I’m not going to give away many specifics about how to get up Salsberry Peak. There is some basic info in Zdon’s Desert Summits, but the fun of this one is finding the way on your own. After a cross-desert trek towards the base of the peak you’ll find many washes and ridges, but if you find the right one you’ll be treated to some awesome narrows, steep dry falls to scramble, and many signs of desert bighorn including bones, tracks, and bedding spots. The final ridge to the summit is really fun with lots of small obstacles, and the summit itself is big enough to fit a group of friends out on a day of desert peak bagging. Rather than ramble on about it, I’d rather just show. Here are pictures of one of my new favorite desert climbs (and even more here).
On our way out of the park on our last day in Death Valley we stopped by Sidewinder Canyon. This is a great canyon just south of Badwater. At first glance, it’s a relatively boring and steep open rocky wash-like canyon, but if you start to peek down the side slots you’ll find some really cool stuff. Some of the slots are so narrow and have such high walls that you need a headlamp to see. I highly recommend this less-visited hike along the main park road. Some pics here.
Our weather luck was wearing out. We had hiked through a brief but annoying thunderstorm on our visit to Landscape Arch and the skies were not looking any better as we drove towards the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands has several ‘Districts’ and the Needles one was the most convenient for us, therefore we decided to head in and do a bit of sightseeing.
Along the way we made the short stop at Newspaper Rock, a large panel that holds over 2000 years worth of rock art. As native groups passed through the area they added to the panel and it’s interesting to see the evolving sophistication of the figures. We spent a while studying the panel – I think my favorite pieces were the elk hunter and the buffalo.
Slickrock Trail, Canyonlands National Park
Despite the threatening skies we wanted to get out on some kind of hike or drive. The 4WD roads were not tempting at all due to reports of much quicksand, and we wanted to avoid anything canyon-ey due to the rain, so we picked the Slickrock Trail, a ~3 mile interpretive loop with big views.
At the trailhead we were greeted by a local, then we took off with our rain gear and cameras in tow. We managed to avoid any rainfall on us, but we got to watch an impressive storm move through the buttes in the distance. It made for a great hike and we really enjoyed our visit into this tiny corner of Canyonlands. I’d love to come back and spend more time exploring this and the other districts.
Natural Bridges, Moki Dugway, and Valley of the Gods
After our Canyonlands visit we continued south and visited Natural Bridges National Monument. This is a really small park that features some rock formations and ancestral Pueblo ruins. As we approached the park the skies got darker and storms loomed overhead. We made the quick touristy drive with stops to catch the view points, then would retreat to the warm dry safety of the truck. In the midst of the drive we were treated to a gorgeous rainbow, a nice way to break up the storms!
From here we headed south on 261 through one of the scariest storms I’ve experienced. It wasn’t much bigger than mid-west thunderstorms I’ve been through but I felt like our truck was way too exposed compared to the flat mesa-top we were driving on. There was no where to go except FAST down 261 in the opposite direction of the storm’s movement. After a few scary storm moments we reached the edge of the mesa and began to drop to the valley below via Moki Dugway.
Moki Dugway is a steep, unpaved set of switchbacks that steeply go from the top of the mesa to the valley below, dropping 1100 feet in 3 miles. I was looking forward to this fun and scenic road when planning the trip, but approaching it in a pounding storm with flooding was not as exciting. Once on the descent I realized it wasn’t so bad compared to so many roads I’ve driven in the mountains and deserts of California, but the torrential rain introduced an element of excitement. Though wide and graded for passenger cars, running washouts kept us on our toes.
At the bottom of the Dugway we turned into Valley of the Gods, a beautiful piece of BLM land sometimes called the mini Monument Valley. We planned on camping somewhere in this area overnight but less than a mile down the dirt road we were stopped by washout. A really big running washout. So we went back to pavement and connected to 163 and the east entrance to Valley of the Gods. From here we were able to drive in and find a lovely campsite for the night.
The rain held just long enough for us to get settled in, get a fire going, and cook some dinner. Unfortunately the relentless rain started again and we curled up in the back of our truck under the lid to stay warm and dry. And I discovered something awful about this part of the country. The beautiful fine red dirt and rock turns to paste when it gets wet. It caked my shoes, the back of the truck, and anything else it could get on. It’s two months later and I’m still finding it everywhere.
Next up: Monument Valley and Navajo National Monument
This hike ranks up there with one of the best I’ve done in the desert. It has a bit of everything to offer – some mine ruins and tunnels, rockhounding, nice canyon narrows to wander through, a nice scrambly desert peak (class 2/3, depending on who is rating it), challenging route finding, and some beautiful red rock. The mileage and elevation gain is not difficult but the hike is not easy and requires cross-country travel with good route finding skills in canyon country. If you’re looking for something a bit less challenging the first half through the narrows is an excellent dayhike without that ‘uh oh’ factor.
Both the beginning and ending of this hike are on roads that would be passable in most vehicles, and definitely our truck, but in order to make a loop of it we left the truck at the junction where the roads meet (see track below). We hiked this in a counter-clockwise direction. If you want to just do the mine ruins and narrows this is the way to go. If you want to do the loop you can go either direction. I’ll describe the full loop in the counter-clockwise direction.
Leave your vehicle at the starting point below – any car should be able to make it here, but if it is washed out or in bad condition there is a giant shoulder parking area where the side road meets the pavement. It will add ~1/3 mile to the round trip hike if you park there – no biggie.
Just north of China Lake Naval Weapons Center is a tiny little wilderness area called the Coso Range Wilderness. It’s small, around 50,0o0 acres, with limited access (4WD desert road/old mining road). There are no facilities, no signs, no visitor center. It’s not a place to stop and gawk at nature from paved RV-sized pullouts – for that, continue on a few miles to Death Valley.
However, if you want a remote place to enjoy a night of desert car camping or a solitary hike, it’s great. Quiet, relatively quick to access from pavement (though high clearance/4WD might be necessary depending on conditions), with a variety of things to see and do. Old mining cabins, lovely canyon hikes, some classic desert peak scrambling, and wild horses are some of the few things in the Coso Range Wilderness.
One great thing about this area is the ability to see some of the famous Coso Petroglyphs without having to go on one of the prearranged tours via the NWC. In Centennial Canyon you’ll find some of the distinctive sheep glyphs that the Coso Petroglyphs are known for. They aren’t quite as abundant as the sites within the boundaries of the Naval Weapons Center, but they are quite amazing on their own.
Over Memorial Day weekend we spent a night in the Coso Range Wilderness including an evening hike to the glyphs (it was too hot to hike to them during the day). The hike is a really nice one, and short – about four miles round trip. We saw lots of desert wildflowers and plenty of wildlife (including an angry badger).
Rather than include all of the details about this hike, I am being a bit vague since a lot of the fun is figuring out where they are on your own. For more pictures of the glyphs we found (along with the great views and flowers of the Coso Range Wilderness), visit the gallery here: Centennial Canyon Glyphs
Later on Sunday morning, after our Minietta Mine exploration, we headed out of Panamint Valley and into Death Valley. Our goal was to visit some of the lesser known canyons in the park, and we focused on two of them in the Amargosa range accessed via different points along the Badwater Road.
We spent the first couple days of our trip exploring the southernmost side of Anza Borrego (along S2), basecamped at Agua Caliente Hot Spring. It was nice to camp there since we had the nice hot pools to come back to at the end of the day!
On Monday we checked out two areas I had found along S2 near the town of Ocotillo. The primary attractions were fossils and wind caves. This area, though now the middle of the desert near the Mexican border, used to be an ocean floor. There are many signs of this, especially in an area called Fossil Canyon. The rocks in this canyon are made up of fossilized sea creatures. It’s easy to find clam shells, corals, oyster shells, and more.
During the second half of the day we hiked into the Domelands to find the lesser-known wind caves. If you search for wind caves in Anza Borrego you’ll learn about the other ones – these aren’t in many books but I was determined to find them. It’s good that I had pretty detailed waypoints since the route goes through some of the badlands-style canyons, and those are a maze!
One of the coolest things we saw on this day was on the way to the windcaves at a place we called Sand Dollar Hill. Again, a sign of what this area once was, there were millions of sand dollar pieces scattered all over the desert floor.
Once at the wind caves the weather picked up, getting super windy, rainy, and dark. I would have loved to explore the area a bit more, but it just wasn’t practical given the conditions. I would definitely like to come back to this area someday and really explore. We also cancelled plans to drive the Canyon sin Nombre 4×4 road in to some mud caves since it was starting to rain. Guess we’ll just have to come back!
One of the most popular hikes in Anza Borrego is Borrego Palm Canyon. But just a short drive south of this canyon is Hellhole Canyon. Hellhole has a similar set of Palm Oasis, a seasonal waterfall with ferns, and a lot of fun rock scrambling.
This was our second visit to Anza Borrego and although our original visit is a distant memory, we wanted to do something different. On our first visit we checked out Borrego Palm Canyon, so this time it was Hellhole. Actually, our original goal for the day was Indianhead Peak, but time and weather (wind) kept us from the summit.
I ended up keeping my camera put away for the exciting stuff since it was a full-on scramble, both hands needed. But I still managed to get a few shots along the way!