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Worth More Than Gold | Inyo West #1

I've done a lot of exploring in and around Death Valley National Park, and have spent many a morning watching the sun illuminate the Inyo Mountains from the east. But, I've spent almost no time exploring the Inyo Mountains from the west - Owen's Valley - side.

I'm not sure exactly why this has been the case - there's a ton to experience - but I suppose it's due to the fact that it's nestled between the dramatic Sierra Nevada and my favorite National Park.

Regardless, I've wanted to drive the Swansea to Cerro Gordo Road - up past the apex of the Saline Valley Salt Tram - ever since we visited the lower towers back in 2019. I've heard amazing things about the network of roads that run up to and through Papoose Flats and Mazourka Peak. And recently I caught wind of a couple mesas worth exploring at the extreme southern reaches of the range.

And so, with three and a half days to explore, I'm leaving the heat of the valley behind and climbing into the still-not-cool mountain air. Surely, I'll love what I find, and if it's anything like I expect, I'll only be left wanting for more. More time to explore the Inyo West.

The First Afternoon...

I picked up the Tacoma in Las Vegas just after 1:00pm and made a beeline for my first food of the day at In-N-Out. I seem to get the same cashier every time, but they still don't recognize me, so obviously I'm not going on enough trips.

After scarfing down my burgers, fries, and a soda in what felt like sweltering shade, I took care of a few provisioning tasks before heading west. First through Pahrump, then along CA-190 through Furnace Creek, the A/C seemed to be working harder than usual; I found out why as I made a quick stop at the Visitor Center for a bathroom break.

Even though I happened to visit during "unseasonably warm temperatures" according to the National Weather Service, my valley floor days are definitely over until things cool down in the fall.

I'd planned for my trip to start in Swansea, following the loop road to Cerro Gordo, but my early arrival - and a last-minute change of plans from Mike @mk5 - left me wondering if I could squeeze in a little something more as I continued west. Even as I continued west - a strange feeling to enter and exit the park without stopping for a single hike - I wasn't sure until I saw the fields of Orange Globe Mallow.

As I climbed out of Panamint Valley, I spotted the cutest little kit fox den.

Yes. Yes, you are welcome to come home with me!

As I reached the head of what we all call Saline Valley Road - though which I've recently learned is Saline Valley Alt Rd - I couldn't believe my eyes. I've never witnessed a super bloom in Death Valley - and I don't think this was technically a super bloom - but I didn't care. The Orange Globe Mallow were everywhere.

Frankly, it was ridiculous.

Billions of blooms.

Right then and there, I decided that I wanted to drive through that orange sea, following a few roads to places I'd never been. I figured I'd head for the furthest one first, completely oblivious to the controversy that I later remembered surrounds it. I was headed to Conglomerate Mesa.

Setting off into the sea.

Is this even allowed?

Warm temperatures meant that Telescope Peak had just a dusting of snow.

It took me 90 minutes to fight my way through the landscape to the end of the road - and the trailless trailhead - at the base of Conglomerate Mesa. Not because the roads were in any way difficult, but because I kept thinking that I'd better get out of the truck to take another photo. The landscape was just so different than I'm used to seeing in these parts; perhaps I need to brave the heat for a few more late-spring excursions to the desert!

After 45 minutes, Conglomerate Mesa rose in the distance.

OK desert - you impress with orange and then decide to turn purple?

Not sure what these are (a pea?), but they were prolific at elevations just higher than the Orange Globe Mallow.

Driving around the base of the Mesa, the road became significantly less travelled.

A quick stop at Conglomerate Double Arch. Perhaps more accurately a triple!

End of the road. Still a lot of up to the top.

Now - for those familiar with the area - Conglomerate Mesa holds some interesting present-day controversy. As seems to be a trend in the desert, companies have always been interested in extracting mineral resources, and Conglomerate Mesa is no exception.

In 2015, Silver Standard US Holdings Inc., a U.S. company held by SSR Mining of Vancouver, B.C, submitted a Plan of Operations for the Perdito Exploration Project - seven exploratory drill holes at seven locations on Conglomerate Mesa - including access via several miles of new road construction across currently roadless areas.

In June 2018, after a campaign by the Protect Conglomerate Mesa Coalition, led by Friends of the Inyo, the BLM Ridgecrest Field Office approves an alternative to Silver Standard’s Perdito Exploration Project Plan. While allowing the drilling of seven exploratory holes, access must be achieved via helicopter to limit disruption to the landscape as much as possible. Silver Standard informs BLM they are withdrawing their plans for the Perdito Exploration Project, marking a temporary win for the Coalition.

By 2020, Canadian mining company K2 Gold - and its local subsidiary, Mojave Precious Metals (MPM) - took over the 2018 Plan approved by the BLM. Using this approved plan, K2 drilled 16 holes on the mesa, leaving behind trenches, flagging, metal plates, spray-painted rocks, and trash on the mesa, none of which has been cleaned up to this day.

In 2021, K2 Gold submitted a new proposal to the BLM asking to drill 120 additional holes and to build roads leading to the drill sites.

During a public comment period in August 2021, the BLM received 23,800 comments, mostly against the project. Many commenters asked the BLM to analyze the project under an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and the BLM listened. On March 9, 2022, BLM sent a letter to K2 Gold stating that it would analyze the potential impacts of the exploratory drilling proposal by preparing an EIS. BLM cited a number of reasons for this decision including:

  • The resource concerns expressed by the public, Tribes, and agencies during scoping;
  • The fact that the Joshua tree is now a candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act;
  •  The presence of Red Ochre Clay for which the Timbisha Tribe is named.
  • The largest known population of Inyo thread plant in the Southern Inyo Mountains was observed in the area and is undergoing a California Rare Plant Rank status review;
  • Tribes expressed their concerns that the proposal could impact the holistic value of the area;
  • Conglomerate Mesa is part of the California Desert National Conservation Lands and contains nationally significant cultural, ecological, and scientific values. Additionally, Conglomerate Mesa holds wilderness quality lands (i.e., Lands with Wilderness Characteristics) and has been designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern to protect its Joshua tree habitat; and
  • Water usage issues.

On March 17th, 2022, K2 Gold announced in a press release an “indefinite suspension of activities at the Mojave Project.”

K2 is the 11th company to threaten the Mesa since the 1980s.

Friends of the Inyo and
Protect Conglomerate Mesa Coalition

I had heard much of this story years earlier, but it hadn't registered - and I stand by that excuse, because I'm certainly not forgetting things as I get older - as I gathered up my hiking stuff and set about finding a route up to the top of the mesa.

One might argue that - with it being 45 minutes before sunset, no trail to follow, and 900 vertical feet to climb in a little less than three-quarters of a mile - this wasn't my most intelligent decision, but I packed a flashlight, and figured I could at least get to the top before needing to turn it on!

"The trail."

Picking my way up the most gradual slopes I could find - which ended up averaging 24.9%, with a max of 73.1% - I gained elevation quickly. This elevation gain required frequently stops for photos, because I assure you I was never out of breath.

The light on the Nelson Range and Darwin Plateau was mesmerizing.

I reached the top as the world around me began to change color. Sure that I'd find a benchmark (BM) or some sort of survey marker, I made my way from one rocky outcropping to the next, not sure exactly which one was the highest. I never found a marker, but when I found the peak log, the numerous "Protect Conglomerate Mesa" entries jogged my memory on why the name of this place seemed so familiar!

As I reached the summit, the Sierra showed off in the distance, while the crazy geology of Conglomerate Mesa fascinated in the foreground.

A special place to enjoy the evening light show.

Peak 7707 log book placed in 1981 and less than a third full. (left) | I was the first entry for 2024. (right)

I didn't even need my flashlight on the way down.

A Move in the Dark

Having thoroughly enjoyed this first, completely unplanned hike of my trip, it was time to figure out where to camp. I could have - and probably should have - taken the obvious choice and camped where I'd parked below Conglomerate Mesa, but for some reason I'd pulled out my phone when I'd been at the top and noticed that I had a single bar of service. Wondering if anyone on my favorite Internet forum had any to say about the area, I'd stumbled upon a post from Ken @DVExile that was but a single line long.

Malpais Mesa is my planned final resting place - or scattering spot to be more accurate.

That alone would have been enough for me to want to check it out, but after a quick look in Desert Summits, I knew that I'd be driving into the dark, allowing a pre-dawn hike to this special place.

As I made good time down toward my destination, I stopped the truck after hoping that I'd narrowly missed what I thought might have been a snake in the road.

Well, hello, you. Glad you're still doing fine!

I arrived two hours after sunset and found a perfectly flat spot to setup the tent. It'd been a long day, capped with an unexpected highlight. For now - my alarm set for 4:00am - it was time for a few hours of shut eye. My hope - to experience the first light on the Sierra - relied on my ability to hike a mile (and up 700 feet) before a 5:27am sunrise.

Darkness Turns to Light

Somehow, I was able to wrestle myself from under the comforters only a few minutes after my alarm sounded. The moon had set several hours earlier, so it was pitch dark as I climbed down the ladder and gathered up my camera gear and donned a lightweight windbreaker to stave off the 20mph breeze and 35mph gusts that'd made for a fitful sleep.

Soon, I was following an old mining road into the Malpais Mesa Wilderness. In the dark, I missed this sign completely, but caught it on the way back down!

The mining road only got me so far, and soon I was scrambling up the volcanic boulders and scree fields that give these badlands (Malpais) their name. I'm not sure it was as steep as the hike to Conglomerate Mesa the previous evening, but it was certainly reminiscent, and I found it pleasurable to - once again - be on a trailless hike!

Like the previous evening, I found myself pushing faster than I might normally push as I raced the sun. Unlike the previous evening, I was racing it in the opposite direction. I reached the ridge only a few seconds before sunrise, only to realize that sunrise for the Sierra - even though they were slightly further west - was a few minutes earlier, given their much higher elevation. Still, I couldn't help but smile as I caught my first glimpse!

First light on the Sierra.

A few minutes later, a sunstar on the horizon.

Reaching the ridge was not the end of my trek - not by a long shot. From here, though, it was an easy going, enjoyable stroll as I slowly climbed through a Joshua tree forest toward the summit, some two miles to the north. The entire time, expansive views west - and the Mount Whitney portion of the Sierra - were nearly enough to distract me from even reaching my destination!

Slowly, sunlight crept down one of Earth's amazing backbones.

Here too, wildflowers were prolific. It was a special time of year!
This primrose (Oenothera californica) looks strikingly similar to the Eureka Dunes Evening Primrose, but that variant only grows around the dunes, so I'm not entirely sure what these are.

Looking east wasn't too shabby, either.

Knowing that I'd already had a full day planned - even before I decided to add a six-mile, early-morning hike to the agenda - I made good time to the summit, 1300 feet higher than where I'd woken up just two hours earlier.

An interesting pile of boards hunkered down in a wind break at the peak.

Found it!

I turned around quickly, my belly grumbling from my pre-breakfast exertion. With the wind now at my back, I made even better time on the gentle downhill trek as jagged peaks gleamed brilliantly and Joshua Trees kept me entertained on the way back to camp.

Hey guys, wait for me!

Morning under Mt. Whitney.

The clouds were playing nice, too!

It was 7:30am as I returned to my camp - the truck perched on a waste rock pile at the Santa Rosa Mine. While it's hard to tell today - since nearly nothing is left at the relatively small site - this mine was the eighth largest lead producer in the state, generating more than 12 million pounds of lead, 490,000 pounds of copper, 4,000 pounds of zinc, and 427,000 ounces of silver between 1910 and the 1950s.

Santa Rosa camp.

Besides the obvious diggings, I could find only a few artifacts as I poked around with the flying camera.

After a quick breakfast, I packed up and got on my way. A fabulously unexpected way to start the morning!

Back into the orange.

Feeling a little behind - but trying to take solace in the knowledge that it was still only 8:30am - as I followed new-to-me dirt roads towards CA-190 and the historic town of Swansea, a gleaming-white waste rock pile along the base of the mesa caught my attention. I contemplated whether I should give it a look, ultimately succumbing to my usual, "I'm already here," the Tacoma nearly steering itself up the short access road to the mine.

The orange never got old.

Anticipation was high - perhaps there'd be a nice adit to explore!

The jumble of ladders at the bottom of the vertical shaft suggested that I wasn't going to be headed underground - at least, not here!

A quick look at the map and I noted that a nearby label - Viking Talc Mine Camp - was probably worth checking out "while I'm already here," so I lengthened my detour again as I wound my way into the foothills. I'll tell you what - this guy sure knows how to blow a schedule!

I was out to enjoy the views, so even if I was getting off schedule, I was doing it in style!

Two of the three structures at the Viking Talc Mine.

Priorities seem perfect at the Viking Talc Camp today.

There wasn't much left at the Viking Talc Mine Camp. Easy access meant that the those-who-can't-leave-nice-things-nice have frequented this place since it shut down, and bullet-riddled walls were the only walls left to see.

Regardless, it was time to get going - to a road I've been wanting to run for years. A road that would transport me back in time, and to views I couldn't yet imagine!



The Whole Story


Filed Under

California(50 entries)
Inyo Mountains(2 entries)


  1. Anza4R
    Anza4R June 15, 2024

    WOW! The flowers are spectacular. We saw something like that headed up the pass into the Bristlecones last June, but not a vast expanse of flowers like in a few of your shots, which are fantastic as always.

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 18, 2024

      The flowers were insane. When I climbed out of Panamint Valley, I was taken totally by surprise, having never witnessed such a bloom before. I have no idea if this was considered a super bloom, but it was - most definitely - super in my opinion, hahaha!

      Speaking of the Bristlecones - I just got back from a trip up into the White Mountains (this Inyo trip was about a month ago, but takes some time to work through photos and write the story) - and boy, they were fantastic! Story coming as soon as I can...

      • Matt D
        Matt D June 18, 2024

        Fantastic photos Dan, as usual!

        • turbodb
          turbodb June 18, 2024

          Thanks Matt! Always nice to hear when you enjoy them.

  2. Skidoo
    Skidoo June 15, 2024

    The fox photos are magic. Some great wildflowers, I haven't seen it like that. Really neat shots of the Joshua Trees with the Sierras as a backdrop.

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 18, 2024

      Thanks! Those foxes really were a special treat - I've never experienced something like that before, and was so lucky to spot them as I raced by... and then have them reappear when I walked back towards the den!

      And the Sierra view - wow, it's not often you get both desert and mountain contrasting like that; pretty cool; glad you appreciated!

  3. Anza4R
    Anza4R June 15, 2024

    Lost in the magic of your pictures, and forgot to give a huge thumbs up for detailing the background story on Conglomerate Mesa. That entire area has a vibe of the Creator thinking... 'Hmmm, what can I do that will astonish and amaze? Well, here you go!'
    Few places contain such a diversity of spectacular beauty, so thank God people raised their voices in protest of spoiling Death Valley's doorstep. Going on 40 years of heading into the Sierra and Death Valley, and much has remained unchanged, except for what the weather does, so people raising their voice (Cerro Gordo Mines and the power of the internet) to protect a sacred place? YAY!!!

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 18, 2024

      Well said, and I'm glad you appreciated that history. I'd heard it before I went up there but it'd been lost in the back of my mind, so it was really nice to review it all again, and appreciate the hard work folks have done to protect that area!

    JOHN D MORAN June 16, 2024

    More great photos, yes we have some great color/flowers out here in the desert, and a fine adventure, thanks for sharing again. I have been following the Conglomerate Mesa problem & get frequent updates from Friends of the Inyo and also K2 Gold. K2 is not giving up, they announced exploration in the area of more than 14,000 acres and they sold more than $1 million in shares to fund the projects. I'm not happy that a Canadian (or any) company plans to dig up the area for profit. K2 is obviously concerned about public knowledge of what they plan, here's a quote from their project plan recently, "Not for distribution to United States newswire services or for dissemination in the United States." About 20 miles north of us is the Golden Queen Mine on Soledad Mountain owned by another Canadian company called Andean Precious Metals, then give the impression that they are a U.S. company but they are not with HQ in Toronto, Canada. It takes to research to find who really owns these mines. With blasting and heavy equipment they are systematically leveling the mountain. I can see the mining from my backyard. Just more destruction of our lands.

    • jane doe
      jane doe June 18, 2024

      Blame Canada!

      • turbodb
        turbodb June 18, 2024

        I think there's enough blame to spread around pretty much everywhere.

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 18, 2024

      Dang, that's a bummer. On the one hand, I know that the world "needs" the things we mine. Frankly, we in the USA probably consume more than we "should" and so a lot of that mining - usually not in our backyard - is to support our addiction to "new things" and a "throw away society." Still, it's always saddening to hear of projects like this in places that I love wandering for their immense beauty.

      I wish there were a way to do it more "responsibly." Of course, mining has always destructive and messy, but back in the old days the operations were so much smaller that they've largely been "reclaimed," leaving only a few structures and dangerous workings that some crazy folks (yes, I admit it 😉) like to go find. Today, as you mention, it's always about mountain removal. Safer and cheaper I suppose, but certainly not low impact.

      • JOHN D MORAN
        JOHN D MORAN June 18, 2024

        YES, one of the big things is that GOLD is in high demand in industrial applications, especially electronics. In the Army all of our waveguide was gold plated internally, same in civilian world, many gold plated electronic contacts. In other areas the demand for other metals is also high and when you get into things like solar panels there is silicon, cadmium, cobalt and many other elements. And ignorant people think that wind and solar energy is environmentally friendly! HA!

  5. Anthony Williams
    Anthony Williams June 17, 2024

    Dan, could you make it a practice at the beginning of your account of each adventure to give the date you started, or even the week? That would give those of us who hope to follow some of your tracks a sense of the climate and vegetation at that time of year. Vegetation is of course extremely variable in the desert.

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 17, 2024

      Hey Anthony - for every story, the date of the story is listed at the very bottom (just above the comments and "tags"). There, it lists a few categories that the apply to the post (usually for trips, this will be "Big Adventures" (or "Small Trip") and "Epic" (which just flags the story to be sent out to subscribers via email), as well as "experienced on [date]."

      I know it's sort of hidden, but I used to include it at the top of every story until I realized that people would then worry that the story was "dated." Really, there's some balance to strike, but at least the way it is, people like you can find the info!

      Hope that helps!

      • Anthony Williams
        Anthony Williams June 17, 2024

        Thanks. That is subtle, but satisfies my wish. BTW, this is another great episode. You have great luck--the wildflowers are astounding--but your planning that you say takes longer than your adventures must play a big part.

        Recently, for example, you showed some rock art in the Virgin River gorge that was new to me and several serious rock art friends, though we have lived collectively for decades within reach. I salute both your great photography and research!

        • turbodb
          turbodb June 17, 2024

          Thanks so much. I feel like I'm always learning about new spots, and in some cases, searching (seemingly endlessly) for places other people find easily. It is the way of the wonders that dot the world, I think! As always, so glad to hear you're enjoying, it really does put a smile on my face to hear it. 👍

  6. Rick von Stein
    Rick von Stein June 17, 2024

    Best ever! Keep it up.

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 17, 2024

      Thanks Rick, more to come with the Inyo! (And then, a couple weeks later, a little further north in the Whites!)

  7. Karl D
    Karl D June 18, 2024

    That bench at the talc mine is the site of fabulous sunsets!

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 18, 2024

      I bet it is! I was reminded of it again last week when we treked up to the Black Eagle Camp (and then Upper Camp) at the Champion Spark Plug Mine and I saw a similar bench with an - as I noticed you know, since I'm now plowing through your roamings 😉 - even more dramatic view. That story - along with a week of White Mountains exploration - is still a bit out (photo processing, writing, etc.) but might be of interest to ya. It'll be here - Wandering the White Mountains - when I get it posted, and of course, you can always get it in your email.

  8. Bill Rambo
    Bill Rambo June 18, 2024

    That made me thirsty.....think I'll have some orange juice....:). I'm' sure the Mrs. would love a kid fox in the house.

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 18, 2024

      Mmmm, orange juice does seem like it would hit the spot. And, I think you missed the quotes around "love" 😉. A cat would certainly be well loved in our house though!

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