On Monday morning we awoke to fresh snow covering the peaks that surround Eureka Valley. Clouds still hung around the ridges but they were slowly clearing out. While the guys picked up camp I took the opportunity to climb around the Eureka Dunes a bit. The overnight precip made the surface the perfect resistance for climbing up sand – instead of sinking I walked on the damp crust along the ridges until I crested a high point and found an amazing view stretching out in front of me.
After our lovely morning in camp we decided to visit the ruins of Crater and Last Chance Mines.
After wandering the ruins we followed a 4WD track up the ridge to the south. Parking just below the summit, we scrambled up the rocky ridge to the high point, Lead Peak. From the top we watched fighter jets from the nearby military facilities run laps through Eureka and Saline Valleys.
We ended our day east of the park outside of Goldfield, NV where we explored more ruins and set up camp at an old cabin with a view of the Sierra.
The next day was a resupply day in Beatty and Pahrump, but I still managed to squeeze in a short sunset hike up Rhodes Hill in southern Death Valley.
I’ve only recently finished posting my photos from our annual Thanksgiving trip to Death Valley. It’s kind of fun going all the way back to November to relive this trip, always my favorite of the year!
Part 1: Alabama Hills, Andrews Peak, Papoose Flat, Hidden Dunes and Eureka Valley
We hit the road on Friday night after work and drove to our typical late night camp just north of Ridgecrest where we met up with Antony. On Saturday morning we took our time on the Eastern Sierra 395 corridor, visiting some of our typical and favorite places like the Alabama Hills Cafe and Wilson’s Sports in Bishop. In the early afternoon we headed east out of Big Pine towards Death Valley, turning off on a side dirt road into the Inyos where we got to engage 4WD and start exploring some new terrain.
A few miles in we turned off on an overgrown faded track and followed it partially up the side of Andrews Peak until a downed tree blocked our way. We left the cars and kept hiking up the road. I glanced at the map and misread the topo, so what I thought was a ~600 ft climb was really 1000. Sorry guys.
After the short hike up Andrews Peak to catch the view towards Waucoba and Squaw we continued back on the main dirt track through a rocky canyon and up some steep switchbacks over a ridge. It was a beautiful drive that never really challenged the truck but was still a lot of fun.
From the top of the ridge we followed the winding track along the crest of the Inyos until we started to drop into a Valley. At this point I knew why friends had recommended this spot to me. As you descend into Papoose Flat a beautiful rocky landscape appears. Piles of rocks similar to those in Joshua Tree combined with the high (very high) desert scrub brush made for some amazing scenery. We drove around and found a stunning campsite behind a pile of rocks with a view of the Sierra. The only negative part: it was so, so cold. Overnight it got into the single digits. That’s what happens at 8800 ft in late November, even in the desert.
Due to the view of the east Sierra I was looking forward to photographing sunrise the next morning, but I awoke to some clouds rolling in over the high peaks. As they got closer small flakes of snow started to fly. We quickly packed up and after a brief tour of the Flat headed back down to the main road into Eureka Valley.
Our destination for the next night was Eurkea Dunes, but not before being diverted to Hidden Dunes for the day. The Hidden Dunes are a remarkable long set of sand dunes that are tucked behind a mountain range, just out of the line of sight from the roads and approaches into the area. A very faint side road leads across the flat Eureka Valley to a dead end where you can park and start the three mile trek to the dunes. You approach them via a notch in the mountain range, and the flat hike across the desert is easy and has a lot of interesting rocks and tracks underfoot.
The storms that had been coming in over the Sierra that morning caught up with us and we finished the hike under low clouds, dark skies, and a light drizzle. Still, it didn’t prevent us from having a fun night camped near Eureka Dunes where we grilled steaks and drank good beer around the campfire pit until many hours after dark.
From our second home in Southern Death Valley it was back to familiar territory. We took the opportunity to explore a 4WD road and canyon that we had always wanted to check out (Lemoigne Canyon), and spent our last night in Tuttle Creek Campground outside of Lone Pine where some friends were able to join us. Our final Saturday was spent along the Eastern Sierra where we visited some of our favorite restaurants and and shops and spent some time bouldering in the Buttermilks. After our final night of camp at Glass Creek we made it home safe and sound and on schedule on October 9th.
I’ve never done a road trip this long before. I thought I’d share some of the random things I learned.
What worked well:
Having a goal for the road trip was good. We knew we had to be in Denver at a certain time for GABF. That forced us into a schedule that kept us moving but gave us time to explore what was important to us. Since so much of this trip was in unfamiliar territory I enjoyed getting the basic look at some places I’ve always wanted to visit.
Now that I’m more familiar with some of these places I feel I can go back and fully immerse myself into exploration. For example, I’d love to go back and spend a full two weeks just in Grand Staircase Escalante or Canyonlands.
Before this trip we struggled with what to do with the back of our truck. A simple lid or a full shell? Basically, we wanted something to secure our stuff and something to keep us dry when raining (we sleep in the back). When looking at the basics we decided a lid was sufficient. The bed of the truck is pretty deep so it’s not very suffocating. Having rode out some heavy rain I’m pretty happy with the decision. All the problems we had (like the pasty mud getting all over the tailgate from shoes) would have happened with the shell too.
Speaking of the truck – I kind of thought MrC wert a bit overboard with the Tundra Rock Warrior when we got it but holy cow I love that thing. It gets us everywhere and it is super comfortable for long road trips. Not the greatest gas mileage, but you have to make compromises somewhere…
The Metolius Colossus makes for an awesome two-person mattress, couch, AND crash pad. I don’t know what we’d do without that beast.
Having cash of all denominations is good when you pull into a campsite in the middle of nowhere with something like a $7 fee. When all you have is a $20 you’re out of luck.
Occasional peeks into civilization for a meal and a hotel is not a bad thing. While I prefer the backcountry, sometimes a hot shower and cold draft beer make all the difference in the world.
What needed improvement:
The weather, maybe? Okay, I know I can’t control that but I feel like it really cut into my enjoyment of the area I was most excited about visiting. But, hey, guess we’ll have to go back. Darn.
Sometimes I just need to go with the flow. I am a detailed planner and when things don’t go according to plan I’m usually pretty laid back, but sometimes even my backup plans failed (due to the weather). From Page, AZ on everything fell apart from my original plan (2-3 days in Paria, then home via the ET Highway). I sometimes get so preoccupied with staying on plan I forget to be flexible and enjoy the stuff around me at the time.
Being organized is everything. When I head off for a weekend it’s easy to just throw everything in the truck and figure it out later, especially with a newer vehicle where I haven’t quite optimized the space. But when spending two weeks on the road I need to make sure everything is where I want and expect it to be. By the end of the trip I had the system pretty much figured out and it made packing for our nine day thanksgiving trip a breeze.
I’m sure I’ll think of a million other things, but that’s why God invented edit buttons I guess.
Thanks for bearing with me and reading along during this long string of trip reports. I know it’s a bit late but I just needed some down time to catch up. Next up: Thanksgiving Trip! Nine days of exploring Death Valley including six summits. My favorite trip of the year!
When we left Page, AZ the next morning the skies looked clearer but we knew there were isolated thunderstorms in the forecast. Still, we soldiered on with our plans to spend the next couple of days in the Grand Staircase Escalante/Paria Canyon area. There is no lack of things to do and see in this area, but our primary goal was to score a permit for The Wave, a famous formation in the Coyote Buttes Area. The area is restricted to 20 permitted visitors a day and we wanted to try for one of the ten walk-up spots. This experience deserves its own post – check for it next.
Unfortunately we didn’t get a permit. But, like I said, the area is packed full of great stuff – we could spend a month there and not get to see all the awesome canyons, formations, rock art, and other things the area has to offer. However, during our time at the permit station we learned that the area did not avoid the storms that had made our previous couple of days adventurous. There were washouts, flooding, and blocked roads. It looked like most of our backup plans weren’t even accessible.
After getting skunked on the permit we headed to a nearby formation that was still accessible. It’s called the Nautilus and it is easy to see why when you see it from the correct angle. It’s a swirly pattern carved in a sandstone bluff and offers photographic opportunities as beautiful as the elusive Wave. It was the wrong time of day and stormclouds kept blocking the light, but nevertheless it was a fun short hike where we were able to scout and take some point-and-shoot photos. I plan on returning here someday with full camera gear at the right time of day!
Across the main road we found another parking area and the Toadstool Hoodoo trailhead. It let to some cool rock and mud formations that practically glowed in the sun when framed against the incoming storm clouds.
After wandering these for a while we decided to visit the Grand Staircase Escalante visitor’s center down the road and get some updated road info before continuing on to explore the area. It’s a good thing we did – it seems that everything except the main paved highway through the area was washed out. The friendly volunteers told us where we could go to see some of the washouts and they were right at the beginning of some of the roads I had planned on spending two or three days exploring. We drove down one of the roads only to find it washed out by a 250 ft wide river. No thank you.
Originally, we were going to spend the day exploring the area, camp there that night, and then try for another Wave permit the next morning. But by noon we had seen all the things that were accessible without a permit. More storms were rolling in. So we had a choice to make and we chose to move on to more familiar (and dry) territory – Death Valley. On the way out of the area we stopped by some nice pictographs that the Grand Staircase volunteer had told us about – the Ooga Booga man was pretty darn awesome.
We drove west through Las Vegas, going through a couple of big storms along the way, and continued on to our favorite spot in southern Death Valley. By shortly after sunset we were set up in “The Cabin”, dry and cozy in our desert vacation home.
Death Valley has several sets of dunes. The most accessible (and therefore crowded) are the ones a few miles east of Stovepipe Wells. A bit less accessible but still regularly visited are the Eureka Dunes in the northern part of the park. There are more dunes located throughout the park in even less accessible locations. It was one of these locations, the Panamint Dunes, that we visited on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
These dunes aren’t particularly difficult to get to, but the minimum six mile round-trip hike to their edge deters many casual visitors. The road to the parking area isn’t great either – while it’s passable in passenger car I definitely would not feel comfortable taking one on it! 2WD is okay but the blowing sand and washboarding make having a hearty vehicle a must.
From the parking spot the dunes are plainly visible across the desert. They don’t look too far away but the scale of Panamint Valley really messes with distance perception. It is a three mile walk across the desert to reach these dunes. It is dry and sandy and they never seem to be getting any closer. Additionally, the barely detectable uphill slope (1000 feet of gain) wears you down. But eventually you’ll get there.
And when you do – hopefully you’re the only one to have made the entire trek with energy to spare in recent times. If so, you’ll have unbroken, footstep free dunes to play on and photograph. Good luck getting that by Stovepipe Wells! There were two major dune crests that we climbed and played on. We got to experience some fun dune phenomena like singing sand – sounding much like the drone of an airplane in the distance. And the best part of all – we had the dunes to ourselves.
On Thanksgiving Day we decided to play around the Argus Range on the western side of Panamint Valley. Much of this range sits within the boundary of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center but the northern end is free for recreation so we packed the day full of some fun 4×4 and two desert peaks. We needed to burn some energy before that big Thanksgiving dinner in camp.
Darwin is an old mining town and though there are still a few residents it is on the verge of becoming a ghost town. It is accessible via any vehicle using the paved road that exits 190 about 17 miles west of Panamint Valley. It is also accessible via an older route that winds through the Argus range. This ‘Back Road’ approach is dirt and the first mile and a half has been badly washboarded by Death Valley visitors heading to the trailhead for Darwin Falls. After the Darwin Falls trailhead the road becomes heavily degraded in places, requiring high clearance and the occasional dip into 4WD. Of course this is where the fun is.
We followed the road up as it climbed steeply into the northern Argus Range, moving quite slowly and engaging the 4WD. Near the top the road conditions improved greatly and we found a nice place to pull out and park the trucks for our hike up Zinc Hill. Zinc Hill is the prominent peak of the northern end of the Range and it was the target of the day’s first hike.
Bullfrog Peak is a short and easy cross-country desert peak that straddles the boundary of Death Valley National Park. It is just east of Beatty, NV and tucked in the hills behind the popular tourist destination of the ghost town of Rhyolite. The summit offers a great view of the Grapevine Mountains to the west and you’ll definitely have it to yourself, guessing from the insignificant number of entries in the summit logbook.
If you like dispersed camping there are plenty of opportunities in the area of this peak, but keep the park boundary in mind if you plan on having a campfire or doing other activities that are frowned upon by NPS but not BLM. The ‘main’ dirt roads through this area were graded and well maintained when we visited in November 2010, but the side roads (where the best dispersed camping is) were a bit overgrown and required high clearance, and maybe 4×4 depending on what one you decide to turn down. It was a cold night and without much effort we found a nice spot with a pre-existing campfire ring on BLM land.
To climb the peak, leave your vehicle at the open area (plenty of room to turn around and leave several cars) on the saddle between Bullfrog and Sawtooth (see the track below). Then simply follow the ridge to the summit. It is easy cross-country terrain and routefinding couldn’t be easier – just walk up. At the park boundary there is a fence but it is easy to hop.
The summit register had very few entries – I think I saw two other entries from 2010 and we summited in late November. Of course, during many months of the year this hike will be hot and miserable – take that into account if you decide to do this one! I imagine it would be a lovely sunset or sunrise peak during the hotter times of year.