Crossoverlanding Adventures - Death Valley, Hunter Mountains, and Saline Valley

LionZoo

Observer
Over Christmas, my family and I headed to Las Vegas and then Death Valley. Afterwards, I stayed for an extra two days to camp and hit some trails with my friends, who were joining me as my family was leaving.

Our plan had been to meet up in Baker and take Harry Wade Exit Route into Death Valley (back into Death Valley for me), where we would then stay for a night at a developed campground before visiting the Racetrack and camping on top of Hunter Mountain the next day.

I had stayed at Stovepipe Wells with family the night before I met up with my friends and had inquired to the hotel clerk about the condition of Hunter Mountain. The clerk shot me a quizzical glance and asked what I was driving.

"A Subaru Forester," I naively said.

"Oh I wouldn't go up there with that," he said. "There's a lot of rocks and ruts. It's probably torn up and hard to go through. If you get stuck it's $5,000 to get towed out. The snow level is 3,000 feet and Hunter Mountains is at 6,000 feet so it's very cold. It's probably muddy and snowy."

It was pretty obvious he was trying to convince me not to go. Okay then.

The next day, I met up with my friends and we were soon at the trailhead for Harry Wade Exit Route. The exit route would be our entry route into Death Valley.

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Our group consisted of three vehicles. My Forester, my friend's FJ Cruiser (yes, if you've kept up with my thread, you've seen it before), and my other friend's brand new Crosstrek. In short, a lifted FJ Cruiser and two stock Subarus on stock tires.



Harry Wade Exit Route was honestly very easy. It was really nothing more than a smooth dirt road that would be passable by passenger vehicles. The views were okay and there was only one spot that, from a driving perspective, was a bit interesting.

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Yup, a water splash.



Harry Wade Exit Route crosses the Amargosa River. Due to some recent rains, the river did actually have some water, despite California's severe drought. Nothing that even a normal car couldn't do, but still fun nonetheless. Past the river, we continued on the trail into Death Valley for some touristy spots.



The lowest point in North America.



And the weirdness that is Devil's Golf Course. We stayed at Devil's Golf Course until the sky was dark and then headed towards our campsite at Stovepipe Wells. If that location sounds familiar, it's because I had stayed there the night before. Stovepipe Wells also includes a developed campground across the street from the lodge.



It was a slightly chilly night at a little above freezing, but it would be nothing compared to the next night on Hunter Mountain. We were dressed for the temperature and made some hot food to warm us up.



A highlight of the night was the moon rising. Yes that's the moon in the picture, not the sun. When it first came up over the hills, it was just amazing. I had never seen anything like it before.



We ate and chatted for quite a long time around the campfire. I even got some work done, though the presence of a laptop at a campsite solicited some not so approving comments from the people next to us. We ended the night trying to roast marshmallows on coffee stirrer sticks. Spoiler alert: that's not a great idea.

At around 10, we turned in to get some sleep. The next day, the Racetrack and Hunter Mountain awaited us.
 

redcj3a

New member
Reading with interest.

I am very much, looking forward to reading more about this trip. My wife and I day hiked in this area just after the flooding this fall (2015.) We were in a rental sedan and limited as to where we could go. We flew into Vegas from Ohio and had a rental car.

We would love top go back with either my 4x4 GMC Sierra or our JK.

John
 

LionZoo

Observer
One thing about camping that's always a little bit amazing to me is how you just wake up naturally. I normally sleep in, but out there I get up shortly after dawn.



Doesn't hurt to wake up to this though.

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Packing up camp after breakfast. While my friends slept in tents, I slept in my Forester. Note that this is standard practice for us as a group. While they prefer the space and feeling of being in a tent, I prefer the warmth and security of being inside the car.

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My current sleeping setup for those interested. I added some foam padding to level the transition between the cargo floor and the fold down seats and really that's about it. While this setup is adequately comfortable, I probably would prefer a little more padding. A sleeping platform is in my future plans for the vehicle.



After packing up camp and headed a grand total of 1 mile down the road to the Mesquite Sand Dunes, another touristy spot. Then, we split off for a little bit. While my friends headed to Artist's Drive, I hung out at Furnace Creek for the privilege of paying for slow WiFi to send some files off for work.



We met up again at 1 pm to head off to the north side of the park. Racetrack Rd. was a lonely drive of about an hour away.



Racetrack Rd. is paved all the way to Ubehebe Crater. Ubehebe Crater was formed when magma rose and contacted groundwater, resulting in steam and a pressure build up that then blew up, scattering earth over many miles. The crater is a giant hole in the ground, but the colors and size make it look very impressive in person. It's also a little sobering to know that the crater is between 800 to 7,000 years old, which is not old at all in geological terms.



After Ubehebe Crater, Racetrack Rd. becomes a rather terrible washboard dirt road that feels like it's shaking your car to pieces. The FJ Cruiser was equipped with 33" tires and off road coilovers, so it went off ahead, leaving the two Subarus to convoy together. Those clouds look a little ominous don't they?



Our plan was to take Racetrack Rd. to the Racetrack to see the famous sailing rocks before then tracking back and turning onto Hidden Valley Rd. to go up to our campsite. Racetrack Rd. intersects Hidden Valley Rd. at Teakettle Junction. The first time we hit Teakettle Junction, it was already 4 pm and the sun was hanging precariously low in the sky. We decided to press on with the original schedule nonetheless, but the decision meant that we were gonna be on the trails at night. I hadn't planned on night trail driving until, at least, I had improved the lighting of my Forester. Oh well.



Another five miles of terrible washboard brought us to the almost unnaturally smooth Racetrack Playa. Over almost 3 miles, the elevation of the playa varies by only 1.5 inches!



A sailing stone. Weighing up to hundreds of pounds, these stone can nonetheless move on the playa. How they move is still currently debated.

With the sky almost dark, it was time to set off for camp. Once again, the FJ Cruiser went ahead and the two Subarus convoyed together. Five more terrible washboard miles and a right turn onto Hidden Valley Rd. finally brought some relief.

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In fact, the first few miles of Hidden Valley Rd. was quite enjoyable. Smooth flowing corners made us all felt like we were competing in a rally special stage. The lights added to the effect, conjuring up images of night stages of rallies long ago.

While we had a great time on the road, maps.me unfortunately failed us. The app had mismarked a portion of the trail and so we ended up at a mine instead of on our route. Navigating by feel, we backtracked and found the proper turn off half a mile from where the app had marked it to be.

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The trail then started gaining elevation pretty fast and rockier portions were soon mixed in. The two manual Subarus handled the section well, but we did go a little slowly. I didn't want my buddy to scratch up his beautiful new Crosstrek. I'm pretty sure in someone's book, doing trails in manual crossovers that lack low-range is the wrong way.

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It also started snowing (thanks clouds). At higher elevations, there was snow built up on the side of the road and my outside temperature display showed temperatures in the 20s. Camping was gonna be fun.

Due to our detour, we arrived at camp quite late. When we pulled in, a fire had already been started. However, the FJ Cruiser driver informed us that his wife wasn't a fan of the cold and blowing snow and so he had to split. Considering how miserable it was at the time, I couldn't say I blamed her. However, the FJ Cruiser was the most capable of our vehicles, and so we were now left with a bit less of a safety net.



Some of us also questioned whether we should stay, as the wind was blowing quite hard and the snow threatened to make the trail a bit tough for two crossovers with stock tires. While we were debating the decision though, I moved the Forester to form a wind block, the wind then stopped, and we were greeted by a gorgeous night sky. I guess that's decision made.



It was still terribly cold. The fire would be our main source of warmth, though proper sticks for roosting marshmallow did make things better. With temperature likely to drop into the teens at night, the summer tents of my friends just would not suffice. The Subarus would become our lodging for the night.
 

calicamper

Expedition Leader
LZ great share thanks! Fun read. Hey about your sleeping pad thing. I spotted a kid this summer in an old OB he was using a low profile backpacking cot in the back of the car. I thought it looked like an interesting idea. Gives you just enough height off the floor to level things out but keeps you low enough to still have head room. Worth a look. I did a double take when I saw his set up. Looked like a good idea.
 

LionZoo

Observer
I have seen that option and it looks interesting. I also have a small thin mattress just lying around in my house. It's flexible and might just be perfect so I'll give it a run next time.
 

LionZoo

Observer
We woke up to a clear, snow covered, and very cold morning.



Since we had three people, two of us slept in the Forester while the remaining person slept in the Crosstrek. The Forester was long enough that it could fit two people comfortably, both with their feet straight down. While the wind howled in the middle of the night, at least we were sheltered in the cars. In the morning, another fire provided some warmth in the freezing cold. Our temperature displayed hovered in the low 20s.

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In such conditions, we were quite sure we were the only ones stupid enough to have spent the night on the mountains. There was not a soul in sight and the realization that we were utterly alone, somewhere, on top of a mountain in the freezing cold, was a bit of a rush.

We hit the road around 10 am, two stock Subarus going down a snowy trail. With the removal of our FJ safety net and with white stuff on the ground, we weren't quite sure if we would make it down, but this was all part of the adventure.

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We soon found out that the trail quickly dropped elevation and, with it, the snow also started to recede. The trail was slightly rougher in places, but nothing unmanageable. And the views! Million dollar views were what we were missing out on in the darkness the previous night.

When we stopped to snap some pictures, I remarked that it sounded like there was a plane nearby, but my friends quickly explained that the sound I was hearing was the wind in the trees. And mocked me for being a city slicker for good measure.

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Did I mention that the view was really nice? Oh I did? Well, moments after I took that picture, a F/A-18 popped up over the ridge, did a barrel roll, and dropped down into the valley below. Which was just about the coolest thing I've ever seen. The unexpected surprise of it really contributed to the awe. (And I'm not that much of a city slicker after all. It was a plane!)

In the center of the panoramic picture, you could make out a three way intersection of sorts. That was where Hidden Valley Rd. met Saline Valley Rd. Our plan was to take the South Pass of Saline Valley Rd. back out to civilization.

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The Subaru ad like nature of our convoy was not lost on us. Neither was the utter filthiness of the cars.



Upon reaching South Pass, road conditions improved and, suddenly, after traveling a few miles, we were in a vast forest of Joshua trees. There seemed to be more Joshua trees here than Joshua Tree National Park!

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At this point, we all needed a shower and a shave and so we made good time down South Pass. That didn't prevent us from detouring to check out an abandoned mine though.



More Subaru ad pictures? Sure why not. The entire time down the mountain, we had not encountered a single other car. However, our friend in the F/A-18 must've flown something like 6-7 laps above us.

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That's not a UFO, that's just my best shot at capturing the plane!



The mine had some interesting things to see. It's funny how trash, once rusted, becomes objects of curiosity in our travels. I guess everything is a little cooler with some patina.



Not sure how old that drawing is.



Pretty sure those are bullet holes.



The mine had a guestbook. We left a message! By this point, I've had so much fun that I've totally planned to go back in the future to see how many others leave a message after us.

The mine took us very close to CA-190 and so, after our visit, we headed straight to the end of the trail.

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And with that, we aired up at the trailhead, bid adieu to a wonderful Death Valley experience, and headed out on the long drive back to LA. Until next time.
 

RIDGE

Adventurer
Cool report. I can't wait to start exploring Death Valley.

When I was out tooling around in the San Bernardino mountains one time, I saw 2 Subarus with 31" tires stuffed under them. It was pretty cool to see what they could do.

Have you messed around with air pressure for the washboard? In my van I go down to 15psi instantly, but in washboard I've started going down to 10psi and it makes a huge difference. In fact, I don't go to 15 anymore unless I'm practicing for rallies. Lol.
 

LionZoo

Observer
We were running about 25 psi for normal trails and 20 psi on the washboard. I'm sure we could go lower, but were being a bit cautious due to a lack of confidence in the street tires. Since the Subarus are so light, I'm sure they can take 15 psi easily.
 

1leglance

2007 Expedition Trophy Champion, Overland Certifie
great write up and pics....and good on you for getting out there even with work to turn in, no better office to have :)

keep the reports & pics coming
 

smlobx

Wanderer
Great report!
Since we are planning on going for the first time next month I was wondering if there is a place in the park to air up...
 

v_man

Explorer
There is a compressor at the Furnace Creek gas station , pretty quick one too. Bring your quarters...
 
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