Wednesday 10 October 2012

Death Valley Backroads, Day 3: Titus Canyon, Trail Canyon, and back home

Day 2 here, more  pictures here.

We decided to visit Titus Canyon on Sunday morning. This is another of those roads where you wonder whether a regular car could do it. And again, the answer is no! You really do need the Jeep.

Titus Canyon is a long one-way road, which is entered in Nevada nearly at the ghost town of Rhyolite, an amazing rags-to-riches-to-rags story in itself. Gold was found in there 1905.  By 1907 the population was 5000, and three separate railroads were under construction for hundreds of miles across the desert. Yet in 1910 the mines were exhausted. The railroads had barely reached the town when the mines closed in 1911. By 1920 there was nobody left.

The outward journey is along one of these wonderful long, straight-to-the-horizon roads that you find in the desert. Then, with one of Rhyolite's quarries just in front, you spot a tiny sign to a gravel road. Turning off, you bump for miles down the easy, if rough, track, headed back to the mountains that form the eastern boundary of the park. At first the entry to the mountains is easy as the track winds and climbs. Then suddenly in front is a great gash across the mountain: the climb up Red Pass at a steady 20% gradient. The road is straight, but it's a long way down - you really don't want to come off it. Then at the top you wonder where the road has gone. You scan the horizon, in vain, until you realise that it is right down there. The descent is anything but straight, a succession of hairpin bends dropping dramatically into the valley. Each twist and turn opens up a new vista of applied geology, the strata of billions of years exposed immodestly to your gaze.

Eventually we arrived at the reason this road exists, the ghost town of Leadfield. Only a few buildings survive, and in truth there never really was a town. The post office opened in 1926 and closed in 1927. The whole thing, including the road, was a stock scam.

From there it's a few more miles of mostly-easy gravel road to Titus Canyon itself. In the Canyon the road drops over 2000 feet, gradually narrowing until in places it's barely wide enough for the Jeep, the walls towering hundreds of feet feet above. In the middle of all this there are a couple of places wide enough to pull off the road. We chose one of them for our lunch. The thing that struck me is the silence - all outside sounds are absorbed by the canyon walls, and there are few birds. Naturally there's very little light. It's an extraordinary and beautiful place.

The canyon ends, quite suddenly, with a magnificent view of the northern part of the valley, still nearly a thousand feet below at the foot of the alluvial fan.

We'd started later than we intended (that has never happened before!), so we didn't have time for my original plan, which was to drive the full length of the West Side Road to Warm Springs Canyon, at the southern end of Badwater. Instead we settled for the first of the trails up the western side of the valley into the Panamint range. The west side has always been tantalising - it probably can be driven in a regular car, but I've never done it. The east side has high cliffs and a steep drop from the 5000 feet of Dante's View, but the west side has a huge alluvial fan that rises from nearly 300 feet below sea level in the valley, to over a thousand feet.

In the past several of these canyons led to passes that would eventually take you to the Panamint valley on the other side of the range. The southernmost was Wingate Wash, a long, gentle climb without any real mountaineering. Unfortunately it now leads only to the China Lake naval weapons research center - which, as you can imagine, is not open to the public. Nowadays there isn't even a road up the wash - it has become part of the designated wilderness, which means you can only get there on foot or by horse. Given the heat, terrain and drought, that isn't a very practical option either, so you can't really get there at all.

The next trail northwards, Warm Springs Canyon, was the first path that the Bennet-Arcan party, who gave Death Valley its name, used unsuccessfully to try to escape. It's the only that still provides a through vehicle route, via Butte Valley, Mengel Pass and Goler Wash. That is firmly on the list to try another time.

This time, though, we tried Trail Canyon, which starts just a mile or so from West Side Road's crossing of the valley floor. It also used to be a crossing, thanks to a dramatic road built to provide access to a tungsten mine in the 1950s which led right up to the ridgeline at Aguereberry Point (which incidentally is one of the few Basque place names in the US). In the 1990s the road was badly damaged by a flood and the Park Service decided not to repair it.

The valley floor crossing is spectacular. This area is called the "Devil's Golf Course", consisting of hard salt-infused mud which, by some physical process, turns into foot-high ridges and spires with sharp peaks of salt crystal. It would be extremely difficult to walk over, but the road is good and gives a sweeping panorama of the whole valley.

Shortly after turning south again, a small wooden sign points to a barely-visible gravel track that leads up the alluvial fan. The first mile or two is in reasonable condition, but after that it gets rockier and the ride gets worse and worse, until even at a walking pace it was too much for Isabelle's back. Just when she was asking me to give up, she spotted a big rock and asked to be left for a while. I was hesitant, but with a gallon of water and one of our two satellite beacons, and within hiking distance of the valley floor, it didn't seem too risky.

I continued on my own, which meant I could go a bit faster. Immediately I came to the crossing of a deep gully, with no real track but just rocks to clamber over. On the far side things improved, but not for long. Another mile of bumping over rocks led to a place where the trail simply disappeared altogether. There was no sign of tyre tracks, and nothing to indicate the route except gully walls about a foot high and fifty feet or so apart. The trail could be anywhere inside them. I tried for a while, and occasionally saw just a single set of tyre tracks which I tried to follow. But time was getting on - we wanted to be across the mountains while there was still plenty of daylight. I decided to quit before I broke anything, and retraced my path to where Isabelle was sitting happily in the shade with a book - her picture shows the returning Jeep, just before the tricky gully crossing. Later, I learned that the tracks had been made by Richard - he had gone another three miles and still found no sign of the former trail. Now that it really needs nowhere, I wonder whether the Park Service will even bother to grade it again.

A short drive took us back to the valley crossing, with a spectacular view of the Artists' Palette. Then it was back to the airport.

At the weekend the military airspace is generally not in use, which I'd confirmed with Joshua Approach by phone in the morning. That meant we could choose our own route home and avoid the detour via Coaldale. We took off from Furnace Creek and turned more or less towards Bishop, but with a route that took us over our previous day's drive, with a spectacular aerial view of the Racetrack, Hidden Valley and the road up to Lost Burro Mine - hence the aerial picture of the Racetrack which appears in Day 2.

Even so the route has to be chosen carefully. Since the oxygen system in the plane was not working, we could not go higher than 12500 feet except for a short while (30 minutes). But the range that separates the park from the Owens Valley has peaks over 11,000 feet, so it's best to pick a route through one of the passes. And then a route through the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada is needed. For this I climbed to 13,300 feet (staying below the opposite-direction altitude of 13,500 feet) and took the valley which leads northwest from Mammoth Lakes and then to the upper valley of the Tuolomne River. It's spectacular, but you really hope the engine doesn't stop. It should be possible to make it either to the Meadows or down into Owens Valley, but I'd rather not have to find out.

We arrived at Palo Alto airport at the exact time of sunset, the sun dropping finally over the horizon as we flew our final approach. It had been a wonderful weekend, full of discoveries, natural beauty and amazing experiences. We'll definitely be doing it again.

Death Valley Backroads, Day 2: Racetrack and Hunter Mountain

Day 1 here, more pictures here.

When we went to pick up the Jeep next morning, the guy in the office introduced himself as Richard Farabee. That was quite a surprise, and very good luck too. While planning the trip I'd found that many trails had been badly damaged in flash floods in July. Although there are several web forums dedicated to Death Valley and the surrounding area, there was surprisingly little information about the exact state of the roads I wanted to use. But Richard had driven all of them recently, and was an absolute mine of information. Thanks to him we were able to take routes that otherwise I would have hesitated about. One great thing about his Jeeps: they are really meant for off-road usage, with lifted suspension and over-size tyres. And he is happy for his customers to take them even to seriously challenging places - he had one out at Goler Wash, which was practically destroyed in the floods, and was waiting for the driver to report on it. This is most definitely not Hertz or Avis!

Our first day's itinerary was to drive up the main road to just short of Scotty's castle, which is already a 50 mile drive, then loop back past the Ubehebe Crater and down a parallel valley to the famous Racetrack. I'd previously wondered whether this would be possible with a normal car, since it doesn't involve any difficult hills or passes. Now I know: no. You probably could do it, but the risk of blowing a tire would be very high. It would definitely be a bad idea. In the Jeep it was easy, driving at a steady 25 mph or so, occasionally slowing down for a damaged area.

The first stop was at Teakettle Junction. It's just a junction between two gravel tracks in the middle of nowhere. Once upon a time someone marked it by putting a teakettle on a post there. That has led to a tradition of visitors adding their own signed teakettles. It's an amazing sight so far from any other sign of human life.

The Racetrack is a large playa, a dried-out lakebed filled with very fine mud. When dry - which means most of the time - it's hard enough that you can walk on it without leaving marks. In one corner, a handful of rocks have fallen onto the playa and then have travelled across it, leaving tracks in the mud. Nobody knows how this happens. The general idea seems to be that when it rains - not often, but very hard when it does - the mud becomes semi-liquid with very low friction. The area is also very windy, enough to blow the rocks along the slick mud, leaving a track which remains when the playa dries out again. Nobody has ever seen them move - not only would it require good luck to be there in the right conditions, but in the pouring rain, thick mud and 50+ mph winds, you wouldn't see anything anyway. Another plausible explanation involves sheets of ice. In the aerial picture, the moving rocks are at the top left (south-east) corner.

It's an extraordinary place. It would not be that hard to improve the road from Ubehebe for normal vehicles, so you have to assume that the Park Service wants to keep the access difficult and exclusive. Otherwise they'd have to build an electric fence round the playa to stop idiots from damaging it or stealing the rocks. As it is, there are tyre tracks on the playa - in the desert it can take decades for them to disappear.

From the Racetrack, the road continues down a notoriously difficult road, the Lippincott Grade, into the Saline Valley, famous for its clothing-optional hot springs. From there a loop is possible through the South Pass out of the valley and back onto the main road near Panamint Springs. The pass was so badly damaged during the floods that the Park's daily bulletin says it is closed. Richard said he'd driven it but it would be tough to climb out. And as it turned out, someone had managed to wreck their truck somewhere along the road that day, so it was blocked anyway.

Luckily, there's an alternative. Turning left at Teakettle Junction leads to another complete loop back to the same place on route 190. This was our first taste of anything harder than a dirt road, climbing through the Lost Burro Gap, but the Jeep handled it with ease. Then, following Richard's suggestion, we turned right onto the track which climbs really up the side of the mountain to the Lost Burro Mine. That really is a Jeep track - narrow, steep, full of good-sized rocks, and washed out in places to less than the width of the Jeep so you have to place the wheels delicately into a gully a foot down towards the steep drop into the void. It requires a few moments of concentration and careful driving!

It's worth it, though, to see the mine. Today there's not much left, a hut which is still used by hikers, a few other wooden buildings, and the framework for some kind of mill. You have to stop and think that all of this, including the massive metal mill as well as the provisions for the 300 men who worked here at one time, had to come up that same track on the backs of mules, hauled from the railhead 50 miles away across the desert. It just seems impossible. Even now with modern trucks, not to mention helicopters, it would seem pretty difficult.

We looked around the mine then hiked a few hundred yards to the top of the ridge where there is a truly magnificent view down into the valley, and ate our lunch. Other people carry coolers, barbecues, tables and chairs. We were very happy with a box of crackers and a tub of cream cheese. In the half hour we were eating, a total of eight other vehicles showed up. This is pretty amazing, because during the rest of our drive we saw almost nobody.

The road continues through Hidden Valley - aptly named since without a Jeep (or a plane) there's no way to even peek between the mountains and see that it's there. The road was mostly easy, though with deep sand in a few places which makes going in a straight line a bit harder. I think learning to fly a helicopter helps - as with the heli, you have to avoid over-controlling, taking the control input back out before you even feel it having any effect. There are Joshua trees everywhere, sometimes quite isolated, other times in vast forests extending for miles. Looking at Google Earth I couldn't find any watercourse out of the valley, so I guess the water just evaporates. That explains the sandy bit in the middle.

At the end of the valley, the road climbs Hunter Mountain. This part is spectacular and very enjoyable, with occasional glimpses into Death Valley to the east as it twists and turns, with many hairpins and sheer drops should you forget to pay attention. Then comes perhaps the amazing thing of all: a forest! Yes, right there in the Death Valley National Park, famous as the hottest, driest place in the country, there's a very green forest.

Soon afterwards we came to the junction with the Saline Valley road, where we met a couple of guys on motorbikes. These were the first vehicles we'd seen since leaving the mine - and they weren't planning to go on our route either. It's pretty sobering - if we'd broken down, there probably wouldn't have been another vehicle along the road that day. We might even have been the only vehicle on it the whole day. Fortunately, Farabee's Jeeps come with a "Spot" satellite/GPS gizmo, that lets you report your position and status (OK/help/HELP!) no matter where you are. So even if the worst happens, you're unlikely to suffer the horrible fate of the German tourists. (Briefly, in 1996 they got horribly lost driving a rental Plymouth Voyager in some very difficult trails, the car got stuck, and all four of them died of heat and dehydration in the June heat. Their car was found three months later, but the bodies weren't found until 2009, four miles from the car).

From here there is an amazing view down the Panamint Valley, Death Valley's western neighbour. After that it's a long but easy drive, though a horrible and uncomfortable road surface covered in small rocks, through an even denser forest of Joshua trees, until finally we reached route 190 and a very welcome stop at the Panamint Springs Resort. And from there, another 55 miles of spectacular desert driving back to Furnace Creek, arriving just in time for sunset. We'd driven about 180 miles during the day, nearly half on gravel or worse, and enjoyed every minute.

Day 3 is here.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Death Valley Backroads, Day 1: Getting There

More pictures here.

Ever since I learned that Farabee Jeep Rental opened a branch in Death Valley, I've wanted to go there for a weekend and explore some of the back country trails. The park is huge and only has two high-quality roads, one north-south and one east-west. There are whole valleys and mountain ranges that you can't even see from these roads. On an earlier visit I bought the book "Death Valley SUV Trails", a real inspiration and the source of many daydreams.

Furnace Creek has an airport and the obvious way to get there is to fly. We did this once about ten years ago, but until car rental was available you were stuck. If you wanted wheels you had to fly to Vegas then do the 2-3 hour drive in each direction. The Jeep rental solves two problems: wheels at Death Valley, and wheels that can go anywhere. Finally I found a good weekend for the trip and booked everything for October 5-7th 2012.

It's a challenging trip. The flight is short (about two hours), but involves crossing the Sierra Nevada which, without a long detour, means 13000 foot peaks and not much lower between them. In a single-engine plane, you always have to think about where you're going to go if the engine stops - on this route, there are few good answers. And when you get closer, Death Valley itself and much of the surrounding area is covered with military airspace (MOAs), likely to be populated by low-altitude jets at Mach 2.

For the outward journey I planned a route which does have "outs" if anything goes wrong. They're not great - first the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which in addition to being cold and wet would probably lead to endless environmental complications if you really did ditch into it. When that's no longer reachable, Tuolomne Meadows at the top end of the Tioga Pass route would probably be survivable. Past that, you can make it down into the 6000 foot Owens Valley. Past the Sierra Nevada is just desert, with the added convenience of long, straight blacktop roads.

By flying all the way to the Coaldale (OAL) VOR, it's possible to sneak down along the eastern edge of the military airspace then descend along the road to Scotty's Castle and enter the valley itself under it. This adds 5-10 minutes to the flight, but is worth it for the peace of mind.

This route requires perfect weather - no cloud below around 18000 feet, and mild winds across the ridge. Otherwise, the much longer route via Tehachapi is called for. Depending on how brave you are with the MOAs, this can add another hour to the flight. So I was anxiously checking the weather forecasts all week, but in the end conditions were really perfect, just a very high overcast and no winds.

We landed at Furnace Creek (L06) around 5.30. Our timing was perfect, by the time the shuttle picked us up and we checked in, we were just in time to watch a spectacular sunset from the lawn outside our room. Then a swim in the huge naturally heated pool, and a good, if expensive, steak dinner in the best of the Ranch's restaurants. I'd hoped to have dinner one night at the Inn, which is much fancier, but we were there a week before it opened.

And then to bed.

Day 2 is here, and Day 3 is here.