Monday, January 2, 2012

Death Valley - December 2011

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Death Valley December 2011

The temperature dropped like a rock as the sun dipped below the hills to the west. We had found an out of the way spot a few miles north of Gold Point to camp for the night. As the day darkened, the crescent moon and Venus took prominence in the sky.

We were returning to Death Valley. Along on this between holidays trip was Barking Spider and the Mrs. This was their first long trip in their FWC Hawk after getting it last August. It was also their first trip to Death Valley.

This was going to be fun.

But, they had been warned. “Now don’t you let them just take you two to remote places like they like to visit!” one friend told them.
Another, “You have to see Scotty’s Castle!”
And another, “Mosaic Canyon is a must see. Make sure those two take you there and not off into the unknown!”

They were receiving good advice and we listened. Death Valley National Park is exceptional and abounds in opportunity for exploration. We wanted the Spiders to whet their appetites and get hooked on the desert experience.

Tuesday morning dawned cold, 19°. Our plan was to gas up in Beatty and enter Death Valley via Titus Canyon.

Several miles in from the “4X4 High Clearance Recommended” sign we were passed by these folks.

I couldn’t help myself, “Is that a rental car?”
The driver grinned and said, “Yes!”

We passed them at Titanothere Canyon and they caught up to us again at Red Pass. They were from China. We had a pleasant chat, especially with the young daughter who spoke excellent English. China is becoming quite prosperous.

Our next stop was Leadfield.

“I found the outhouse!” the Lady’s delighted voice came down to us.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of our family’s trips along old highway 66, the days of independent small cafes and roadside motels and western trinkets for sale. All the people in the small towns looked like they belonged there. I remember that as soon as we hit the “real west” there would always be postcards featuring outhouses. Many had nostalgic drawings of broken down shacks along with poems such as:
“Come one, come all, who seek relief.
Perform the humble deed.
Here beauty bows to duty
And pride gives way to need.”

It is surprising the memories from youth that we carry with us…..and a broken down old multi-holer can bring it all back.

We entered Titus Canyon and stopped for lunch. We enjoyed the company of a small canyon wren, the first of several marvelous close encounters with wildlife.

We gave the lead to the Spiders as we dropped into the classic Titus Canyon narrows. It was a great way to enter Death Valley.

Geology comes alive here as with this display of Titus Canyon breccia.

We burst into Death Valley proper and headed north to Mesquite Springs Campground. It would make a good launching point for visits to Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater the following day.

Mesquite Springs was quiet and only partially filled. In contrast to the parking lot style campgrounds in the park, this is more laid out in traditional campsites. The sun dropped quickly, dinner was made, the Lady and I took our usual night walk, and then it was time to turn in.

Up before dawn with our mugs of coffee, the morning light was stunning.

First light hit the mountains above……………………………

…………………….and it was time to get at morning chores. We had a full day ahead of us.

“Stop shooting! You fools, you’ve shot Warren!”

Death Valley Scotty was a conman, maybe one of the most colorful in America’s history. His stories of the fabulous riches of his Death Valley mine brought in investors from the east. Death Valley’s reputation for soaring temperatures, no water, rugged terrain, and bandits kept the investors from taking a look at the mine themselves. Except for Albert Johnson, a Chicago millionaire who after pouring money into Scotty’s pockets insisted on seeing the fabled mine. As Scotty led Johnson into Death Valley via Wingate Pass they were attacked by desperados. Scotty’s brother Warren took a bullet in the hip and Scotty yelled out to the attackers.

Albert Johnson easily figured out what was going on.

So how in the world could Albert and his wife Bessie and the conman Walter Scott become friends? Why would they spend 1.3 million on a spectacular home in the middle of the desert that was called Scotty’s Castle, complete with a bedroom for Scotty with a hole through the back wall with a “bullet splitter” so Scotty could fire his revolver and kill two bandits at once? Bandits who were after the secret entrance to his gold mine.

What a story and what a place! Take the tour of Scotty’s Castle. Fall in love with the story and characters as we did.

Our National Park Service Tour Guide in period dress

The formal entrance to the Johnson’s Death Valley Ranch

The Great Room

Scotty’s bedroom

The sitting room

Two more views of the Great Room

The tour takes you through the kitchen, Bessie’s bedroom, library, guess rooms, and ends in the upstairs Music Room.

Wander the grounds after the tour………….

………and then climb the hill behind and visit Scotty’s final resting place

It’s a story of a colorful but flawed character and two remarkable people, Albert and Bessie Johnson. It’s a fascinating story.

Death Valley Scotty

It was time to visit one of Death Valley’s natural wonders, Ubehebe Crater.

Traveling with the Barking Spiders and the Lady means I can’t just get out of the car and take a few photos. We must circle the Crater and see everything. Of course, I’m not really grousing about it.

Little Hebe Crater sits above and to the west inside the ring of an older crater. This place is geologically active. The road to the racetrack stretches out beyond.

Titus Canyon, Scotty’s Castle, Ubehebe Crater, we were happily fulfilling our Death Valley Guide requirements. But, this was a trip with the Ski3piners. Our next stop was to get a taste of the National Park we savor, remote vastness and solitude………………..and a secret place.  

Take a look at a map of Death Valley. Dig out your old frayed copy of Hiking Death Valley

There is so much information, so many wonderful places to explore and experience. Now look closer at that map. Look at all the spaces in between, the places not written about. This is the Death Valley we love. Secret places waiting to be explored. The Barking Spiders graciously accepted the invitation to disappear for two nights and one long day into the vast remoteness and not see another soul.

We navigated through a maze of unnamed and unmarked dirt roads. We knew where we wanted to end up. We just needed to figure out how to get there. The sun was sinking in the western sky.

“Maybe we ought to just camp here and continue the drive in the morning?” Barking suggested.
“We have a little daylight remaining. Let us check out this spur and see if it goes. If it leads to where we want to be, we can stay put for two nights at the same campsite, relaxing solitude. I’ll give you call on the radio to follow if it goes.” I replied.

It did. We made camp and were all alone on a beautiful night in Death Valley National Park.

The next morning greeted us with warm temperatures (mid 40s) and open panoramas.

We spent the day hiking and exploring. This area is not covered in any guide book. Who knew what we would find?

We found our own treasures. We enjoyed good company and lunch in the warm sun. To soon the sun was again heading for the western horizon and it was time to head back to camp.

Dinner was made and shared under a special evening sky.

This is the Death Valley we love, a place where you can find your own special places and disappear. Vast solitude and a reconnection with a primal earth. Wilderness and Wildness.

Take advantage of the opportunity. Get out, explore, and find your own secret places.

Next………………………..back to civilization.

“Mosaic Canyon is a must see.” The advice given to the Spiders is right on. We packed up early Friday morning and headed there.

The trailhead was busy. It should be. This is a wonderful place. And, the thrills start quickly as you soon enter the first narrows.

The Lady must explore every possible route.

The narrows do get narrow.

We explored the second and third narrows and then back tracked to the high rim trail that leads to the seldom visited fourth narrows. It puts the Lady in the terrain she feels at home.

We had lunch at a spectacular high vista, talked about our next options for exploration, came up with a plan, and headed back to the trailhead.

“Mosaic Canyon is a must see.” Yes indeed!

We drove back down to Stovepipe Wells and gassed up – about 80 cents per gallon cheaper than Furnace Creek – topped off the water tanks, and headed out into the late afternoon.

Next……………………………….. leaving civilization.

Our initial plan was to drop down to Stovepipe Wells, stay at the campground there because of it’s convenient location, and explore nearby Grotto Canyon the next day. There was still plenty of daylight left and the Lady can be forthright with her opinions.
“We didn’t buy a camper so we could stay in a parking lot!”
Stovepipe Wells Campground is a parking lot and after our two nights of solitude, the thought of staying there did feel foreign, not quite right. I offered a suggestion.
“Well, we have not been up into Marble Canyon. We have wanted to explore it, its close by, and backcountry camping is allowed along the road after you enter Cottonwood and Marble Canyons. We have not been up there, have no personal information on camping opportunities, but it would be worth taking a chance on getting up there with the remaining light.”

It turned out to be a good plan and ended up being one of the high points of the trip. It looks like people know you can tuck into camping spots once you drop into the wash and enter Cottonwood Canyon. There were maybe six groups total, camping up the canyons. It didn’t appear they were exploring the canyons, but rather finding a handy backcountry base camp.

We found a nice spot in the area of the confluence of Marble Canyon and Cottonwood Canyon. Barking Spider was in the mood for precision and brought out and insisted on using his level.
“We’re staying here for two nights. Let’s get it right and be comfortable!”
The Spiders brought leveling boards. We used rocks. I don’t believe I have ever seen campers with more dead on bubbles. Barking was happy. We were happy.

It was a special relaxing night. We had enjoyed a spectacular hike into Mosaic Canyon. With camp set up, it was time to relax.  We heated water for showers, washed up, and then prepared dinner. As the day turned to night, a special guest joined us, a kit fox. I first caught the glow of its eyes in my red headlamp as it approached. It was cautious but mostly undisturbed. It came within feet of each of us. It never stopped but carefully made its rounds and checked everything out. It was healthy and in its prime, a marvelous creature and a joy to see for several minutes before it continued its evening journey.

This was a great camp spot.

Morning light and the intersection of Cottonwood Canyon and Marble Canyon Roads

As we started up Marble Canyon wash, we headed for the warm morning sun.

We entered the first narrows of Marble Canyon, not knowing what treasures lay before us, not knowing this canyon would soon become one of our Death Valley favorites.

As we hiked up through the first narrows, the light changed around every bend. At times the rock was dark and brooding and at other times became strikingly alive.

The rock was a visual treat.

There were signs from previous visitors.

The first narrows ended, blocked with a large chock stone, easily bypassed to the right.

We soon entered the second narrows. These reminded us of the Fall Canyon narrows but bolder, taller walls, and imposing. These are some of the finest narrows in the Park.

We exited the narrows into welcome sunshine; a great place for a snack and water. We looked back at the dark entrance back into the narrows.

We also looked at the change in the canyon’s rock and an obvious fault between two different rock formations. The banded rock met the dark dolomite of the second narrows. We thought it interesting that the water did not channel down the fault but instead cut straight through the dolomite. We were missing a geologist that we could pepper with our questions.

We took the rest of the day exploring further up canyon, past the famous Goldbelt rock and through various constrictions.

On our hike we were joined by two ravens.

They would fly up and perch above us. As we continued around the next bend, out of sight, one or both would slowly fly past us and take a new look out nook. They joined us for well over an hour, our shadows. We wondered how many generations of ravens over thousands of years had watched humans moving along this canyon.

We turned around far up in the canyon and started our retreat back down. The sun was now dropping in the west and the new angle gave the canyon a new look. We looked forward to descending back through the second narrows.

If you venture up this canyon, consider staying long enough for the sun angle to change. It is as if you were entering a new canyon.

Soon the first narrows were before us.

The shadows were long as we entered the broad wash and the home stretch back to our camp.

It had been a memorable day of exploration in one of Death Valley’s finest canyons. We will come back here. We could spend a week in this area be happy finding out what is around the next bend.

We reached camp and commenced with our evening chores. Clean up, relaxing, and dinner preparations. It was New Years Eve. The Lady brought the bottle of sparkling cider out of hiding and slipped it into the ice chest to chill. The sun dipped below the Cottonwood Mountains in the last sunset of 2011.

We just sat in silence and took it in. Our voices and words could add nothing to the splendor before us.

As we dined outside, Mrs. Spider returned to their camper. With the interior light on, a small bat joined our dinner party, darting between us over and over, flying inches from our heads. It then darted in and out of the open camper door.
“Close the camper door. A bat just flew in!” Barking Spider yelled.
Mrs. Spider’s calm voice came out to us. “I don’t need to close the door. If there’s one thing a bat knows, it is how to fly out of a cave.”
The bat flew in and out a couple more times and then moved on to hunt elsewhere.

We brought out the chilled cider, our coffee mugs a good substitution for wine glasses, and toasted the New Year, good friends, health and happiness, and future adventures.

We woke to a New Year. Our trip was drawing to a close and we were heading home. On our drive out we stopped at the top of Towne Pass. We looked back to the east, down into the deep valley below and said, “Good bye Death Valley!”

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