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2023 Trip Report - Death Valley Gets Ready for Spring

Death Valley Gets Ready for Spring

March 10-12, 2023

Report: Jay Lawrence • Photos: Julie Smith, Glenn Shaw, Mal Roode & Stan Sholik

This all started when a couple of us mentioned that it had been a while since we had been to Death Valley, then I said I wanted to see the parts of Skidoo that I missed a few years ago... next thing you know we had a bunch of Desert Explorers meeting in the parking lot of the Mad Greek in Baker ready to put some miles on. It was going to be a great day and a spectacular weekend. Clear skies, warmish weather and a good group. Our team included Dave Burdick and his co-driver Dean, Marian Johns, Tracy Wood,  Stan Sholik, Brett Henrich, Bill and Julie Smith, Mal Roode, Glenn Shaw and Jay Lawrence.

There was a lot of ground to cover the first day. Up CA-127 to Saratoga Springs Road, then northwest up the west side of the Black Mountains to Harry Wade road and Warm Springs Canyon. We crossed the Amargosa River once with axle deep (!) running water, then a second time with just a trickle. This was something rare indeed.

Our first stop was the site of Ashford Mill off Badwater Road. While only the concrete wall arches and footing foundations remain, it once was home to a 40-ton capacity mill with wooden walls and jaw crusher machine. It was active from 1910 to 1941 but the gold ore it produced was never rich enough to justify the money needed to process and transport that ore. Across the valley we could see Shoreline Butte with its terrace formations formed by different water levels formed when an ancient lake covered Death Valley.

We headed west down Warm Springs Canyon then had a great lunch stop at the site of the Pfizer-owned White Point Talc Mine. Lindsey has been visiting this site and enjoying the springs and the caretaker houses since he was a boy and his dad worked for Pfizer. The houses and swimming pool remain, as well as a world class arrastra which is still complete with its drag stones and machinery. The mine was open and we explored the large hardrock drifts and the explosives room. Bill Smith claimed there was a Starbucks further down the left tunnel and a Taco Bell down the right one. This is unconfirmed.

We pushed on toward Butte Valley. As we approached Striped Butte, the cloud ceiling was low in the valley, just low enough to brush the top of Striped Butte and obscure the Panamints. We visited the stone Geologist’s Cabin and spoke to the fellow explorers who were spending the night there. It was clean and homey with a fire in the fireplace and an incredible view of the valley. We wished them well and continued on toward Russell Camp and spoke to members of the Great Basin Institute who were fencing a new study area. After some questionable navigation and  a couple of turnarounds, we concluded that all the decent places to camp were occupied and we headed back out Warm Springs Canyon to camp at our lunch stop. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision since the wind picked up and a light rain started. Once back at Warm Springs Camp we had a fine campfire and a good potluck dinner. We had covered a lot of miles and folks were ready to put their feet up for a while.

Saturday morning found us heading north up Badwater Road toward Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. We stopped briefly at the desert gravesite of Shorty Harris, “a single blanket jackass prospector.” He asked that he be buried next to his friend Jim Dayton in Death Valley. Dayton had died in 1898 of exposure enroute to buy supplies and was buried where he was found.

Everybody gassed up in Stovepipe Wells. This turned into a very slow event so it became our lunch stop for the day. Several folks ate at the saloon and gave good reports on the food. The rest of us threw out a camp chair and enjoyed the perfect 75° weather and beautiful view of the desert and mountains.

We headed southwest to Wildrose Road and Skidoo, an old mining town and mill site. Having been there only a few years ago, it was a surprise to see that new “Day Use Only” signs had popped up at almost every turn off the paved road in what is now National Park territory. It is this author’s opinion that this is an indication that the ever-expanding, self-inflating park boundaries have now reached a point where the reach of the park personnel has exceded its grasp. It seems that it is easier to put up a sign to prevent use than keep the area open to the public for dispersed camping. If you want the full rant, talk to me over a campfire with an adult beverage...

We did find Skidoo and a very sketchy uphill piece of road that ended in a locked gate just shy of the large mill. This caused a bit of concern since the only way to turn around on this cliffside single lane road was in a muddy flat spot above a tailings pile with a very high and steep dropoff. One-by-one we each complete a multi-multi-point turnaround with spotters and great care. It all went pretty well and we did not have to institute our “10% loss is acceptable” policy on this trip.

The mill site was amazing and we explored a bit. With a smaller group and more time it would be a great place for a day hike. For us, the weather was turning cold and wet and it was time to think about a campsite. We stopped briefly at Aguereberry mine and mill site then headed toward the Wildrose Camp at the junction Wildrose Canyon and Charcoal Kilns roads. This got us out of the weather with a great campsite  for the night.

In the morning it was brisk but clear. We headed for the Charcoal Kilns, knowing that the road was closed by snow after the kilns. The reports were not wrong. We hit snow about a tenth of a mile from the kilns and once there, the snow was bumper deep with an ice crust on top. Four wheel drive was in order just to turn around and park. We checked out the kilns, took some photos and headed back toward warmer, drier territory.

Following Wildrose Road downhill toward Panamint Valley, we took the back way into Ballarat on Indian Ranch Road. Ballarat has seen a massive cleanup in the last several years. Much of the derelict machinery has been removed or reshuffled and several of the building remains have been cleared out. We spent a while hanging out and swapping stories with owners Liz and Chuck at the general store. Tires were aired up, thirsts were quenched and everybody said their goodbyes. It was a beautiful trip with excellent company. What more could you ask for? ~ Jay

Kilns 2