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.
After a good night's rest, we gathered the group for breakfast at the Ranch and headed out of town to the Skidoo Town Site, via Stovepipe Wells. The Skidoo Town Site was founded after a gold strike in 1905 and was listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1974. Once the home of a booming community of more than 700 residents, which included a telephone line and stagecoach stop, the previously active town eventually withered away as the 15-stamp mill and mine ceased production after a decade of activity. Skidoo was also the home of the only hanging in Death Valley, probably contributing to the town's reputation as a peaceful community.
From Skidoo, we headed south to the town of Ballarat, a thriving supply base from 1897 to 1917 but now a ghost town. It was once the Inyo County seat for the Death Valley region and even had its own post office, but today only a few original buildings remain to be enjoyed by visitors. Today it is still the gateway into the Panamints, and our last stop before traversing the Panamint Range.
After leaving Ballarat, we began climbing the alluvial fan into the Goler Canyon, only to discover that the once-challenging Goler Wash, which on our last visit had several distinct waterfall obstacles, had recently been graded and was smoother than the 405 on our commute into the office. At least the scenery was slightly better than the concrete jungle we are accustomed to. Out of the canyon, we took the Barker Ranch detour to check out the capture site where Charles Manson was found hiding under a sink in October 1969. The Ranch is an interesting place to poke around and offers travelers some refuge from nasty weather, along with shelves stocked with basic supplies, but the rodents and ghosts still lay claim as the primary residents and caretakers of the property.
Moving on from Barker Ranch, we climbed to the top of Mengel Pass, where we paid our respects to Carl Mengel, the one-legged miner who rests under a rock cairn grave at 4,328 feet. Carl led a measly life, founding one claim after another in the Panamints, only to have them go bust. He died poor in 1944 and forever stands testament to the hardships and desperation people were willing to endure in the region, in hopes of a big payoff-kind of like being a magazine editor.
From Mengel Pass, we descended into the vast and beautiful Butte Valley, marked by the 900-foot-tall Striped Butte, an outcropping of rock so named for its unusual sedimentary makeup, which is significant and noteworthy because the majority of the surrounding rock is granite. In 1930, a Butte Valley prospector known as Panamint Russ built the small stone Geologist Cabin, that, like the Barker Ranch, is a refuge for backcountry travelers, although it is much better maintained and stocked with goods should you need them.
It was starting to get late, and as the afternoon entered the golden hour of light, we picked up our pace and headed eastward to the West Side Road, which would bring us back north to our base of Furnace Creek. With only enough time in the day for a taste of what Death Valley has to offer, we were looking forward to the adventure that Day 3 would bring us. (Editor's Note: You can follow the second half of this installment in next month's issue.)
Our favorite guidebooks for any of our backcountry exploits in Southern California and Death Valley is Backcountry Adventures: Southern California by Peter Massey and Jeanne Wilson. Full of history and trail information, the guide offers explorers step-by-step trail directions and includes GPS waypoints. We also carry along the invaluable DeLorme Southern & Central California Atlas and Gazetteer, which is the most comprehensive map book we have run across. Both books are part of a series that includes other regions and are available at online retailers, such as 4x4books.com, or from your local bookseller.-Sean P. Holman