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).
This hike took us up some slickrock canyons carved by rain into the cliff walls south of Stovepipe Wells village. The passage had some very interesting formations in places, and at one point in time had used a set of metal pipes as handrails for tours up the canyon, but had since turned into a free-for-all of rock scrambling and climbing. After 2 or more miles we reached the tall dry falls at the very end of the canyon, and decided to return along the more exposed route along the hillside and cliff walls, providing us with great vistas as we went. I highly recommend this hike if you are up for a little exposure due to the change in perspective from climbing through a canyon to hiking around the edges of it. We reached the mouth of the canyon and the car just at sunset and returned to our campground.
Wildrose Charcoal Kilns to Telescope Peak - 5 miles (out of 14)
Although a bit of a drive, we thought it would be worth a shot to make the drive to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns area of the Panamint Mountain range and see how far we could get to Telescope Peak. With plenty of snow gear and waterproof boots, we had grandiose plans of summiting the mountain, but didn't make it quite that far. At over 11000 feet, Telescope Peak is a cold weather hike in all but the hottest parts of the year, and has impressive prominence with its ability to look down into the Badwater basin at -200 feet. This proved itself to be true during March, when the peak was still snow covered enough that by the time we had finished hiking up the snow covered road past Thorndike and Mahogany Flats campgrounds, we reached the beginning of the trail section, covered in even more snow which only got deeper and deeper. We trudged onward until we found ourselves nearly waist deep in certain sections with no hopes of it getting better and made the wise decision to turn around, defeated but not broken.
After setting up camp at the Mesquite Spring campground on nearly the opposite end of the park, we drove out to the site of Scotty's Castle, where we took both the house tour and underground basement tour. I won't go into details here, and will only say that it is worth doing both tours at some point. As engineers, we loved the underground tour and hearing about all the incredible turn of the century innovations that were used to bring things like air conditioning to the middle of a desert where this self-sustaining compound was churning along for a wealthy man and his "intriguing" friend.
Although we went on no more long hikes that day, we did explore the area around Scotty's Castle before returning to the campground. We had procrastinated that task due to a forecast and warning that was posted as we had checked into the campground: "Expect Gale-Force 50mph winds throughout evening. Anchor all tents and campground objects." As we left, the wind was definitely in the mid 20's, and we returned to find the tent still in place, but not in great shape. The cheap 3 man tent was blown into a tear drop shape, and the wind was picking up sand from the valley floor and turning it into a sandstorm. We actually had to protect our skin and eyes heavily to avoid being blinded or sand-burned. Eventually, with proper positioning of the car and the chairs and other hard objects on the windward side of the tent, we were able to get the situation to where only some sand was blowing underneath the tent mesh, through the fly, and onto our faces. We cooked in the vestibule, ate rapidly, and went to sleep as best we could with the wind howling. We awoke with everything covered in a film of sand, packed up fast, and got moving onto our final day of adventure in Death Valley, where we would only end up seeing even more sand.
Racetrack and Ubehebe Peak - ~8 miles
From Mesquite Spring, we drove 10 minutes to Ubehebe Crater, at which point we began the drive down Racetrack Valley Road, a rough lava filled area where the recommendation is to bring a 4wd vehicle, 2 spare tires, and ample water should you get stuck out in the desert. Even though we had a repair kit instead of a second spare, this is good advice since we did in fact get a flat approximately 2/3 of the way to the Racetrack (after passing Teakettle Junction--hard to miss....). We pulled over and changed it out fast and drove the final few miles to the Racetrack, an area where winds are able to push large rocks over a dry and solid lakebed, leaving an odd trail behind. After walking out into the middle of the Racetrack, which takes about 40 minutes, we returned to the car having not found very many at all. We looped farther south to the end of the Racetrack Grandstand area and found some very good examples there.
After we were satisfied with pictures, we began the hike up to Ubehebe Peak. The trail takes you up the western canyon walls, switchbacking to the summit at 5679 feet. Going from 3700 feet over 3 miles wasn't spectacularly difficult, but because we had not done much hiking during the day and it was already getting to lunchtime, we did this one fast so that we would have time for more. From timestamps on the photos, it looks like we completed the 6 miles roundtrip in 100 minutes, including summit time. I also took one of my favorite panorama photos to date at the summit, and not just because it has yours truly in the image...
Hanging Rock Canyon to Eureka Sand Dunes - 60 miles unpaved/offroad driving, 3 miles hiking
From the Ubehebe Peak trailhead, it is ~28 miles along the extremely rough road back to Ubehebe Crater, where we turned north to Crankshaft junction--just like Teakettle Junction, they make their intersections very obvious in the desert. From Crankshaft junction, we crossed over the more rough road through the Last Chance Mountain Range, found some interesting mines and adits in the rock walls around a crater, and reached an actual gravel road for the first time in many miles. This gravel turned to sand as we turned south into the Eureka Valley, where our destination became obvious very quickly: the towering sand dunes tucked beneath the mountains ahead.
The Eureka Dunes are the second tallest sand dunes in North America at 700 feet, short by 50 feet of claiming the title over the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. The difference in Death Valley is the extremely low visitation that the dunes receive. Only a couple other families were present when the three of us showed up this time, and we instantly knew we would have to make the trek to the top. While walking the most arduous 1-1.5 miles that I had ever done due to the difficult sand, we discovered how to make dunes "sink". By slamming our feet down at the top of a ridge and creating a cascade of sand, the vibration of sand particles across each other creates a deep vibrating resonance that echoes into your feet and through your bones. It sometimes feels like the whole dune is vibrating and humming. We reached the top, and had the foresight to bring along a sleeping pad. Not to sleep of course, but to try to sled down the hill. It didn't work -particularly- well, but you can see for yourself in the videos. Above all else, the best part of the dunes is the photography. I was mesmerized by the curves and patterns, along with the grand scale of it all.
After the dunes, we began the long 6-7 hour drive home, during the beginning of which we passed through a range out of Death Valley that I had never crossed before. We assumed we would be heading down the entire way, but climbed up to where the temperature just continued dropping lower than we could believe. Since this was dusk and the sun was gone, we were making bets of how low it would actually go, and we were all surprised when it dropped to 28 F, after having been 70+ F only a few hours prior.