After breaking camp in Panamint Valley, Andrew, Sean, and I drove to Death Valley proper, over a pass through the Cottonwood Mountains of the Panamint Range. It was 3pm on February 25 by the time we reached Stovepipe Wells in the shadow of Tucki Mountain. We’d been in Death Valley National Park for twenty-four hours already, but had yet to check-in, as it were, and inquire about backcountry camping or register as visitors.
We passed the campground, which, situated on the desert floor, sort of looked like an RV parking lot with tents. Seeing it, we were very glad to be camping in the backcountry. Already, the solitude it afforded had infected us and made us glad.
Stovepipe Wells has been a small outpost of lodgings and facilities for travelers since 1925, when the Stovepipe Wells Resort began as a set of tents in the desert. It was just at the moment when mining in the Death Valley region was beginning to give way to tourism. With its hotel, saloon, general store, and campground, Stovepipe Wells remains a stop for travelers today, a satellite of civilization apart from the bustle of Furnace Creek farther south in Death Valley.
After visiting the general store, we pulled up to the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station and went in. Andrew, as active-service military, was entitled to free admission to the Park, which meant, since it was based on automobile, we were all free. He renewed his military Park pass to hang from his rearview mirror.
Then, although we’d already been in the Park for the night, we inquired about backcountry camping. There was no need for a permit, but since so much of the Park is federally protected wilderness, we could not park any further than fifty feet from the center line of any road. Easy enough.
The Ranger indicated a few roads that were still closed because of washouts during the recent rains, as well as roads, such as Artists’ Drive, that were currently closed for construction. She asked us what kind of car we were driving because that would also limit which roads we could use. Andrew replied that we were in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. After a beat, the Ranger swept her arm across the map on the counter between us and declared, “Three and half million acres. The Park is yours.”
With that benediction, off we went for more adventure. Our destination was the Racetrack, and its mysterious moving rocks.
Shortly after Stovepipe Wells on Highway 190 we dropped below Sea Level.
As we drove along, we passed the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, easily accessible from the road with parking facilities and restrooms right at the edge of the sand. It made our adventures hiking to and from the Panamint Dunes all the more magical since we’d had them totally to ourselves.
At Scotty’s Castle Road, we left 190 and turned north up the northern half of Death Valley. The Cottonwood Mountains in the Panamint Range were to the west, and the Grapevine Mountains in the Amargosa Range were to the east.
Nearer at hand to the east were the colorful Kit Fox Hills.
Forty-seven miles north of Stovepipe Wells, we reached the Ubehebe Crater complex. Since it was getting on toward late afternoon, we decided to save the craters from these steam volcanoes for the following day.
After Ubehebe Crater, the road turned south and entered a long, higher elevation valley between the Cottonwood Mountains and the Last Chance Range. The road turned from two-lane highway to dirt and became Racetrack Road. The next twenty miles of road, steadily increasing in elevation, took over an hour to drive. It was graded in ridges perpendicular to the road, so the entire route was near-constant vibrations from the rapid bump-bump-bump of the ridges. It felt like some sort of deranged vibrating butt-massage chair. Some portions of the road were very winding and narrow, while others opened into vistas between the mountain ranges. Overall, it was magical as we climbed into the mountains through Joshua Tree forests.
As we drove along, we passed multiple little red Jeeps headed they other direction. These were clearly rentals. Later we would see the rental lot in Furnace Creek.
We only saw one campsite, fairly far north on the road. We knew that once we reached Racetrack Valley, we would not be able to camp since as a popular, if not readily accessible, section of the Park, it was off-limits to camping. We would visit the Racetrack the next morning, but we had determined to camp near it. I was taking mental note of possible campsites as we got farther south on Racetrack Road.
We also noticed that the temperature was steadily dropping as the sun lowered and we climbed higher. It was already in the low fifties and dropping rapidly from there.
We reached Teakettle Junction at the northern end of Racetrack Valley. From there, one route led down to Racetrack Playa and another led up and to the east into a higher valley. That valley, Hidden Valley, was our destination since it was open to backcountry camping.
The rough road wound through Lost Burro Gap in the mountains between Racetrack Valley and Hidden Valley.
On the other side of the gap, a large Black-Tailed Jackrabbit seemed to welcome us to Hidden Valley, over 4,000 feet in the Cottonwood Mountains, our remote home for the night.
The road descended in virtually a straight line toward some low hills about halfway down the valley and some seven miles from TeaKettle Junction. There we found a good, dry, level spot to make camp.
Night was upon us as we unloaded and set up camp. It was cold, already around forty degrees, which for perspective was probably the coldest it had gotten the previous night in Panamint Valley 2,000 feet lower.
We dined on freeze dried lasagna, appreciated the stars, and then climbed into our tents. It was too cold for lingering in the open air.
Now when Sean and I originally bought our gear for the backpacking trip to Isle Royale National Park that launched this adventure, Sean said that he never wanted to go camping in the winter. Despite our best efforts, though, we’d had several instances of cold camping that pressed the limits of our gear for warmth: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where it had reached twenty-seven degrees, or Grand Canyon National Park, where it had certainly come close to that.
Our night in Hidden Valley in Death Valley National Park hit twenty degrees. Andrew and Sean were fine. But even with two hot water bottles, I had clearly passed the limits of my gear. I was uncomfortably freezing and several times during the night toyed with the idea of climbing into the Jeep for warmth. By about an hour and a half before dawn, the coldest, darkest time of the night, I decided just to wait it out, shivering in my sleeping bag.
Over half an hour before dawn, I finally climbed out of the tent to have a look around and go to the bathroom.
Hidden Valley was cold. The air was crisp. The light was a soft glow. Everything was high desert predawn magic.
I wandered east away from camp and toward the center of the valley.
Sean was sound asleep in our tent. I’d heard Andrew stirring, but I assumed he was still in his tent. Then I noticed a figure on the top of the hill above our campsite. It was Andrew, taking in the morning.
I wandered back past camp and ascended the hill to join him.
Good morning, Andrew. It’s so good to be here with you in this magical place.
From our vantage point, we could plainly see what we had assumed the night before: there was no one else in Hidden Valley. To the east and south of the valley was the bulk of the bulk of the Cottonwoods. To the west, Racetrack Valley was off-limits to camping. And to the north, we’d seen no campers for at least twenty miles back up Racetrack Road. This meant that we were likely the only human beings for at least fifty square miles that night.
We wandered along the rocky ridge taking in the alpenglow of morning.
And then the sun rose.
Warmed by the sun, Andrew and I descended the hill and made that morning’s first pot of coffee.
When Sean awoke and joined us, we decided that instead of having breakfast right then, we’d instead go and see the Racetrack first.