Christian Kemp's USA travelogs

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Bad weather on the approach to Death Valley from the south I can't say if I slept better in the hotel room than the previous three nights in the Commander... but it certainly was nice to be able to take a shower in the morning. Since I had woken up at around 5:30am, this meant that even though I took my time getting ready, I was still checking out of Whiskey Pete's at around 7am.

First, I had checked the tire pressure on the rear right tire - only 15psi instead of the 35 it should have. Definitely a slow leak, then. Since I doubted that there was anyone in Primm that could have fixed that tire on the spot, I decided that rather than driving to Death Valley via the shortest possible route, I would instead detour to Baker; where I was pretty sure there'd be a tire repair service. I wasn't too concerned with the tire losing more pressure on the way there - barely half an hour on the Interstate - since I had still filled it with air at the Chevron station; and either way a major thoroughfare would probably be one of the better places to have a blown tire, if it came to it.

I arrived in Baker just before 8am, and drove up and down the main street looking for a garage of some kind. There were three that I could see - one looked deserted, the other had all kinds of junk cars and other trash in front, and at the third one two guys were just rolling out racks filled with tires out of the garage. Looks like I'd found what I was looking for. I pulled up, briefly explained my problem, and was told to pull the car into the garage. We'd agreed that if the damage to the tire was minor, they'd patch it up; but if it was major then I'd rather need to sort things out with Alamo. As it turned out once the tire was removed and water inserted, there was only a small puncture that could easily be patched.

While the young guy fixed my tire, the old guy talked to me. He asked where I had stayed - apparently in Baker, for the past three and a half years, somebody had been going around vandalizing cars, going as far as (allegedly) loosening nuts and screws. But since my tire damage hadn't happened in Baker that wasn't the cause for me. The conversation was pretty one-sided - the guy basically talked without asking any questions (not even the almost customary "where are you from" that invariably seems to be asked once people hear my accent). Pretty soon, my tire was fixed, I paid $20, and was ready to go again.

This was a pretty good time to get my (almost customary) one warm meal for the day, since there wouldn't be much opportunity for that afterwards. I settled on boring fastfood fare, a breakfast meal at Burger King. Thus refreshed (which is a cliche beginning for a sentence if I've ever seen one) I set out North, heading into Death Valley and uncertain weather.

My first stop was in Ashford Mill - earlier than that, I had already crossed some rain clouds. At Ashford Mill - which is just a roadside ruin compromising of nothing but a few skeleton walls - I consulted by Death Valley bible ("Hiking Death Valley by Michel Digonnet), which mentioned Ashford Mine which was just 2.8 miles by road and another 2.1 miles by foot away.

The road there would be unpaved and possibly pretty rough, and I debated for an instant whether to take it. But in the end, I decided that the potential risk was manageable, and set out on the road, doing a slow 10mph at first but then further reducing my speed as I went along. The last 0.8 miles were pretty rough, not because the driving required any particular skill but because there were lots of stones and loose rocks on the trail (to label it a "road" would be an overstatement). If there had been any easy way of turning around on this last segment, I'd probably have done so; but since there wasn't the best solution was to keep on driving at a speed that I could probably have walked at.

When I arrived at the end of the road, there were already two cars there: one Cherokee with off-road tires, and a lifted Wranger also with off-road tires. Clearly, I was the odd one out with my puny winter tires. I passed the driver of the Cherokee just a few hundred feet into the trail (on his way out), but never saw the occupant(s) of the Wrangler.

The trail would follow the old mining road at first, then a trail would circumvent 0.3 miles of the wash (where there were some dry falls) but for the most part the hiking would be in the wash. While the weather had been pretty bad at first, with rain clouds hanging over me, it gradually cleared up, and at times there was even some sun. Since there was quite a bit of wind, I still never got all that warm - temperatures were pretty much perfect.

Abandoned buildings at Ashford Mine in Death Valley National Park The hike up still took some time - it was almost 2 miles and about 1300 feet of elevation, so that's understandable. I had to scramble up a few dry falls, but they were never higher than my waist and thus easily climbed. Once at the mine, I explored the three buildings; and then decided that this would be the end of the trail for me.

The way down went considerably faster than the way up - possibly because I was taking fewer photos, maybe because it was downhill. Or maybe I just wanted to get into the car and have those 0.8 miles of rocky road behind me with all four tires intact. I wanted that so bad that I even neglected to turn off the GPS once I arrived at the car, or write down any of the details of the hike; as such any numbers are educated guesses.

I slipped the Commander in 4WD-Low, pretty hopeful that if I inched it down the first 1 mile at an easy and nice 2mph, that I would make it out okay. This was mostly okay, except for one big stone which got caught under the car probably as the springs gave way after hitting a small hole; and bumped against the underside of it two or three times as the car rolled over it and the stone rolled along. On a regular car this could very well have ruptured the oil pan or torn off something else, but the Commander seemed to withstand it. I drove on without stopping, and soon hit the easier part of the road. From there, it would be 2 more miles down to the paved highway.

Once at the highway, I realized it was getting pretty late already, and that I therefore could only have one more big destination for the day before sunset. I decided on a few small canyons alongside Artists Drive, because they'd be easily accessible without any more dirt road driving. So on Artists Drive, I drove for about 4 miles before reaching Dip #1, thus named because it was the first apparent dip in the road. To its right side I'd be able to follow a wash for a while. Unfortunately, this would turn out to be a short while only, because after just half a mile I reached a 25-foot dry fall that I did not dare climb. (I would probably have successfully made it to the top - there were enough small natural handholds, but coming down would have been a problem, especially since said handholds would have prevented just sliding down.)

Two chockstones block the way at the "Dip #2" slot canyon near Artists Palette in Death Valley National Park Back at the car and half a mile later, it was time for Dip #2 and the associated wash. This one was more spectacular than #1, required more scrambling and climbing, but was still manageable even by a novice rock scrambler. Its end for me was only after 0.75 miles, after some very nice dry falls, all delimited by some very steep and high walls on both sides. At this point, there was first a rock fall (which I was still able to scramble up on) but then there were two huge chockstones, the first one caught on top of a dry fall to boot) where I'd have needed to be a real climber, with real gear.

I turned around and walked back to the car. I still started exploring one of the washes near Artists Palette, but it had started to rain and daylight was already starting to fade, so I thought it silly to continue to the end, especially since this definitely wasn't up to the standard that #2 had set. It still rained for a bit, so all there was to do was head north. I'd decided to spend the night at Emigrant Canyon, a small campground I've spent a lot of nights already. On the way, I only briefly stopped to photograph a few wildflowers and the clouds that obscured the setting sun.

I arrived at Emigrant at around 5:15pm, just in time to claim one of the last spots. Neither the fighter planes practicing in the skies over Death Valley (for what - the next war?) nor my camp site neighbors talking had prevented me from getting to sleep not too long after 7pm, although I guess that the ear plugs helped.

Miles driven: 228mi (367km)

Accommodation: Emigrant Canyon Campground (Death Valley National Park): $0.00

Written Wednesday, February 20th 2008 at Emigrant Canyon Campground in Death Valley National Park