From the get-go, I'd known that my second day in Death Valley would be my fullest. As such, I'd done my best to set myself up for success by camping at the trailhead for my first hike of the day - though "trailhead" might be giving significantly more credit than is due.
Camped in Eureka Valley, I knew that the Last Chance Range would block any sort of early-morning sunrise, but that didn't mean I was up any later. Rather, even as the sun was still behind the mountains, I was up and prepping for my first hike - eating a cold breakfast in the 31°F morning air, making a lunch of PB&J, chips and an apple, and getting my camera gear ready to go.
Today, I was headed to the Hidden Dunes. Some 10 miles round-trip, they are, you know, right over... there.
Now, normally part of the morning routine is to break down the tent, but today I hesitated to do so. See, the cold temps meant that a bit of frost had formed - primarily on the rain fly - and I didn't really want to seal that up under the rubber cover for much of the day. I contemplated my usual "drying/wiping off" of everything with a towel, or just waiting an hour for the sun to get high enough to evaporate the moisture, but eventually I realized that having the tent setup would provide some convenient shade for the fridge. So, after hemming and hawing around for 15 minutes, in the end I decided to just leave everything as it was and set off across the desert.
I have found that there are three or four different types of typical desert hikes. There are of course guided hikes, where you're following a well-trodden path, perhaps even with signs along a route that someone else has deemed interesting for one reason or another. There are hikes to mines or historical sites - often along an old road that may or may not still be suitable for certain types of vehicles. There are of course canyon/wash hikes where only a single obvious route exists, the taller the walls and narrower the wash, the more thrilling the adventure. And then there are pathless hikes across the desert.
While I'm far from the most seasoned desert explorer, this last type of hike is - at least these days - my favorite of the desert hikes. Picking a landmark in the distance and setting off trail-less seems not only freeing, but also virtually ensures a unique experience unlike any who've come before or will come after.
Today was no exception. Walking on and on across the desert floor, I traveled more than a mile before gaining any elevation at all. Even then, the fan leading up to the gap in the Saline Range through which I'd find the Hidden Dunes had such a gradual incline that it seemed nearly flat. There was plenty, however, to keep me engaged. Lizards - warming themselves in the morning sun - scurried out of my way; rocks - once covered in sand that had long since been blown away - aligned in a perfectly undisturbed mosaic. And then - a tent!
It turns out that I'd talk to the residents of this tent on my return trip, but I was understandably surprised to see it out here in the middle of nowhere! That of course was just what they were after - nowhere - and they'd successfully enjoyed their solitude for three days before I happened by.
Shortly after passing the tent - as I made my way toward the sand spilling through my landmark gap - a familiar rumble. I wasn't sure when I heard it whether it was Air Force or Navy, but someone was out flying this morning. For the second time in less than 10 minutes, I was surprised as - right through the gap I was headed towards - an F-18 jet came roaring through, just a few hundred feet off the ground! I struggled to get my camera - clipped to my belt, and the lens locked to prevent jiggling - up and ready to shoot.
In the end, the belt clip wouldn't release and I ended up literally shooting from the hip to try to capture the moment, as the pilots swooped down to the eastern edge of the valley floor before turning south towards the Eureka Dunes.
I could only hope that there would be more as I neared the gap and the Hidden Dunes finally shown themselves in the adjacent valley!
It was here that I had a decision to make. My destination - naturally - was the highest dune. Option 1 was to head out into the dune field and make my way along the serpentine ridges until I achieved my goal. Option 2 was to skirt along the side of the dunes - ideally with better footing than the loose sand - and then cut out onto the dunes once I neared the top.
Not one to shy from a challenge, I opted for option 1 - initially - and set out up the first dune.
This decision couldn't have been more perfect, as within the first few minutes I was rewarded with a loud rumble. This time, I was prepared and my camera was clicking away as a second F-18 streaked almost directly overhead.
Within a few minutes of being buzzed, I realized that my "perfect" decision was quite clearly the exact opposite of perfect. Not only was I ruining the footprint-less dunes, but as they got steeper, I'd slip one step back for every two steps forward. Something needed to change - so I retraced my steps and opted for a variant of option 2: skirting the lower dunes on more firm footing, and then suffering through the sand only for the second half.
Still, that meant that I had a little over 1.5 miles of sand hiking, with a little over 2000 feet of elevation gain from the gap in the Saline Range. This makes the Hidden Dunes significantly higher than the much more famous Eureka Dunes, though because they are stacked on an alluvial fan, the actual sand depth of any given dune is shallower.
The views are nothing short of spectacular, and are only enhanced by the peaceful remoteness of the space. They surely make the strenuous trek to the top worthwhile.
It was only 10:30am when I reach the apex of my morning excursion but I can tell you with no uncertainty that I was ready for lunch. I was also ready to find some shade - having worked up quite a sweat out in the sun, and having forgotten to bring sunscreen along on this trip. As such, my first order of business was to find - or rather manufacture - the shadiest spot that I could. I found several of last years fast-growing tumbleweeds and gathered them up into a clump that would provide a bit more shade than just a single sparse plant. And then, I plopped myself down and enjoyed every last bite as I surveyed the dune field below.
Lunch complete, I enjoyed the shade for a few minutes longer and then began my hike-slide down the dunes and towards the gap through which I'd come. Downhill being much easier than up, I opted for the walk-the-ridge approach and had a great time in the process.
The hiking easier, I found myself wondering if the Air Force was done for the day or if I might see one more jet before everything was said and done. As if on cue, I heard a rumble from behind. Now much higher than I'd been previously, the next plane to fly by - an F-15 this time - was only a few feet above my current position as it streaked next to the dunes and then over the gap.
I was like a kid in a candy story. I'm sure the grin on my face has scarcely been larger, and I found myself wondering where his partner was. I mean - I've seen the movies. Where's the wingman?!
I didn't have to wait long before that question was authoritatively answered: the wingman was even lower in elevation, and on an intercept course with my position on the dunes. Perhaps notified of my presence by his partner and using me for targeting?
I continued for a few more minutes, the undulating of the dunes, and shadows created by the wind-swept ridges mesmerizing. Beetle tracks, my footprints, and the wandering of a coyote the only sign of animal life evident around me.
And then, a final fly-by. Just a single jet this time, and lower than all the rest - by quite a margin. He came tearing through the southern end of the valley as he banked towards the dunes, the exhaust obscuring the Inyo mountains behind the plane. Perhaps only 60-75 feet above the top of the dunes, the ground shook as he gained altitude in order to pass overhead and then through the gap.
My excitement boiled over, and I let out an audible, "Hell ya!" as the roar faded in the distance. It was an experience that I'm sure others - though not many - have had, but being that close to one of these powerful machines in flight was a first for me, and one that will take a while to forget!
The morning's excitement over, I made quick work of the descent down the dunes and back into Eureka Valley. Without even knowing it, I'd timed the hike perfectly - no more F-18's flew through the valley for the rest of the day, though as I was arriving back at camp, I did hear a series of "thoomp-thoomp" booms in the distance - a sound I associate with mortar launches or detonation shock waves. It had to have been in another canyon however, because the area around us was otherwise peaceful.
A couple hours after I started back down, I neared camp, the truck barely visible in the distance almost the entire time.
Here and there I found my morning footprints in the desert as I made the trek back, but I'm sure it won't be long until the wind erases any trace of my visit to this special place.
It was just before 1:00pm when I arrived back at the truck, and I had a decision to make: the day's plan called for another ~8.5 mile loop hike high into the Last Chance Mountains, but I wasn't sure I'd have enough time before the sun went down. My options - perhaps obviously - were to try for the full hike, skip it altogether, or cut the hike in half by making it an out-and-back rather than a loop.
Ultimately I knew there was no way I'd be happy with myself if I skipped it altogether, and I realized that I could defer the decision of loop vs. out-and-back until I reached the turnaround point, so I stowed the now-dry tent and jumped in the truck for my 2 mile drive to the next "trailhead."
But that my friends, will have to wait for next time.
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