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Death Valley Connections Part 1 (Jan 2020)

Prologue

It was 4:04am on a Wednesday morning when I pulled out of the driveway and pointed the Tacoma south towards Death Valley. I was looking forward to the warmer weather - the forecast in the mid-70°F's - but even more than that, I was looking forward to the company. Because - while I was all alone for this leg of the trip - I planned on making two connections in the next several days that were long overdue.

But first I had to make it south. At 20 hours - with refueling and food - it would be a long day, so I settled in with a full library of my favorite podcasts and the cruise control set way above my usual 62mph - today I was going 65mph! Hey, it'd save me an hour over the course of the trip.

The day passed mostly uneventfully - traffic was light and though there was a bit of a headwind, it wasn't too bad. I made only one mistake during the day, which was taking a route through Nevada that was more direct than my normal route. This saved me 20 minutes or so, but meant that my opportunities to eat after 9:30am were extremely limited. I ended up finding a McDonalds - which always seems to give me a headache - in Battle Mountain, NV, at 4:30pm, and resigned myself to a small meal. It was a good reminder that the shortest route isn't always the best, and next time I'll be travelling south through the likes of Fallon, where the food options are more plentiful.

In planning my trip, I'd found a site just outside of Beatty that seemed like an ideal spot to camp before entering Death Valley the following morning, and it was 11:00pm when I found myself situating the truck on a perfect little knoll before deploying the tent and climbing into bed. I think I read for all of three minutes before my eyes closed and I drifted off to sleep.

Look Who is Behind Me

Excited to get the fun part of the trip underway, I'd naturally set my alarm for much-too-early o'clock, and so stayed cozy under my comforters for half and hour reading before I couldn't stand the colors outside my door any longer. The day was forecast to be clear in the valley - and I could see that it was clear to my west - but a nearly perfect cloud cover to the east made for a dramatic show to say the least - the colors progressing from pinks to orange as the sun neared the horizon!

I set about making a simple breakfast of cereal, and wandered around my knoll a bit, marveling in the spot I'd found - so easily accessible and yet still quite lovely. While I happened to camp on a knoll, there were also several more protected sites that would work well in windier weather, so this may be a location that we use on future trips to Death Valley as well.

Of course, as great as this spot was, it was far from my highlight for the day - so I made my way back to the truck where I rinsed out my bowl, assembled my lunch, and broke down the tent. Just before 8:00am, I rolled out of camp and towards Death Valley.

For anyone who's considering entering Death Valley through Beatty, I highly recommend using Titus Canyon as your entrance to the park - not only are the narrows near the west end of the road a joy to drive through, but the colorful views from Red Pass rival those found anywhere in the park. As such, I'd decided that this would be my route for the morning, and it wasn't long before I was aired down and heading west.

I was not alone. In my mirror, a fellow explorer I'd wanted to meet for some time - his adventures in Death Valley providing inspiration for several of the places I've visited over the last couple of years.

Ken @DVExile had spent the last few days on his latest adventure, and while he had to be back in Las Vegas later in the day, he'd suggested that we meet up to hike Fall Canyon before he headed out. That sounded great to me - especially since the trailhead was at the western mouth of Titus Canyon, and when I let Ken know I'd meet him there after running Titus at a time of his choosing, he jumped on the chance to meet up just a bit earlier to run the trail together.

So now, we were two.

With me in the lead for this first stretch of Titus Canyon, we made reasonably good time - though with a stop here and there for photos - and soon found ourselves at my favorite section of the trail - Red Pass. I couldn't help but to snap a photo reminiscent of my first trip to this location two years earlier.

January 2018. Early days.

A little heavier with age.

The real star of this place is the view, and both Ken and I spent more than a few minutes doing our best to capture the moment as best we could, all the while sharing stories of some of our early left-the-tailgate-open-when-driving-off follies.

Red Pass isn't quite the halfway point on the trail, but I wanted to snap a few photos of Diet Taco on the trail, so I had Ken pull around and head down into the kaleidoscope of colors while I snapped a few photos. A white truck really does pop nicely in a location like this.

Even a 2nd gen is small out here.

Where's Waldo?

Travelling with someone for the first time, there's always a bit of "learning each other" that goes on initially, and over the first part of the trail I hadn't been sure what speed was the sweet spot for Ken. I'm not generally known as a speed demon in my normal circles, but I do know that I've started to go a bit faster recently as I've gotten more and more dirt miles in the rear view mirror. I was happy to discover - as he led us down to the ghost town of Leadville - that our speeds were reasonably similar, a good indication that neither of us was likely to feel put-off by the other.

We made our final stop along the route in Leadville. Having both visited in the past, we did more chatting there than anything, discussing the history of the spot but not hiking over to investigate more closely. Leadville, it turns out, was officially established on January 30, 1926 - exactly 94 years to the day before our visit - lasting less than a year before the the mines there went bust and the post office officially closed. This of course is a similar story to many mines around Death Valley, though Leadville was one of the shortest lived.

Now looking forward to what was really our main goal for the day - hiking Fall Canyon - we climbed back in the trucks for the section of Titus Canyon that I think most people spend most of their time in - the narrows. Here, thick layers of material have been uplifted, compressed, and eroded into striking configurations that can consume hours if one has the time. Today however - even with the narrows to ourselves - we opted to enjoy them "in motion" so as to give ourselves a bit more time on foot.

Pulling into the parking area at the end of Titus Canyon - and the trailhead for Fall Canyon - we were delighted to see that there were relatively few cars parked, a sign that we might have a reasonably peaceful experience on what is sometimes a heavily traveled route. Now close to 10:30am, we each gathered our lunches, cameras, packs, and started out up the canyon mouth - at this point a reasonably wide wash.

We made good time over the first couple of miles, Fall Canyon's walls rising up on either side, much of the geology recognizably an extension of what we'd seen in Titus Canyon - a cool realization that's not often obvious, since we don't usually experience two adjacent canyons in such a short time period. Before long we came to a short side canyon and took a bit of time to investigate it - and the dry fall at its end - before heading back to the main wash.

Two miles into out trek, we ran into the only other group of hikers we'd see in the canyon. Stopped for lunch, they were situated just below a dry fall and assured us that we were "almost to the end" as we walked by and bid them good morning.

We both looked at each other an grinned - we knew this would not be the end of our excursion up Fall Canyon.

Both of us - well versed in Digonnet's Hiking Death Valley - immediately started looking for a bypass that was some 300 yards down wash and would require a fun shimmy up a small chimney to a trail that led around the fall. Easy to find if you knew it was there, we made short work of it and continued on our way, the narrow wedge of the dry fall as striking from above as below.

Surely it must have seemed to the hikers we passed that we'd simply "disappeared," but for us, the most intriguing portion of the trail was still ahead - because above the dry fall, the walls of Fall Canyon narrow - not to a slot per-se, but dramatically enough that you can extend your arms to touch each side. The rock here also changes to a smoother grey-blue, the walls polished by material flowing down the narrows over millions of years.

Layers of orange sediment highlight the otherwise monotone walls.

Another mile or two and we'd reached our turnaround point for the day. Retracing our steps through the uppermost narrows, we found a nice spot that afforded both shade and splendid views, to eat the sandwiches and snacks we'd dutifully packed prior to setting out.

There was no shortage of conversation as we enjoyed the quiet of the canyon. Strikingly similar work and family experiences, as well as having a shared interest in adventure meant that we had plenty to both laugh and laughingly commiserate about. Soon enough, we headed back down the way we'd come - Ken noting that canyon hikes like this were some of the best out-and-back style hikes because everything looks different depending on which direction you travel.

Another angle on the dry fall we bypassed to reach the narrows.

Though reasonably flat, our trip down the canyon seemed even quicker than our trip up, and it wasn't long before we reached the trailhead parking lot. It was 2:30pm or so and time for Ken to air up and make tracks towards Las Vegas as I made my way north towards Eureka Valley and the remainder of my trip.

Hand shakes and safe travels, we parted ways as we hit Death Valley Road - a splendid way to start a trip for me (and hopefully to end for Ken). Still aired down, I had an hour or so of dirt to tick off before I'd arrive at camp, so I set the cruise control at 45mph and enjoyed the surroundings - the warm, sunny weather a nice change from the winter gloom of the Pacific Northwest.

Having never driven this section of road before, I was just tootling along when my phone started going crazy with notifications. It's always amazing to me where you get service, and I figured that I might as well check to make sure everything was OK back home, so I pulled over at an intersection I happened to be passing. Turns out, this was Crankshaft Junction - a place I've heard of from other's adventures, but one I never knew the location of.

Funny how life's little coincidences can work sometimes!

Everything at home was just fine, and after a few quick texts with another buddy about some upcoming logistics, I continued on my way - the only thing between me and Eureka Valley now a few miles of road that wound up, over, and through the Last Chance Range.

Those miles ticked off easily enough - even with a bit of snow at the highest elevation, there was no problem on the road at all - and before long I found myself on the west side, the shade I'd been in on the east giving way to the long rays of late afternoon sun streaking across the valley.

It was still early - maybe only 4:45pm - but being winter, that meant that there wasn't much sunlight left in the day. Luckily, my planned camp site wasn't far, and so I made my way south towards the center of the valley and the terminus of Dry Well Road, the Last Chance Range rising up behind me; Eureka Dunes to my south.

My first order of business upon arriving in camp was to pull out my chair and book and just relax a little bit. It'd been a full - and fun - couple of days, and I was ready for a bit of downtime. A mostly cloudless sky didn't afford much color, but the pleasant weather and view to the south over the dunes still made for a pleasant way to read for a few minutes before my eyes closed and I enjoyed a 20 minute nap.

A nice place to relax.

Refreshed, I was hungry, and it's always better to make - and clean up after - dinner while there's still a bit of light out, so I broke out the stove and warmed up my first installment of the only dinner I'd brought for the entire trip - tacos!

The light fading in the sky, and minimal cleanup necessary, dinner was a quick affair. Looking up, the sky had faded to a splendid purple by the time I'd gotten everything put away.

The temperature dropping quickly under clear skies, I bundled up and did a bit of photo sorting and cataloging before realizing that I was too tired to be of much use. Even my short nap hadn't made up for the 9 hours of sleep I'd gotten the last three days, so by 7:30pm, I put everything away and climbed up into my cozy tent.

My eyes closed quickly as I thought of both the day I'd just had and the day to come - both days I'd been looking forward do for the last several weeks. And both of which would end up exceeding my expectations!

 

The Whole Story

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2 Comments

  1. Matthew Cushing
    Matthew Cushing February 18, 2020

    I’ve been wanting to see this part of the world for at least 20 years now. This trip looked absolutely amazing! I’m in the process of getting my 2018 Tacoma built and ready for excursions like these. Seeing these pics and reading the story behind has me itching now!!! I can’t wait to experience this! Thank you for taking the time for the photos and the journal to your trip to Death Valley!

    • turbodb
      turbodb February 18, 2020

      Matthew - so glad you enjoyed the story. There's more coming for this trip, so if you aren't already, you might want to sign up at https://adventuretaco.com/subscribe/ to get notified of the next several installments.

      Also, if Death Valley is something you want to see more of, I've put together this "index" of it, as it were - based on several trips I've done to the area: https://adventuretaco.com/index/death-valley

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