Death Valley: New Truck on Old Roads
October 13-16, 2011
By Jon Cox
My wife, Kim, friend and teacher/co-worker Jessica, has a son, Rohan, that is just learning how to drive. He is 13 going on 14, so he is starting early. I got wind of this and told Rohan that I’d teach him how to drive a stick. He seemed agreeable to the idea.
I recently bought a new 4 wheel drive Toyota Tacoma, with a stick shift. I started to think about how I would teach this young man how to drive. I started to try to think of where the closest public land was, the kind I learned to drive on all those many years ago. Anyhow, the idea slowly evolved into a 4 wheeling and camping trip in and around Death Valley. I have been itching for years to get back there. This was just the excuse I needed.
I spread the word of the trip and my parents (Neal and Marian Johns) signed up to go. I got a few other nibbles, but nothing ever materialized. The friend I invited backed out a couple of weeks prior to the trip and no one else I asked could take the time off. My wife made the joke, “Jon and Rohan, two guys with no friends.”
My new truck has a wheelbase that is longer than I am used to and longer than I’d like. It is also stock, with tires that I don’t trust and wished were bigger. I was particularly nervous about two sections of road that were notorious for being prone to washout, Lippencott Mine Rd. and Goler Wash Rd. I could not find recent information on the web.
I had a young teenager to feed, so I went a little overboard. I spent several hours cooking eggs, bacon and hash browns for fast easy breakfasts. I’m always in a hurry in the mornings. Lunches would be mostly sandwiches. For dinners, I had planned burritos one night and freeze dried camping dishes the rest of the time. My mom then told me she would make and bring dinners, enough for everyone. I had already made the ground beef for the burritos, so I told her that she could plan one less dinner.
Our route took us through Bakersfield and then Lake Isabella. We stopped for dinner at Burger King. Onward, Rohan fell asleep halfway through the aromatic town of Trona.
I woke Rohan up when we hit the dirt road to Great Falls Basin, for a driving lesson. He did quite well for his first time working a manual transmission. I had it in low range to facilitate learning the clutch and keep his speed down, but still being able to shift through some gears. I got impatient with the pace after 10 or 15 minutes and switched seats with him. We stopped at the end of the road for camp. My parents and their truck were already waiting there, with them in bed. It must have been 10:00 p.m. or so. Neal yelled out the window of his camper, “This is a private campground!” in welcoming us. I retorted “Yeah, so what are you doing in my campground?”
The sun woke me about 8:30 a.m. My first sight that morning was of my mother looking back at me and then looking at her watch. After we ate breakfast and broke camp we took a little time and hiked up to the dry waterfall. When I had first visited Great Falls Basin, as a child, I was impressed by the flowing creek next to the campsites. The white noise from it was an easy surrogate for the sounds of home and sleep came easy. Every time since then, when I visit, the water flow is always less than my first visit. This time there was only stagnant water in the plunge pool below the tallest falls. Even without the beauty added by flowing water, this place still impresses me.
After the hike, I gave Rohan the opportunity to drive down the dirt road, back to blacktop. He did well again. We spent the next part of the day driving north-ish to Mahogany Flats where we stopped for lunch in the campground. The high air was filled with the scents from the pinyon and juniper.
We stopped at the Charcoal Kilns for a photo op and then headed for Aguereberry point. The overlook is impressive. On the return we stopped at the Eureka mine. Then headed for Emigrant. Here is a campground, a bathroom and a public telephone at Emigrant and not much else. I could find no one to pay my Park fees too. We climbed the grade and went to Panamint Springs down the other side for gas. $5.48 for a gallon! I spent $3.89 at the Shell station near home. Forty percent surcharge for the convenience of getting gas in the middle of nowhere.
The shadows were getting long as we drove up and over the “Old Toll Road” to China Garden Springs for camp. The trees were different than I remember from 15-ish years ago and the goldfish pond was choked with cattail reeds. I did see some of the Goldfish and felt sorry for them in there restricted environ.
We had my burritos that night for dinner. Everyone seemed pleased with the food, or at least not disgusted. I was awoken twice that night with a male burro calling for any Jennies in earshot. Bloody loud buggers. I guess they have to be.
After the standard breaking camp and breakfast we headed back over the “Old Toll Road” to the trail head from Darwin Falls. I had never walked up to it from the bottom. It was a pleasant and easy hike. It got a little more challenging if you wanted to keep your feet dry. The bottom falls was pretty and lush with vegetation. My mom headed back down canyon and I was going to go further up. I told Rohan that he could head down canyon and catch up with my mom or he could follow me, which involved some easy rock climbing, sideways mostly. I explained I would tell him exactly where to put his hands and feet and he elected to follow me. The rock face was nowhere near vertical, at probably 30 degrees from horizontal flat. If either of us had slipped we had about a 25 foot fall to certain injury or worse. A rope would have been nice, even prudent, but I had none of my rock climbing gear, and none of it is for setting anchors. Rohan remained calm and we got safely above the bottom falls. We passed a second junior sized falls to arrive at the third complex of 3 falls. The bottom plunge pool was likely over my head and had a large submerged tree branch in it. To make it to the bottom of the tallest falls would require more time, skill and equipment than I had presently. I’ve read you can hike to the top of this falls complex. The only way I could see that happening was to ascend a steep scree field around the corner to the right and north of the bottom pool. Not today. We headed back down. After passing the dangerous section again, Rohan was so pleased with himself and excited, he gave me a hug in thanks for the guidance. The one annoyance was every tree had larvae hanging by silk threads, in hopes of hitching a free ride, or worse a free meal. None bit us, but I spent the majority of the hike through the brush swinging my walking stick in front of us to clear the little critters out of the way.
After lunch at the trailhead we topped off our tanks again at Panamint Springs. We drove up the highway and stopped briefly at “Father Crowley Point” to snap a few photos. We then turned north off the highway onto Saline Valley Rd. and passed the “Road Closed” and “Drive at your own risk” signs with a bit of trepidation. After turning left and driving down Grapevine Canyon, meeting the floor of Saline Valley we turned right toward Lippencott Mine and the first section of road that had me nervous. Driving over the cross grain, I spotted a flat topped rock embedded in the road. I estimated that this rock was right on the edge of my truck clearance. I called back of the CB to state I was going to test my clearance. I came to a stop, put it in first gear and went as slowly and I could. There was a loud sound halfway between a thud and a gong (thong, maybe) and the truck shuddered. I didn’t have that much clearance. But it didn’t hit again on the rear axle. We passed a Jeep coming the other way and we inquired about the road. They said they had come down it with no trouble and that it was an “interesting” road. They didn’t think we’d have much trouble. We started up. The road got narrower, twistier and steeper. The road got to be not that much wider than my truck and then it had a hairpin turn. I asked Rohan to get out and guide me so I didn’t hit the rock on one side and didn’t drop a wheel over the edge on the other side. He did a fine job and hopped back in the cab. Another tenth of a mile up the road I lost traction. I pressed the button to engage my locker and up I went, no problem. The rough patch in my rear view, I took the locker back out. The road continued up, following the curves of the topography, with a switchback thrown in for fun. We eventually crested and then turned left toward the dry lake known as the racetrack. Rohan and I walked across the dry lake to the best examples of the moving stones. Actually, Rohan jogged across, I walked. Rohan said he could feel the difference in elevation as he ran, getting a tad winded at over 3,000 feet. Walking back across the dry lake, I asked Rohan to perform an experiment. I told him to walk with his eyes closed and try to keep it in a straight line. Then I had him jog with his eyes closed. He did better than I, but still wandered off center considerably. After the trip was over and I got back home and watched some DVR’d TV shows, the MythBusters had a show doing the same thing. Co-inky-dink.
We turned south and went to camp near the Lippencott mine, the Homestake Dry Camp. My mom fixed spaghetti with a side salad and garlic bread. Very tasty.
The next morning, I got some nice photos of the sunrise on the mountains at the north end of the valley. The very deep shadows turned out nicely. The road out to Tea Kettle Junction and then north to Ubehebe Carter were in very good shape. If we weren’t inside the park, they would have been good roads for Rohan to practice. We made good time, but the morning air was still. My Mom and Neal had to hang back quite a ways to keep from breathing too much dust. The road at Ubehebe Crater seemed like it had recently been paved. After photographs were taken we drove over to Scotty’s Castle. A clean bathroom was very nice indeed. Rohan and I just caught the next scheduled tour of the castle. I was sorry to see that none of the water features were on. I thought I remember them flowing when I went on this tour as a kid. I don’t remember the organ being played at the end of the tour. That was impressive.
I went back to the book store at Scotty’s Castle to pick up a book Neal had recommended and got the added treat of a friendly chat with a man demonstrating flintknapping. After lunch, we drove down to the Grapevine entrance station to find it unmanned. There was a device much like an ATM that I was able to finally pay my Park fees. I proudly taped the receipt to the inside of my windshield. Driving south we passed a number of Boy Scouts coasting down the grade, being followed by chase vehicles. Rohan observed one of the boy bicyclists and commented, “One looks a little scrawny.” I remarked, “Pot calling the kettle.”
We eventually turned off the highway to drive over to the Salt Creek area. When I had last been here, as a teen, the weather was really nice. It was a cool day with overcast sky. The area was brimming with clear water and the pup fish were easy to observe. Today was in the high 90’s with clear skies. Rohan and I took the short ¼ mile walk in the oppressive heat and sun. Most of the water courses were long dry. There was a small sliver of open water, moving almost imperceptibly, that was a pale yellow green in stagnation. We didn’t see any of the famed fish. I would not have wanted to walk much further in that heat. Our water bottles were empty on our return to the air conditioning of my truck.
Further down the highway we pulled into Furnace Creek to gas up and I picked up ice for my cooler. The price here was similarly high. I think $5.37 for a gallon of gasoline. South from Furnace Creek we noticed participants of a bicycle race sharing the road with us. Checking the temperature gauge had an impressive 104 degrees F. We took the loop through Artist’s drive and then on to Badwater, where the race seemed to have its half way turnaround. A quick stroll out to the beginnings of a wide salt pan for photos and we were back on the road. We turned left onto the dirt of West Side Road and then later a right turn toward Warm Springs and its old mining camp. We set up our last camp there. While we were fixing hot dogs and fajitas for dinner, a Park Ranger pulled up alongside camp in an impressive modified and equipped Jeep. We had a nice chat and quizzed him on the condition of the road we would face the next day. He told us the road through Stripped Butte Valley had eroded some from the rains, but that it was generally passable. He confirmed that there was a nasty patch before Mengel Pass, but that Goler Wash shouldn’t give us much trouble.
Rohan and I laid on each bench of an old picnic table and looked at stars, satellites and discussed some of the more odd properties of the cosmos, before heading to bed.
Up on time and ready to go, we inspected some of the buildings left over from the mining days. Most were in reasonable condition, but all could benefit from a cleaning and carpentry crew. The old mining equipment, ore processing machines, collected and reassembled was a very nice touch. Today was Rohan’s 14th birthday. I gave him the small gifts my wife had got for him. I had given him a lightweight set of knife and fork at the beginning of the trip.
We traveled up the rest of the canyon and out across the valley without incident, to the “Geologist’s Cabin.” The large cottonwood tree at Anvil Springs, below the cabin, had died and only the tall trunk remained. The inside of the cabin was pretty well kept and we signed the log book.
Twenty minutes later the road got rougher as we approached Mengel Pass. I passed the first tiny section by swinging wide and taking a good line. I stopped and got out of the truck to walk over and inspect the next section. I’ve heard it referred to as the rock garden. It wasn’t overly scary, just rough, really rough. We rearranged the rocks to our liking and I gave it a run. I was doing ok, but then I landed the body (not the frame, as I would’ve liked) on to a particularly tall rock. Not a good sound to hear in a brand new truck. I backed off a bit and Neal threw rocks under where my tires would go. My next attempt, I slid down or sideways into a rock and put a fist sized dent in the plastic of the passenger corner of the front bumper. Meh. I want to replace that someday anyhow. More rocks thrown around and I motored through without adding to the damage. I got out and we did even more road building. My parent’s truck is generally more suited to this, but has challenges all its own, being top heavy from the pop-up camper in the bed. My mom drove through without much trouble beside the faint smell of a hot clutch.
We passed the grave site of Carl Mengel at Mengel Pass. We drove down to the turn for Barker Ranch and went left and drove up to it, in hopes of finding shade for lunch. There wasn’t much shade to be had so we took a few minutes to look around the now burned out structure. We drove further up canyon to see if we could find shade at the Meyer’s Ranch, but we were turned away by the private property signs and fence. I’m pretty sure those two ranches are inside the park, but maybe the Meyers Ranch is still private and just not big enough to mark on the NPS map. We headed down Goler Wash in search of shade. We passed a Ford pickup headed where we had just come from and I stopped to ask about the road condition. “Oh yeah, no problem.” was the answer, “Went over it in 3rd gear”, which got a good laugh from people in both vehicles. Once outside the park, we pulled off in some shade of the canyon wall and had a quick lunch. We had spent a lot of time road building on the far side of Mengel Pass and were running behind. Ordinarily, this isn’t a big deal, but I had a very long drive ahead of me to get Rohan home. Time was getting more important. Driving further down Goler Wash, we marveled at the steep walls of the canyon and the many colors of rock making it up. The canyon narrowed and we finally laid eyes on the last rough patch. We all got out and had a look. We threw a few rocks for good measure, but weren’t as concerned as before. I slowly drove my truck down, riding the brakes down the 30 foot long, 5 foot high, and dry bedrock rough section. My mom did likewise. Shortly thereafter we came to the end of the canyon and I let Rohan at the wheel again for a while. After passing the big heap leach gold mine the dirt road improved considerably. We passed a couple of big pieces of mining equipment headed back toward the mine. We cut through the corner of Ballarat, past the unmanned radar station and headed back toward Trona. We took gas in Ridgecrest and ate a Taco Bell dinner in Wasco, birthday boy’s choice. We got gas again at Harris Ranch. The wind was blowing the wrong way. It smelled better in the men’s bathroom than it did outside. Stinky cows.
I had a great time. It was fun sharing Rohan’s young enthusiasm and I was glad for the extra company. I wish I could have given him more driving time, but that was only the first impetus for the trip, not the main motivation. I didn’t much like setting up my tent each night and taking it down every morning, having been spoiled by the camper shell on my old truck. Rohan seemed like he enjoyed pitching his tent even less than I did mine. It was a long way home, but we made it.
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