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Big Mine, Small Dunes | Inyo East #3

It was 2:00am when the light pitter patter of rain woke both @mrs.turbodb and me from our cozy sleep in the mouth of a canyon on the eastern escarpment of the Inyo Mountains.

"Guess I waited too long to go pee," she said.

"Me too," I replied.

It was the first time - in more than 80 nights in the park - I've ever experienced rain at night in Death Valley. Of course, while the whole bathroom thing was inconvenient, my biggest hope was that the rain would tail off reasonably quickly, allowing the tent to dry off before we had to put it away a few hours later.

It ended up raining until just after sunrise. Dry tent hopes, shattered!

Once rain stops in the desert, it's usually not long before things get back to their usual dusty selves, so we figured that after looking around the mill - which I'll refer to from this point on by the color of the cabin door - and wandering a short distance into the canyon, we'd probably never even know that water had fallen from the sky the night before.

Cabin with the Yellow Door.

The Cabin with the Yellow Door site was used in historic times for talc claims near Willow Creek and lode claims near Cerro Gordo. Aficionados of antiques on wheels will enjoy its unusual outdoor museum of vintage trucks, front-end loaders, graders, and bulldozers. There is a fairly recent cabin and a few decaying shacks at the end of the road, and a rusted swing where children once played. This is private property; leave everything as you find it.Hiking Western Death Valley National Park

An interesting profile.

Narrow cab.

"Stuck?" Or, "secured?"

Neglected under cloudy skies, erosion has buried the swing set up to the seats.

I'm never a fan of "desert art" when it comes at the expense of historical artifacts that might have otherwise contributed to the story of the site. Here, an old rotary phone, a tricycle, and a record player - all destroyed in the making of this contraption.

A mobile motor on a tiny sled.

Our farewell note.

From the Cabin with the Yellow Door, I'd originally planned to move on to another area entirely, but @mrs.turbodb suggested we first investigate the canyon. Having heard what would turn out to be the first obstacle since arriving in camp the evening before, curiosity won the day and soon we we'd gathered all of our hiking and camera gear to check it out. Reminiscent of McElvoy Canyon, water courses through this canyon year-round and within a few feet of the mouth we ran into a 25-foot fall.

The gatekeeper.

It was a colorful cascade.

The route around this fall wasn't overly difficult - a slant to the right offering reasonable holds and making for an easy climb. But, with the rock still wet from the rain and another hike already planned for the day, we decided to leave this one for another time - perhaps one when the cool mist arching over the slick rock face would seem a delightful spot to cool off in the mid-day heat.

We'd spent longer getting ourselves ready for the hike than actually hiking, when we decided to turn around.

Returning to camp, we assumed our usual roles - me, breaking down the tent; @mrs.turbodb prepping lunch for the hike on which we'd soon embark. In the end, it took us less than 15 minutes - these tasks second nature after so many repetitions.

A final look back up the canyon, the steep walls a masterpiece of natural architecture. How could we leave this unexplored?

Usually, we're pretty good about choosing an efficient route given our limited time to explore on these outings. However, since we'd been looking for a sheltered place to camp the previous evening, we had a bit of backtracking - though an alternate route was available, so perhaps it wasn't truly backtracking - in order to get to the jumping off point for our final foray into the Inyo.

Once again, the Saline Valley Dunes - one of the only dune fields we've not visited - taunted us, tantalizingly close.

To our west, the Inyos rose colorfully into the cloudy sky.

Up the alluvial fan we go.

We arrived at the base of the Inyos - and the bottom of the Snowflake Talc Mine road - just before 9:00am. From here, it was either going to be an easy drive 2.25 miles to the talc mine, or a steep hike up the 1,700 feet of road that switched back and forth as it climbed the mountain.

This road is very steep, soft at places, and littered with rocks. Good clearance, power, and off-road tires will improve your chances of making it through. Unless the mine operator has recently bladed the road, rock slides will likely make it undrivable and you may have to walk some of it.Hiking Western Death Valley National Park

Digonnet's description was encouraging, but more recent trip reports of those undertaking the grueling hike to Beveridge - quite possibly the most remote ghost town in the California desert - which starts from the Snowflake Talc Mine, implied that we'd probably be hoofing it most of the way.

A large ore chute - still filled with low-grade talc - has slid down the hillside over the years near the bottom of the road.

Sure enough, not 300 feet beyond the ore chute, multiple slides and drainages made the road completely impassable to anything less than a bulldozer.

Across the valley, a nearly empty warm spring.

A little south, a sunlight played below a cloud-capped Last Chance Range.

Up. And up and up and up we climbed, one switchback leading to the next, the condition of the road continuing to deteriorate with each step we took. And still, we had a long way to go.

Lost in a maze of harsh angles and stone.

Along the way, desert holly celebrated the holiday season with its miniscule berries.

Having skipped breakfast, I suggested - after climbing 1,000 feet or so - that we ought to each lunch before we got to the top. My reasoning - never mind the grumbling of my stomach - was that the energy of our tuna sandwiches (and Doritos) was better used climbing the Inyos than descending them. Plus, by consuming them now, we'd have less weight to carry (...in our packs? )

At any rate, I got only minimal pushback from my hiking companion, and soon we were perched on the edge of the road, our legs dangling down the precipitous drop, our faces stuffed with Doritos - no point in carrying any of those back, either!

If only for the views of the Last Chance Range, this would have been a worthy hike.

After a bit of munching we continued up, eventually reaching the eastern workings of the Snowflake Mine. There, a large ore chute - still full of ore like its sibling below - dominated the hillside.

High on a narrow ridge and surrounded on by precipitous slopes, this must have been a dangerous place to work. Even with heavy equipment, constant maintenance would have been necessary - even the platform below the chute - where trucks would have loaded talc for the trip down the mountain - was gone - having slipped down the steep slopes of Beveridge Canyon.

Precariously positioned.

Standoff.

Above the chute, the Snowflake Mine exploits four talc lenses. Formed in the early Mesozoic (200M years ago), when Diorite of New York Butte - the dark gray rock exposed along the access road - intruded, and thermally altered the Hidden Valley Dolomite, more than half a million tons of talc were formed. There are many roads, cuts, and collapsed tunnels here, and while there's not much remaining from an equipment standpoint, the views are plentiful.

Above the ore bin, the scale of this place - the mine, as well as the valley over which it resides - are put into perspective.

I don't know what this material was, but it fit together like a puzzle and crumbled like a crumb donut!

An Inyo ridge (near), the Saline Range (mid), and the Last Chance Range (far).

From the eastern workings, it was less than half a mile - most of it reasonably flat - to the west group, which is entrenched in a deep ravine. This - apparently - was worked later than the east group, with the 80-foot timbered main tunnel and a rail track available to explore. The problem - as with many remote locations - is getting there.

While the road continues, it soon narrows - due to the same erosion that erased the ore chute's loading platform - to a foot trail. And then, as if simply to spite intrepid explorers, a 6-foot section of foot trail is simply "missing," replaced by a nearly vertical talus chute more than 1000 feet long.

"I bet we can jump, if we get a running start," I said - stone-faced - to my hiking partner.

She knew better and didn't even reply.

Ultimately, there is a way around - at least, theoretically. With more time, or perhaps alone, I might have attempted the small foot trail that climbed higher into the mountains, but for today, it was time to head down - inspecting one last tunnel along the way.

This 360-foot tunnel - the mine's longest before it collapsed - cuts under the main road and over to the top of the ore bin.

Steatite, also called "soft talc" by miners, is the highest purity talc. White to green, translucent, and streaked with black, this beautifully smooth (almost slippery) feeling material is exposed near the tunnel. It may be the ore that inspired this mine's name.

Amateur tip: I highly recommend picking up and rubbing steatite if you ever run across it. Not realizing how it would feel, I initially picked up a small piece - due to the color - and was audibly surprised when I touched it for the first time. I must have picked up a dozen more pieces, the first one felt so nice. Such a pleasurable feeling, it's hard to describe.

By now - even having left at 9:00am - it was shortly after 2:00pm in the afternoon. With only a couple hours remaining before sunset, we had a decision to make: camp another night at the base of the Inyos, or start our long journey home a little early - giving ourselves a bit more time for the 1000-mile slog.

That's some messed up rock!

Ultimately - in what would prove to be a lucky decision - we opted for the later. We hadn't heard a weather forecast since we'd driven through Big Pine several days earlier, but even then, a bit of rain had been predicted between Big Pine and Furnace Creek for the following morning. We didn't know it at the time, but the storm had grown, and it would turn out that we'd call 911 several times to report accidents and spinouts between Bishop, CA and Grants Pass, OR as several feet of snow pummeled the entire west coast.

Having made the decision to bail - and with an hour of daylight remaining when we finally arrived back at the Tacoma - our next steps were obvious: we needed to get out on those dunes that had been taunting us the last few days! So, finding a location along Saline Valley Road that seemed as close to the dunes as we could get, we went to play in the sand.

East to the Last Chance.

West to the Inyos.

Covering a rather small area - only a couple of miles square, and certainly short - the highest dune isn't more than 25 feet tall, most of the Saline Valley dune field is comprised of whaleback dunes. Whalebacks - half-cylinders of sand that often form extensive, parallel waves - are formed at an angle to the prevailing wind, making easy-to-follow corridors for any who venture into their midst.

Additionally, their diminutive size and proximity to more ... popular - warm water - attractions, means that the Saline Dunes see significantly less visitation than many of the other dunes in and around Death Valley. Whereas the ridges of the Eureka, Mesquite, and Panamint Dunes are almost always covered in tracks, we saw only a few prints - in wind-sheltered depressions - as we romped across the impeccable surface here in Saline.

A familiar pose, and another of Death Valley's dune fields, conquered!

No need to keep the surface track free anymore!

Dunes and moons.

Queen of the hill.

I really liked the light of the sky, Inyos, and rippled sand as the sun dropped below the ridgeline.

A final look as we retreated to the truck.

From the dunes, it'd be another 90 minutes before we'd crest North Pass and reach the pavement of CA-168 where we'd air up for the drive home. Already, we were realizing what a good idea it had been to leave a bit early, ice, snow, and fog socking us in at the higher elevations.

North Pass, looking wintery.

As always seems to be the case, we'd had another great trip in this place that always seems to have something new to share. In fact, we'd - essentially - driven less than 20 miles along a single road that formed the boundary of the park, and we'd only scratched the surface of all that the Eastern Inyos had to offer.

Guess we'll need to go back!

 

 

The Whole Story

12 Comments

  1. Harold Brewer
    Harold Brewer January 19, 2023

    My wife and I live in Aberdeen in Owens Valley and jeep often in the Inyo Mountains and Death Valley. Enjoy very much reading about your adventures.

    • turbodb
      turbodb January 19, 2023

      Thanks Harold, glad to hear you're enjoying! Do you usually come at the Inyo Mountains from the west side (given your location)? I haven't done much from that direction either (I've been through Cerro Gordo, but only once and before the new ownership), and I'm always open to suggestions from locals who know an area better than I do! Have fun out there, you have a fun place to play, for sure!

      • Harold Brewer
        Harold Brewer January 20, 2023

        We usually access the Inyo Mountains via Hwy 168 out of Big Pine and then Death Valley road or by Mazourka Peak road in Independence. Both have lots of options for exploring old mines, etc, and some great views of Owen's Valley.

        • turbodb
          turbodb January 22, 2023

          Yeah, I haven't really done any exploration of the western face of the Inyo's (short of Cerro Gordo and the Reward Mine), but I hope to do that over the course of the next couple of years.

  2. Robert Smaus
    Robert Smaus January 19, 2023

    Miss that place, great story, photos and glad you leave the old stuff in situ! Desert art sucks.....can't wait for more taco time.

    • turbodb
      turbodb January 19, 2023

      Taco time is pretty great! Hopefully the memories were enough to counter missing these places, at least just a little bit. 👍

  3. JOHN D MORAN
    JOHN D MORAN January 19, 2023

    Another wonderful story/adventure. Always look forward to each episode of your travels! As for Beveridge, Brent of Cerro Gordo did a recent video about his hike to Beveridge, good and interesting, I'd never be able to do that at my current age but making a long trek over several days to a remote ghost town/mine makes the juices flow!

    • turbodb
      turbodb January 19, 2023

      Thanks John. That hike to Beveridge is something I've wondered about doing myself. I've heard that it's quite the strenuous adventure, much of it trailless. I'm sure it'd be a ton of fun, and the sense of accomplishment would be huge though. Perhaps it'll be what gets me down into the desert in the summer when daylight hours are more plentiful and temperatures at those elevations are more pleasant. The only problem will be that I'd have to carry a pack on my shoulders, which - as I was reminded on my recent trip to Panamint City - I am not a fan of.

  4. Ron
    Ron January 19, 2023

    We really appreciate all of the amazing pictures and stories.

    • turbodb
      turbodb January 19, 2023

      Thanks Ron, always puts a smile on my face to hear when the stories and pictures are enjoyed! I've definitely enjoyed my fair share of others' stories, so it's always nice to give back a bit.

  5. Paul
    Paul January 21, 2023

    You guys will certainly go down in history as two of the greatest explorers (in the modern era) of the West. Thank you for all that you do...!

    --Paul

    • turbodb
      turbodb January 22, 2023

      Thanks Paul! I don't know if we'll go down in history, but we're having fun in the moment! Hope you continue to enjoy the stories and photos; it's always nice to hear when you do.

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