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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Death Valley the Hard Way

Striped Butte, Death Valley National Park

It sounds like the start of a joke: 

"So, a Tacoma, an Xterra, a Unimog and a Ford F250 all meet in the desert..." 

The plan was to enter Death Valley taking the hardest route we had attempted to date: Mengel Pass. Our friends had driven this route before, but we had never attempted it because we usually travel alone. Since we were accompanied this time we weren't as worried about getting stranded if something happened. Our buddies would be there to:

a.) laugh at our ineptitude, then
b.) help get us out of a jam if we got into one.

(I have no doubt that would have been the order of things but thankfully we made it through in one piece. Pretty much, anyway.)

When I first read about Mengel Pass all I could think was how much that sounded like Josef Mengele, not exactly a calming comparison. Our Backcountry Adventures book's description was peppered with unhealthy phrases like: "large boulders", "shelf drop offs", "high clearance and experienced drivers required", and "flash floods sometimes make the route impassible". This was definitely not music to my ears, being a Nervous Nelly when it comes to driving on rough roads.
At the top of the Slate Range, looking out toward the Panamint Mountains
Our drive over the Slate Range roughly followed
the route taken by the Manly Party (click and
read the sign for info)
The valley looked so tame from above; turned out it was paved
with bowling ball sized boulders that were a pain to navigate.

We started out in Trona, driving over the Slate Range on BLM land, taking the general route of the Manly party (the ones who saved the ill-fated settlers who gave Death Valley it's name) ending up at the foot of the Panamint Range. Here there is a crevice in the cliffs of the mountains just wide enough for vehicles to pass through: Goler Wash.

The entrance to Goler Wash

It's pretty impressive, and beautiful in a desert-y way. The rocky mountains are mostly bare and practically vertical. Once in a while you turn a corner and there are cotton top cactus clinging to the cliffs that tower hundreds of feet over your head. When the wash opens up there are old cabins and mines to explore. Springs flow out of crevices in the rocks here and there and though we didn't see any, there are often bighorn sheep and wild burros in the area.

A wall of cotton topped cactus in the canyon.
The Unimog squeezes through the pass

This part of the trail was easy. The road was loose gravel with a few larger rocks thrown in often enough to where you wouldn't want to stop paying attention. The road climbs steadily upward, and it's so distractingly pretty with enough mining remnants and interesting views it (almost) makes you forget what's coming. We reached the turnoff to Mengel Pass and the road immediately made a steep incline to the top of a knoll overlooking a huge valley. Not Death Valley (that was over one more set of hills) but Butte Valley, named for the gorgeous striped butte that stands in the middle of it, imaginatively named Striped Butte.

Miner's cabin, Goler Wash
Anyway, to get to this gorgeous valley, you have to travel over what can only be very loosely described as a road. It's littered with big boulders, smaller big boulders and openings only large enough to fit the vehicle if you hold your breath (why does that help? I don't know, but I do it and it helps ok?).  It's really more like what you'd imagine a riverbed in Yosemite would look like if it ran dry.

Even though the Unimog is a larger vehicle, it had the advantage over our truck. It's got much higher clearance and a shorter wheel base, enabling it to easily traverse uneven terrain. We, on the other hand, had to pick our way through very slowly, sometimes stopping to stack rocks in between the boulders so we wouldn't end up teeter-tottering on our transfer case. It was slow, it was painful, and at one point we slid a little, scraping the steps that are mounted just under the driver's side door. That was acceptable to us, much better than putting a big dent in the body and possibly not being able to open and close the door properly. We made it, and our friends may have chuckled a bit, but they were nice enough to do it when we weren't watching.

The Unimog makes quick work of the rough "road" as we lurk behind the corner. (Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)

At this point, we had to get out and plot a course. We were the lowest vehicle of the bunch, with the added disadvantage of being the longest wheel base. There were a few spots we had to rearrange rocks to bridge the wider gaps.
(Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)
Sometimes spotting involves complicated dance moves.
(Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)
Victorious! We all made it through with (barely) a scratch.
(Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)
By the time we reached Butte Valley the sun was starting to set. We had spoken with another guy  over the radio who told us there weren't any other groups out here and in fact, the Geologist's Cabin was empty. Just what we were hoping to hear.

The Geologist's Cabin sits on a knoll overlooking Butte Valley

Geologist's Cabin was built by, well, a geologist of sorts. An old miner nicknamed Panamint Russ built the cabin and also a rock cistern for the spring nearby. He is said to have discovered, then promptly lost, the location of a very high-grade claim while prospecting in the valley in 1925. The guy might not have had much talent as a cartographer, but he had mad skills when it came to cabin building. And we were very thankful it was uninhabited that night, because the wind was screaming and the desert doesn't offer up much shelter. We all found the flattest spot we could behind the cabin to set up our tents/campers, then brought our stoves, water and coolers in out of the wind.

This plaque is embedded in the front stoop of the cabin. 
It reads: "Welcome. In the spirit of the Old West, please leave it better than you found it."
I think that spirit should apply to life in general, don't you?

The cabin is one of those rare public buildings that is taken care of by the public. The shelves inside are stocked with everything you might need; canned food, beer, firewood, even that aloe vera sunburn gel that I regret to say, we've needed more than once on trips to the desert. There's a sink, a water container, a countertop, a huge stone fireplace, and a big wooden table and chairs that look like they came out of your grandma's dining room. A small solar panel on the roof keeps a battery charged with enough juice to run the lamp for an hour or so. It was all amazingly free of rodent poo, considering it sits in the middle of the desert full of kangaroo rats. (Disclosure if you go: there is a general hantavirus warning for all of the cabins in the park. To date, none of our party has succumbed, but consider yourself warned.) The cabin rules, which are listed on a handwritten note over the fireplace tucked behind a folded American flag, are as follows:
  • Leave the place as you found it. If you use something, replace it.
  • Do not leave any food item that mice can chew into.
  • Build the fire at the very back of the fireplace or it will fill the cabin with smoke.
  • If the flag is raised, that means it's occupied by the Park Service, even if no one is home when you arrive.
There was a wooden outhouse out back as well, which was a welcome break from hiking in search of a bushy enough bush to hide behind, a tough thing to do in a place that gets 2.3 inches of rain a year. 

Cocktail hour out of the wind, with the perfect view of Striped Butte out the cabin window. (Ryan claims that tortilla chips and salsa are the mainstay of the human diet; he can be seen here in his natural habitat.)
Warming up by the fire
We built a nice fire and cooked dinner together in the cabin, staying up until past 10:00pm*(!) glad to be out of the wind and cold for the night.

(*10:00pm was a record for us on this trip. The desert has a reputation for heat and sun, and though it was pleasant most of the time during the day, this was February. After the sun goes down, especially at altitude, it gets downright cold. Sitting around in nylon camp chairs with the wind whistling under your butt somehow makes going to bed early very attractive.)

After a windy night (thank you Four Wheel Camper, we had it so much better than our poor friends in roof top tents) the morning brought sun and another beautiful view of Striped Butte in the valley below.
Striped Butte in the morning sun.

We packed up and drove down past the Butte, stopping here and there to take a picture and count our lug nuts (this part of the road had some major washboarding). A few miles out of the valley we stopped to check out Warm Spring Canyon, the site of an old talc mine. There are still some impressive mine shafts and mining equipment up there, along with numerous cabins and even a swimming pool that apparently was kept full by the warm springs until 1999. Sadly, it's empty now.

It was a great place to explore, and even had an established campsite or two nearby. The cabins looked like a group came by and used them occasionally; we found evidence of a possible long running poker game in one room. A case of beer, a table and chairs, and a boxed set of poker chips were sitting in a nice screened porch area on one end of the building.

We hiked up the hill behind the cabins to the source of the spring (Warm Spring, who names these things?). Warm water spilled out of a crack in the rocks, filling a little pool that was large enough to take a dip if you hunkered down into it. Not as good as a swimming pool, but it would have been fun if we had more time there.

Kitchen area of one of the Warm Spring cabins.

Looking out the door of the main cabin.
The now empty swimming pool overlooks Warm Spring Canyon. 
Wouldn't it be cool if this was still full of water?

The spring: a high-tech water system (rusty pipe, center) siphons some of the water off for the cabins below.

Warm Spring pool, on the hillside above the cabins.
The talc mine entrance. Seemed to us there was still plenty of talc to be had in the area, judging by all the white stuff lying around.
Looking down to the cabin from the spring above.
It was a long drive out to Death Valley proper. Warm Spring Canyon road meets up with West Side road, a popular gravel road that is open to regular passenger cars (usually). This being an unusually rainy year, West Side Road was closed to traffic that day. Fortunately for us, the park service had left the gates unlocked, so we were able to sneak out onto Badwater Road, closing the gate behind us to keep some unsuspecting tourist from getting mired down in the muck. The Amargosa River, normally a dry riverbed that crosses the road, was flowing up to six inches deep that day, creating enough mud to suck an unsuspecting rental car down to the hubs.

Looking down on Death Valley toward Badwater Road, the salt flats shining white in the sun.

The entire off-road portion of this trip was about 50 miles. Be aware of your fuel consumption; it's always a good idea to have spare fuel and an extra spare tire. Sharp rocks, big boulders, heat (depending on the time of year) and flash floods are all possibilities in the back country so it pays to be prepared. There are no services (not even cell service for most of the way) and help would be many hours and dollars away.

It was a fun trip, and we recapped the adventure over a late lunch at the Forty-Niner Cafe in Furnace Creek Village. (If you decide to do this, be sure to check you're credit limit; the sandwiches averaged $20.00 each. Fortunately they were huge; Mark and I ended up having the other half of mine for breakfast later in the trip.)
From left: Rasa, Craig, LeeWhay, Ryan, me, Mark and Andrew.
A better crew we couldn't ask for.

Next stop: Saline Valley, Lippincott Pass and the Racetrack.

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