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Steel Pass & Eureka Dunes - Back to Death Valley | Day #4, #5

April 14, 15, 2018.

A couple hours after falling asleep just north of Saline Valley Warm Springs, I was awoken by what I initially thought was a gunshot in my dream. But, with the valley still echoing, I soon realized it was no dream.

Unsure what was going on, I looked back towards the springs, to see how others were reacting. I saw no real reaction, but then a few minutes later, I heard a "thump-thump-thump" and saw streaks of light heading into the moonless sky. And then, light and explosions.

Fireworks continued intermittently for the next 10-15 minutes. Ultimately, I chalked it up to more craziness at the springs - just another reason to seek out the more remote areas of the park. There was no further disturbance during the night, and the next morning brought that special light that spills into a valley.

I realized that this could be the perfect time to try out the springs - everyone else having been up late - I might catch a few minutes of solitude to enjoy the warmth. As it turned out, I wasn't alone (but it was much less croweded) and the springs were only luke-warm - around 99°F. So I only spent a few minutes in the water before deciding that my real calling for the day was ahead of me - Steel Pass and Eureka Dunes.

With that, I dried off and headed out, still soaking up the morning and surroundings, but glad to be on my way.

Shortly, I found myself at another set of springs - and realized that the evening before, I'd never made it to the upper warm springs! As I explored these much less developed springs, I realized that this was much more my speed - perhaps a place to visit in the future.

But today I continued on, the road much rougher and narrower now that the over-run springs were behind me. As I traversed the northern end of the valley, the road wound its way through various washes, past volcanic flows, and through literal fields of cactus as Steel Pass rose in the distance.

Eventually I reached the end of Saline Valley and the southern edge of the pass, where I hopped out to do a quick inspection of the truck - sensitive to the shaking and rattling that vibrated loose my d-ring earlier in the trip. I didn't expect tons of rattling in the pass, but I'd heard that it was relatively narrow and flexy in spots, and I wanted to be ready before I got to those spots.

I was glad I did, because there was one bolt in particular that I wanted to check - and it was loose. This was the rear passenger bolt on my mid-skid, and I'd noticed before starting out that it had slightly stripped it's hole - that looseness allowed it to work it's way out - something I'll need to take care of on my return. For the time being, I tightened it up and continued on my way.

As it turns out, the narrows at the southern end of the pass are short and the road is well graded. As they opened up a few hundred feet after they started, and as the terrain started down, I found myself wondering if I'd be traversing the narrows down-hill when travelling south-to-north (because from the research I'd done, I'd thought I'd be climbing them).

For the time being though, I enjoyed the mountain meadow - full of solitude, as well as interesting rock formations and roads that changed abruptly from white to orange.

As I continued, Steel Pass gave way to Dedeckera Canyon and the canyon walls narrowed - and at this point it was clear that I was definitely headed down through the narrow sections. "Easier or harder?" I wondered. The first of three narrow sections presented itself shortly, and I spent some time looking it over. With no spotter, I wanted to make sure that I took things slowly - both for safety, but also so I could get some pictures! hahahaha 😀

The obstacle, though tall, was easy enough, and I continued to the second. This was by far the narrowest of the three (though the pictures don't show it so well) and the rocks to the side of the trail meant that I couldn't hop in and out of the truck for photos as I headed down. In the end, the tires ended up straddling the rocks on each side as the truck was funneled down the obstacle. This was one I'd have much rather climbed than descended.

The last obstacle was the widest and most well-groomed. In fact, the stacked rocks were, in places, even supported by chain-link fencing! Clearly this is where people have spent the most time (perhaps because it's the first as you ascend from Eureka Valley) and so with little fanfare I was through the narrows.

And then, the view.

I knew that the Eureka Dunes would be incredible, but even so I wasn't ready for their enormity or for their contrast to the surrounding landscape. Bright in the distance, they towered above the valley floor. I stopped. This is where I was going to eat breakfast. Or perhaps I'd have called it brunch, if I were keeping track of time.

I spent a good half an hour just admiring the dunes in the distance before wrapping up my meal and heading down into the valley. Eureka Dunes are the largest sand dunes in the United States, and the descent to the base was a lesson in just how small we really are. And it was fun - soft, sandy roads allowing for higher speeds and trails of dust!

Continuing around the east side of the dunes, I couldn't help but stop several times for more photos. The light sand, dark mountains and blue sky were as striking as ever. No winds meant that the booming one can sometimes experience wasn't there, but it also made for a nicer (if hotter) hike up the dunes. In the distance, I could see four brave souls - two of them already at the summit.

In planning for the trip, I hadn't even considered climbing the dunes - a mistake I won't repeat on my next visit; so after a short chat with a few who'd remained behind at the hiker's base camp, I headed northeast again - enjoying my last few hours of dirt and mountain passes before I'd be back on pavement.

And then it happened. At the end of North Eureka Valley Road, and the edge of Mono County, I hit highway 168 near the aptly named town of Oasis, CA. As I aired up, I grabbed a bite and fended off the handfull of good folks who checked in to make sure I didn't need any help - I love that about rural America!

From there, it was a long drive through Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington. Past wild horses and sunrises. It had been another epic adventure!



Catch up or keep reading BACK TO DEATH VALLEY 2018


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  1. Jim
    Jim April 25, 2018

    Great summation of your adventure. Thanks for you know what. There are two springs in that area where the spring was too cool. You got in the cooler one. The other will get as hot as you want. Good work on Steel Pass...some folks don't get thru so easily. UJ

    • turbodb
      turbodb April 27, 2018

      Really? After I went in the "cool" pool, I went and felt the source because I couldn't believe the temp was "normal." The source was cool too - barely warmer than the pool I'd been in...

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