Goler Canyon: Death Valley by the Back Door

---Goler Canyon ------------------------------


By Len Wilcox

Editor's note: On President's Day weekend, 2000, Terry Johnson led a column of 17 off-highway vehicles from Trona (east of Ridgecrest) to Furnace Creek - through the Panamint Mountains. The next day the group traveled down Titus Canyon and over to Ubehebe Crater, the Ractrack, and down Lippincott Mine road. It was no easy feat. Click here for details.

The Panamint mountains are a startlingly steep backdrop to Death Valley. They rise from the floor of the valley (about 280 feet below sea level at Badwater) to more than 11,000 feet - in just a few miles. Very few passages across these mountains exist, and none of them are easy.

entering the canyon

Goler Wash Trail - also known as Coyote Basin Road - is the southern route across these rugged and steep mountains. It is a long trail, requiring about 5 to 6 hours to travel, and has several moderate trail obstacles and a few difficult ones. The condition of the road, and the degree of difficulty, changes with the weather and the amount of maintenance recently done.

Most people get to the Goler Wash trail by first going to Ballarat, then proceeding south on the oiled road past the Briggs mine (where the oiled road turns to dirt) then southward 15 miles to the alluvial fan of Goler Wash. We came the hard way, over the mountains to the west, down Fish Canyon and joining the road near the alluvial fan. Thus, we entered Goler Wash around noon on a cool February day. There were high clouds, from a storm that was coming the next day. Weather reports said we'd be dry today but tomorrow was chancy, even in Death Valley. If there'd ben any chance of rain we would not have entered the canyon - it would be a deadly place to be when the water runs.

This route pierces the heart of the Panamint Range, running between Wingate Road south of the ghost town of Ballarat, and West Side Road in Death Valley. Coming from the Panamints, the trail rises from the floor of the valley to 4,328-foot-high Mengel Pass, via the magnificent Goler Canyon, then crosses Butte Valley and follows Warm Springs Canyon into Death Valley. The worst obstacles are at the start of the climb up Goler wash as you're in the bottom of a very narrow canyon - and you have to go up and over a serious of waterfalls.

The waterfalls are a challenge

Climbing these waterfalls was an experience. A couple of years ago, the Inyo County road department had added rock and gravel to the worst of the climbs, and they were not impossible for a stock vehicle with a smart driver. But rains and floodwaters removed the gravel and a steep, rocky incline remains. I drive a stock ZJ, and my first look at the waterfall was… dismaying. The only things that kept me from turning around was pride (my son was along; I couldn't back out with him watching) and the sure knowledge that Terry had a stout truck with a winch, and he was ahead of me.

New information 4/1/00: Ranger Brenner of the US Park Service informs me that the Road Department has struck again - repairs were made to the waterfall and it is now passable in any 4 wheel drive high clearance vehicle. However, this could change with the next rainstorm.

Watching Terry ease up the waterfall with his '89 Toyota XCab SR5, V6, with a crawl ratio of 187:1, lockers, and so on, didn't help my confidence. I thought I had an open differential, and I knew that the loose rock on the right was going to slip and the traction was on the left side, where I didn't have any power. I was going to pay for my comfortable ride in a stock Grand Cherokee, by getting winched up the waterfall.

Well, I was wrong; my differential has limited slip, and even Jeep's SUV's are impressive machines. I got the right line and rowdied my way up the canyon, and beat the obstacle on my first try - without damaging any sheet metal, much to my surprise.

Forget the winch - it's a Jeep after all! (photo by Shane Hook)

(Okay, enough bragging; back to the trail ride). We followed the canyon up into the Panamints, through narrow rock walls that eventually widened into the canyon. Here, a group of 5 or 6 Bighorn Sheep scampered up the mountainside as we worked our way forward.

We were surrounded by beautiful desert mountains on a moderately easy trail, fit for any SUV with low range. Soon we came to the Keystone mine headquarters, whose owner had left a sign inviting us to use his cabin - just leave it as we found it. Further along, the mountains widen and we pass a marker informing us we were entering Death Valley National Park.

along the trail

Just beyond the marker, a road cuts off to the south from our trail. It's the road to the infamous Death Valley home of Charlie Manson: Barker Ranch. Here, Manson and his group stayed for a while, and the law caught up with Manson. The cabin and ranch is owned by the Park Service. They maintain it and make it available for camping.

Barker Ranch

Back on the trail, the route to Mengel Pass degrades and we're back among rocks and loose sand. It's passable but I stay in low range for this section. Ever since entering the canyon, we've seen signs of wild horses and burros; they abound here, but we don't see any. About 3 and a half miles past the Barker Ranch turnoff we're at the summit.

It's a beautiful view all around, with Butte Valley ahead and a marker honoring the memory of Death Valley miner Carl Mengel, who spent much of his life working a mine nearby. He came to Death Valley in 1912, and died here in 1944. At his request his ashes are buried at the summit.
Mengel Pass, and the trail to Butte Valley

We now drop down into Butte Valley. After a couple of miles, the trail becomes easy. Passing Striped Butte, a mountain that proudly wears the history of geological time in striped glory, we come out of 4 wheel drive. There are few difficult spots from this point on into Death Valley. It's 22 miles from Mengel Pass to West Side Road, but it's not difficult, which is fortunate as night is falling. We lose out on some spectacular scenery, but no one could complain; we'd conquered the Panamints and been through some of the most magnificent desert scenery on the planet.

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