On Thursday, February 23, Sean and I began our Death Valley National Park adventure by boarding a flight from Chicago O’Hare to San Diego. It had been a long week for me, with a major meeting that I had literally staged ending some three hours before our flight, and getting away to the desert to clear my head was just profoundly inviting.
On the ground in San Diego, Andrew was waiting in the terminal. We picked up our packs and headed across the street to the lot where he had parked his Jeep. San Diego International is on San Francisco Bay and quite close to downtown where Andrew lives. I hadn’t been to San Diego since visiting the San Diego Zoo as a child. As we drove over, he gave us the lay of the land, explaining the layout of the city and its downtown. It was the sort of thing that I geek out about pretty hard, so Andrew’s tour was pretty great.
At Andrew’s condo, Sean and I sort of exploded our gear as we switched things out from airplane travel to getting ready for camping. Andrew had done the leg work of getting dehydrated meals and camp stove fuel, so we had no need to stop at a gear supplier like usual. Eventually, Sean went to bed, and Andrew and I stayed up talking for a while. It was fantastic to see him outside of family holidays in Michigan.
Next morning, Friday, February 24, we loaded up the Jeep before heading to Hash House a Go Go for breakfast. On the way, we passed through Balboa Park, and my memories of San Diego were confirmed.
It was a bright, somewhat chilly day as we began the five-hour drive to Death Valley National Park.
Near San Diego, recent rains had caused most of the chaparral to be green and brushed with California Poppies. Andrew said that there were flowers where he’d never seen them before.
In San Bernardino we stopped at Target and for groceries before crossing Cajon Pass over the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains. The hills beyond the parking lot of the grocery store were lush and green.
Up and over the pass, we entered the Mojave Desert and saw our first Joshua Trees. Shortly we exited I-15, and headed north on 395. Since Death Valley National Park is so vast, we needed to to have a plan of attack for arriving and departing. We’d decided that morning to enter the Park from the southeast in the Panamint Valley and eventually exit to the west, making something of a big loop.
At Johannesburg we left 395 as it stretched north/northwest along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada. We instead headed north/northeast along Trona Road.
Our route took us instead into the Searles Valley. All the while we were listening to Reggae bands that Andrew had on his phone. The relaxed beats would give us a pace for exploring the desert over the coming days.
In Trona, we stopped for gas. Across the valley we occasionally heard booming from the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.
From Trona, we continued north and left the Searles Valley over the low pass between the Argus Range and the Slate Range. Then we descended into the Panamint Valley. Panamint Vally trends north-south and is sixty five miles long and ten miles wide. It is bounded by the Argus Range on the west and the Panamint Range on the east. On the other side of the Panamints is Death Valley. Upper Panamint Valley was added to Death Valley National Park when it was expanded and upgraded in 1994.
We were still not yet in Death Valley National Park, but we could see it in the form of the protected crest of the Panamint Mountains.
As we drove along, the Park boundary ran in a diagonal northwest along the slope of the mountains to meet the road.
We passed Wildrose Canyon Road, which led into the Park and the high country of the Panamints, but which was closed due to a washout.
Although the Park boundary had flanked the right (east) side of the road for some miles, it wasn’t until we were three-quarters of the way north up the Panamint Valley that the boundary crossed the road, and we officially entered Death Valley National Park, Sean’s and my twenty-third National Park, and the first time I’d been with Andrew in a National Park since Yosemite in July 1993.
With our stops for supplies, the drive had taken just about six hours, and it was now 3:30pm.
From here, it was about forty minutes to the closest NPS ranger station at Stovepipe Wells. Instead of heading there, we opted for the first must-do hike on our list, Darwin Falls, which was only twenty minutes away.
At Highway 190, we turned left and headed west into the northern reaches of the Argus Range and almost to the western boundary of the Park. After the tiny rest stop of Panamint Springs (an assemblage of buildings comprising a resort dating to the early twentieth century and now an inholding in Death Valley National Park), we turned south onto a dirt road that led to the Darwin Falls trailhead.
From the parking area, the hike up Darwin Canyon to Darwin Falls is about one mile. A two-mile out-and-back hike to a waterfall in the desert would be a perfect introduction to Death Valley National Park.
At about ten minutes to four, we set out to the southwest up the broad wash of Darwin Canyon. It was a gentle hike at about 3,000 feet above sea level. The sun was already setting somewhat earnestly, creating striking shadows and silhouettes.
It felt very good to stretch our legs on our first hike in the desert.
Tiny Panamint Springs gets its water from Darwin Creek, via a pipe system that carries the water down to the settlement.
The canyon turned west and narrowed, with the trail following the right hand side of the creek.
A slapdash looking concrete bridge offered passage across the creek.
From this point, the trail became somewhat difficult to follow through the mud and undergrowth, in part because of the recent rains, which had likely caused some flooding of the creek. Some other hikers whom we’d overtaken eventually gave up before reaching the falls.
A babbling brook was not the likeliest candidate for a first video from Death Valley National Park, but that is the surprise and variety of the desert.
The trail appeared and vanished multiple times. Sean and I looked for a route uphill, while Andrew recrossed the creek and found a way on the other bank.
All the time, the blue and green of the water of Darwin Creek spoke to the grays and turquoises of Darwin Canyon.
And then after a particularly narrow section, we were there.
Darwin Falls, about twenty-five feet high, is exceptionally beautiful, falling in a lovely ribbon of water forked near the bottom by a triangle of stone. The water fills a deep pool before spilling over and beginning its journey down the canyon as Darwin Creek.
Andrew had found a way up to a ledge some fifteen feet above the pool. Then he backtracked and joined us on the sandy area near the pool.
We three were not alone at the falls. A couple was there smoking pot as we arrived. There was a feeling that we had interrupted them in some sort of carnality, but they simply kept toking until we left.
Although we didn’t leave immediately. The falls were too lovely not to gaze at and enjoy for a while. We also were sort of waiting for the couple to start back in that unspoken understanding at special places like this at a National Park where you have your time to yourself and then relinquish the place to those who follow you there, and they relinquish it in turn.
The pool and falls were so lush that they supported an array of ferns and even a hanging garden.
Pricked into action by the setting sun, we bid the falls farewell and headed back the way we’d come. We didn’t want to linger too long since we still needed to find a place to lay our heads for the night.
Back at the trailhead, we noticed an old abandoned mattress near the parking area. We joked that the couple could always use that for whatever they were going to get up to if need be.
The hike had taken just about one hour.
Back in the Jeep, Andrew pulled out of the parking area and couldn’t resist the extension of the road that led steeply up over a boulder-strewn grade. The road was signed as experienced four-wheel drive only.
So truly, how could we resist.
The road led quickly up steep, gravelly, and potholed switchbacks into the Darwin Hills. Now, I am somewhat afraid of heights, particularly in a moving vehicle, particularly when I’m not driving. But Andrew’s skill on this unkept, guardrail-less road left me completely comfortable. In Andrew’s capable hands, I wasn’t nervous at all on a road that would have usually made my stomach flip over. It wasn’t until later lying in the tent and imagining our drive from the perspective of a bird, that my stomach finally turned over.
The road led us up out of the shadows engulfing the Darwin Hills to glimpses of sun on the upper portion of the Argus Range and Panamint Valley far below.
We stopped when we came upon the ruins of an abandoned mine. Was it an old zinc mine? Andrew pulled over and we climbed out into the cool, clear air. We weren’t actually sure if we were still in the Park. The road we were on led out of the Park, but we didn’t know the exact boundary.
We spent a few minutes poking around the mine ruins before continuing up the slope on foot.
At the top of the slope, we were treated to an impossible view of the Cottonwood Mountains in the Panamint Range as shadow inexorably moved up their western slopes from the Panamint Valley. We also got a glimpse of the Panamint Dunes at the northern end of the valley.
After taking it in, we returned to the Jeep. We needed to find a place to camp, and it couldn’t be here at a Zinc Mine in the Darwin Hills.
On our way back down the road, there was a moment when we began skidding straight toward the drop-off as the road turned to the right. But even then Andrew was in control and knew what to do, and I still didn’t feel nervous.
We reached the bottom, passed the parking area for Darwin Falls, continued on to Highway 190, turned right, and dropped into the Panamint Valley in time to see the end of the alpenglow on Telescope Peak at the top of the Panamints.
It was getting dark fast. The highway led to Stovepipe Wells on the other side of the mountains, but by the time we got there, the ranger station would likely be closed anyway. We had expected to arrive in the Park, check-in with a ranger, and ask about backcountry camping, but that wasn’t going to happen.
The areas closed to camping were clearly marked on the topo map, and the rules about how far off-road you could park were also plain. So I suggested that we turn north off 190 onto a dirt road that led past Lake Hill toward the trailhead for the Panamint Dunes. We did, and almost immediately saw some other vehicles parked along the road with tents. So that at least seemed to confirm that we were right about the area being open to camping.
We continued on. The road was flat as it worked its way up the valley to the east of the level playa, which actually had some water on it because of the recent rains. After about five and three-quarter miles, at least a couple miles past where any other vehicles were parked, the road led east up a slope. Although the map indicated that it kept going, it deteriorated pretty quickly. Since it was now completely dark save for our headlights, Andrew laboriously turned the Jeep around, and we headed back to a nice level spot along the road about five and a half miles north of 190. It would be our home for the night in the expanse of the Panamint Valley.
We set up our first camp while having some wine. Andrew had brought along a very cool collapsable table, which served as a place to lay out food and make dinner. We chatted about and compared gear as we unpacked. We each ate more of our fair share of dark chocolate covered almonds, which became the major food staple of our trip. But we still had room for brats and mac and cheese for dinner.
The darkness intensified with no manmade lights visible save for the slight twinkling of Panamint Springs far across the valley to the southwest. The occasional car on 190 was supernaturally bright even so far away. But soon there simply weren’t any cars passing through the valley.
The darkness deepened and the Milky Way lit up the sky. There were so many stars that it was hard to see the constellations because of all the background noise of stars not usually visible.
Even so, we were able to see the glow of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Fresno on three of the horizons. The only absolutely dark horizon was to the northeast across the Nevada desert.
We identified Venus and Mars and Gemini, Cygnus, Canis Major, and, of course, Orion, among many others. Most intriguing, though, were the clusters like smudges on the sky that, even through simple binoculars, we could see were clusters of thousands of stars.
As we wound down our stargazing to prepare for bed, a Kit Fox passed quickly by just to the south of camp. I saw the little fox as it caught the edge of the beam thrown by my headlamp, but unfortunately, the guys didn’t see, and then the little fox was gone into the night.