I led a group of friends through parts of Panamint Valley and Death Valley over the holiday weekend. MojaveMan and his family joined us for the the first day. Seven vehicles: my Xterra, MojaveMan's X, one Tacoma, one almost new 4Runner, one brand new Grand Cherokee, and one behemoth Yukon. An FJ joined us on Saturday. 14 folks, four dogs. The Jeep and FJ were stock, including passenger A/T tires. Yukon, Taco and 4Runner were mostly stock with skid plates, 3" lifts, and LT tires. This was the first major offroad trip for the couple in the Jeep, friends of mine from the Neptune's Rangers kayaking group.
Day 1: Ridgecrest > Trona > Ballarat > Panamint Springs > Saline Valley Road > Lippincott Mine Road > Homestake Dry Camp.
Day 2: Basecamped at Homestake. Day trip up to Lost Burro Mine and Ubehebe Talc Mine off of Hunter Mountain Road.
Day 3: Homestake > Race Track > Ubehebe Crater > Crankshaft Junction > Eureka Dunes
Day 4: Eureka Dunes > Crate Sulpher Mine > out to Big Pine.
Day 1, Thanksgiving Thursday:
Most of the group is from the San Jose area. We all commuted down by various routes and spent Wednesday night in Ridgecrest. MojaveMan joined us at the 9:00am meet up Thanksgiving Day. We caravaned out to Trona for a quick stop. The rest stop in Trona has a great display explaining the history of the area, the mining going on out on the playa, and info on the mineral wealth of the area. Next stop was Ballarat ghost town in Panamint Valley. We hung out there for a couple hours, exploring the ruins and talking to the caretaker. This was one of the sites where the infamous Manson family hung out. Their main camp was several miles south in Goler Wash at Baker Ranch. An old truck in Ballarat is reported to have belonged to the Manson Family.
We headed north from Ballarat on Indian Ranch Road. Washboard gravel with a couple spots that had slight washouts. We spotted wild burros in the Surprise Canyon area. Even better, a small herd of Desert Bighorn Sheep! One ewe was just above the road, while the other five or six were up on the cliffs. We created a minor traffic jam when we stopped for photos. One of the group also spotted a coyote. No surprise for those that know of my travels. Friends call my "Coyote Bait". The dang things seem to follow me every where and show up on nearly every trip.
Panamint Springs was a zoo! All the parking lots and all the spots along the road were full of vehicles of all kinds. Turns out they were having a special on Thanksgiving dinner. Some free dinner give aways as well. Regretfully, we did not get to go in and check out either the food nor their outstanding beer selection. We topped off our gas tanks and headed to Saline Valley Road. MohaveMan and his family had to head back to Ridgecrest. Duty called and the wife had to work that night to get ready for Black Friday. Definitely recommend checking in with MojaveMan if you are heading to the Ridgecrest area. He was a wealth of info, having grown up in the area. I am intending on tapping him on future visits to the area!
The road south from Hwy 190 is still in excellent shape. Washboard, but not bad. We hooked up with three folks in a Subaru at the Panamint Valley overlook who were heading to the hot springs, but were not sure of the route. They got tucked into our group and we routed them until we had to make the turn to Lippincott. I gave them some general idea of how to find the turn off to the hot springs and wished them well on their trip. The road across the valley to the canyon was about the same as always. A few worn wash outs and dips, but otherwise just minor double track across the desert. We climbed up the canyon to Lippincott Pass. The road has some washouts on the edges that were not there last November. Easy to get around There is also one rock slide area that put you slightly off camber for a short stretch. Nothing hideous, but a bit unnerving. All in all, not in bad shape, but one had to pay attention. Thankfully, no one "turtled" on the drive up canyon.
Homestake Camp was about half full of single site campers when we got there. One of the campers already there tried to persuade us there was wonderful sites further up the mountain by the mine for our group. Was not going for that ploy. There are some good single/double sites along the road up above Homestake, before you get to the tanker, but not for a group our size. Instead, I had to spread the group out across the available sites in the main camp. There was still room for a couple more visitors. Those got filled up by sundown by stragglers coming in from Ubehebe or over Hunter Mountain. Homestake is a nice dry camp south of the Race Track, but avoid the porta-potty the NPS has stake out there. It has not been cleaned in at least five year.
One of the couples in our group is famous for their holiday dinner campout spreads. We had a marvelous Thanksgiving dinner under the stars! Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and lots of beverages of all kinds. A roaring campfire added to the ambiance. Robert, one of my geocaching buddies, set us all up with his patented butt-warmers. (Hot coals from the fire spread out under your camp chair. Bliss on a cold evening!) We talked long into the night, sipping various whiskeys and cordials, burning up a lot of firewood Great times! The cold finally drove us all to our tents though. The evening temperatures dropped to 20 during the night, with a slight rise to 24 near sunrise. The poor dogs bumped their noses when they tried to drink out of frozen bowls the next morning. Even a partial can of beer left out was frozen solid.
Day 2, Friday:
A lazy start of the day given how cold it was overnight. Most of us did not roll out of the tents until the sun was well up and warming things up. We then headed out to explore for the day, leaving our camp gear at Homestake as our base camp. We skipped by the Race Track for the moment and headed straight to Tea Kettle Junction. The heavy wash board on the road took its toll yet again. One of the group had a strap fail along the way, losing a couple big bundles of fire wood. They were the sweep vehicle, so no one caught it until later. Not as serious as a trailer break, but the road will do what it can to you. We later saw a 4Runner abandoned on the road just north of Teakettle, the whole driver's side control arms/suspension/tire removed. A note said they had broken parts and would be back in a few days to recover the vehicle.
Annette, my fiance, had adorned a special teakettle for our group. Lots of sparkles and sequins. We hung that out and did some photo ops at the junction. Next stop was Lost Burro Mine along Hunter Mountain Road. The mine is a short side trip off the main road. A bit washed out in places. The stock vehicles had a work out getting up to the mine, but the ones with lifts had no issues. The mine is well worth visiting. We hiked up the canyon to the top of the works. Many old mine shafts, abandoned equipment, and structures to check out and photograph.
We then headed up to Ubehebe Talk Mine, near Keeler Talk Mine. The road in was a bit beat up and steep, but again, with care, we got stock vehicles in there. Our lunch break was near the old tin shack at the lower mine site. If you go over the rise behind that building and into a wash, there are three or four old vehicles strung out along the wash. Fun taking pictures of those and trying to figure out what they were. Robert and Betsy, our Thanksgiving dinner hosts, used to own a body shop, so he was a great help in the speculations.
Day 3, Saturday:
Back up the road past Tea Kettle Junction and on to Ubehebe Crater was the agenda after breaking camp in the morning. The prior night was a touch warmer, having only dipped down to the high 20's. It was 44 degrees when we rolled out of camp around 9:15am. The road between Teakettle and Ubehebe has been graded since I was here last November. I recall following Chris out on that road and it being a total wash out most of the way from the October 2015 flashfloods. It was in much better condition this trip, though still a lot of washboarding. We saw the 4Runner I mentioned above plus another guy in a F150 who was out of gas. Gave him a spare 3 gallons we had with us and wished him luck in making it Stovepipe Wells, the next nearest gas station. He had spent the night out there hoping to run into someone with extra gas. The wind at Ubehebe Crater was intense! The wind gauge showed a steady 30 mph with gusts to 45mph. I'm big guy and the wind gusts would nearly push me over when I tried to take a step. We spent little time there!
We fast rolled out to Crankshaft Junction. The road was wide and relatively smooth all the way out. Speeds of 45-50mph were the norm on the route. We lunched at the junction. Some winds still blowing in the area, but not nearly as bad as Ubehebe. Checking the weather reports via NOAA/inReach, we could see a storm was coming in over California and due to hit our area that night or early Sunday. We decided to bypass a stop at Crater Sulfur Mine and head directly to Eureka Dunes Dry Camp. There was not a soul camping at the first main site. There was also a major sandstorm blowing through! High winds and blowing dust made it rather miserable at the sites that have the pit toilet. Part of the group braved the wind to climb the dunes. Annette and I got a direct hit by a dust devil near the base of the dunes. I had sand driven into every crease and crevice. No more of that for me! I headed up the road to scout to see if conditions were any better, hoping there might be some shelter in the Dedeckara Canyon area. There were several deep sand pits on the road to the east of Eureka Dunes. With the wind, my Xterra was enveloped in a cloud of talc-fine dust when I hit the pits and sunk in. I got a few miles down the road and decided the conditions were not getting any better. I did find a camp site about a quarter mile off the road, up nearer the mountains though. It was still windy, but well away from the sand. I called out over the radio and had the group meet me there.
The winds stayed steady through dinner, but then dropped off. That patterned continued throughout the night. We would have long stretches of quiet followed by shorter times of intense winds. Tents had to be tied down well in the lee of vehicles or risk getting blown across the playa, contents and all. We made the best of it. Soon a roaring fire was going, dinner was passed around, and the alcohol served up to ease the misery. Honestly, it was one of the better nights for the campfire gathering.
Day 4, Sunday:
The original plan was to stay two nights at Eureka Dunes, doing a bit of exploring in the area before heading home on Monday. We awoke to storm clouds overhead which developed into a light rain by the time we had breakfast taken care of. A quick census of the group determined that a stay at a motel in Bishop Sunday night was the preferred option for the end of day plans. We packed up camp and headed out to explore the dunes further and then Crater Mine before we went out via Big Pine Road. The rain was pretty steady at the dunes, so we skipped that stop. Heading out on the road toward Crater Mine got interesting very quickly. There was still a light raining falling, which kept the dust clouds down. As the clouds pulled back a bit we could see that all the mountains of the Last Chance Range had a solid covering of snow! Flakes were falling as we headed up Hanging Rock Canyon. There was a couple inches of snow blanketing Crater Mine when we arrived. Who would have thought...snow in Death Valley!
We spent several hours exploring the mine site on foot, then taking the road out past the mine into the canyon beyond. Not much out there beyond the mine worth seeing really. There are some additional ruins, but the site along the main road is the most of it. The snow had stopped falling by lunch time and the skies were showing broader and broader patches of blue. We broke out the lunch fixings near some water tanks on a hillside. As we ate, the covering of snow quickly melt away before our eyes. By 2:00, all but the northern exposures were clear of snow. Fascinating!
After lunch, it was back down Hanging Rock Canyon and out to Big Pine Road. Partly well graded dirt, but mostly pavement all the way out to Hwy 168. Several of us were down to nearly empty after the 300+ miles since Ridgecrest. We had topped off in Panamint Springs and dumped 5 or 6 gallons into each of the vehicles along the way, but still burned a lot of gas on the miles exploring side trips.
If anyone is interested, I have a GPS trace of the trip I can send you. PM me through the forum, proving your direct email address I can send the GPX file to. I have hundreds of photos from the trip, so it is going to take some time to process. I'll pull out the key ones later this week and post them out here when I get time. Likely this weekend given work commitments.