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1999 Trip Report - Southern Death Valley

Southern Death Valley

Led by Ken and Diane Sears

October 9 & 10, 1999
Trip report and photos by John Page

The first week of October, 1999, was the hottest on record, with local  temperatures in the 100+ range, so a weekend in southern Death Valley with the Sears and some other nice people seemed like the perfect thing to do.

We met at the Mad Greek’s parking lot in Baker where I just barely had time to inhale a honey-sweet baklava. Ken and Diane Sears, with dog Ben, were the leaders, I was the sweep, and the other participants were Joe Daly, Allan Wicker and Ding Elnar, Bob Younger (aka “Ford Bob”), Joan McGovern-White, and Bob Meador (aka “Isuzu Bob”) who we met later on up the road.

Ken announced early-on that he’d been to Ballarat the week before and had been told that Goler Wash (aka Coyote Canyon Road) was washed out and impassable without winches and lockers; we would therefore have to forego the transit through the Panamints from Death Valley to Panamint Valley.

Our first stop was at Sheep Creek Spring, where we checked out the cabin and the remains of the talc mining operation. Joe’s Blazer didn’t like the climb in high range and puked radiator fluid in the parking area. A little rest and use of low range seemed to satisfy the car, although it was never really happy at any time in the trip. Lost vacuum or something like that.

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Then to Saratoga Springs   where we visited the pupfish and had our lunch while some huge, black, carnivorous, horseflies had us for lunch. Salt Creek Basin, with another fine old cabin was our next stop.On the way down, “Ford Bob” blew a sidewall in the rocky wash that our fearful leader had mistaken for the road out.

Then to West Side Road and the long drive up Butte Valley to Warm Springs, where we camped. This area has some neat mining equipment and two small, lovely grottos a short, steep, uphill distance from the abandoned house and used-to-be swimming pool.

The potluck, presumably for happy hour only, provided all the food we needed for dinner. Joan brought some veggies with dips and some terrific rollups, both ham and cream cheese; the Sears did a 7-layer bean dip, I did my quesadilla thing, the guys brought other goodies, and best of all, Allan and Ding, provided us with a lovely spaghetti main course with tossed salad. We enjoyed a fine campfire in the delightfully cool evening and slept soundly under the stars in the clear, dark, moonless night.

Allan’s Pathfinder had a flat tire when we got up, so we pulled it, found a sidewall puncture using soapy water, and repaired it with Allan’s Safety Seal kit. We missed our kickoff time by only a couple of minutes. Bob Younger, without a spare tire, decided to leave the trip.

Up to Butte Valley where we did our morning loosening-up hike to Arrastre Spring to find some mediocre rock art, then on to three cabins along the eastern edge of the mountains below Manly Peak. The first, Geologist’s Cabin, contained a message from some guys in Quadrunners who said they’d made it up Goler Wash in spite of incredible difficulties.

Then Anvil Spring Cabin and on to Greater View Cabin where we met hearing-impaired John and his dog, the temporary occupants of the cabin. He, too, told us that the road down Goler Wash was impassable, signifying a sheer 4-ft dropoff.

After a pleasant lunch at the cabin, Ken offered us a choice of ending the trip and returning down the Butte Valley Road or making a moderately difficult run to Mengel Pass and maybe down the other side as far as the Barker Ranch, which the Manson Gang occupied for a while. I wanted to see the pass; the others opted to return home. So Ken got them headed back the way we came and then Ken, Diane, Ben, and I did the pass and headed down the other side to the Barker Ranch.

About a mile down the trail we met a young couple, Linda and David Moreno, who were taking a short-cut from Death Valley to Fresno in a rented, stock, Ford Expedition. They had seen the dotted line across the mountains on the AAA map and figured they’d try it for their first off-highway experience. Linda was not pleased when I told her that the road was impassable and she would have to go back out. She had not enjoyed the last couple miles of their experience. They decided, wisely, to stay with us.

So now we had a driver on her first 4wd trip in a gigantic chunk of rented Detroit Iron to keep us company on a reportedly impassable road!

Ken led us to the Barker Cabin where we speculated about what stories the walls could tell, and on a little farther to Myers Ranch, once quite lovely, but recently burned. While we were at the Barker Cabin, a couple in a modified Suzuki Samurai (oversize tires, lifted, and lockers fore and aft) pulled in; they had just come up the wash and said that there were some rockfalls that would offer a challenge to the Expedition, but that with a little roadwork and careful spotting, it should be navigable. That was enough to keep us going downhill with the intention of turning around if it got too hairy.

We made one last stop at the Newman Mine (see Jan, 2003 update) headquarters shack before we hit the rockfalls. There were three, about 50 yards apart. The first two had drops of 4 to 6 feet and the third a little more. They consisted of jagged, pointy bedrock and rubble of all shapes and sizes, some with tire marks and maybe crankcase oil. Plenty bad enough to tear up the undersides of our trucks, not to mention the Expedition. Obviously, we decided to keep going.

Ken and I agreed on the lines to take on each rockfall, and then we all moved rocks to fill in as many of the “pits” as we could. I spotted for Ken, who was first. We both spotted Linda, occasionally giving her conflicting directions. By the time I did the rockfalls, they were a piece of cake!

It took us the better part of an hour to work through the rockfalls, but we made it without a scratch. Linda was a real trooper, followed directions perfectly, and the rocks never laid a glove on her rented monster.

At 4:30 we stopped near Ballorat for self-congratulation, good-bys, and a cooler.

It was a great trip, Sears!