Exploring Death Valley National Park

By: Harry Wagner - April 2002

First Impressions

When most people picture "Death Valley" they think of a vast wasteland with oppressive heat and vultures circling overhead. Once someone has experienced all that Death Valley has to offer though, they soon realize that these are misconceptions (except for the heat maybe). On the particular Tuesday in early April in which I arrived, the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees. Fortunately I pulled in to Stovepipe Wells in the evening, just as the sun was going down and temperatures began dropping. Stovepipe Wells acted as the base camp for my entire trip and has its strengths and weaknesses. Highlights include RV hookups, a general store, a gas station, and showers and pool use for $2 a day. The campground offers no shade however, and is mainly comprised of a gravel parking lot. If planning on staying at a more hospitable campground, such as Furnace Creek or Mesquite Springs, I suggest making reservations in advance.

Mosaic Canyon

The participants in this trip consisted of the Wagners in their FJ-40 Land Cruiser, the Roneys in their early Bronco, the Butlers in their CJ-7, Rick in his early Bronco, and Don in his Toyota pickup. Most had arrived on Monday night and already had our first excursion planned. A short 2-mile drive south of Stovepipe Wells delivered us at the bottom of Mosaic Canyon. The road is graded and suitable for the family sedan. From the parking lot at the base of the canyon the foot trail continues on for another two miles and narrows as it ascends. Unfortunately darkness limited us to the first half mile, but we were still exposed to the polished dolomite and breccias for which the canyon is named. Mosaic Canyon is an easy hike that is perfectly suited for small children and an excellent introduction to Death Valley.

Echo Canyon and Titus Canyon

Wednesday morning we awoke with the intention of leaving the valley early to beat the heat. We started by travelling southeast on SR 190 before turning off the pavement just past Furnace Creek for Echo Canyon. It was here that we encountered our first mechanical problem of the trip. Rick was having difficulty engaging the hub on his full floating Ford 9" rear axle. After a quick trail fix we were on our way into the hills and out of the heat of the valley. The Echo Canyon Trail is a graded dirt road that travels to the Inyo Mine in the Funeral Mountains. With the exception of one stretch of 50 feet, four wheel drive was not necessary. We continued across the state line all the way through Echo Canyon to the town of Amargosa. It was here that we got a respite from the sun and enjoyed lunch under shade trees before continuing north on I-95 to Beatty.

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The turn-off for Echo Canyon The Wagners on the trail The Butlers coming up the wash Uplifted sedimentary layers

After refueling in Beatty we turned west on SR 374 past the ghost town of Rhyolite and in to Titus Canyon. The road to Titus Canyon is a graded, one-way road that is fit for a stock truck. Approximately 16 miles into the trail we crested the 5250-foot saddle between Thimble Peak and Wahguyhe Peak before descending to Leadfield. As the sign at Leadfield explains, the town was built as a result of a convincing con artist making lofty claims. The town was inhabited for only one year in 1926. Buildings and mine shafts are still present and offer a lot to be explored. Beyond Leadfield the canyon narrows as the road descends into Titus Canyon. Along the way we stopped to view Indian petroglyphs along the side of the trail. As interesting as the petroglyphs were, the stop was marred by graffiti left by previous visitors. This was a disappointment during an otherwise wonderful day and I appeal to everyone to refrain from defacing historical artifacts. By the end of Titus Canyon, the walls are nearly 500 feet high, with the lower 20 feet of the brightly colored sandstone being highly polished from flash flood activity. The geology of this area can best be described as violent. Massive folding, uplifting, and cut and fill can be seen on all sides. The canyon ends abruptly and deposits you onto an alluvial fan, which leads down to SR 267.

Scotty's Castle and Ubehebe Crater

Thursday morning we headed back out SR 267 to Scotty's Castle. An extravagant Chicago millionaire built the castle back in 1924. Tours at the castle do not start until 9 AM so we did not get as early of a start as the previous day. The tours are run by the State Park and cost $8 for adults, $4 for seniors and children age 6-11, and children 5 and under are free. I personally found the tour only mildly interesting as our guide seemed more concerned with preserving the castle and making sure that nobody stepped on the rugs than with providing us with useful information. The story of Albert Johnson, the actual owner of the castle, and Walter "Scotty" Scott is still interesting, however. Millionaire Johnson was originally swindled by Scott but was so amused by his flamboyance that the two ended up becoming close friends.

Scotty's Castle
Ubehebe Crater

After visiting Scotty's Castle we headed southwest to the Ubehebe Crater. As the sign in the parking lot explains, the crater was formed when liquid magma encountered groundwater, causing it to rapidly expand and force its way out of the ground. Think of a giant popcorn kernel and you have the right idea. Unfortunately the high winds in the vicinity kept us from visiting "Little Hebe Crater" and exploring the area more thoroughly.

The Racetrack and Lippincott Mine Road

From Ubehebe Crater we drove south on Racetrack Valley Road past Teakettle Junction to "The Racetrack". The Racetrack is a dry lakebed named for its oval shape and the "grandstands" of rocks found at the north end. We stopped to explore around the Grandstands before heading to the south end of the lake where the "sailing stones" can be found. The Racetrack is made up of very fine silt, and in the winter the frozen ground and high winds combine to move various size rocks across the lakebed. Evidence of this can be found from the trails left behind the rocks.

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The Racetrack On the Lippincott Mine Trail Folded layers of dolomite

Following our visit to the Racetrack we used Len Wilcox's detailed trail report to find our way down the Lippincott Mine Road. During our visit the trail was easily passable in a stock truck, although the narrow switchbacks made for some pucker factor. The view from the trail of the Saline Valley and surrounding mountains is breathtaking. Along the way we encountered a dirt biker who was having mechanical problems. Luckily a member of our group, Mike Butler, is a motorcycle mechanic and was able to quickly remedy the problem. This was very fortunate for the biker, as he was travelling alone with no supplies or form of communication. Proper preparation is always advisable before hitting the trail, but it is crucial in a desolate environment such as Death Valley. After assisting the motorcyclist we took our time in order to take in more of the scenery and spectacular geology. The area is a smorgasbord of various rocks and minerals, featuring volcanic basalt, folded sedimentary layers, and massive granite, among others. From Lippincott Mine Road it was a long dusty drive back to Stovepipe Wells on SR 190.

Pleasant Canyon and the Charcoal Kilns

Friday morning we set off early in search of more challenging four wheeling. Our quest took us southwest on Wildrose Road to the Panamint Range and the town of Ballarat. As Tim Stucky mentions in his report of Death Valley; "Ballarat is now a ghost town that dates back to the mid 1890's when gold was discovered in the surrounding Panamint Mountains and the town served as a recreation and supply center for area miners." Since Surprise Canyon is currently closed to vehicle traffic due to a pending lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, we had to look elsewhere. Not being familiar with the area, we chose to drive up Pleasant Canyon. Unfortunately this route did not offer much of a challenge, although visiting Clair Camp made the trip worthwhile. Clair Camp is an abandoned gold mine that produced a half a million dollars in gold during its production and contained over 200 inhabitants at its peak. Machinery, boilers, rock crushers, and cyanide tanks are still present at the camp. The rock crushers even still had rocks in them!

Clair Camp
Charcoal Kilns

Once we were done exploring Clair Camp we headed back down Pleasant Canyon and then towards Stovepipe Wells on Wildrose Road. Along the way we took a detour to Wildrose Canyon to witness the charcoal kilns. The ten kilns are thirty feet in diameter and thirty feet tall and were built over one hundred years ago. They were designed by Swiss engineers and used to produce charcoal for the Modac Mine smelter.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon

Saturday signaled the end of the trip, but we still managed to make one last excursion before heading out. Marble Canyon is located fourteen due west of Stovepipe Wells. The road is typical washboard, but some sections did require four wheel drive. After approximately eight miles the road drops into a wash, which offers large boulders and many optional for the adventurous. After another five miles the canyon narrows and is closed to vehicle traffic. Marble Canyon continues for another six miles though and is accessible on foot. Like many of the other canyons in Death Valley, Marble Canyon is comprised of uplifted dolomite and sandstone. Petroglyphs supposedly can be found in Marble Canyon, however we never located them. We only continued for the first half-mile, as we had a long drive home awaiting us.

Death Valley is an amazing environment rich in geology and history. Remember to bring plenty of fluids and a vehicle that is in perfect working order (particularly the cooling system) before embarking to the desert. With a little preparation and planning visitors will be rewarded with grand scenery and a great vacation.

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