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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Arizona Strip: Toroweap and Nampaweap Rock Art Site

A thunderstorm brewing over the Grand Canyon, as viewed from the Toroweap Campground.

It's apparently my destiny to learn the same lessons over and over and over...
  1. The act of packing sunscreen, even SPF 50, does not keep me from getting sunburned unless I actually apply it.
  2. Drinking an iced espresso at 4:00pm will result in lying awake until 4:00am.
  3. The Grand Canyon, no matter the viewpoint or time of day, is always spectacular.
I would prefer not to repeat lessons 1 and 2 ever again (hey, it's possible), but I wouldn't mind rediscovering the last one every year for the rest of my life.

The intimate camping accommodations at Overland Expo West, 2017
We spent a long weekend enjoying Overland Expo West in Flagstaff Arizona, camping alongside about 7,000 other outdoor enthusiasts at the new venue site. Fort Tuthill County Park was the perfect place to hold this type of event: close enough to town to run in if you forgot something, camping under trees (instead of the dust bowl/mud pit at Mormon Lake), and a large area for vendors to show off the latest equipment you didn't know you needed. Mark took classes during the day while I sat in on presentations, drank espresso drinks and basked in the sun (see lessons 1 & 2 above).

Mark and Ryan toasting to another Overland together.
Mark, in his natural habitat.

It was fun, but I was more than ready to hit the road on Monday morning. I'm not much for crowds, and after camping four nights in a row packed in with so many people, I had hit my limit. We had made arrangements to meet up with our buddies later that day, so we took off early with our friend Mel and had our traditional breakfast at Macys Coffeehouse in Flagstaff. Breakfast burritos, waffles and a giant sticky bun were exactly what we wanted, blissfully enjoyed in the relative quiet of this sorta new-age/kinda hippy place. Unfortunately, Mel couldn't join us this year on our post-Expo trip, so we had to say goodbye as he headed back to California and we took off for the nearest grocery store for supplies.
It's highly recommended to air down before you take on these roads. On our last trip, two of the four vehicles ended up with flat tires from the sharp rocks. The long distance also tempts one to go a wee bit faster than 35mph.

We were headed back to Toroweap Overlook and campground on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Our friend had scored a reservation at the group site that night and we were thrilled to go back, it being one of the most beautiful campgrounds we've ever visited. Wrangling four vehicles of various sizes and speeds had proven too difficult to coordinate a convoy, so we had all agreed to keep in touch and meet wherever we could along the way. It was a great plan, taking pressure off those of us who are early birds and those that need a bit more time to gather themselves in the morning. Mark and I were able to stop and take some photos, and visit the Navajo bridge near Lee's Ferry without feeling like we were holding anyone up.

To get an idea of how big the Arizona Strip is, and just how few developed places there are inside it, here's a map. What you can't see is the extensive system of dirt roads that wind around the place, running out to the edge of the Grand Canyon and up into the mountains to the north. We could have spent two months out there and not seen everything. If only we had brought a fuel tanker truck along with us.

Our plan for the week was to explore the Arizona Strip, which encompasses the northwestern corner of the state and includes the Grand Canyon/Parashant National Monument, and Grand Canyon National Park's North Rim, along with various national monuments and BLM wilderness areas.  It's a huge area, and our planned route would take us over almost 300 miles of dirt roads with no access to services. Since our truck's range is 230 miles with it's stock tank, we would be relying on our three 5 gallon jerry cans to get us out. We stopped in Fredonia, the last town before heading off-road, and filled those suckers to the tippy top.

Didn't look too inclement...
oh, wait...
The long road to Toroweap was particularly beautiful this year, after a winter of heavy rains made the desert bloom.

The Toroweap Overlook is sixty miles down a dirt road; the first fifty or so you could make in the family car (providing you brought a spare or two in case of blow outs) but the last ten miles would be almost impossible without high clearance and four wheel drive. It's a spectacular view though, and worth the trip. Things had changed since our last visit to this spot. The Tuweep campground is now available by reservation only, having been first come, first served previously. It kind of makes sense, I can only imagine the disappointment of driving all the way out there to find the campground full. A ranger is stationed there at the Monument and Grand Canyon National Park boundary. It must get lonely, because he was quite talkative when we checked in with him. He didn't seem too concerned about reservations, more so about the news and weather. I guess not that many people are committed enough to travel so far when there's a perfectly nice paved road to an overlook at the North and South Rims of the park (not to mention the lodge and gift shop there). This campground is pretty bare bones: you have to haul in your own water and haul out your own trash. There are some pretty nifty composting toilets though, so no worries in that department.

This sign should be posted on every public restroom in the country.
Not that it would help.

We cruised into the campground and found our friend Ron's car waiting for us. We assumed Ron would turn up eventually, so we busied ourselves with the campground dance, slowly driving back and forth trying to find the flattest spot we could on the pock-marked sandstone surface. Soon enough, all four vehicles were there, and eventually Ron walked in from a hike to the Toroweap Overlook.

Toroweap Group Camp, after a passing shower.
The rain and hail made an interesting pattern on the (formerly) blue paint on the truck.

This was the first time we had seen Ron since last year's White Rim experience. It was a melancholy trip for him; his VW Touareg was slated for the crusher soon, it being one of the German diesel-cheating-debacle vehicles. It would be the last big trip for his beloved car before turning it in for the rebate, and his sorrow showed every time it came up in conversation. A lot of our campfire discussions revolved around what vehicle he would be getting to replace it. (Note to self: never (even accidentally) call his car a Passat. I believe I lost any respect he may have had for me with that slip up.)

The Toroweap Plateau was green and lush this year.
Cactus were in full bloom.

Cactus garden on the plateau.

The passing rain clouds broke for some dramatic sunset shots.

The sheer 3000' drop off at Toroweap is a little unnerving. If you look closely, you can see Mark standing on the edge.

A rare photo of Mark and I, together in one shot. Thanks Ron!
Two boats approaching the Lava Falls area (around the corner)

A view toward Lava Falls and the same two boats. Apparently it's a pretty hairy rapids section for rafters.
Ron contemplates an agave flower stalk on our walk back to the Toroweap campground.

We had a great time posing on the edge of the 3000' drop at the overlook, taking photos at sunset after a passing shower/hail storm went through. The next morning we took some more pictures before heading off toward Twin Point. We took off a bit early with Ron so we could stop in at the Nampaweap Rock Art site.

Nampaweap is located about three miles from the turnoff on Mt. Trumbull Road, about seven miles back up the road from Toroweap Overlook. A short ride down a side road leads to a small dirt parking lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence. This area is still used for cattle grazing, and the fence keeps the cows from destroying the site. A half mile trail leads to a jumbled pile of volcanic basalt, blackened with desert varnish and decorated with hundreds of petroglyphs formed by the Southern Paiute tribe.
An informative sign about the area. It was nice to see the park put so much effort into this remote area.
At first it just looks like a jumble of rocks.

Closer examination reveals petroglyphs.
and more...
and more.
Mark and I have been known to hike many miles to find petroglyphs and have come close to dehydration a few times trying to find the more elusive ones. These were conveniently located on a well worn path, with signs pointing the way. It's a miracle they were as intact as they were; we've seen some sites that have been destroyed by people trying to steal them, touching them (skin oils destroy them), making rubbings (which slowly wear them off), and even spray painting over them with their own "witty" sayings. I think perhaps the miles of rough road and the hike itself keep most people from going out there.

If you find yourself in the area, it's definitely worth the side trip. A nice place to get out, stretch your legs and wear off the "bumpy road butt" that builds after a few hours of off-road travel. It was especially nice, considering what lay ahead; we were about thirty miles of rough road away from our next destination: Twin Point.

A rainbow forms after a thunderstorm, on Grand Canyon National Park's Toroweap Plateau.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Lippincott Pass and Death Valley's Racetrack Playa

The Grandstand appears to float on the Death Valley's Racetrack Playa

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Death Valley National Park? Chances are it would be one of the following: hot, really hot, frying hot, dust, wind...death maybe? Even if you jotted down a hundred things, I doubt that snow would be one of them, but that is exactly what stopped us in our tracks on the way to the famous Racetrack Playa.

An old sign still stands halfway up Lippincott Pass announcing the entrance to the park. It's been 23 years since Death Valley was designated a National Park; it became a National Monument in 1933.

Our group had compared notes during our stay at the Geologist's cabin and realized none of us had ever taken the Hunter Mountain route to get to Racetrack Playa.

Hey! we said, Let's do it! It'll be fun!

It was early February, during a record year of precipitation in California. The Panamint mountains, which make up the western edge of  Death Valley, range from 6,000' to 11,000' and it didn't come as a surprise that snow might fall there. What surprised us was the staying power; when we arrived Hunter Pass had ten feet of cold, hard packed snow that wasn't giving any sign of melting soon. There was a short discussion of having the Unimog take a run at it and try to clear a path for the rest of our vehicles, but it was quickly scrapped as one of those ideas that might get us on the Darwin Awards list. None of us had a craving for that kind of infamy.

Let's start at the beginning:

After having an expensively nice lunch at the Forty-Niner Cafe in Furnace Creek, our group raced out of the valley on Hwy 190 past Stovepipe Wells to Saline Valley Rd, just as the sun was setting. We found a nice spot not far from the turnoff and set up camp. This area is BLM land, and you're allowed to camp anywhere there is an established spot. This site was perfect for the four vehicles, and even came with a fire ring which we quickly utilized. It was darned cold up there. (FYI: This is where we discovered that wrapping cold chocolate chip cookies in foil and sticking them on the coals for a few minutes makes the perfect camp dessert.)

In the morning we took off for Hunter Pass. Saline Valley Road is actually a nice wide county-maintained gravel road. As it climbed into the mountains though, it turned from gravel to dirt to damp dirt to mud. Thick gooey mud. The snow started showing up around 6,000' and the mud turned to slushy mud. After coating all our trucks in exquisite plaster-like muck we came to an intersection: To the right up to Hunter Pass (which looked pretty clear as far as we could see); to the left was down to Saline Valley, where the turnoff to Lippincott Pass was located.  Andrew went ahead toward Hunter Pass, disappearing around the corner. One minute later the radio bleeped; "Uh, you guys might want to wait back there for a minute."

Rasa and Craig forge ahead on the mucky road

Snow. Enough snow to throw snowballs at each other, make snow angels in, and certainly to get a vehicle stuck in. Andrew gave it a go, but wasn't confident he would be able to make it very far. He drove back, and a contingent of the group walked up the road to check it out. After kicking at it a bit, then seeing how much deeper it got just a few hundred feet further up the road, it was decided that Lippincott Pass would be beautiful this time of year.

Ryan and Andrew confer about the feasibility of having the Unimog blaze a trail for us. The general consensus was we all liked our vehicles (and each other) too much to risk it.

Mark makes a snow angel while we wait for a decision on the pass.
The view from the intersection of Hunter Mountain Pass/Saline Valley Rd, looking back toward Hwy 190, Panamint dunes in the center.

In the meantime, we had picked up another vehicle on the route; an older guy (I'll call him Larry) in a truck and camper had passed our camp earlier that morning, and we caught up to him when he pulled over and tried to figure out where he was. Larry heard where we were going and decided that sounded like where he was going. As we all turned around to take the left fork Larry settled into the middle of the pack, trundling along in his Ford. Every so often he would pull over and dig around in his back seat; by the time we got to the turnoff to Lippincott, everyone had passed him and he was at the end of our line of vehicles.

The road across Saline Valley leading to Lippincott Pass. Notice the brown highlights on the white paint of the Xterra, courtesy of Saline Valley Rd.

We gathered at the crossroads a few minutes, and Andrew was volunteered to go first. He was in one of the most nimble vehicles, and if he encountered anyone coming down he would be most able to pull over to give them room and warn them of our group coming up. Lippincott Pass, as you may have guessed, is not a very wide road. In fact, it would be exaggerating to describe parts of it as "one lane."

Looking down at Lippincott Pass road, "Larry", us and the Unimog were lining up for the last (and scariest) leg, Saline Valley behind us. (photo courtesy of Rasa and Craig Fuller)

Here's the thing about these back roads; no one takes care of them. If there's a slide, there will be a pile of rocks in the middle. If there are heavy rains and some of the road washes out, hopefully your vehicle's not too wide. Eventually, sometimes, pending funding, a park employee will take a grader over some of it and try shoring it up, but no guarantees. So you have to keep your eyes open, know your vehicle, your skills (or lack thereof), and be prepared to back down if necessary.

The Unimog navigates a slide area of the road.
(photo credit: Rasa and Craig Fuller)
Here's a view from behind, going over another slide area.

We got pretty lucky. We didn't meet anyone coming down, and the road was in fairly good shape, considering the rainy year. There were a few slide areas we had to drive over, making the Unimog in particular tilt at a nail biting angle, and a few wash outs that necessitated a spotter, but otherwise it went well. The ride was uneventful, and Larry only pulled over once to rummage in the back of his truck on the way up. Andrew met us at the top and we all took pictures of the sign with our vehicles, another successful pass! Our luck continued with the sight of an empty campground at the top; Homestake Camp is where we planned to spend the night.

The top of Lippincott Pass, dirty but victorious.

We pulled in and Larry pulled up next to us to rest before heading out toward Teakettle Junction. He rummaged in his backseat one more time and emerged with a beer, sitting down on his bumper to shoot the breeze a bit more. We realized then, that starting around 9:00am, this guy had at least four beers before we got up and over the mountain. It was now 11:15.

Our new friend thanked us for letting him tag along, tucked his beer into a koozie and headed off down the road. As we watch his dusty wake, we decided to re-name Lippincott "Four Beer Pass" in his honor, then silently shuddered to ourselves with retroactive fear at what could have happened.

The beautiful Homestake Campground on the south end of the Racetrack

We had a nice lunch then walked down the road to the Racetrack Playa. I wouldn't recommend doing this in the summer without a hefty amount of water; it was only 70 degrees, and we were sweaty and thirsty just 20 minutes into the hike. The desert sucks the moisture out of you at an alarming rate, even in mild weather.

The Grandstand

The south end of the Racetrack gets fewer visitors than the north end; most people drive out for the day from the Ubehebe side, and stop at the small parking lot across from the Grandstand (the large group of rocks in the middle of the playa). We only saw one other couple out there, hardly a crowd. We took some pictures and listened to the silence for a while. It's a great place to listen to nothing, and one of my favorite places in the park.

Even though it's a remote and seemingly desolate place, the Racetrack has rules. Walking on the playa when it's wet is not allowed; it ruins the surface and the footprints it leaves take years to erase. Driving on the playa is absolutely not allowed anytime. But you know how people hate being told what to do. Someone (or someones, I suspect) had recently driven around on the playa, doing donuts and general screwing up the place for everyone else. The tracks are clustered around the parking area near the Grandstand, precisely where most people stop to take pictures. Some of the tracks looked old, but there were fairly fresh ones as well.

I'm not sure what motivates people to do this. Why here? There are hundreds of dry lake beds all over California and Nevada that are not in a National Park and are free for all sorts of mayhem. Why the only place known in the world where rocks slide across a lakebed all on their own leaving mystifying tracks in their wake? Is this a way of pissing on your territory? All I can say is it speaks volumes to your character if you're unable to visit a place without screwing it up for everyone else.

(Note to anyone considering doing this: I'm not usually prone to violence, but if I ever catch you I will not only make a note of your license number but I'd make sure you'd have to call a tow truck to get out of there. Your fifteen minutes of fame might turn into 6 to 12 months and a whopping fine not counting the 153 mile towing fee.  And geez, cell phones don't get much service out there, so you might even have to hike out to find help. Hope you brought water!)

The moon rises above Homestake Camp

We spent a gorgeous night at Homestake Campground. In a place known for it's wind and winter cold, it was calm and relatively warm. In the morning we drove to Teakettle Junction and out to Ubehebe crater. This part of the road is wide, corrugated and popular; we met several vehicles that were going much too fast for the conditions, and were even stopped by a few who were not sure where they were. (Note to anyone who wants to explore Death Valley: at the least, THE LEAST, invest in a map of the area and look at it!) We stopped to air up at the crater parking area, then hiked up to Little Hebe to stretch our legs.

Looking down into Ubehebe crater.

Ubehebe and Little Hebe craters were formed when magma burbled up close to the surface, hitting groundwater and setting off a steam induced explosion. Cinders from the craters have been found as far away as Lake Rogers, 50 miles to the south. It's a nice little hike, and from the top there's a nice view of the Funeral mountain range and the valley.

We found ourselves back in Furnace Creek that night, and since it was Mark's birthday, we all gussied up the best we could and went out to the Wrangler Steakhouse for dinner. We might not have been the best dressed patrons there that night, but I'm pretty sure we had more fun than all the other diners combined. Roughing it makes for a great adventure, but letting someone else cook while you have a cocktail out of the wind is pretty awesome too.

The birthday boy stands on the Racetrack Playa. I'll take a wild guess and say his birthday wish was to stay out there exploring forever.