The southwestern desert is full of interesting canyons and trails teeming with geologic oddities, historical mining artifacts, and unique flora. Unfortunately, a few things that the desert is severely lacking are road signs and markers. So, what is one to do if they want to explore the vast expanse of desert without having to mark his or her trail with breadcrumbs?
Organized trail rides and events offer the safety of traveling in numbers, with knowledgeable trail leaders who can deliver the goods without leading you on a wild goose chase. One such event we attended was Panamint Valley Days (PVD). For the past 19 years, the California Association of 4Wheel Drive Clubs (CA4WDC) has hosted this trail ride in Southern California's Panamint Valley. Separated from Death Valley to the east by the Panamint Range, this location is close enough to Los Angeles for a weekend trip, yet expansive enough that you'll have plenty to see on return trips.
Held every year in early November, 2004's PVD event took place under clear skies and cool temperatures. Heavy rains in the area kept dust to a minimum on all the 13 trail rides. More than 260 vehicles were registered to run those trails, ranging from built Blazers to stock Jeep Libertys. The registration fees for Panamint Valley Days are used to promote responsible four-wheeling and combat land closures.
Land closures are as serious an issue in Panamint Valley as anywhere in the country. In recent years, both Surprise Canyon and Stone Canyon have been designated wilderness areas and closed to motorized vehicles. We took the opportunity to walk up Stone Canyon during the event and were frustrated by the closure. Located between high rock walls, the bottom of Stone Canyon is full of gravel and rock ledges that are regularly cleansed by flash floods, erasing any indication of vehicular travel. The silver lining to all this is that some committed CA4WDC members have recently purchased property at the top of Surprise Canyon. If logic does not prevail, hopefully the law will do so and allow these people access to their property via Surprise Canyon.
Friday morning, we went through tech inspection, then hooked up with the group running Isham Canyon. A friend of ours returned home from Isham a few years ago with a TJ that looked like a well-used Kleenex, so we knew this trail was going to be tough. This is the premiere run at PVD, with minimum requirements of 33-inch tires, locking differentials, and a winch. This was the first year that wheelbase restriction was not put on the Isham trail, but the run was still dominated by short-wheelbase Jeeps, Land Cruisers, and early Broncos.
At the trailhead, we were briefed on trail etiquette by John "Shortcut" Hivley, our trail leader for the day. With so many large rocks and tight turns, we were advised to keep the vehicle behind us in view and provide help to other participants when needed. Eventually, we arrived at the V-Notch, the most treacherous obstacle in Isham Canyon.
After Hivley scaled the obstacle in his well-built CJ-7, many of the following vehicles needed a winch line to prevent rearranging the passenger-side sheetmetal. Many of the smaller vehicles on the trail had trouble with the 4-foot-high ledge leading up to the notch, but then crept right up the notch itself. Longer-wheelbase vehicles scaled the ledge easily, but had difficulty on the V-Notch, illustrating that there's no perfect combination for every trail, or even every obstacle.
Progress was slow, but steady with all the winching. After approximately half the group had passed the notch, things went from bad to worse when a Wrangler grenaded a hub and a Land Cruiser bent a tie rod. Fortunately, the ingenuity of 20 hard-core 'wheelers prevailed, and the group soon pressed on with no more carnage.
Beyond the V-Notch, the canyon opened up and offered a wider variety of lines to conquer. The final obstacle as you climb out of Isham Canyon is a long, loose hill full of softball-sized rocks. The winches were working overtime in this section, as traction deteriorated rapidly. Dirty and exhausted, the group was rewarded at the top of the canyon with a cool breeze and gorgeous view of the Panamint Valley below. Clear skies allowed us to gaze for miles before Hivley led us down the maze of dirt roads and back to base camp.
Friday night came early. It was pitch-black by the time we returned to camp at 5. Not thrilled at the prospect of doing dishes in the desert, we headed over to the Ruff Rock Run Cafff,. This makeshift dining hall is erected every year by Chef Andy and his volunteer crew, offering breakfast and dinner each day of the event. Most of the staff of 4 Wheel Drive & Sport Utility doesn't eat this good at home, and after a long day on the trail, the mesquite chicken really hit the spot.
By 7 p.m., we were done with dinner and sitting around the campfire, with several more hours before bedtime. What did we do to kill the time? A night run, of course. Taking full advantage of our time in Panamint Valley, we headed back up Isham Canyon with members of the Desert Dawgs 4WD Club. At night, the treacherous canyon took on a whole new dimension and made it nearly impossible to pick a line up the trail. Only the more difficult trails are offered as night runs at Panamint Valley Days, allowing participants to experience scenic vistas and mining artifacts that are best appreciated during daylight hours and still get their Low-range fix at night. Temperatures in the canyon had dropped sharply from early in the day, but our small group of well-prepared 'wheelers scaled the canyon in record time.
Saturday, we passed on the sadistic runs in favor of the more scenic trails. Forty vehicles lined up for the Defense Mine Trail. Tires were aired down and transfer cases shifted into Low range as we followed the meandering wash westward. Large rocks and loose gravel challenged the drivers with smaller tires and open differentials, but with the help of the trail crew, everyone continued unscathed. Toward noon, we approached the bottom of Stone Canyon, where an optional obstacle allowed the better-equipped vehicles to stretch their suspensions and awe the newcomers to our sport. It was here that we stopped for lunch and had the opportunity to partially hike up Stone Canyon.
We continued climbing through the Argus Range toward the Defense Mine. At the entrance to the mine, our GPS registered 3,800 feet, a far cry from the 1,370 feet where we had started the day. The trail leader gave the group plenty of time to explore the mine and its vast array of tunnels. Originally worked as a tungsten mine during World War II, the Defense Mine contains numerous tunnels spread out over three different levels. In this day of airbags and guardrails, we found it exciting to peer through the darkness and climb the ladders found throughout the mine.
Once everyone had thoroughly explored the various shafts, the group descended from the mine and headed toward camp. While the majority of the vehicles returned via the route they had arrived, a few well-prepared rigs veered off toward Cummins Cutoff. It seems that Barry Cummins had recently rediscovered this difficult wash while using his GPS and mapping software during a PVD prerun excursion. All those who attempted Cummins Cutoff appreciated Barry's keen orienteering skills as they bumped and scraped their way up the dry wash.
For those who can never get enough, Sunday offered shorter trail rides that were completed by noon. Unfortunately, looming deadlines and a long drive home pulled us away from Panamint Valley sooner than we would have liked. In fact, the only complaint that we had with Panamint Valley Days was that there wasn't enough time to see everything. We're already planning to return this year to explore the ruins of Ballarat Ghost Town and take in the views of Death Valley from high atop Aguereberry Point. With friendly and knowledgeable trail leaders and support for such a great cause, how could we resist?
Tips The desert can be a harsh environment, where services are few and far between. The following tips will help ensure that you are prepared for whatever awaits.
Vehicle/Safety Inspection All Cal4Wheel events involve a safety inspection, where the trail crew checks for items such as a first-aid kit, a fire extinguisher, a fullsize spare, a jack, and seatbelts for all occupants. It's a good idea to get in the habit of carrying these items in your vehicle at all times, especially in the desert. Also, perform a maintenance inspection before leaving town, paying particular attention to the cooling system.
Traveling Don't travel alone. It's often miles from popular destinations to the nearest paved road, much less the nearest town. Cell-phone service is spotty at best out in Panamint Valley, so make it a habit to always travel with a friend.
Tow Points Having a friend along is nice, but without the extraction gear and tow points to assist your vehicle, you might end up riding home in his passenger seat. Make sure every vehicle has tow hooks front and rear, along with at least one strap or winch among the group.
Dress In Layers Temperatures can range from blistering hot in the direct sunlight of the valley floor to freezing in the shade in the higher valleys, particularly in an open-top Jeep. Drastic variations can occur in the same day, regardless of the time of year. Layered clothing will allow you to regulate your temperature to whatever the conditions warrant.
Flooding Most of the trails in the Panamint area travel up washes, so it's important to monitor weather conditions, as they can change rapidly. If it does start to rain, head to higher ground as soon as possible. Also, keep potential water channels in mind when choosing a spot to camp.
Water It is a good rule of thumb to allow 1 gallon of drinking water per person per day in the desert. The extra water can also come in handy if your vehicle has any cooling issues. To conserve space, we like to freeze gallon jugs of water and store them in our ice chest to both keep food cold and provide drinking water as they melt.