Death Valley National Park is a well-known destination, but most visitors only see the popular sites shown on the park map. While we appreciate those destinations, over time interest has developed for the lesser known points of interest in and around the park. In addition, having the ability to navigate dirt roads and 4x4 trails opens up the options of what can be seen. So, a plan was hatched for a multi-day off-road camping trip to see some old mining ruins and the natural beauty that our southwestern desert has to offer.
Even today, the Death Valley area remains very remote and undeveloped. Without a closer look it would be easy to think there is nothing out there. However, from simple prospecting to large-scale open-pit mining, the evidence is there if you look for it. You would be amazed by the things that can be found in the desert.
For anyone driving Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility near State Line is hard to miss. That massive field of mirrors and glowing towers was our starting point. The route was headed north into the mountains from the freeway, but the trail went right between towers 1 and 2 of the power plant.
Leaving Ivanpah Valley behind and climbing into the Clark Mountains, the first destination was a spectacular open-pit mine. Displaying bright yellow and rust colored walls, the massive crater is 800 feet deep, 1,600 feet across, and has a small lake in the bottom. It is a sight to behold, even better than imagined. The Colosseum Mine was a gold and silver operation between 1987 and 1993, but is now derelict. In simple terms, open-pit mining consists of blasting, hauling the ore out with large trucks, then chemical leaching to remove the gold from the ore. Visible in the pit are ledges cut into the wall, forming concentric circles around the pit. They are benches, not roads, created for safety to prevent debris from falling on equipment or people working below. While in operation the pit would have been dry, but has partially filled with groundwater over time. The Colosseum produced over 170,000 troy ounces of gold. Standing on the edge, you can see that they sure moved a lot of earth to get to that gold.
From the Clark Mountains the route continued north through the snow-covered Kingston Range, which has several old mines and ranches, and on towards Tecopa. This covered about 70 miles of dirt roads of various conditions. Just to the east of Tecopa is an area with many old mines, including the Gunsite, Columbia, War Eagle, Grant, and Noonday. There are substantial mine ruins remaining, including shafts, adits, winches, headstocks, and ore bins.
This area, called the Shoshone Mining District, was rich with silver, lead, gold, zinc, copper, and iron. Some operations date to the 1800’s, but most ruins that remain are from the time between 1912 and 1957. Silver and lead were the most productive ores. This was a good place to set up camp and take the time to explore the numerous structures and peer into the deep tunnels. It is fun to find discover large structures like the ore bin at War Eagle Mine, or mechanical equipment like the winch at Grant Mine.
Leaving the Shoshone Mining District behind, the route passed through the Tecopa salt flat, and on to Shoshone for lunch. Tecopa is known for its hot springs, but other than camping, there is not much there.
Shoshone offers fuel, and it is always best to fill up when you find it. The Death Valley area has few choices, and the next one may not be open when needed. Across from the gas station is the Crowbar Café. Besides being the only place in town, the Cafe offers foreign culture. American customers are often the minority. German, French, and Italian visitors love our western deserts, and swapping stories with them about travel can be quite entertaining. Their different, and sometimes naive, point of view is always interesting.
The surrounding area has numerous cave homes that miners dug into the cliffs. Several are visible in an area called Dublin Gulch. They are quite impressive for the time, with wood doors, multiple rooms, and fireplaces. They bring to mind the Flintstones with their hand-chiseled walls. The underground construction did not require expensive building materials, remained cool in summer, and warm in winter.
Death Valley is known for its extreme heat; however, it was quite cold in January. Camping at the site of Greenwater, a 1905 copper boom town, the temperature was near 30 F when we got an early start in the morning.
Overlooking Death Valley proper, Dante’s View is one of the greatest views of the valley. For the best experience they say you should get there before dawn. So, the plan was to get up early and wait for the sun to rise. However, the mountains shaded the valley from the sunrise and it took over an hour for the sun to rise sufficiently for good viewing. The lesson learned is that it is not necessary to get up that early. A couple of hours after sunrise would be fine. In any case it was a great view, with Badwater salt flats below at -282-foot elevation, and snow-covered Telescope Peak straight west at 11,049'-foot elevation. In a word: impressive.
The next destination was the Inyo Mine, but an impromptu decision was made for a quick stop at Zabriskie Point on the way. It was a good call, because the timing worked out and there were no other visitors around. It made for and enjoyable walk to view the many colorful hills.
Driving up Echo Canyon, we are reminded how powerful flash floods can be, and how water effectively wears down the mountains and forms the canyons. The road was thick with gravel and large rocks, and was quite bumpy in the lower section from washboard. The mine site is interesting and has some pretty good ruins to explore. It was a gold mine that operated off and on from 1905 to 1940. The park map doesn’t show it, but the road continues, with some difficulty, over Echo Pass and east into Nevada. That was left for a future trip, because our route turned south to find more mines.
South of Furnace Creek is an area called Devils Golf Course. It is so named because you would definitely lose your golf ball if you played there. The crazy jumble of salt encrusted mud formations is completely barren, yet scenic in its own way. Although the earth looks soft, it feels hard as rock when walked on. The park’s paved road offers the official viewpoint, but the views are better from West Side Road. This maintained dirt road heads right through the golf course on its way to the south end of the park. Although easy, this route allows one to avoid the tourists, as most people are deterred by the “4x4 recommended” signs.
Next, on the agenda was to see the Badwater Basin salt flats that lay at the bottom of Death Valley. Badwater, at -282 feet, is the lowest elevation in North America. Taking the time to hike out into the salt flats gives the best view. The salt is brilliant white in comparison to the surrounding terrain, and it is a unique place to experience.
There are five dead-end canyon roads heading to the mountains from West Side Road. One of them leads to the Queen of Sheba Mine. The ruins are in great shape, with a couple of cabins, an ore-bin, and some equipment to explore. This mine was worked from the early 1900’s to 1949 and the carbonate ore produced lead, silver, copper, and gold. It has a very rocky access road, but the views north and east across Badwater Basin are fantastic.
Near the south end of West Side Road one finds the Ashford Mill ruins. The mill site is popular since it is near the paved road and there is a parking area and toilet provided. The Ashford Mine is a different story. You have to really work at it to get there. Access is up an unmarked 4x4 road that is not on the national park map. From road’s end it becomes a steep hike up the mountain, without a trail or signs. Even with pre-planning and GPS, it was elusive. There were obstacles, like a dead-end canyon and dry waterfall, and the destination being hidden behind some hills, but the mine was finally reached. The site is pretty impressive. Since it is not easy to find, the mine receives few visitors and is in good shape. Besides the mine shafts, there are several cabins containing items like beds and kitchen equipment. A truck axle and frame indicate there was an access road at one time. There is a log book inside an old propane refrigerator. The last entry, from a park ranger praising people for leaving things intact, was a month prior.
The Ashford Mine is one of the most authentic mining camps to be seen and was well worth the effort. Hopefully all visitors will respect its history and leave it for others to see. On the hike back down it was easier to see evidence of the old road that gave access to the mine. It is amazing that so little remains. How powerful the summer thunderstorms must be to wash it all away.
We headed out of the park on the Harry Wade Exit Route, named for one of the survivors of the ill-fated Death Valley ‘49ers. While speeding south over the washboard surface, there was time to considered what had been seen. This trip included a balanced combination of well-known and lesser-known destinations. Plus, it offered some off-road adventure without being too risky for solo travel. It was satisfying, yet there is so much to see in Death Valley that one trip just scratches the surface. Hopefully, this insight will give you inspiration to plan your own trip to explore the great outdoors.