian named John. Yeah, we figured this out when we saw a petroglyph of a burrow. Didn’t they come over with the Spanish? Anyway “John” confirmed that much of the art is slightly more modern.

 

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Now I don’t know much about petroglyphs, but according to what I’ve read, the whiter vivid markings are not as old as the real McCoy’s.

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So 

 

Not really knowing what was what, the thought of off roading was more on our minds and we moved on.

 

This section of the canyon is quite spectacular as you wind your way on the trail with its high walls staring down at you.

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Eventually the high narrow walls of the canyon opens up and soon the trail splits left to Cottonwood and right toward Marble Canyon.

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We had planned to visit Marble but didn’t have the time. The drive into Cottonwood Canyon was pleasant and easy going. An interesting feature of this drive is a large cave carved into a hillside. Actually it’s more of a hole in the wall than the parks famous “Hole In The Wall”.

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We wondered how many early Americans used this for shelter. I know people have camped in there but seeing some large chunks of the ceiling on the ground convinced me that I’d never want to park in there. You can see how large it is.

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Going inside and looking out was different. This would be a great spot to camp and have a fire. (Note: Fires must be contained and off the ground in DVNP. You’re supposed to pack out ashes from the backcountry as well). Looking back showed the cave’s outline better.

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Up a ways from the cave, the trail winds through some narrow cuts but nothing like some of the sections of Titus and actually stays fairly wide.

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Several spots are off camber and some of the turns are tight, but nothing too bad. At one of these tight turns is an area that cuts into the hillside which would be an excellent spot to camp. The wash opens up and there are cottonwood trees here and there giving the canyon its name. Unfortunately as we drove toward the end of the trail there were a couple of vehicles parked on the trail. Because I couldn’t get around them, we decided to turn back; besides it was getting late.

After finding the guys who were blocking the trail, rather than have them move their rigs, we just had a good conversation about the area. They told us there were more trees further back in, but because I noticed the trail had degraded into a very sandy wash, I felt better that it would be best better left for another day. At least it would be a good idea to have a second vehicle in case something went wrong. We ended up leaving at dusk. On the way out I saw another Sportsmobile of in the distance setting up for an evening in Marble canyon and kind of wished we had brought our camp with us. There are several places to camp in Cottonwood; several nice places. We left out using the off road lights and headed back to Stovepipe Wells. Of course grabbing some beers and ice at the store was needed plus we had to air up the tires to road pressures. Later I found out Stovepipe has free air which works slow but helps speeds things up when using my on board compressor. We drove back to camp discussing the next day’s route and whether or not we would break camp or stay put in Echo Canyon. It would be a hard decision. This made it harder:

Indian Wells Brewery is local and has pretty good suds. Indian Well Brewing Co.

 

Johnson Canyon.

In the morning we made a simple breakfast, drank a few cups of espresso, and decided to look over Johnson Canyon. The guys in Cottonwood we talked to the day before had us all stoke up about the adventure. Little did we know that either they were sending us on a wild goose chase, or didn’t have a clue about Johnson Canyon. According to these guys, Johnson was supposed to be a drive through a narrow steep walled canyon that was boxed at the end. I wish they hadn’t misled us. Although Johnson Canyon has potential of being a nice run, it’s not a unique “steep walled canyon” trail. We were expecting something that would never come to be. The drive was kind of like going somewhere to get a meal you really want, salivating over it all the way there, only to be told “sorry, we just ran out of that an hour ago”. Johnson is more similar to Trail Canyon, so after cruising through Titus and Cottonwood, we weren’t ready for another “Trail Canyon”. Now Johnson does offer its own beauty. This would be a great run during March as there were more plants here than most of the spots we had visited. My guess is that a nice spring time bloom might occur in this canyon depending on the winter rains.

Johnson Canyon (like Trail Canyon) heads north off of West Side road. It’s further away from Furnace Creek than Trail Canyon so you see more of West Side road which parallels the Panamint Range and travels through the heart of Death Valley. As I said earlier, the road changed dramatically since last year in both scenery and condition.

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Much of the washboard had mellowed from our 2006 visit and made for a smoother ride but the exceptional salt crystal formations along the roadway were missing. A lot of the area that looked snow white last year had disappeared. Only a few spots of white formations happened to be left and most of it was kind of dirty.

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We figured that standing water from the heavy rains two years ago in the 05/06 winter caused the salt beds to form but there were limited rains in 06/07 and the beds were blasted by sand. The Devil’s Golf Course looked the same as seen below.

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Close to the old Eagle Borax Works West Side Road starts to change a bit. There is more shrubbery and things seem a little greener… well as far as desert goes anyway.

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There was one spot with a type of reed grass but we were unable to find any water. It just looked different than any other spot we had seen.

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The Johnson Canyon trail starts off meandering its way toward the Panamint Range as a simple upward grade that most any vehicle can make. Soon you come to a large wash that looks like a bad place be during extreme wet weather.

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Fortunately you stay clear of the radical section of it as the trail parallels the creek bed for quite a ways. Soon the road starts a mellow climb amongst taller mountains that are more scenic than Trail Canyon.

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At this point it would be advisable to have four wheel drive capability but a limited slip rear end might do just fine.

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Late in the day (during January) the sun will be in your eyes and being this is a fairly long run it’s advisable to start early. There were spots in the trail that looked grown over but the trail was actually fairly smooth. This would change toward the end.

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The trail runs past rock formations that are colorful and hold various types of cactus. The road starts to degrade a bit and you’re better off in FWD.

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These cliffs would be the highlight of the run but the “box canyon” was elusive or just not there.

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The picture above was the end of the line. The road here needed FWD for a vehicle as heavy as a Sportsmobile. In the background close to the reddish rock wall was a foot trail but we were short on time and the sun was low in the sky. I guess this was the box canyon but it sure didn’t look that way.

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We turned around and headed out. Leaving always seems to look like a new trail but I usually prefer a loop road over a dead end. Still it wasn’t a bad run.

 

 

 

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As I stated at the beginning of this writing, Johnson was nowhere near as tight of a canyon as we were led to believe. Again I would think this would be a great trail to take during a good spring bloom. We even found some color in the form of some type of road melon, the only one I had seen in two years of DV exploration. Life on Mars? Wow.

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Well… a little disappointment due to what are other fellow off roader’s had promised. It was a shame because expectation is hard to overcome when it goes the wrong way. We were planning to see a unique narrow canyon but instead found a nice fairly easy drive with plant life in abundance. Driving back out of the canyon became the standard “void of life” look as we dropped toward the valley floor.

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By the time we would reach West Side road it would be dark but before the light had left us we were treated to a nice view of Bad Water on the opposite side of the valley floor which is the lowest point in the North America.

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This is a long drive with a Sportsmobile. Many lighter vehicles can drive over this kind of terrain faster than my rig which is equipped with heavy duty springs that require slow movement over rocks and uneven ground. My only reason for suggesting a four wheel drive vehicle is turning around on the trail or falling off of it. A few spots required higher clearance and it would be possible to stick your rig and dig in without four wheel drive.

Back at Furnace Creek we grabbed some more Mojave Gold. It made more than one night memorable or maybe un-memorable depending on how you look at it. Time was getting short with only two more days to check out the more of the park. We didn’t have a clue where to go the next day but I could care less. The weather had been pleasant in Echo Canyon and we were able to make a fire that night. It was time to barbeque and enjoy a good meal while sitting around the fire. Times were good.

 

Marble Canyon.

The next day we decided to go into Marble Canyon although The Race Track was on our minds. To reach Marble, the same route to Cottonwood is the only road in. We stopped by the visitor center and picked up a book on Petroglyphs. It was time to revisit John’s rock art, so on the way to Marble we stopped by gorge that has most of the Petroglyphs we had seen.

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OK Don read the book and soon we found what was real and what was BS. The slightly white markings were newer fakes and the faded ones were (probably) the real McCoy. I’m sure some had been made many years ago but what if someone copied the real ones? Too bad people have to screw things up. This was a recent job here.

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And this one here looks real but might have been copied out of a book. Kind of looks like Popeye the sailor man…you think?

Hell, I’d like to think it’s real.

 

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According to the book wavy lines represents rain or water flowing.

 

 

 

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One of the symbols was seen at several locations, but whether real or not, finding these were interesting.

 

 

 

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During our hunt for Indian marking I did find out one important fact.

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Stay clear of this plant!

It was some kind of a stinging nettle and I got into it. The plant wasn’t as bad as some nettle but it was all over my shirt which I changed promptly.

 

We headed back through the same spot we had been a couple of days before but because this is such a unique canyon it was still worth revisiting.

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The map showed we were at the split and I wondered if the Sportsmobile that had boon docked a few days before had left. It would have been nice to team up for a run but they were long gone. The start of the trail where it splits might be 2WD capable with the correct tires but high clearance would help also. I would be careful driving without the proper equipped vehicle even though the road was nothing like Cotton Canyon where 4WD was advisable. Most of the trail was running through a large wash that contained more gravel than sand.

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The road traveled through a variety of terrain that had several small drop offs to areas with larger rocks.

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On the slow crawl toward the canyon we noticed a lone backpacker off in the distance. As we approached I argued with Don that the person appeared to be a gal. Don lost the bet. Knowing how far she was from the entrance to the canyon she asked for a lift. Hum…two old guys out in the middle of the desert in a white van and she asked for a lift? That takes some faith in mankind. So you can imagine what our first question was and  of course it was asking what her name was. “Mandy” she said. I joked with here not to tell her dad about us picking her up. She was quite amassed with the van and claimed that she had never seen such a vehicle. I set up a slide show on my computer of where I had been in the past years to show her what I actually bought it for. From there on it seemed like we had been friends for some time…how strange. In 15 minutes I learned more about her than some of my neighbors that have lived next to me for years.

She was from Montana and had a few stories about packing and white water kayaking. It seemed she was into extreme sports and packing alone in the desert was some proof. She was also an accomplished Equestrian. At first I was a little concerned about having someone tag along with us but she made the trip all the better that day.

Marble canyon is closed to traffic but the hike through it is fantastic. It’s narrow path and vertical walls were the best I’d seen. Obviously it would not be a good spot to visit during heavy rain. Some of the spots are so narrow that a flash flood could be flat out dangerous. Toward the end of the walk (the actual start of the canyon) there are many petroglyphs of ancient times as well as a few from the late 1800-1900’s. The furthest we walked was where the canyon opened up. I don’t know what was beyond but I was told you can loop to Cottonwood canyon.

After parking the vehicle we were off. The canyon walls start off as vertical cliffs that open up to the rocky wash we drove up in.

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The canyon narrows up a bit in a variety of spots.

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This shot is looking back from were we had just been.

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The canyon walls open up in places to show the colorful mountains.

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We heard jet aircraft practicing military cat and mouse games. We continued on and most of this end of the canyon was fairly open.

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The plant life along the way was interesting and added to the walk.

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Most of the plants seemed to be in the open areas. My guess is the water flows much slower than some of the tighter narrow sections of Marble Canyon. Up ahead another spot took a narrow turn.

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This spot in the picture below is only about 12 feet wide.

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It’s easy to see how the water rushes through this area.

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Mandy checking out some of the plants in the above picture.

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This is a dry water fall. The red color was vivid.

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the trail it seemed like the canyon would never end.

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One section of the trail had a unique rock formation.

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I set a dime next to one of these nodules to show their size.

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This black rock seemed like some kind of volcanic flow. The button like nodules looked like obsidian rock had some kind of vivid red behind them. Although I didn’t pop one out, it seemed some had fallen or been forced out. Possibly it’s how Marble Canyon got its name but that would be a guess on my part. Overall I was amazed at this formation and rated it as the number one oddity on the walk. Another strange rock formation was this white granite looking material.

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Sorry but I don’t have a clue what it really is but it was interesting.

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This slightly out of focus snap shot above shows an up close picture of the material in question.

From this point on, the canyon seemed to narrow a bit again.

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The rock through this section showed some nice colors.

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The streaks were strange enough to take another close up.

After passing through the narrow spot I took a shot of where we came through at.

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As the sun angle changed, so did the color of the walls. As we continued on the canyon opened up again.

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Can you see Don and Mandy in this shot above? It gives you an idea of depth and size of this area. Here is a close up shown below.

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I joined up with my friends who had stopped to look at this rock formation. Or at least I thought that is why they stopped.

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The real reason they had stopped would reveal itself.

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A large boulder blocked the way and it looked like the end. OK, this was a great hike and I thought we’d be heading back. Mandy said that this was a loop trail and got out a map.

DV 2008-2 083I started to look around and saw a small trail heading up out of the canyon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She confirmed the route and we were back on our way into the canyon. The view from up top was spectacular.

 

 

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We dropped into the confining canyon walls again. Don’t miss this section of the walk. This would become the most fascinating part of the hike. Even these pictures don’t do justice to what we were about to enter.

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Wondering where the petroglyphs were hiding, we finally found some.

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Don and I had read up on how to determine what the “real McCoy” was, and he showed Mandy some of the true art work looked like compared to the fake stuff…I think.

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The canyon walls were very narrow with totally vertical rock on both sides. It felt almost like being in a cave.

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There were a few interesting formations here as well as the more modern petroglyphs.

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We were also visited by a Raven who followed us from far above and barked out continuous warning sound like Crows do.

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Our voices echoed during the walk through the narrow walls that at times were less than 8 feet across.

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Emerging from the confining walls it was obvious that the mountains opened up once again.

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From here it seemed the canyon would not narrow down like what we had been through and time was getting late. The map confirmed that the real canyon had ended. We all felt it was time to return to the vehicle and head back. Following the path in a different direction was still beautiful and unique in itself. Trails always look different when hiking back…its how many people get lost in heavy forested areas, but in this situation it would be impossible to loose our way.

Hiking back seemed to go quickly and it wasn’t long before the van was in site.

Mandy showed us where to drop her off close to her hidden campsite. Before she left we told her about Titus Canyon which she did go to see according to the E-mail I received from her a few months after our trip. To make Titus Canyon, she had to walk out of Cottonwood at dark to reach her vehicle by light. She claimed it was quite eerie packing through the narrow walls of the entrance into the area. I’ll bet! I wouldn’t even care too much for that if I were alone.

The day in Marble will be embedded into my memory forever, not only from the beauty of the canyon itself but also from meeting a total stranger that made this trip truly unique.

We headed out and stopped for the traditional restocking of our beer supplies at Furnace Creek. With only a couple of days left the weather was beginning to change and a report called for a large storm approaching. It looked like we might have to leave a day ahead of schedule. The decided was made to spend the last full day an exploration in Echo Canyon.

Echo Canyon / Inyo Mine.

The trip was coming to an end and there was only one full day left in the Park. For a change we took our time in camp and had a real camp breakfast with eggs, beacon, and hot cakes. The meal was fantastic and it was nice to lay back and not be rushed to get somewhere. Because we had never ventured up Echo Canyon very far in the previous year, I figured it was time to actually go and take a look. According to the map there is a set of dry falls to pass over before proceeding toward the Amargosa Valley. There was also a spur off the main trail to an old mining operation that we could explore called the Inyo Mine and it’s considered a ghost town. While leaving out of camp, a group of Jeepsters came driving through on their way to look at the mine so we kind of lagged back to avoid their dust. After leaving the narrow walls around the Eye Of The Needle, the canyon opens up to more of what the Hole In the Wall area looks like.

Like I have posted before, the trail into Echo teeters on the point of actually needing four wheel drive. The chance of getting stuck would more likely happen in the narrows because it’s a wash with loose gravel. Above the gorge area, most of the time all that’s needed is a 2WD with a limited slip rear end. It’s when you get off the trail that you have the chance of getting buried. 2WD vehicles should be able to make it to the mine but you should be running with another vehicle just in case.

There are a few prospects other than what’s at the mine site.

Up the road a few miles the trail splits off and a spur leads toward the Inyo mine.

The mine was interesting but our late breakfast cut down on the time we had to spend there and I didn’t get too many shots off.

I do have to admit, the Inyo mine is fairly intact for something built around 1905. A few buildings are still standing along with a bunch of mine equipment.

Apparently the final operation shut down in the early 40’s but someone still holds the mineral rights to the claim.

Continuing past the mine, the road finally came to an end. There was a fence to keep traffic out but a foot trail went on from there. The spot at the end of the vehicle route was actually a really nice spot to boon dock at. It was the perfect place to grab something to eat before heading up to check out the pass. After a quick lunch we headed back down the vehicle trail to look at the dry falls off the main route leading to the pass. After walking the path, it seemed like the route was doable except three or four spots.

A guy in a Jeep came down the trail and we talked with him about what was ahead of us. He claimed that this was the worst spot and the rest of the trail was a piece of cake.

 

 

 

 

There was no doubt that we would have had to stack some rocks to increase the departure angle on the back of my rig and I still figured I would drag my hitch.

 

 

 

 

There was also a large rock half way up that I would have to negotiate, and if I slid sideways, body damage would probably occur. I could have got out my winch to help but the more we looked at it, the more I was somewhat leery.

After further thought, the decision was made that it would be wise to have another vehicle there in case something went wrong. Besides, this had been a great trip so far and I didn’t want a good trip to come to a bad end.

At the split there were a couple guys in a stock Jeep Cherokee who said they were heading over the pass. I don’t see how it could be done without some undercarriage damage, but we wished them luck.

It was time to head back to camp and spend our final night in Death Valley around a fire. On the way there I was pulled over by a couple asking if we had lost a dog. Not us, but I told them about the Jeepsters that had passed us.

Later the Jeep group came back looking for their dog and Don told them about the couple who picked him up. We did a little exploring around the camp area before the sun set. There are a couple of canyons worth looking over.

 

 

Some newer rock art.

 

 

 

Back at camp the group pulled back up to tell us they got their dog back. Apparently the dog fell out the back and they never saw he was missing.

That night would be a great night in the canyon. Although it was a bit chili, the fire was nice and we had a lot of wood to burn that I really didn’t want to pack out. After setting up the Pit-2-Go fire box in the middle of the wash, I found out that typical chairs do not have a good enough footing to hold someone from falling over. Dammed gravel! Twice I went over, and all Don could say was “there he goes”. It was always slow motion…do you think alcohol had something to do with it? It must have been a reason why I had no pictures about that night. We discussed whether or not to stay an extra day but one of the groups who had driven through earlier told us about a storm that was expected to hit the next day. After a great time we decided it was time to leave Death Valley the next day and called it a night hoping the storm would hold off until after we got out of there.

Whether or not the storm would hit that night or early the next day was slightly on my mind all night long, and Don with his tent at the mouth of a wash was somewhat of a concern.

Just because it’s dry in camp doesn’t mean it’s not pouring down rain miles up the wash. Death Valley is known for these small flash floods and Don’s tent was placed in the wash like a dam blocking a river. Luckily it was clear and calm in the morning and no surprises came in the middle of the night.

Time to pack up and leave…it would be a long drive. Unfortunately we didn’t have a clue how long the drive would actually be.

We wanted to hit the road early so after a light breakfast and our daily espresso, we were off.

I had read about some of the geology in the area and we were checking out the landscape while driving unusually slow along the trail. All of a sudden the van shuddered like I hit something. I figured it was a large rock but doing a walk around the rig I smelled rubber burning. Looking at my trailer, I noticed it was sitting at an unusual stance. Further investigation made it was clear to what had just happened…I broke a spring pack. Absolutely friggin wonderful!

Out in the middle of the desert with limited tools but more importantly, where would I have to go to find the lousy shackle? There was one good point of all this happening where it did. Looking down at the tire I thought, “my God what if I’d been on the freeway”. Even at 10 MPH, the fiberglass fender was ripped up and the tire was damaged. At high speed it might have been a disaster. I pulled out the Satellite phone and started making calls. SMB was open and thankfully I got through to Peter Deltoro. Unfortunately SMB didn’t have parts because the trailers were built by another company for SMB so he suggested finding a place that deals with boat or cargo trailers, but the big question was where? All of a sudden I saw a pickup coming up the trail. When they pulled up I told them what had happened but was a bit stunned when I saw who was setting in the passenger seat. Of all the luck it was Bob, a Death Valley ranger who we had met the year before. The guy was a wealth of knowledge and he guided us in the right direction…Pahrump. He also said the storm that was on course for Death Valley was supposed to be one of the worst in years. Wonderful!

We were off. I had never been to Pahrump but was told it has put a smile on many a man’s face…hum! Unfortunately we were there for spring pack. Coming into town I saw a bunch of cargo trailers for sale at a business and stopped in to see if they could help. The gal there set us up with a place that sold nothing but springs…what luck. I called the guy and got an unusual set of directions…”go though the middle of town until you see the titty bar that looks like a castle, turn right go a couple of miles and turn right again…yeah can’t miss us”. When we got there I was flabbergasted. It was a trailer outside of town and there were piles of springs all over the place. A guy and his son ran the place and they looked like a couple of good ole boys, but all I was hoping was they weren’t going to give me the ride of my life and rip me off. Nothing could have been further from the truth. These guys were very nice folks, knowledgeable, and overall…honest. If you break down, these guys will come out with a wrecker that is equipped with a welder and I wouldn’t hesitate to call them for help. With a couple of new spring packs in hand, we rushed back to repair the trailer. I did stop by Wal-Mart to pick up a set of ½ inch drive sockets and a breaker bar. Once back at Echo, the winds were beginning to increase and we could see the storm approaching.

It was really getting cold as well, but the repairs made in time just as the sun was setting. The feeling of getting the job done was very satisfying. My tools were a bit limited but I never figured I’d need such heavy sockets and picking up the right stuff was a smart move. I agree you can’t pack for every dilemma, but some tools are well worth making room for.

Within an hour, the rain had hit and it was one bad storm as Bob had promised. At times while driving, the rains were so heavy that we almost had to pull over. It rained all the way back to Nor-Cal making for a tiring drive and I couldn’t wait to pull into my driveway.

After returning home, I found out that Death Valley had flooded and the water even washed out the highway. Bob hit the nail on the head and I sure was happy we got my trailer out of there before it was washed away.

Conclusion:

As with any adventure, sometimes things can go wrong. Getting a speeding ticket at the beginning of the trip was an upsetting event, and breaking a spring pack added some fuel to the fire, but overall this was a fantastic outing. We saw some of the best of what Death Valley has to offer it was great that the weather cooperated. At least we caught Titus open this time around and I really enjoyed the drive. Marble Canyon was the highlight of the trip and doing the hike with Mandy topped the experience.

I doubt I will ever set up a base camp here again. Death Valley is just too big and working out of Echo burned up too much fuel and time as well. I’ve found so many nice places to camp that it makes more sense to work local areas rather than making long drives.

Seeing the storm in action would have been interesting, but I was also happy we made it out in time. I’m ready to return to Death Valley and look forward to exploring more of this unique National Park.

 

Thanks for following Sportsmobile 4×4 adventures.

Maybe see ya on the trail.