As regular readers of our blog know, each year we do a long road trip in early summer. This year we chose to go to a place I’ve wanted to go for a very long time and spent 5 days exploring in the only way we know how: Death Valley Overland. Our trip report will be posted in three sections. Below is our route map.
Death Valley Overland Trip Report, Part 1 of 3:
You may be thinking, “Why in the hell would you want to go to Death Valley?!” Well let me tell you: Because it’s amazing, and absolutely nothing like what you are imagining in your mind. Is it hot? Hell yes. Is it dry and dusty? For the most part, yes. Is it a wasteland? In no way, shape or form. Death Valley is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to. Around every corner the terrain changes dramatically – from sand dunes to tight, winding canyons, lush mountain valley fields, hot springs oasis’, mud flat playas, and even snowy mountain peaks. We had 5 days to explore the Valley and decided on a looping route beginning at the Southeast corner of the park and exiting at the far West side near the small resort at Panamint Springs.
We officially entered the park area from a small “resort” town called Shoshone, following a very long and rough gravel road to the park boundary. Our arrival put us in the park near dusk, and without any real plan for the night we decided to follow an unmarked, and apparently very infrequently traveled Jeep trail that wound up a canyon to an amazing ridge overlooking the valley below. By this time it was nearly dark, so we climbed up a hill overlooking our campsite and enjoyed a few beers as the sun set behind the mountains.
The next morning, as usual, we got a late start and after a quick breakfast got back down to the Valley around 10am. Our planned route had us heading North to the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center, however we had a couple of stops to make along the way. The first was Dante’s View, one of the most dramatic spots in the park where, at over 5,700 feet, you stand on a near-vertical ledge overlooking Badwater Basin below, almost 300 feet below sea level. To be honest we were a little awestruck by the scale. This was the first of many misconceptions we had about Death Valley that was instantly shattered. Sure, we’d read the maps and understood this was a big area, but the scale of it all was far greater than we expected. There are three mountain ranges at Death Valley – one bordering each side of the park and another that juts straight upward from the middle of the valley floor, the tallest point of which is Telescope Peak at just over 11,000 feet. To put that into perspective for you Pacific Northwest locals (in mountain climbing speak) that’s a prominence nearly equal to that of Mount Rainier if you consider the valley floor the lowest topographic point. But what’s even more dramatic is the rapidity of the elevation gain. From the nearest point at sea level, the peak of mount rainier is roughly 35 miles away. From Badwater Basin in Death Valley (at 280 feet below sea level), Telescope Peak is only about 4 miles away…
From Dante’s View we drove further north and took an unplanned side-road out into 20 Mule Team Canyon. And were again blown away. This is a fairly short, well-maintained gravel loop off of the main paved road leading to Furnace Creek, but within about 500 yards you feel like you’re on another planet. The terrain changes from red, rocky desert valley to bright yellow and white rolling hills created by the strange, seemingly random mineral deposits found throughout the valley. The Canyon is named after the teams of mules that carried Borax ore from the mines in Death Valley out to the processing centers 160 miles away in Nevada. These teams carried over 9 metric tons of ore out of the valley at a time. Along with 1,200 gallons of water for the trip. Oh, and supplies. And men. In the mid-1,800’s… It’s fairly insane to imagine. If you get to Death Valley, take the 20 Mule Team Canyon drive. It’s worth it.
After a quick stop for fuel and to grab a few things at the Visitor’s Center in Furnace Creek we headed North again and turned West toward the small “village” of Stovepipe Wells. We stopped briefly at Salt Creek to see the Pupfish – a small, almost iridescent species of fish unique to Death Valley. I know…fish in Death Valley? It’s true! And as you can imagine, they’re very unique creatures. Salt Creek is fed by a spring and picks up minerals from the terrain that make the water in the creek four times more saline than ocean water. On top of that, the temperature of the water gets to over 116 degrees Fahrenheit. These conditions would kill any other species of fish on the planet. But these Pupfish are an example of a species perfectly adapted to their environment over thousands and thousands of years. And not only have they adapted – they thrive, in this one little spot in Death Valley. They were named “Pupfish” by an anthropologist because of the way they seemingly play like puppies in the water. They dart around, chasing each other all over the creek. It’s worth a stop here to see evolution in action. Signs encourage visitors to be careful though – the Pupfish are listed as an endangered species. More information on Death Valley Pupfish here.
After a brief stop for a snack in Stovepipe Wells (there is a gas station, gift shop, and very desolate looking campground in “town”) we took a gravel road up to the edge of Tucki Mountain where we made a short hike into Mosaic Canyon. Mosaic Canyon is a very peculiar place and is an example of one of the unique aspects of the terrain in Death Valley – washes. Contrary to popular belief, it does rain in Death Valley. In fact, some years it rains A LOT. But it happens in a very short period of time. As anyone from the Southwest can attest, desert rain storms can be extremely hazardous as well as destructive. Flash floods carry with them substantial force that can literally carve into rock, and instantaneously and completely wash away roads (this just happened in October of 2015 along the road to Scotty’s Castle, one of the strangest attractions in the park that is now cut off and inaccessible). Mosaic Canyon was created by a series of these floods – as the water searched for a way down the mountains it carved out a canyon that almost resembles an amusement park waterslide. The rock walls that extend up from the sandy canyon floor are almost polished to a shine, with interesting mineral deposits exposed to create a mosaic effect in the rock.
That concludes part 1 of our Death Valley Overland trip report. Part 2 will be posted shortly, including details on our route further North in the park: down into Titus Canyon and out to Eureka Dunes.