The first trip we took to Death Valley in 2009 really got us hooked, and despite cramming as much as possible into the days, there was still a lot more that we wanted to see. We got Justin on board, jumped into the FJ on Thursday night, and drove out to Stovepipe Wells campground, arriving in the middle of the night and quickly pitching our tent for the first couple nights in the middle section of this large park.
Darwin Falls Road to Darwin - 14 miles offroad driving, 7 miles hiking/crawling/swinging
Our first trip took us to Darwin Falls from the northern approach along the canyon floor, where we bouldered up a ridge to get a better vantage point of the main falls which most people miss. SInce that first visit was done in a Toyota Corolla, revisiting the road in the FJ was very satisfying. We began by parking at the same trailhead as before, and hiked the same trail to the lower falls, which at this point was completely covered in a deep pool of water due to recent rains. We had to take a different route up the rock wall to reach the upper waterfall because of the water everywhere, but still ended up reaching the rocky outcropping with a view from the top to the base.
After we returned to Sarge, we drove up and around the old Eichbaum Darwin Toll Road which was the original road into Panamint Springs and Death Valley before the Death Valley Hotel company began advertising Lone Pine as the gateway into Death Valley. Soon along the road, we stopped off at an interesting mine at Zinc Hill. We explored briefly, found someone's broken message on a piece of slate (strange?), and then took the detour on the road to China Camp, an old house or ranch along the road, where China Garden Spring provides a constant source of water for the Darwin falls, and part of the spring has been formed into a koi pond with actual koi fish! After we finished being mesmerized by the area, we attempted hiking from the top of the spring back down to the falls. Unfortunately, this was nothing but a disaster. The trail was supposed to connect or at least get close, but we didn't see where it went, even with a couple trail guides. It may have been due to the excessively high flows, infrequent visitation and landslides, or our own incompetence, but it just didn't work. We were able to follow the river for a long period, hiking through reeds and around brush, and eventually got to the boulders above the falls, but still couldn't find any perspective of the falls like we could from below. If anything, it provided us with some comical fun as follows:
At many places along the trail, we had to make the choice of climbing up awkward dirt slides, going through brush, or walking in the mud. Since I had waterproof boots, I made the decision to go with the mud route for much of it. At one point, the mud began getting deeper. Instead of turnaround, I had the brilliant idea to swing from oak tree to oak tree like an ape, keeping myself out of the mud as I went. This was actually quite fun, until I got to one tree that was ~6" diameter, and while hanging on it looking for my next reach, I heard the cartoonish cracking of the branch happening in slow motion. I put my arm out to brace my fall just as I landed in a pool of mud with the branch on top of me. At that point, I resorted to simply walking through the muck the rest of the way and rejoined Justin and Marie as a dirty and defeated man.
Once I cleaned off the best I could, we continued along the offroad drive past a few more remains of buildings, past the remains of an old water pumphouse, and then we arrived at the combination ghost town and rural desert town of Darwin, CA (with a very fitting rock arrangement on the desert floor-- see pictures).
Barely 3 months after our first trip to Joshua Tree, we had organized and jumped on to a group camping trip with Andrew, Arvin, Brian, and a bunch of friends. For some, it was their first trip, and for others, they were hooked like us. We camped out at Indian Cove campground with reservations due to the larger group size and the desire to have sites together, but spent the first night by ourselves since the others weren't coming out until Friday. When we awoke the next morning, we went on a quick 3 mile round trip hike to 49 Palms Oasis, on the north edge of the park. This was an easy hike into a canyon with many palms (supposedly ~49....), and had views down into the town of Twentynine Palms, a sprawling desert suburbia developed due to the associated military base.
After this, we headed off to do our offroad adventure in my 2 month old FJ Cruiser while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. The first trail we tried was the Gold Coast Road, east of Twentynine Palms, and heading into the Old Dale mining district. Unfortunately, once I got halfway up a steep shelf road, I decided that I did not have enough experience to safely navigate this terrain and needed to work my way up to that skill level slowly or risk tumbling into the rocks below. We slowly backed down and turned around, proceeding toward some other shorter offroad travels like the Geology Tour Road and, a very tame loop through the center of the park, showcasing various rock formations. We returned to Indian Cove campground to find the rest of the group there, and had a great time around the campfire into the late hours of the night.
Saturday morning the newcomers to the park went off to some of the more popular hikes and were nice enough to drop us off at the southern trailhead for the Boy Scout Trail. We ended up turning it into a 12.3 mile hike back to the Indian Cove campground by detouring to Willow Hole, a rock climber's paradise within the Wonderland of Rocks just south of Indian Cove campground. It was long, tiring, and yet relaxing due to the serenity of the terrain. When we met up with everyone later that afternoon, it was not the same late evening campfire party as the night before due to our exhaustion from a day of hiking.
Although I bought the FJ Cruiser as a means to reach the backcountry 4x4 locations that I had been otherwise taking the Corolla to, I knew it would also inevitably mean a little extra offroading and 4x4 travel without hiking destinations. So after a few weeks of owning Sarge, I just had to drive out to the Mojave Desert with Scott and try some of the trails in my California Trails - Desert Region book.
Sunflower Spring Road and Lost Arch Inn Trail
We left from LA early in the morning, and reached Essex, CA by 11am. I had previously been here before in the rented Jeep Wrangler when I needed my flat repaired, and the "town" hadn't changed one bit. The only difference was that the mechanic was closed today, or at least they hadn't woken up yet. We started east down the old Sunflower Spring Road and detoured to the Golden Fleece Mine, where we found some tailings, an adit, and some ruins. From there we continued past Pilot Peak and a couple other mines until we reached the Lost Arch Inn Trail detour to the south, which brought us by an automobile graveyard that had been plinked. In fact, it would have been quite a gorgeous sight of ruins if they did not have 3000 bullet holes distributed throughout, and shells all over the ground. There were also some amazingly intact structures, but overall, nothing specifically extraordinary for the desert unless you are a desert mine history buff.
After coming out the other side almost in Nevada, we drove back through Needles to a KOA in the Baker area where we spent the night uneventfully. Starbright Trail and Black Canyon Road
This road began a few miles northeast of Barstow, past some communications towers, a mine, and through an area with a communal stone cabin built many years ago that is used as a cabin, shelter, Boy Scout destination, and basecamp for plinking (apparently). No one was there when we arrived, so we were free to explore the inside.
We continued along, past the Starbright Mine and well preserved ore tower(?), before reaching an unexpected obstacle less than a half mile from the end. That obstacle was the new expansion of the China Lake Naval Weapons center, which had erected a fence with very scary signs right across the road that we needed to travel to reach Goldstone Road, the flat and graded dirt road back to civilization and other offroad treks. When we reached it, I contemplated turning back and looked at how far back we would have to go to bypass it. Unfortunately, there were virtually zero shortcuts with the exception of one faint trail that cut across the open desert. Without taking a shortcut, it would be easily 90 minutes of backtracking and detours to get back to where we were going on Goldstone Road only a half mile away.
So we took the shortcut. On the GPS, it looked like a decent path, and it started out as so, but within a mile had deteriorated into an old horse trail through the open desert brush. The road was only marked with wooden posts, about 4 feet high, every 100 feet, and required weaving from bush to bush, letting the creosote give love scratches to the clear coat of my month-old car. It was painful at first, but in retrospect was great because it helped break the seal much earlier than I otherwise would have in regards to offroading capability. And the point of the car is to use it. Eventually we reached Goldstone Road, and after kissing the steering wheel apologetically, we continued north to the intended next trail, Black Canyon Road.
This was a much shorter travel through some dry lake beds and along some washes with minimal difficult driving, but brought us through an unknown region rich with intact petroglyphs and the signatures of ancient explorers, some dating back to the early 180
Around summer of 2009 is when Aaron proposed the grand idea of doing all national parks by age 40. I instantly was in love with this idea, and decided that if I have any medium to long term life goals, that was a feasible one. A random weekend in December that year was a perfect opportunity to begin on the path to completing it, since I needed to average 3 new parks per year if I wanted to reach all 58. We took the opportunity to drive the short 3 hours our to Joshua Tree that up until my quest began, I knew nothing about. It turned out to be a beautiful and brilliant place that can be very pleasant in the winter and spring, and due to it's low visitation is generally "empty" if you go during the right time of year. December turned out to be one of those times. We stayed at White Tank campground, in the middle of the park, and had a freezing but quiet night among the rocky outcroppings of this Joshua Tree-filled desert.
The next morning we headed further south toward the main hike of the weekend, Lost Palms Oasis, approximately 4 miles round trip. We started out of Cottonwood Oasis trail, headed to the main oasis with a few dense pockets of palms in the canyon, and on the way out passed by the trailhead to Mastodon Peak, which we decided to take as a short detour for great views.
We continued back north to White Tank campground which holds the trailhead for Arch Rock Nature Trail. It should have been a 1 mile loop, but took a bit longer due to our desire to explore and boulder hop among the impressively photogenic formations. After the arch, we continued to another boulder formation, Split Rock, where we hiked the 2 mile loop and and spotted the aptly-named Tulip rock.
After some more exploring and quick 1 mile loop nature hikes, we went back to the campground and returned the next day to Keys View, with some impressive views to the west and south, overlooking the Salton Sea and the San Jacinto mountains past it. On the way back, we took a 3 mile hike through Lost Horse Mountain area to the Lost Horse mine, and then explored a few rock formation stops before heading back home after a short but intriguing 36 hour taste of Joshua Tree.
IMO, Death Valley is the most underrated national park I have ever been to. It is the largest outside of Alaska, and covers more different topographies than anywhere I have seen, at least out of 20 so far. This was our first trip to the park, and despite the 5-6 hour drive each way, we have been there at least four times since, and still have barely repeated any hikes. You are able to go to the lowest point in the western hemisphere at less than -200 feet and then up to 11000 feet in only a few hours. You can see sand dunes, craters, marbled canyons, and waterfalls in the same day. It's truly breathtaking, and almost every time we are there, the place feels deserted.
Each day of this trip report can be used as a separate set of activities, as they are all grouped geographically.
Friday: The major attractions south of Furnace Creek
1. Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail w/ Gower Gulch loop: 4.0 mi RT. This was the first hike, and by far the most exposed to heat and sun. The canyon walls were interesting, and there is a side trip about 1.0 mi in that leads 0.25 mi to the "red cathedral" with really tall walls and and nice colors. Towards 3.0 mi or so, there are a lot of old mines in the hillsides, where they reach down to within 6 feet of the wash. One of them that was larger, sturdy and actually went through a hill 20 ft to the other side, and had a junction that went further in as well. If you end up doing this trail, make sure to take a map or GPS as some of the trail signs were literally torn out of their holes and scattered along the wash.
2. Natural Bridge Canyon: 1.5 mi RT to natural bridge. This was neat to see the giant natural bridge, but only do it if you feel like you have plenty of time. There is not much else to see aside from it and some dry falls, the path is uphill and sandy/gravelly, and the dirt road access is one of the more severe ones.
3. Devil's Golf Course: Nice little detour along a dirt road to some interesting salt formations.
4. Badwater EL -282 ft.: Took the short walk into the salt flats, and if you bear right you can find formations that are incredibly well preserved and untouched by tourists. I never would have thought you could have so much fun with macro settings and a piece of salt. Look closely at the photo of the hillside and you'll see the sign indicating where sea level is....
5. Artist's Palette 1-way drive: Desert beauty and fun in many places. Has pulloffs where you can get shots of green, orange, purple, white, and black boulders all next to each other. Worth the 30 minute drive.
6. Dante's View: Had 40 minutes to sunset, so drove all the way over to this lookout point that is actually directly above Badwater on a huge cliff, and provided an incredible view of the valley. Unfortunately the sunset had very little cloud interference to make it truly spectacular.
Saturday: Heading North from Furnace Creek.
The old Mojave Road was the southernmost route used to cross to the west coast by missionaries, the military, and various other groups, starting with Juan Batista de Anza's expedition in 1776. It is a 138 mile trail across the Mojave National Preserve from the Colorado river (and Nevada border) to Afton canyon, just west of Baker, CA (familiar to those Angelinos who make the weekend pilgrimage to Vegas). It crosses through historic forts, near stalactite-filled caverns, past many petroglyphs, lava tubes, cinder cones, early desert settler relics, and large canyons, all along some rough 4x4 roads. If you are interested in repeating this trip, I recommend saving these coordinates on Dirtopia at a minimum
, and suggest purchasing Adler Publishing's California Trails - Desert Region book, which has integrated trail directions, GPS coordinates, and lots of information on the various areas you pass through.
For this trip, we rented a classic 2 door Jeep Wrangler (this was before the FJ Cruiser, and this rental provided me with more reasons of why I didn't want a Jeep as my main car). We left on a Friday late morning and reached the starting point of Needles, CA with enough time to set up our tent at a KOA, grab some dinner and go to sleep. Saturday we began the drive, crossed over the Colorado River, and headed west into the Mojave NP, where we visited Fort Piute and Piute Spring, an old army base with many Native American petroglyphs. There was a Jeep meetup going on at the time, which led us to believe that the road was going to be much busier than expected, but it turned out that everyone only went to the main destinations and didn't travel the Old road, which provided for a much more pleasant trip.
From the Fort, we travelled west over an extremely rough and rocky pass, surprised that we didn't get a flat tire. Unfortunately, being our first offroading and backroad navigating experience, we wound up a few miles too far north, and were skirting a gorgeous canyon in Lanfair Valley before reaching a set of rough stadium jumps and sharp terrain, which did give us a flat tire! After swapping out the spare, we turned around, found the right trail, and at the intersection of Lanfair Valley Road, beared south to reach the nearest tire shop, which turned out to be many miles away, on the south side of I-40, in a "town" called Essex. The town was completely run down with the exception of a post office and a mechanics garage that charged a whopping $5 to fix our flat.
A couple hours behind, but back on track, we return to the Old Mojave Road where we left off, and head west to Black Canyon Rd, where we spend a night at Mid Hills Campground after viewing one of the most incredible desert sunsets that I have set my eyes on. Nights got fairly cold here, and the fire was a very welcome addition to the evening.
We awoke on Sunday for an adventure-filled day, starting with a ranger-led tour of the Mitchell Caverns State Natural Preserve, within the Providence Mountains SRA. These are some fun little caverns with well preserved formations, sitting in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve. It is also accessible via paved road from I-40, and thus recommended even if you are just passing through.