Trip Report: Death Valley Christmas

tomtaylz

Member
Hello! I am fairly new here. I actually ended up buying my rig from the classifieds of this forum and looked at @turbodb's excellently documented trips to provide guidance in planning my trip. Follow along on instagram at @SearchSeekExplore

Death Valley Trip:

For Christmas, my family lives in the UK and with my dog it’s not really practical to fly anywhere. I wanted to get out of the city, every city I have ever lived in turns into a sort of ghost town over the holidays and it feels like it loses some of its energy which makes it special.

Death Valley had come up in conversations with friends and I’d never been there before. The weather looked decent, dealing with averages, and I got to planning. Using Google Earth I plotted my route, allowing for plenty of time as I went around.

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With the plan down I decided to do a couple of small upgrades to my rig. I wanted to have a tablet which I could use for APRS, as well as loading on the data created in google earth to get GPS-like functionality. I could also use this as a general media device for things like Netflix or Kindle books. The previous owner already had spots for the RAM mounts - so it was an easy addition and with the pre-installed ham radio I was quickly up and using APRSDroid to broadcast my location/send messages.

I wanted add to for self recovery gear, I was doing this trip solo which was far from ideal if something went wrong, but it being Christmas week I was unsuccessful in roping people along. I bought two maxtrax and a “crazy beaver” shovel. I also added a “MountainHatch” to my trucks tailgate, this would make it easier to cook/prep meals if I did not have a dedicated table/campground.

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Last, I found a beta for Gaia GPS floating around for iOS. This added CarPlay support which my truck has. I made sure to download this on my iPhone, which would provide to be an awesome addition to the trip!

Day One

I got a late start, I wasn’t feeling well the night before, and originally had planned to leave at about 5am. When 5am rolled around I felt like crap - I went back to bed until about 9am and felt a lot better. By the time I was good to go, packing more gear than I probably needed, it was 11am but I was determined to make a move on. I’m not going to claim the most precise of packing skills - I wanted to get on the road.


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Due to the late start, there was a lot of traffic. I got stuck in over an hour and a half of bumper to bumper traffic and it rained nearly the whole way. By the time I got to Bakersfield it was dark and I still had another approximately four and a half hours to go. I decided to check for hotels and got a pet friendly place for my dog and I for the night in Ridgecrest, about two an a half hours from furnace creek visitor center - rain was forecasted in Death Valley for Monday. I decided to set up a basecamp and lay low for Monday to see how the conditions would alter the trails I had been researching and getting reports from others about.

Day Two

I was up pretty early - it was raining so I wanted to wait for the light to hit the road in case of flooding or snow. There was a huge Walmart in Ridgecrest and I headed there for a few things I had forgotten or still needed. We headed out around 9.

Quickly going over a small pass I go a taste of the desert environment that would become very familiar in the coming days.

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Before long I was at the entrance of the park.

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This is not the Death Valley I was expecting…

Next, we had to go over the Towne pass to enter Death Valley. This pass is at about 4900 feet and it had started raining at the base. Unexpectedly it was snowing on the pass.

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I am not sure how often the pass is snowy like this, but it sure had me by surprise! Nevertheless, we kept going to Furnace Creek Campground where I had planned on spending the night.

An hour or so later, I was there! This campground is one of the few reservation campgrounds in the park - and I didn’t have one. I asked the ranger if there was any available and he said there was some walk up ones but recommended Texas Springs campground - a first come first serve campground across the way. I am glad I took that advise - the whole campground was no generators, and had a lower and upper section. The lower section I stayed in was tent sites only which kept it pretty quiet and it had some bushes which allowed for some privacy vs some of the parking-lot type campgrounds I had passed. Not bad views either! I was all set up by probably 1pm. It maybe was a less overland feel than others want - but being alone it wasn’t a bad spot to me.

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As I knew I only had light until about 4:30, with more rain coming, I decided to just go down some of the backcountry roads - get a feel for their condition and most importantly get some exercise for the dog. We went down West Side Road which we would quickly return to the following day. Man it was washboardy, I aired down just to save my spine! The first mile or so was pretty crowded due to there being a few pull off areas and salt which gave an effect almost like snow as well as beautiful mountain views. I explored for probably 45 minutes, turned around and found a pull of area to walk the dog along the road.

Dogs are generally not allowed on trails in Death Valley - but they area allowed along the backcountry roads so I used these a lot to get the dog some exercise a lot during the trip.

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Heading back to camp, it was raining, I had brats during a quick pause in the rain and read inside the tent (My tent is huge but it really worked well on this trip, I spent a lot of time inside due to spotty weather).

Jersey, my dog, quickly got comfy and we settled in the for night.

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tomtaylz

Member
Day Three

We woke up around 5:30 ready for the day -

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Due to the weather forecast my original plans were pretty much scrapped. I know I really wanted to do Butte Valley, and I decided to do it from the east as I was already over here. From there I would re access based upon the weather. I packed up camp and was on the road by 8 - there were a few things I wanted to see before leaving this area.

I headed down and saw badwater basin, I didn’t go far as I had the dog - not allowed on trails, but it was interesting looking up and seeing where sea level was on the cliffs.
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Zoom in on the white sign
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I also quickly got to devils golf course and natural bridge - although I could not go up to it due to having the dog with me.

From there I headed back to West Side road to begin my trip to Butte Valley, I was airing down to begin about 9:45am. It looked like a beautiful morning.

West side road was easy, flat no thrills dirt road, just washboard-y. I passed a few landmarks and cool ruins along the way and was quickly at Ashford Junction.


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After making lunch on my tailgate and taking a bit to stretch my legs - and make sure the dog got some fresh air, we were off up Warm Spring Road where the elevation started to increase. It wasn’t long up a still pretty easy road to reach Warm Springs Camp. I didn’t get out to explore the camp - there was another car there (although didn’t see anyone around) but took a few photos of the mine and moved on


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Continuing on, I really started getting to what felt like a remote area - seeing multiple groups of burros and a coyote which ran right in front of me. As the afternoon drew in it started to get more overcast.

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tomtaylz

Member
And then I started to enter Butte Valley and see the Striped Butte from the back side, with my destination the Geologist Cabin on the other side of the valley.
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Getting close to Geologist Cabin I saw that the flag was up - someone was at home. I met a father and son from Poland which I would later go to and chat with a couple of hours that night. Very friendly bunch - they had been in Geologist Cabin the 23rd-25th and heading to Vegas next. They had rented a Jeep Wrangler Sahara JL, he said it was brand new when he got it from the rental place and had been staying at various cabins around Death Valley

They were heading out to hike to the top of striped butte - I was heading to explore the other cabins while getting a shot of the striped butte in the brief bit of sun we had that afternoon.

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First, I went to Russell camp to explore around. It was a huge complex! Way to big for just me

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I decided to move on to Stella Camp by Greater View Spring, it seemed like a good size for just me - I had found my accommodations for the night and raised the flag.


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I set up my cot (glad I was off the ground - apparently quite a few mice) and unloaded the truck. I was planning on repacking the truck so I unloaded everything so excuse the mess.
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tomtaylz

Member
I took the dog for a walk around the backcountry roads before meeting the Polish back at Geologists for Christmas Eve dinner. Not a bad view!

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I left the cabin probably about 7:30 to drive the short drive to Stella - the valley had some sporty obstacles and occasionally lost traction so I always took it slow. I wanted to chill and do some reading and I was exhausted, after creating a fire in the wood burner I got an early night - it was cold at 4400 ft elevation.

Day 4

Jersey was not very settled during the night - not sure if it was the cold or rodents but we woke up a few times in the night until finally getting out of bed around 7:30 just in time to catch a sunrise
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I quickly packed up, I had planned to meet the Polish people one more time before we headed up for a Christmas breakfast. I took down the flag, made sure I signed the guest book. I left one of my beers for the next guest.(Fort Point KSA)

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Farewell Stella! You did me well

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We parted ways about 10, I took one more picture of the Butte in the sun, it really was amazing scenery and headed towards Mengel Pass, probably the hardest obstacle of the trip and one I was slightly worried about. I was glad that there was no snow the night before.

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It wasn’t long until I was at the pass, going up it really wasn’t bad at all although was a bit sporty, I locked the rear axle and 4L and crawled right up it, at the turn I got slightly off camber, but reversed, picked a new line and Mengel pass was quickly behind me with only a few new scrapes on my skids.

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The road after Mengel Pass to the Barker Ranch was decently sporty - I got out a few times to pick lines and check where the trail went. Beautiful terrain all around.

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tomtaylz

Member
Around noon I had reached Barker Ranch - it is famous for where the Manson Family was holed up and later arrested. Unfortunately, it had burned down in 2009 so it was mainly rubble. I figured this was as good a time as any to grab lunch.

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With day light ticking - I decided to keep moving towards Ballarat until I reached Lotus mine - my first real mine so I took my time to get out and explore.


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tomtaylz

Member
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Continuing down to the Valley floor - the trail began to weave through canyons.

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And then turning into the valley floor where I saw a lot more Burros
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Before arriving at Ballarat mid afternoon on Christmas Day - I wasn’t too impressed by the town - it felt a bit like a made tourist trap. I didn’t stay long but gave the recommended donation and took some photos

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Before Ballarat, I had not seen another vehicle on the trails in the last two days. The remoteness was a bit spooky and I think doing it again I would do it but I was glad to have done it, it was my favorite part of the trip.

Wanting warmer weather and to be back on the Death Valley part of the Valley I headed back onto paved roads and back to Texas Springs Campground which would become my home base - I actually ended up in the same spot that I did on the first night, and I am glad I did this!

edit: When I mention I would bring another rig in this context, I mean bringing a friend and going as a group - the truck handled everything great but it is always a good idea to not wheel alone when possible.
 
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tomtaylz

Member
Day 5

Coyotes were howling at night - they must have been close to the campsite which had me up a fair bit in the night.

We got a lot of rain! The valley itself was getting dumped on and the park had issued a winter weather warning. Not wanting to go to high elevation - and after a long day of driving, I wanted to get the dog some exercise and to stay on the valley floor. I decided to explore Cottonwood Canyon behind Stovepipe Wells, it was on my original plan and fairly low altitude. I drove to Marble Canyon and decided to go for a walk in the rain along the backcountry road with the dog, we hiked for about five miles.

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We then journeyed into Cottonwood Canyon - it got sportier and sportier as it went on. I didn’t quite get to the end as we were quickly running out of daylight but we got to see how the terrain changed as we went on. It rained all day.

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As I got back to stovepipe wells, I noticed that the park rangers were stopping people, they had chain control over the mountains due to the amount of snow at high elevations - I’m glad I stuck to lower elevations! I didn’t see any other vehicles all day on these trails.
 
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tomtaylz

Member
Day 6

The winds had picked up with the storm moving out and we were getting pretty heavy gusts. The temperature was warm, in the high 60s and I decided to take a chill morning. I’m glad I did because as the winds got really strong I decided to put all the guy lines on my tent to really make sure it didn’t go anywhere.

Views from the campsite, lots of snow in the mountains!

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My campground neighbors had never shown up the night before and were due to checkout that day, I let the volunteers know and when the checkout window came and went, I gave a statement to a park ranger. They suspected they probably got stuck somewhere with the snow restrictions. But around one when I did all I could do, I headed up to the racetrack.

When I got to Ubehebe Crater, it was 27 miles more miles of an easy road to the racetrack. I was not expecting snow along the road - I am curious how often this happens!

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Joshua trees in the snow

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Over the small pass, I came down to Teakettle Junction. This junction allows you to go either over hunter mountain or to the racetrack. It was only 6 more miles of some of the worst washboard Roads of the trip.

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The racetrack was flooded from the recent rains but it was still beautiful scenery to behold as I was quickly running out of daylight

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This was by far the most traveled route of the trip. I saw multiple other vehicles even in the dark when I was returning and even a gladiator pulling some sort of overland trailer. It was about 5:30 when I got back to the crater and was airing up - it was freezing - and 7 by the time I returned to camp for a very windy night! The campground neighbors had returned - they kept to themselves so I didn’t ask what had happened. It being my first clear night since I got to Death Valley, the stars were amazing. I was able to capture them with just my phone.

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tomtaylz

Member
Day 7

My last full day at Death Valley and I was tired! I had a friend from work stopping through the park, and I was determined to have just a chill day. After walking the dog down the main bike path, the wind had really died down and it was sunny, making it the best weather day of the trip. I relaxed and read all day, it actually turned out to be very pleasant with a beautiful sunset.

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I knew I needed an early start to beat traffic, I didn’t want to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper on the 5 again. I packed up all but the gear I needed for sleeping and went to bed around 9 with an alarm set for 5am.

Day 8

I quickly packed up my remaining sleeping gear, the tent and was on the road at 5:45 heading back to San Francisco. As the sun came over the mountains it created a beautiful sunrise. I got home around 3pm after a long day on the road!

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Drew Nelson

New member
Thanks for sharing! Planning a trip to Death Valley myself, how remote some of it gets is a little intimidating so I appreciate the info and conditions. Glad you had a good trip!
 

tomtaylz

Member
Great trip report, thanks for posting it. Looks like the truck handled it well. How is the diesel to live with?
I love it - for how I drive I think its great, I'm not super heavy on the accelerator. It's one of the best transmissions I've driven with cruise control - does well just cruising up hills and it sort of transmission breaks itself coming down the hill. I normally end up around 25mpg highway which gives me a lot of range (one of the reasons I chose diesel) and have had no issues so far.

Truck performed like a champ, first big trip with it and was very grateful for the creature comforts - I came from a Jeep Wrangler TJ
 
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tomtaylz

Member
Nice trip report and thank you so much for sharing. Sounds like you did a lot despite some serious rain.
Yeah the weather was all over the place! I'm glad I had done enough pre-planning where I was pretty confident in what I could do given the changing conditions. The wind was really nasty too as the storm left, kept me up a few hours the one night.

Thanks for sharing! Planning a trip to Death Valley myself, how remote some of it gets is a little intimidating so I appreciate the info and conditions. Glad you had a good trip!
Let me know if you have any questions! Yeah Butte Valley is interesting in that way - if something went wrong you'd be a bit of bother as there was just no one on those trails. For me I didn't struggle on any obstacles though and was taking it slow because of my dog. I just locked my rear and crawled right up Mengel Pass no issues besides some scrapes. It didn't help reading about the "Death Valley Germans" at Geologist Cabin.
But planning, having a satellite communicator and/or ham, recovery gear and appropriate repair items is all you can really do unless you have a buddy you can drag along.
 

AbleGuy

Too Much Fun Club, founder
[QUOTE="tomtaylz, post: 2722565, member: 207806
.........Before Ballarat, I had not seen another vehicle on the trails in the last two days. The remoteness was a bit spooky and I think doing it again I would do it with another rig but I was glad to have done it, it was my favorite part of the trip.
[/QUOTE]

Spooky. No kidding!

Only wild burros, coyotes and rain and snow,,,,,wet roads, cold nights, barren lonely landscapes......And no second spare with you either !

Wow, what a great, gutsy solo winter adventure. I truly enjoyed your pictures and stories. Thx mucho for sharing it with us house bound, armchair adventurers.
 
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