Part I: Choosing Trucks Over Oxen, We Explore Death Valley
Death Valley, situated in eastern California, is the largest National Park outside of Alaska and includes over 3.4 million acres of land. Death Valley, named by a group of gold rushers who mistakenly thought the Valley was a shortcut into California (also thought to be the historical beginnings to the phrase, "Oops, my bad."), is probably best known as being, on average, the hottest, driest place on Earth, where summertime temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees, and tour buses full of German tourists outnumber the mining towns. In 1913, Furnace Creek reached an unprecedented 134 degrees Fahrenheit and remained the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth until the Sahara decided to get two degrees hotter in 1922.
Bordered on the west by the magnificent 11,049-foot Telescope Peak in the Panamint Mountains and 5,475-foot Dante's View of the Amargosa Range in the east, the Valley floor also holds the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere, known as Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley is a textbook study on geology and offers colors, vistas, and an ecosystem unlike anywhere else on Earth. It also happens to be one of the most 'wheeling-friendly National Parks around, with over 800 miles of unmaintained roads that lead to many historical attractions and immeasurable stretches of solitude. It is a land of spectacular extremes.
With that kind of appeal, it doesn't take much time before we hear the calling and have to start preparing for a return to this desert sanctuary. After a year since we started planning a staff trip to Death Valley (it had been several years since our last adventure in Carl Mengel's backyard), we felt the timing was right for another expedition. Fearing backlash in the office for taking yet another company-paid vacation thinly disguised as a story about 'wheeling our project vehicles, we decided to insulate ourselves from the controversy by inviting a group of friends from the industry.
Apparently, we weren't the only ones with exploration on the brain, as our group quickly swelled to over 20 people, representing such industry leaders as 4WDProducts.com, ARB, Bilstein, Desert Racing Concepts, Fabtech, KORE, Off Road Warehouse, and TeraFlex.
With the RSVPs counted, we set a springtime date and met everyone at the central location of Baker, California, home to the "World's Largest Thermometer" and self-proclaimed Gateway to Death Valley. It also has the distinction of being the current home of Alien Fresh Jerky, something worth trying if you find yourself passing through town, unless of course, you harbor some sort of xenophobia disorder, because you never know who or what you might encounter at a place named for UFO pilots.
From Baker, the drive into Furnace Creek takes a couple of hours and can be difficult as you pass up the miles and miles of open BLM land and potential trails to explore. But once in the Valley, the payoff is huge. With daylight wasting away, we decided to gather the group up for a quick ride up Echo Canyon, before settling into our Furnace Creek Ranch digs for dinner and much-needed rest.
Echo Canyon is an 18-mile loop through sheer rock walls that takes a couple of hours. This road is suitable for most high-clearance four-wheel drives and ends up at the Inyo Mine and Schwab Town Site. At the base of the Echo Canyon Trail is Travertine Springs, where some of the unfortunate travelers of the nearly-doomed 1849 wagon train rested their weary families before struggling on westward. While we didn't have nearly the hardships of the settlers, we did manage to put a hole in the oil pan of our newly acquired and skidplateless long-term Suzuki Grand Vitara, taking it out of the mix for the remainder of the trip. This little oversight is something we will be addressing with a skidplate (and a smarter test driver-Ed.) in the near future.