100 Days Journey: Part 2 – Glamis to Death Valley
After a three-day pause for some training in advanced dunes driving with the Barlow Adventures crew at the Imperial Sand Dunes (aka “Glamis”) the journey continues heading north to Nevada for a bit of exploring, before turning west into Death Valley where I meet up with some friends from the California 4-Wheel Drive Association to pre-run trails for an upcoming event. (Click through the images below for each day’s notes)…
Note this map provides an overview of the second segment of the journey–from the Imperial Sand Dunes to Death Valley via Laughlin, Nevada. The route on this map shows the overall direction of travel and key “stops” but does not include any detailed GPX tracks for backcountry trails, etc…
KEY LOCATIONS: Desert Waypoints
The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, located in the southeast corner of California near the border with Arizona and the Mexican state of Baja California, is the largest mass of sand dunes in the state. Formed by windblown sands of ancient Lake Cahuilla, the dune system extends for more than 40 miles in a band averaging 5 miles wide. Widely known as “Glamis” it is an off-road paradise, with an extensive open area for OHV use. The recreation area is part of the Algodones Dunes field which extends along a northwest-southeast line that correlates to the prevailing northerly and westerly wind directions. The name “Algodones Dunes” refers to the entire geographic feature, while the administrative designation for that portion managed by the Bureau of Land Management is the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. The dunes are now separated at the southern end by agricultural land from the much more extensive Gran Desierto de Altar, to which they once were linked as an extreme peripheral “finger”. The only significant human-made structures in the area are the All-American Canal that cuts across the southern portion from east to west and the Coachella Canal on the western edge. Most of the dunes located north of State Route 78 are off-limits to vehicular traffic due to designation as the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, while the area south of this road remains open for off-highway vehicle use.
Grapevine Canyon, a rocky canyon nestled in a range of granite mountains, is located on the Nevada side of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, near the town of Laughlin. The canyon sits in the shadow of the Spirit Mountain and is known for the many petroglyphs etched into its walls. During non-drought years the canyon contains a fresh water spring. This desert spring provides life-giving water to a variety of plants and animals. There are more than 700 petroglyphs adorning huge boulders and outcrops of granite throughout the area. While the petroglyphs extend deep into the canyon, the most significant concentration lies on both sides of the entrance, creating a portal-like impression. Most of the glyphs were created between 1100 and 1900 AD. The area was inhabited by the Mojave people, but who created the art, and why, remains unclear. Some speculate that the canyon may have served as a ritual location for summer solstice observations.
Laughlin, Nevada, is located on the Colorado River, directly across from the much larger Bullhead City, and is known for its gaming and water recreation. The townsite was established in the 1940s as South Pointe because of the proximity to the southern tip of the state of Nevada. The early town consisted of a motel and bar that catered to gold and silver miners, construction workers building Davis Dam, and fishing enthusiasts. In the 1950s, construction workers left, and the town all but disappeared. In 1964, Don Laughlin, owner of the 101 Club in Las Vegas, flew over the site and saw its tourism potential. He offered to buy the land, and within a few years, the small motel and casino, consisting of only 12 slots and two live tables, was bustling. Over the years several more hotels and casinos sprung up. Today there are nine hotel-casinos in Laughlin, attracting just under 2 million visitors annually.
Big Dune is a star dune complex lying about 100 miles north of Las Vegas in the arid Amargosa Valley. Big Dune covers five square miles with the tallest dunes standing between 300 and 500 feet high. Mostly used by locals, these relatively undiscovered sand dunes offer an ideal open OHV area for offroaders with dispersed camping permitted around the edge of the dunes. These dunes were formed by the wind blowing excess dirt from a bend in the Amargosa River, and they continue to move and change shape over time. This is a sacred place for the Southern Paiute and Numic Speaking peoples of the Mojave Desert. Sand dunes in general were considered living beings by the Paiutes because they move. Paiutes used to follow the Amargosa River’s path through the area between Pahrump and Beatty, and Big Dune features prominently in their songs and legends.
Death Valley National Park is the largest national park outside of Alaska. Near the border of California and Nevada, in the Great Basin, east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Death Valley is the principal feature of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve. This desert valley is one of the hottest places in the world. It is a landscape of extremes. With over 3 million acres of federally designated Wilderness it is possible to walk along majestic sand dunes, navigate twisted slot canyons, climb rocky peaks and stroll along salt flats. The variety of terrains offer everything from easy to very challenging adventures. The Grapevine Mountains and the Owlshead Mountains form its northern and southern boundaries, respectively, and the valley sits between the Amargosa Range on the east and the Panamint Range on the west. Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, is the point of the lowest elevation in North America.
KEY LOCATIONS: Death Valley sites
Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, is an expansive salt flat, devoid of obvious life, nestled between distant desert mountains. The salt flats here cover nearly 200 square miles, and are composed mostly of sodium chloride (table salt), along with calcite, gypsum, and borax. The low point is at 282 ft below sea level. Stories suggest that Badwater Basin earned its name when a mule belonging to an early surveyor refused to drink from the spring-fed pool near the present-day boardwalk. However, the water here is not truly “bad,” just very salty. The site once contained a large ancient inland lake, called Lake Manly, which evaporated tens of thousands of years ago. The lake had no outlet, leading to the accumulation of sediment and salt over time. When the water evaporated, concentrated salt deposits were left behind. Today, fascinating geometric salt polygons form on the flats as groundwater rises up through these deposits and evaporates. The pool and boardwalk are easily accessible from the parking lot off Badwater Road, but the best views of the salt polygons require an easy walk out onto the salt flats.
Mengel Pass is a mountain pass at an elevation of 1.314m above sea level located in the Death Valley National Park. The pass links Panamint Valley on the west end of Death Valley with Butte Valley on the east side. It is part of a favorite Jeep trail in Death Valley that leads to the Barker Ranch site where Charles Manson was captured by police. The pass is named after Carl Mengel, a historic prospector from the early 20th century. At the summit is a memorial monument of stacked rocks. Mengel settled in the area of Butte Valley and bought a mine claim in Goler Wash in 1912. He is said to have lost a leg in a mining accident but continued mining and living in the area for the rest of his days. Mengel died in 1944 and his ashes and prosthetic leg are said to be buried beneath the stone cairn. The road to the summit is a long, but scenic trail, and is generally easy driving, though there are heavily washboarded sections and some spots may be steep and rutted. The only really challenging part is on the pass itself which has some deep ruts and steep rock steps in a narrow tight spot.
The Barker Ranch, located inside Death Valley National Park, is infamous due to its association with Charles Manson and his “family”. It is accessible only by primitive and rugged roads. Bluch and Helen Thomason began construction of Barker Ranch around 1940. It was originally used as a storage and shop facility to support their mining activity in the area. The Barker family bought the property in 1956, and expanded the cabin into a larger house. In 1968, Charles Manson learned about the Barker Ranch and relocated his “family” there. Once the Mansons moved in, the ranch became one of the locations from which they planned a series of murders in an attempt to start an apocalyptic race-war, his “Helter Skelter.” But as Manson orchestrated the killings of nine people, his followers also conducted raids in Death Valley stealing dune buggies and vandalizing National Park property. It was these relatively petty crimes, not the murders, that led to the Manson family’s arrest. In 1969, a joint force of National Park rangers, California Highway Patrol and Inyo County Sheriff’s officers burst into Barker Ranch and dragged a crazed Swastika-tattooed man out from under a bathroom vanity. At the time they thought they were nabbing a group of local troublemakers, they were completely unaware that they had a mass-murder suspect and his followers. In 1976, the ranch became part of the California Desert Conservation Area. In 1994, it was incorporated into Death Valley National Park.
Echo Canyon is a jeep trail that starts 2 miles east of Furnace Creek Inn on Hwy 190. From the pavement the road runs northeast along the base of a low hill, then continues across the broad, open bajada towards the mouth of Echo Canyon in the distance. Dispersed camping is allowed after the first two miles, but campfires are not permitted. The trail is generally easy, but it gets more rocky 3 miles from the highway. The Needle’s Eye, a natural arch, is located within the canyon narrows. The arch looks like a hole in a thin fin of rock that juts out into the canyon forming a tight gooseneck turn. The trail curves east and continues up a broad valley with scattered mines and prospects on both sides. The main trail leads to the Inyo Mine. At the mine site there are the remains of several buildings, mine tailings and additional structures. The trail is typically run as an “out-and-back” route from the highway to the Inyo Mine. To do the trail all the way through to the Nevada side requires a short wheelbase 4×4 and an experienced driver due to the “waterfall” rock obstacle. That route takes a side road that climbs over a small saddle leading to Lee’s Camp and the Amargosa Valley.
Aguereberry Point, is a 6,300 foot peak, reached by a 6.5 mile unpaved track on the west side of Death Valley. Because of its westerly setting, this place is one of the best locations to photograph the valley in afternoon and around sunset. The summit is named for Pete Aguereberry, who was born in 1874 into a Basque family in France and immigrated to America at the age of 16 with the intention of discovering gold. He made it to California in 1905, and almost died trying to cross Death Valley in summer heat. After being nursed back to health Aguereberry found a ledge that contained some gold and filed a claim for the Eureka Mine. Aguereberry worked at the mine from 1907 until the early 1930’s when his health was failing him. To reach the area where Aguereberry lived and worked for over 40 years, take Hwy. 190 past Stovepipe Wells and up Emigrant Campground. Turn left following the signs to Wildrose. In about 10 miles there will be a turn off for Aguereberry Point. When you turn here you will come to the Aguereberry camp a mile down the road. At Aguereberry camp you will find Pete’s original cabin built in 1907. Around the corner is the site of the Eureka gold mine. And if you follow the road to the summit, you will reach Aguereberry’s favorite view of Death Valley below.
The Skidoo town site, at an elevation of 5,689 feet, is representative of the boom towns that flourished in Death Valley during the early 20th century. About half a dozen significant towns once existed in the area, all thriving for only a short time until the nearby mines were exhausted. Some like Darwin and Rhyolite are still partly inhabited, but nothing remains of Skidoo. The town’s livelihood depended primarily on the output of the Skidoo Mine, which operated between 1906 and 1917, producing about 75,000 ounces of gold, worth at the time more than $1.5 million. Two unique items are associated with Skidoo’s mining heyday. First the town possessed the only milling plant in the desert operated almost completely by water power. Second, the construction of the water pipeline was a phenomenal engineering feat; its scar can still be seen between its origin near Telescope Peak and the mill site. The old street grid is faintly discernible in a few places, now covered by the ubiquitous sagebrush. But the surrounding hills contain many mine entrances and associated structures – wooden cabins, headframes, iron machinery, old cars and, most visibly, the fifteen-stamp amalgamation and cyanide mill built by the Skidoo Mines Company, situated high in a side canyon near the edge of a steep hillside and sloping down 3,000 feet towards Telephone Canyon. The mill is a rare surviving example of an early 20th-century gravity-feed system for separating gold from its ore. The townsite and mining district are reached by an 8 mile unpaved road, generally fine for regular vehicles, which forks off Wildrose Road 9.4 miles from CA 190.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon, close to Furnace Creek and the “center” of Death Valley, is very easily accessible. The entrance to this short 2.5 mile one-way dirt road is just east of Zabriskie Point off CA-190. And the dirt road is usually fine for most cars, although those with very low clearance should check with the Ranger station on conditions. The scenic drive goes through colorful, eroded badlands that have been the setting for scenes from several popular films including Star Wars Episode VI. The best time to go is early morning or late afternoon when the light causes the erosion in the hills to become highlighted and shadowed, creating spectacular contrast, and superb photo opportunities. The name “Twenty Mule Team” references the famous mule teams that pulled massive wagons of borax from near Furnace Creek to the railhead near Mojave. The journey was a grueling 165 mile ten day trip across primitive roads. The teams became nationally famous due to a successful advertising campaign promoting 20-Mule-Team Borax Soap and the long-running Death Valley Days radio and television program.