Getting Lost in Death Valley
I am pretty lucky to work in an industry where I have time off to go explore and chase those personal bucket list items. Every Fall/Winter I’m released into the wild after working nonstop for 9 months of the year and I have my choice of traveling wherever time and my bank account will allow. Although I try not to repeat too many locations if I can help it, I found myself heading back to Death Valley National Park, the largest national park outside of Alaska. Winter is the perfect time to head to the park and it was my last stop before I was to begin working again. I was headed there from Vegas so I stopped at Tecopa Hot Springs Resort & Campground in Tecopa, CA to spend the night before I entered the park.
I relished in the opportunity to try out the hot springs in the morning. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical the night before when the guy at the reservations office mentioned clothes were NOT allowed….followed by how I should try to spend as much time in there as possible…hmmm, kinda creepy. I realized that it was just like going to the spa….kind of. Soaking in the cement hot springs tub with the pebbled bottom ended up being an undeniable, excellent way to start the day relaxed.
I had an interview I had to attend to before I could start the play. When I finally entered the park the first spot I headed to was Zabriskie Point to snap a few shots of the magnificent eroded landscape. It is a stunning vista that is an absolute must on any trip to Death Valley and is only a handful of steps from the car. I then headed to the West side of the park and snagged one of the free campsites at Emigrant Campground (yes, they have 4 free ones in the park!). The temperature wasn’t too bad and I had a loose plan for the next 2 days. I was stoked! I felt the burning desire to explore the sites in Death Valley that I hadn’t seen before, but also just to get out and exercise somewhere far and fun and wild. Death Valley here I come!
I started out decently early the first morning and hit up the visitor’s center so I could ask about the road conditions and get some extra maps for the hikes that I was going to do. I then headed towards the first spot, Sidewinder Canyon. This trail is accessed off of Badwater Road past mile marker 31 where there’s an unsigned dirt road to a parking lot. I was the only one there, sweet! I got the final tidbits ready for my hike and headed off, not sure exactly where I was going. The handout had a description and used the word alluvial. Note to self, look up what alluvial is once I get to reception.
I started up the first canyon. Dead end after not too long. Bummer. Ok, back out and then headed to the next one to the right. Also, not the right one, however this one took me a tad longer to realize. I hiked pretty high up and it almost plateaued and then I decided to head to the right to see what I could see. Oh snap, that looked like the canyon I should be in! I meandered over to see if I could scramble down the drainage which ended in a 20-foot dropoff. Oh damn. Nothing to do but climb BACK up again, back down and around to the actual entrance where I was supposed to be about an hour ago. Here she goooooesss!
The third time ended up being the charm and I was finally on the right path, albeit a little later than I thought, but hey, here’s to adventure! That’s one of the cool parts about hiking in Death Valley. The adventure ante is always up a notch here. Quite a bit of hikes don’t even have trails, you have to figure out where to go first and then there might be some scrambling involved, and then of course there’s endless options for side canyon explorations.
I finally approached where the first slot canyon meanders out from the right. I went in. It was pretty cool and I climbed until I could climb no longer, witnessing some intricate rock patterns along the way. I returned the way I came out, bypassed the 2nd slot and headed towards the 3rd. This one was quite the lengthy one. It kept going and going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny. I finally got to a point where I could turn around and see a view of the basin below and some cool formations from whence I came. I was pretty satisfied. It looked like it might keep going and top out on a plateau but I was anxious to do other hikes, I had seen enough of this one slot. I finally saw two other parties on my way back down. But that was it.
I made my way out of there and then started to go further up canyon again but I only went a little ways and then turned around, figured I’d catch the 2nd slot canyon on my way back and then head to the car. I got to the 2nd slot canyon and there was some quite steep scrambling from the get go, and I just decided to call it and head back. This hike was supposed to be 5 miles but with my mishaps it was 8. All worth it but high time to head to the next spot!
I drove past Badwater Basin but chose not to stop. All things add up time wise around here and I was being selective about the things I’ve done before. However the Artist’s Drive, although 9 miles, was one that I will always repeat. The majority of it is seen from the seat of your car and the mountains just look otherworldly. You feel like you are on another planet when exploring so many parts of this park.
From Artist’s Drive it wasn’t much farther until the turn for Desolation Canyon, my next hike. The road to this parking lot has a sign, but only once you turn off the main road can you really see it. This one was supposed to be 3.6 miles round trip and it looked pretty unmistakeable where to go. Sweet. I headed out into the same mountains that you see from your car along Artist’s Drive. I was stoked to see them close up and from a different point of view.
Close ups around every corner of pale pink and sky blue mountains that were created from minerals in the soil made me daydream as I meandered around each bend, suddenly wanting some cotton candy. I’m pretty sure Dr. Seuss wrote about this place once or twice. There were a couple of sections on this hike that the sheet warns about, one 8ft. climb, followed by a 6ft. one, that you eventually have to down-climb. They were not bad at all. Easy steps and holds. Any one could do it.
After climbing those I meandered through the canyon walls a bit before making the final (and majority of the whole hike’s) ascent to the end. I was taking in the beauty that surrounded me and then had to belch, so I did rather loudly, and then I looked around some more and noticed a guy meditating on a hill not too far off to my left, whoops, sorry dude! Then I noticed someone else taking a moment on another hill to the right, where are these people coming from??!
I decided it was time to descend and retraced my steps back to the car. When I arrived it was about 4 o’clock, not too late, but not quite with enough time to do another hike so I decided to do one more scenic drive for the day, the 20 Mule Team Canyon. It wasn’t too far of a drive from where I was and the whole loop was only 2.7 miles, gravel, but really not too shabby, and frankly kinda neat. I highly recommend.
For my last day in the park I wanted to do something a bit bigger. A longer hike up at higher elevation. I inquired about Telescope Peak but because of it being the tallest peak at 11,043 ft. elevation it was also covered in snow and required an ice axe and crampons. Well, it looks like that hike wasn’t happening at the moment. I’d either have to come back when the snow cleared or when I learned how to use said winter traveling equipment. So I ‘settled’ for Wildrose Peak, at 8.4 miles and 9,064 feet in elevation. It was a perfect choice.
I got to the trailhead at around quarter till 10 after having to drive back from my campground to get gas at the nearest spot (8 miles the other way). It was a magnificent drive, as they all are in the park. Another cool thing about Death Valley is that it doesn’t matter where you are coming from or where you are going, the drive is going to be long and it’s going to be gorgeous. The trailhead is also the location of the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, which were pretty magnificent in size. They say it still smells like charcoal inside even though they stopped burning wood in them around 1879 but I didn’t go too far in one to find out.
The start of the hike was real gradual and rolling, with magnificent views out to the snow-capped Sierras. I could tell this was going to be a good one. It was true what they said in the description, that you would meander through pine forests that made you believe you weren’t in Death Valley. I mean, isn’t this the desert spot with the hottest temperature on earth? From what I could tell I was going to need more layers for the top!
The trail started to climb more and more and then it made a hard left where I started to walk along the edge of the mountain, the panoramas opening up and finally Telescope started peaking into view.
Near the last mile the switchbacks started to kick into full gear and they were shorter and shorter (bypassing a few icy patches along the way) until I finally emerged on the ridge line. Whoooosh! There’s the wind that was teasing at me from below. It wasn’t teasing anymore, it was nippy! I tossed on my hood and hoofed it to the summit. I had gloves and an ear-warmer as well but I honestly didn’t want to stay too long in that whipping wind so I took in the view, along with some snapshots, signed the register, and started to head back down.
I made it back to my car by 1 after falling a few times on my run down the mountain. After driving the 21 miles back to my campsite I decided there was still plenty of light so I should take advantage and move to Lone Pine for the night. It was a route I’ve never driven before AND I would get to see the Sierras. Why not? The drive out was of course as gorgeous as any and when I passed by Panamint Springs I started to look for the unnamed road that Darwin Falls was on. Bam, saw it no problem. A sign? Maybe, but either way it was only 3 o’clock, plenty of time to hike the 2 miles round trip to a waterfall in Death Valley, that’s right, a waterfall!!
The brochures said something about needing a 4×4 vehicle to get to this hike. False. Yes, it was a gravel road with some bigger stones mixed in, but it was totally drivable for any type of vehicle. It was a nice stroll of a hike, but I have to admit I was quite disappointed. Although the destination does have quite an idyllic waterfall in a place that seems most unlikely, there were pipes almost the whole way transporting the water. It just messed with the magical-ness that this hike could’ve provided. And then there were the crowds. I did hike this on a Saturday so there were quite a few folk out besides myself. All in all, glad that I got to check it out, but it’s not something I would recommend going off the beaten path for. If you’re passing by, grand, give it a go. Just keep in mind you’ll be enjoying a pipe show along with the falls.
I was glad to have a beautiful drive still ahead of me on my way to Lone Pine, with the Sierras just waving hello in the distance. I rolled into town and decided to go to the Alabama Hills where you can boondock in many a spot. My time at Death Valley had again come to a close but I know I will return because the favorites are always worth coming back for and there is never a shortage of stuff to explore in the vast expanses of this park. Death Valley you sure are one divine beauty.