The Death Valley Tourists Don’t See

    Hidden Death Valley

    Stuart A. BourdonPhotographer, Writer

    Death Valley. Those two words together evoke visions of prospectors and emigrants traveling east through dry and hostile desert landscapes, lost while on their way to California during the 1800s. It’s a desolate valley that holds the lowest point of elevation (-282 feet below sea level) in North America at Badwater Basin. It offers almost no fresh water, daytime summer temperatures that often reach 120 degrees F in the shade, and winter night temperatures that easily drop below freezing. Some rode, some walked, and some didn’t make it.

    In what became the story of “The Lost ’49ers,” the valley was given its name by a group of pioneers that splintered off from the main wagon train during the winter of 1849-1850 after being convinced of a “shortcut” to California. After entering the north end of the valley along the same basic route as current-day Highway 190, they arrived at Travertine Springs, the source of Furnace Creek, on Christmas Eve of 1849. Weak and battered after two months in the dry and cold desert, their bigger problem was what seemed like an impenetrable barrier—the Panamint Mountains—in the way of further progress.

    While the main party hunkered down, slaughtered oxen for food, and burned their wagons for heat, two men went looking for a safe route to Southern California. It took the pair a month of walking to return from the nearly 600-mile round-trip with supplies from Mission San Fernando. One man in the group had died during their stay, and as the party climbed up and out of the valley, a survivor is reported to have looked back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

    Friday Springs

    We joined the Dirt Devils, a large and active family-oriented Jeep club based in Southern California, for its Death Valley Adventure—a three-day exploration of the parts of Death Valley National Park and its surrounding valleys and mountains that tourists don’t see. It was October, which is a good time to be in the desert. It’s usually not too hot in the day and not too cold at night, although it can be windy any time of year. We had plenty of food and beverage in our coolers, full tanks of gas (and a full gas can here and there), camping gear, and well-prepared 4x4s, making daytime travel and nighttime camping not nearly as treacherous as it was for the lost ’49ers.

    Out little adventure began driving through the desert on Highway 395 into the Owens Valley during the first golden glimmer of daylight, as we headed for an early Friday morning meet-up at the Shell gas station in Big Pine, California. When everyone was present and accounted for we fired up our engines and followed Death Valley Road eastward for a few dozen miles, cresting the Inyo Mountains (entering into the Death Valley Wilderness section of the national park), and then turned southeasterly onto the dirt road to Eureka Dunes. During the dirt-road dash to the dunes, one of our party’s gas cans ejected itself from its holder, but fortunately the driver saw it bouncing down the road behind him. Three of the younger members in the group made the climb to nearly the top of the sand dunes. The smarter folks relaxed and enjoyed the view.

    Sandy trail conditions kept wheel speeds up as we skirted the edge of the dunes headed toward Dedeckera Canyon. The tight, twisting, and gorgeously colored canyon presented a couple of challenging rocky steps that were in the medium difficulty range, but the climb to Steel Pass was more scenic than challenging, and we made a stop at the famous Marble Bath (a bathtub that someone planted in the ground and then filled with marbles) near the pass. From that point on it was downhill to our first night of camping at the Palm Spring camping area where the first of the accessible hot springs are located.

    There are three hot springs in the broad canyon leading down to Saline Valley. A fence to keep wild burros and vehicles out protects Upper Warm Springs, which the Park Service keeps in a wild and pristine condition. The second of the hot springs is Palm Spring, and it features two hot springs¬–fed concrete bath structures to soak in, a Park Service pit toilet, and dispersed camping among the creosote bush–dotted surroundings.

    The third hot springs spot, Lower Warm Springs, is what some might very loosely call “developed,” as there are more concrete hot springs soak tubs, some trees for shade, and even a camp host living in a shack. Be warned that Palm Spring and Lower Warm Springs are “clothing optional,” and may not be suitable for all. We stayed the night at the middle site, and strong winds kept the dust flying and tents flapping, making it a restless night’s sleep for many.

    Saturday Surprise

    Just before hitting the trail Saturday morning we heard about two people that were stuck in their SUV south of us in the Saline Valley sand dunes, and they had been there all night. While most of our party waited on South Warm Springs Road (dirt that is), a small group ventured into the dunes (with some assist from GPS) to find that the people had just managed to dig themselves out after the sun came up.

    With that emergency put to rest, we continued westerly on Saline Valley Road to Lippincott Mine Road, where it was noticed that somewhere along the way the right rear tire on the WJ in our group decided to shred itself on one of the millions of razor-sharp rocks along the dirt road. The ripped tire was changed in a matter of minutes. The next little surprise was more serious.

    Climbing up Lippincott Mine Road (a single-wide, dirt-shelf trail) took us skyward into the Saline Mountains near Ubehebe Peak, and that’s when Roy Flansburg’s JKU began making that noise we all fear. Its front pinion nut had backed off and all the gear oil was lost. The driveshaft was pulled, the pinion nut was tightened up, the diff was filled with oil again, and it seemed okay (although still noisy), so the JKU was able to rejoin the group at the Lippincott Pass trail crest.

    The trail from there to Racetrack Playa headed north and descended into the high valley that created the playa. We hung out long enough at the Racetrack to stretch our legs on the flat-as-a-frying-pan, dry lakebed and check out the mysterious moving rocks and their tracks across the playa. Next stop was pavement at Ubehebe Crater, but only after another couple dozen miles of tooth-rattling washboard road. The only consolation was that the washboard road with enough blade-chop to loosen bolts took us through majestic stands of Joshua trees and past the famous backcountry photo op, Teakettle Junction.

    It had been 180 miles (almost all dirt) since we left Big Pine, and in that parking lot at the crater while all were airing back up we noticed one of the Jeeps had lost a front sway bar link bolt. Luckily, a replacement bolt was found among our group, and we were soon on our way to Furnace Creek Campground. Once camp was made everyone headed to the cafeteria for a big dinner of fried chicken, after which we sat around the campfire gazing up at an inky black sky shot-gunned with bright stars. Not much later we hit the hay in anticipation of an early start the next morning.

    Sunday Runday

    Sunday was our final day, and it was split into two halves. The first half was a trip to the ghost town of Rhyolite, returning to Death Valley via dirt through the stunningly beautiful Titus Canyon. The second half, after a stop and photo op at Badwater before leaving Death Valley, was an all-highway convoy run home to Southern California through Baker.

    Rhyolite was a boomtown created in 1905 by the local gold rush that brought thousands of prospectors into the Bullfrog Mountains. By 1907, the town boasted as many as 5,000 residents, had electric lights, a piped water supply, telephones, school, hospital, opera house, and newspaper. The ore soon ran out, the local economy crashed, and by 1920 the town was empty and being used as a movie set. Today, the dozen or so buildings remaining in one shape or another are preserved for all to enjoy.

    Titus Canyon was a real treat and the perfect way to end this Death Valley 4x4 adventure. The one-way dirt road begins near Rhyolite and leads into the Grapevine Mountains and the red rock beauty of Titanothere Canyon. From there it climbs over Red Pass (5,250 feet elevation) and then dives deep into Titus Canyon. Our lunch stop in Titus was the ghost town of Leadfield—which coincided with the lifespan of Rhyolite but was much smaller. Next we headed into the main fork of Titus Canyon, which gets tighter as it winds its way downhill through ever-higher sandstone canyon walls.

    We stopped for a while and checked out the petroglyphs deep in the canyon, and then entered the Narrows. Titus Canyon road is one-way to vehicular traffic from Hwy 374 until it exits into Death Valley. The last couple of miles is called the Narrows and the canyon is open to foot traffic in either direction, so keep an eye out for hikers. Multicolored walls rise hundreds of feet into the sky while squeezing down to 20 feet wide at the bottom. Then, at its very end, Titus Canyon surprises you by suddenly bursting into the valley’s wide-open sky. And that is how this little adventure ended, with a long drive home from Death Valley bathed in the orange glow of the fading desert sunlight.

    If you’re interested in more information on the club’s year-round roster of off-road adventures, ranging from relatively mild-yet-scenic wilderness trails such as our Death Valley trip to extremely challenging rock trails, contact the Dirt Devils of Southern California Off-road Club at dirtdevils.org and follow them on Facebook (dirtdevils4x4) and Instagram (@dirt_devils_socal).