Man Plans, God Laughs
Death Valley National Park is larger than Connecticut. Thus, a well thought out plan is required if you want to see a lot of the various offerings of the Valley without back tracking and driving even more miles. I’d tweaked my plan for several months to make maximum use of our week-long trip. And then it rained!
Friday morning we set out under cloudy skies. The day’s objective was to see a few sites along the way and overnight in Kingman. Went up through Chino Valley and stopped off at the ruins of the Puntenney Lime Kiln dating back to the late 1800s. Lime is still mined near here, well more accurately limestone. We saw a big cloud of dust a few miles before reaching the kiln. Stopped to chat with some of the quarry workers to discover they had just blasted a section of the quarry wall, but all was now clear for us to explore the area. Preservation efforts have slowed the demise of this historic kiln and we enjoyed poking around for a few minutes.
We drove onto Seligman for lunch and to begin our planned drive along old Route 66 into Kingman. Seligman is nothing if not a little odd. We’d planned on a burger at the Snow Cap, but it was closed for repairs. Westside Lilo’s proved a suitable alternative.
Route 66 winds through the countryside and history far slower than its replacement, I-40, to the south. We stopped at a few of the historic roadside establishments that had pumped gas and comic book images of the west at motorized travelers a half century ago. All had signs and t-shirts adorned with poor attempts at humor and outside was the obligatory collection of ORS (old rusty stuff).
We sped through Kingman and stayed on 66 out to Oatman, going up the very very winding shelf road that is Route 66. Oatman is famous for a couple of things. It was a semi-prosperous mining town back in the day. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their wedding night there in 1939. Today, Oatman is a resurrected ghost town and there are burros, descendants of those used by the prospectors, roaming the streets. You can feed the burros from sacks of burro pellets on sale for $1 at any of the fine tourist trap establishments lining main street.
For me the most interesting part of the Oatman story is that the town is named for Olive Oatman, one of the three children who survived the 1851 Oatman Family massacre northwest of Gila Bend, AZ. Olive and her sister were taken captive by Yavapai (often mistakenly labeled Apaches in various accounts). Olive’s brother was thought dead by the raiders and tossed off the side of the mesa where the incident occurred. Olive and her sister were traded to the Mojave tribe. Olive was later ransomed by white settlers. Her sister had died of starvation along with many Mojave a few years earlier. The Mojave treated Olive well and tattooed her chin in their customary way. Olive became a minor celebrity in her time and some miners in search of a name for their new boom town settled on Oatman. Earlier this year I’d visited the Oatman Massacre site, so visiting the town of Oatman closed that loop for me.
The nice lady at the hotel desk in Kingman recommended a restaurant named Oysters. It offered Mexican fare and seafood and “very large margaritas” according to the helpful clerk. We took her advice. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with that combination? It was crowded, surprisingly good, but there wasn’t an oyster to be found on the property.
Saturday found us stopping off at Chloride, yet another ghost town. Chloride was more authentic than Oatman, as in no t-shirt shops, only more ROS and interesting yard sculptures apparently crafted by the residents. Outside of town up a very rutted trail are some murals by artist Roy Purcell. They are nothing if not unique.
We raced through Las Vegas and only stopped once we hit Beatty. We needed gas and wanted to provision up at Nevada’s largest candy store. We knew they’d have just the right snacks for Death Valley. The whole purpose behind breaking up drive to DV into 2 days was to have time to dramatically enter the Park via Titus Canyon, one of the more impressive 4x4 trails in the Park requiring several hours to complete. A quick call confirmed it was closed -- snow, mud, and a rockslide. I sensed my plan was in grave danger. We stopped off at the Rhyolite ghost town and Goldwell Open Air Art Museum, a very strange little place, under dark skies with a light but steady rain.
Our entry into the Park was instead on pavement (how boring). The skies were lifting with only a slow drizzle. We were greeted with a view of a VERY wet valley floor, standing water evident in the normally dry lake beds. We stopped off at Salt Creek to see the rare pupfish. Sort of odd that our first event in DV required driving through deep standing water, wearing rain gear, and walking along a flowing stream. We drove to Stovepipe Wells for dinner, lodging, and some adjustments to the plan. The rain stopped overnight.
Day 3 found us at the Ranger Station checking road closures. It doesn’t take much water to move a lot of mud in Death Valley. Two days of rain (snow in the higher elevations) made the list of open roads much shorter than the closed list. The people working to open the roads and the rangers apparently don’t communicate. The information was incomplete and sometimes misleading. But we slowly began to realize we were seeing something unique. Rain is rare in DV. We were getting to see the whole area change in front of us.
The day was spent on mostly touristy sights -- the old Borax Works, Badwater (282’ below sea level and crowded), hiking Natural Bridge Canyon and the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch Loop. We did get to drive Mustard Canyon. It was fun sliding in the mud between the orange dunes. Driving back to Stovepipe Wells for the night we met a Ranger in a muddy truck coming out one of the closed roads. We stopped him and asked a few questions about destinations we hoped to still see. He’d just come from Ubehebe and the paved road to there was passable but muddy. We wanted to get to the Racetrack about 27 miles of dirt beyond Ubehebe. He said he had no idea about the road to the Racetrack. We told him we’d give him a report late tomorrow. He grinned and said good luck.
We geared up early on Day 4 and raced past the Road Closed sign headed towards the northwestern portion of the park. The drive to the Ubehebe Crater was easy and we were the only vehicle on the road. Evidence of the somewhat cleared mudflows were numerous. We bypassed Ubehebe figuring we’d hit it on the way back. We stopped long enough to air down the tires. The dirt track to the Racetrack was wet and sloppy in a few places, total washboard everywhere else. Twenty mph was top speed and that was still jaw jarring. But the scenery was great. There was one set of tracks in front of us. Someone else was out here, so we felt confident. Stopped for the obligatory photos at Tea Kettle Junction. The storm had knocked a few kettles off the sign. MJ tied them back in place and emptied rainwater out of any that needed it.
A few miles later we arrived at the Racetrack. A truck was parked on the trail. A Ranger was there to remind people not to walk or drive on the normally dry playa (lakebed). He was going to camp here for a few days to protect the playa since muddy footprints and tire tracks remain for years and years. The Ranger was the most interesting person we’d met so far in the Park. He loved the backcountry portions of the Park and was a fount of knowledge for us. While we didn’t get to walk out and see the trails of the moving rocks that makes the Racetrack such a unique site, the conversation with this guy was a decent substitute. The tracks were under a few inches of water on the south end of the playa anyway, guarded by a lone seagull standing in the muddy water. We sated ourselves by walking around the edges or the Playa and talking about next time.
Being close, we continued on to the old abandoned Lippincott Mine. The drive up was rough and fun. The mine site offered great views back towards the Racetrack and west into Saline Valley. I noticed 4 vehicles below us slowly making their way through the pass on Lippincott Road. We bumped into them a little while later and had a nice conversation. Was a group of 4 young men doing a few days of offroading in the northwestern portion of the Park.
After a bumpy ride back out, we stopped off at the Ubehebe Crater. MJ went to explore and take some photos while I aired the tires back up for pavement. The wind was so strong it knocked me over as I squatted beside a tire. We wanted to spend more time exploring around the volcanic crater, but the clock, wind and cold drove us back into the truck pretty fast. We moved our base camp to Furnace Creek that night, happy after a day more like our original plan.
On Day 5, we slept in a bit after the very full previous day. After a decent breakfast and checking the status of roads (still closed), we opted to hike Mosaic Canyon. While not as pretty as Golden and the Badlands area, this hike was the most fun. There were numerous slick rock waterfalls to climb which quickly winnowed the crowd trailhead crowd down to the real hikers. One major fall required a bypass trail up and over. And eventually you hit an impressive fall that stops most mortals. We wished Kelly was with us knowing she’d try to find a way up. Sliding down the falls on the way back was just plain fun.
With some day left, we decided to make a run for out to Panamint Springs just because. The winding road is fun to drive as it first climbs and then descends into the little “resort” of Panamint Springs. The road crosses a normally dry lakebed. Instead there was a few inches of muddy water on each side of the road with the wind forming muddy waves. The whole thing was rather surreal. The resort part of it wasn’t a place we would have wanted to stay and they had the highest gas prices we saw in a Park renowned for exorbitant gas prices. We’d thought of trying to hike to Darwin Falls, but we had dinner reservations at Furnace Creek Inn so we turned back. Stopped for gas in Stovepipe Wells, the cheapest in the Park at $2.96. As we wheeled up to the pumps, 4 guys jumped out of their trucks waving and grinning -- our 4 buddies from the previous day at Lippincott. They were fueling their bodies and vehicles before heading home. They’d tried to cross the Panamint Mountain Range near the Tea Kettle Junction after we had last seen them. Deep snow had forced a turn around. Their MaxTrax had saved them at least once. One vehicle had suffered some fender damage. They looked pretty beat up, but were in the afterglow of an epic trip in demanding conditions.
Day 6 was our last full day in the Park and we hoped for some good news on the roads. Nothing had changed. The high country was totally socked in. Even the very benign Twenty Mule Team Road was still closed. We opted to hit the Zabriskie and Dante’s Overlooks, along Amargosa Range the east side of the Park. While at Zabriskie, we hiked the Badlands Loop, a very pretty little hike. Dante’s provided a stunning look down at Badwater (the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level) and then across to Telescope Peak, at 11,043 feet, the highest point in Death Valley National Park. The two locations are less than 18 miles apart.
We hiked around some at Dante’s and then chilled at the overlook just soaking in the amazing views. Our trip was coming to a close. It wasn’t the trip we planned, but that just left a reason to come back. Tomorrow would just be a race back home. But for now the sun was shining and the views were never ending. It rained again that night. Plans are overrated.