Queen of the Walkabout
Joined: 15 Jan 2004
| Posted: 8/30/2004, 8:11 pm
|Who says there is nothing to see in Death Valley??? Maybe in July and August, but ahhh the winters. I had my first ever backpack from hell here, and when I returned years later I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe because I jeeped most of it and covered a lot of territory. But I hiked too, and my friend Jerry joined me for some of it.
I had planned to go to southern utah, but it was late in the month of October and I had waited too long, the rain and snow storm track hit hard there. I had 2 weeks off and didn't plan on sitting around. I decided to go to Death Valley, I purchased a couple of guides to the area, some maps and headed out.
I won't go over the entire two weeks, just points of interest. Lets' say though it was a magical two weeks in a place that I thought would be a hard sell even to a desert rat and solitude lover like me. My first few days were a jeep exploration of the adjacent Panamint mountains with a wash route which connects to Death Valley proper. My first backpack trip I've written about and was a death march for me the novice from Johnson Canyon, over Panamint Pass to Panamint City, down Surprise Canyon to the old Chris Wicht camp.
Now I approach the ghost town of Ballarat, pass through, and locate a rough 4wd old mine road up Pleasant Canyon. At the start the low canyon is very rocky and various shades of brown. A short climb later it narrows and greens up, the road running right through a riparian area of willows that conspire to climb in your vehicle with you.
Mining remains show up, a head frame, an old primitive tram line. The crown jewel is the extensive remains at Clair Camp, the huge old mill with its bull wheel, the other massive junk piles of a mining town. 5-6 buildings are still up in various stages of disrepair. The climb up in the vehicle has been a steep low range affair, the views out to the panamint playa are surreal.
I drive farther and see an old cabin. I check it out, it is somewhat maintained and available for shelter first come first serve. It is the first of several cabins on this trip, and again the most extensive mining remains I have seen in one general geographic location that you can visit for free and not a tourist site.
I drive up to the head of the canyon, and take a right at a "T", the left goes to an overlook. The right is some exceptional rough driving, up is loose and steep, the downside is a slider; I have the brakes floored and the vehicle just slides down the slope. Keep your wheels straight and you'll be ok.
On top of the Panamints is a giant bowl or swale. Its huge and has an old abandoned air strip in an open area. Lots of semi wild burros. They are everywhere and stare at me with their long ears up. They are all colors and sizes, they don't seem afraid but will not let me get too close. I drive a bit up here and cannot locate a reasonable route out and come back down the same way.
Later when Jerry joins me we repeat this route and locate the loop road, and several more cabins hidden in trees. We take the road down South Park Canyon. And its an "e-ticket" ride. It involves a tight side hill move with a large boulder, at this off camber section your passenger is tilted out over an 80 foot drop. Make sure that seat belt is tight. Jerry informed me the front tire was about 6" from the big drop. Good thing I couldn't see that with my fear of heights. When you get around that then it is down a shelf road just wide enough for your vehicle then over a log bridge built by some 4 wheelers. The county had threatened to close the road as it was not up to specs. I'll say-- its a few log cross beams with other logs secured with cable wrapped around them and some bolts. Its an experience to drive over it. The rest of South Park is a rock crawl but not scary. Another cabin is in the bottom with a few vehicles parked there. Soon you loop around to the main road that runs in front of the Panamints.
To digress, now Jerry was with me we decide to drive through Goler Wash ( I had been thru this part about 4 days prior), the only road through to the backside of the Panamints to Striped Butte Valley in Death Valley. Goler is interesting, along with more mining stuff, you can stop at Sourdough Spring and visit the Barker Ranch. This place has an infamous history. Charles Manson and his "family" - about 27 people- were arrested here after the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders. He was arrested initially for vandalizing park equipment, a couple of bulldozers, but the murders had already taken place. Supposedly he was hiding in a cabinet in the bathroom when the raid came. You can look in the same bathroom today, the cabinet is gone. Barker ranch and its outbuildings are in pretty good shape, unfortunately due to accessibility at times are vandelized and trashed. Some fruit trees and the drip irrigation system are still there also. This place is available for camping but has some bad vibes to me.
A hill behind the ranch house has some good views. Two metal chairs with their feet set in a concrete pour overlook the area. As I sit in one I wonder if that maniac Charlie sat where I am seated now.
Continue the drive through a rough area to Mengel Pass. Mr Mengel, an early Death Valley miner and explorer is buried here at a large cairn at the pass, it has a very scenic view of Striped Butte Valley. More 4 wheeling and then you come to three interesting cabins in about a 5 square mile area. Russell camp, Stella Anderson's place and Geology cabin. I wish I had noted more of the history of these places. Russell camp is pretty impressive with multiple rooms in the dwelling, one is labeled the "honeymoon suite"; there is some literature involving a volunteer group that helps maintain the cabins. The interior is in good shape with all kinds of cookware, extra propane cartridges, and wonder of wonders- running water. I was just fooling around and turned on the faucet at the kitchen sink and was shocked when a low flow ran out of it steadily. We located a catchment basin and intact piping located uphill at a spring.
At Stella Anderson's place someone had laminated an old newspaper article and glued it to the wall, it gave some history of the place. One portion of the back wall contained original rock work of the Mormon batallion as they came through and erected a cabin here in the late 1800's. More recently Stella lived here with her miner/prospector husband and stayed on and ran the place after he died. She was pretty tough, running folks off with her shotgun. Her family finally apparently forced her removal from here when she was in her 80's as they were concerned about her living out her by herself and the park service was negotiating add this area to the park.
She died a short time later in Trona--some people said of a broken heart after leaving her beloved home. This took place in the 1970's???
Geology cabin is a lovely small all natural rock one room cabin built in more recent times although I do not know the date. It is near a nice spring and has an open air outhouse with a killer view of the valley as you sit on the throne. This cabin was very clean as of my visit and was the most appealing to stay in.
On out Striped Butte Valley, you come to the large abandoned settlement of Warm Springs, again more recent in construction. Supposedly a mining settlement, it has the look of an abandoned old resort. There are natural, you guessed it, warm springs here. An old swimming pool which was filled with the natural waters sits full of leaves. Jerry and I hike up the canyon filled with wild grape vines to the source. Its actually hot as it flows out of a crack in the rock walls. The pools are large enough to sit in but not very deep. Here my first trip through without Jerry I drew some water in a dromedary bag, went well away from the water and had a nice hairwashing session with my biodegradable shampoo. The warm water was nice to have on my scalp.
Nearby is a huge gated mine opening, you could have driven a semi truck in here. The rock is chalky and white--Borax??
There are lots of mine adits around and most you can walk right in. In some the air smells awful and you back right out. It is surprising in a national park that they are not closed up. I suppose due to the number, money, manpower and the distance into the backcountry it is not feasible.
Other hikes I did without Jerry were the Ash Fork mining claims, where I found a huge open vertical shaft while doing some off trail wandering. Yep, threw a rock in it and never heard it hit. Also a trip to Ibex Springs, probably my favorite area this trip despite driving my Jeep off a 3 foot ledge undercut along the wash road and breaking a leaf spring in the rear pack. It came out and the vehicle was drivable--I took it into Beatty and had a guy tighten the spring hangar. Ibex Springs is pleasing to the eye and had a whimsical feel to it. I hike across some artfully rock strewn sandy flats to the small sand dunes. Took off my shoes, climbed to the top and butt surfed down on a plastic board I had. It was so much fun!!
Touristy stuff- Hiking the Keane Wonder mine, up to the top shafts and along the amazing tram still in place with the buckets still on the cables hanging over space. It is said the miners rode in these buckets at times. What a rush! I drive to Echo Canyon and the mine remains there. I will return to take the hard core 4wd route through to Nevada. I take a drive through Titus canyon the visit the old town of Leadville; wait out a brief snow storm in Beatty, Nevada. Lots of tarantulas crossing the road, fall is the mating season.
The next trip/hike of note was up Trail Canyon to the Morning Glory mine on the flank of Wild Rose Peak. The Jeep crawled its way up the steep talus road, you could smell that tranny fluid. There are a lower few buildings which mark the town, but the mine itself is far up at the head of a narrow canyon. Not sure what the Morning Glory mined, most folks here were after gold or silver. The ore was a beautiful aquamarine blue and almost jade green in a milky quartz. I had a bout with dehydration and altitiude problems here. Jerry and I took a switchbacking old mine road that was a steady grade up, there was no level. It wasn't jeepable and I wanted to walk anyway. As we ascended so did my headache and a faint feeling of weakness, dizziness. I drank more water and ate some crackers. By the time we reached the land slide at the old mine I felt ok.
The land slide had pushed in the side of the mine cabin, but inside a few things were intact, an old boot, a few glass bottles with some kind of colored oily looking fluid in them. We found the entrance to the main shaft partially blocked with some light rail hanging in the air above. It looked like it went back aways so we donned our headlamps and pulled out our small flashlights. We each had an additional light source---the rules of three. In we went.
Now lots of people will say to stay out of mine shafts. I'll agree---for them. I am willing to take the risk. I know even if you are careful accidents can happen.
The morning glory mine was an extensive operation. Multiple levels, lots of track, tunnels, some vertical shafts with wooden framing supporting bins and hand or small machine operated winches. We walked for what seemed like forever, about an hour. We had to leave cairns at our turns, there were too many to keep track. When we came out we sat and had lunch and got used to the sunlight; we felt like tunnel rats.
I also hiked in Fall Canyon and a little in Mosaic canyon. All in all lots of drivng and some hiking but it really changed my perception of the place. Now I want to get into the northern part, Saline Valley, and visit the Racetrack and Teakettle junction. I'll have to get a tea kettle to donate. I''ve heard there are some warm spings too, one developed but the others more natural in travertine. Want to get to those too.