The next two installments of our Death Valley backcountry trip report are longer than the first. As the terrain changed along the route and we accessed more backcrountry areas in the park there was more to see and explore.
Overlanding in the Death Valley Backcountry, Part 2 of 3:
After our hike into Mosaic Canyon outside of Stovepipe Wells we took the chance to top off our tanks at the gas station before heading out to our next adventure. This was going to be a long day, and with Scotty’s Castle being closed due to a vicious road washout this would be our last chance to refuel until Panamint Springs in 3 days. Our route only accounted for another 150 miles between now and then…assuming we didn’t make any side trips exploring up old mining roads or following a trail off into nowhere, and as you may have discovered by now, we’re not good at ignoring the opportunity to explore an intriguing side road or trail. And with the steep climbs and rugged terrain our mileage was down around 8mpg, meaning on a 22-gallon tank we’d be running pretty low by the time we hit the next gas station.
The goal for the afternoon was to exit the park toward Beatty, NV and head back in via the Titus Canyon Road. We’d seen a few pictures and heard some great trip reviews from friends at Overland Expo but nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to get into. The road out to Beatty was paved, which allowed us to cover the distance quickly with only a few brief stops to get out, look around, and absorb the scenery around us. Shortly before reaching Beatty we found the turn off for Titus Canyon – an unassuming gravel road leading back at a sharp angle towards the mountains dozens of miles behind us now. Titus Canyon is a one-way road so the route can only be traveled by first exiting the park and then turning back toward it as we’d done. And it’s a one-way road for a very good reason.
Why Dom sounds like an F-16 flying by I don’t know…but it’s awesome.
Heading down into the first small valley we stopped for photos way more than we should have, because as blown away as we were it only kept getting better as we went. Up over the first ridge just before Titus Canyon itself the scenery was a little awe-inspiring, especially as we discovered this road was established almost 100 years ago by miners. Shortly after descending into the early part of the canyon we came across a small ghost town called Leadfield. Established in 1920, Leadfield at one point had a post office, general store, and at it’s peak over 300 residents. The town was almost completely abandoned in a very (very, very, very) short time when residents who purchased mining rights discovered they’d been swindled by land dealers who greatly exaggerated the mining potential. I can only imagine the hardship these people endured out here, leaving everything behind for a chance to make it rich only to discover they’d been fooled. And this is not an isolated incident in Death Valley – due to it’s remoteness, extreme climate, and unforgiving terrain the valley has attracted many who are a little less than honest, including the Manson gang who holed up on the other side of the valley at Barker Ranch (the compound is still standing and can be visited, although we didn’t make it out to that part of the park).
As we wound down the canyon the terrain changed rapidly (a consistent theme we discovered in Death Valley: things change rapidly). The road got narrower and narrower to the point it would be impossible to fit two cars across (hence the one-way designation of the road). At points the canyon walls rose hundreds of feet straight up from the road, giving us a brief respite from the heat but also giving me a slight claustrophobic feeling. But the extremity of it all made it incredibly beautiful. As we wound our way back toward Death Valley we couldn’t help but stop at regular intervals to marvel at our surroundings, hunt for petroglyphs (there are many in Titus Canyon), and take a lot of photos. Titus Canyon was definitely one of my favorite places in the park. It is also not a very challenging drive, meaning it’s fairly accessible; the road gets rocky in places but it’s nothing a skilled Subaru driver couldn’t navigate. Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion at the time we were there. Road conditions can change rapidly from season to season in Death Valley. Do not attempt any trail or road that is beyond the capability of your vehicle or your skill level.
Exiting Titus Canyon we headed northwest toward the Eureka Dunes at the far corner of the park. The first part of the drive is paved but after the turn off for Scotty’s Castle it’s just a very long, VERY rutted gravel road that to be honest became tedious at times. It’s worth noting for those who are considering a trip to Death Valley that although the gravel roads in the park are maintained, they’re not well maintained, especially in the northern part of the park. The washboard is incredible to the point of being skull rattling, even at speeds that usually smooth out roads like that. I actually got out and measured the depth of the washboard…the ridges were over 3″ tall and it was constant for dozens of miles at a time. This is passable in a sedan, but I urge you not to attempt it. You will not like it and the likelihood of a tire blow-out or simply rattling parts off of your vehicle is very real. And this is not an area you want to have vehicle troubles in – there is no mobile phone reception and absolutely no services in the North part of the park. This area is very, very remote compared with the rest of the park, and due to the terrain it is not heavily traveled. We only saw one other person between Ubehebe Crater and Eureka Dunes (a distance of over 45 miles).
We made a brief stop at Ubehebe Crater on the way north. Brief as in about 45 seconds. A storm was blowing in from the West and the winds were so strong (I estimate about 45mph constant) that we parked, walked to the rim of the canyon, and got back into our trucks. No pictures were taken due to the dust storm we found ourselves in but it was definitely impressive (photos and info can be found here). At Crankshaft Junction we began a steep climb up Last Chance Mountain (I found this name comical given the terrain) and came across a now-defunct sulfur mine that was eerily Martian feeling. The bright white and yellow hills and pits around the mine contrasted sharply with the red rock of the mountain. To me it felt like a scene from a creepy first-person shooter game. From there the road was paved for a while down to the valley on the other side of the ridge, I assume to assist the mining trucks climbing up and down the ridge while the mine was active. It was back to beautiful scenery but mind-numbing washboard road for a while.
At the turn off to Eureka Dunes Dom and I high-fived and bro-hugged before he headed out to Big Pine on his way home. From here on out I would be on my own as the Bell’s, my friends from South Africa who were supposed to be joining me for the second part of my trip, had to postpone getting to Death Valley for several days due to some scheduling issues. To be honest a small tinge of anxiety crept up at this prospect, but I spend months out of the year alone exploring remote places in my rig, so this was nothing new to me. I felt comfortable with the supplies I had with me, and with my Delorme inReach satellite communications device I could stay in touch with friends and family and call for help if needed. This is where I digress for a moment. If you plan on any kind of backcountry travel I strongly encourage you to purchase a satellite communications device of some sort, even if it’s something simple like the Spot. At the very least you want to be able to signal for help. The reason I opted for the Delorme and set us up as a dealer is because, among many other unique features, the Delormes allow two-way communication with both friends and family (via text message once paired with your smartphone) as well as with search and rescue once you’ve activated the SOS feature. Yes, we do sell Delorme devices, but this is more of a personal recommendation than a sales pitch. </digression>
I turned toward Eureka Dunes as the sun began to set behind the mountains. 27 miles of washboard road later I arrived at the Eureka Dunes dry camp, which was really just a flat area below the dunes with an outhouse that has seen much better days (so bad I opted to walk out into the desert and dig a hole the next morning). At the “campground” I also found people! Not something I’d usually be surprised at but this was midweek at the most remote area in the Death Valley backcountry, and as mentioned we had seen only one other person all afternoon. It was nearly dark when I arrived so after a brief jockying around, building rock risers to even out the truck I set up camp (consisting of about 15 seconds to pop the tent), cracked a beer, and watched the world slip into darkness. Small digression here again (sorry) to answer a question we get frequently at the shop from new rooftop tent owners: What do you do to level out your vehicle if the ground is uneven or sloped? Tip: use firewood or rocks as risers under your wheels; build up a small shelf in front of whichever wheels need to be raised and slowly crawl up onto it. This takes newbies a little practice to get the hang of, but with experience comes wisdom – I can usually get the truck perfectly level in one try.
The next morning I made new friends. Even though I only had two neighbors at camp, as happens regularly someone is bound to come over to inquire about the truck and rooftop tent. The couple I met (from Seattle…small world) invited me to share some coffee and we swapped travel stories before deciding to hike (more like climb) to the top of the dunes while the night’s storm clouds were still keeping the temperatures down. That was a very tough hike. Rising over 680 feet from the desert floor, the Eureka Dunes are the tallest sand dunes in North America, and hiking up sand dunes is not easy. We followed winding ridges up to the tallest point (covering a distance we estimated at about 2 miles) and after a little over an hour we reached this crazy summit. It was exhausting, especially a small section near the top of the dunes where we were forced to crawl nearly straight up a wall of sand, making about 6 inches of progress per step as our feet slid back down each time we moved upward. But the top rewarded us with an incredible view of the valley below, and skating down the dunes on the way back to camp was a lot fun.
I packed up the truck and bid farewell to my new friends, encouraging them to meet me at the hot springs later that day (although not by the route I was taking). They agreed to consider it and we headed out in opposite directions, they out to the town of Big Pine along the gravel roads and me into the mountains and onto the most difficult trail I encountered in the park: Steel Pass. This is the first of two parts of my route in the Death Valley backcountry that I must encourage you not to attempt without a high-clearance 4wd vehicle and a decent amount of experience off-roading. In fact, access to Steel Pass from Eureka Dunes shouldn’t really be attempted without at least a locking center differential. The trail narrows to an extreme at the access point and climbs very steeply over loose, rocky terrain. The Landcruiser is about the widest truck I would attempt to take up this trail; I scraped on more than one occasion and even put a small dent in one of my sliders, which is no small feat given they are made from 1/8″ DOM tubing. After the technical entrance to the trail things do open up and become easier to navigate, but the trail is still very rugged and you will find yourself in rock gardens that, even with careful navigation, will at times test the articulation of your suspension to the point of ending up with less than four wheels on the ground (this occurred on two occasions). At the top of the Steel the trail turns more into a wash, and the descent toward Saline Valley is fairly easy.
Arriving at the hot springs was a welcomed end to a long, dusty, hot, and at times slightly stressful day on the trail. But that oasis in the desert will be the beginning of part 3 of our trip report, so stay tuned!