Camping · Hiking · Trip Report

Trip Report: Death Valley 2016 Part 1

At the beginning of 2016 we took a week-long trip to Death Valley National Park. It was our first visit to this enormous park, but we fell in love almost immediately. We are planning another trip in the winter of 2017, but that doesn’t seem soon enough! To satisfy my Death Valley cravings in the meantime, I put together this trip report to hold me over until the winter desert season arrives!

Our trip began the day after Christmas 2015. We got up early (as early as we could with a 2 year old and 11 month old) and were on the road by 8:30am. The kids did amazingly well with the drive- all we did was make one stop in Kramer Junction for lunch, and otherwise we drove continuously for about 5 1/2 hours to Furnace Creek.

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A nice view from our Texas Springs campsite.
We found a sheltered campsite in the Texas Springs campground, with a few prickly creosote bushes for wind protection. The wind blew strongly almost evening, and it made setting up our tent difficult. The kids were tired and crabby after the long day of travel, but we managed to keep everyone relatively happy by setting up our beds in the tent as soon as we arrived and making a hot dinner. By the time we finished up dinner and got the kids to bed, the stars are out already and a cool breeze lulled us gently to sleep.

Day 1- Zabriski Point, Dante’s View, Greenwater Valley & Gold Valley Mining Sites

As we began our first full day in the Valley, we stopped at the visitor center to check the weather report and get some maps, and then headed first to Zabriski point. This stop is a tourist trap full of people and buses, but the overlook to the colorful mud hills was nice and the paved pathway was very kid-friendly.

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Iconic Zabriski Point
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Next stop was the windy road leading up to Dante’s View. The babies were both sleeping by this point in our drive, so Z and I took turns walking around the overlook while the other stayed in the car with the kids. At the top was a spectacular view out over the salt flats of Badwater. It was also incredibly cold! I could have walked all the way down the path to a butte but I decided it wasn’t worth freezing this time.

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Dante’s View

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The view towards Badwater.

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There’s the knob I didn’t hike.
We were both feeling kind of constricted by being around so many other sightseers, so we decided to head down the continuation of Dante’s View Road into Greenwater Valley and check out the old mining sites in Gold Valley. As we flew down the washboard road, we sailed into the quiet remoteness that we so love.

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Entering Gold Valley.
Once we entered Greenwater Valley, we were completely alone in the vast landscape. After driving 17 miles, we took the spur road west into Gold Valley, where the terrain seemed almost alpine in character- low, scrappy vegetation and rounded, rolling hills with jutting rocks at their heights. The area enjoyed a very short life as a mining destination, but many of the prospector’s exploratory ‘scrapes’ were still around. We took the Gold Valley road all the way to Willow Springs, where the foundations of an old structure were still there, as well as a nice growth of golden brown willows surrounding the spring. Everything about the terrain sloped westward toward Death Valley.

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The roughest part of the trail we encountered in Gold Valley.

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Time for a drink at Willow Springs.
We decided to head back the way we came to our camp (about 30 miles) instead of trying to make a loop in either direction, which would have been closer to 60 miles no matter which way we went. Mileage in Death Valley is huge!

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Day 2- Desolation Canyon, Artist’s Drive, Ashford Mine

On our second day, we did a few shorter hikes in the Furnace Creek area and then did a long drive to the southern end of the park.

We started off with a hike up Desolation Canyon, which lies just south of the popular Golden Canyon trail. We have noticed that the pattern here is that the majority of people only stop to look at what looks interesting from the car. I worried that by parking our car at the trailhead for Desolation Canyon, people would follow us to see what we were looking at! Fortunately, what we were headed for was quietly out of sight.

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The trail for Desolation Canyon starts in a wide wash that curves southward to the canyon mouth. The walls rise up high immediately upon entrance to the canyon, but with little or no elevation gain, the sandy path is easy to follow.

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The beginning of Desolation Canyon.
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We went to the second falls, where I felt I needed to stop. In hindsight, this 5′ falls was negligible compared to what we would climb later. I suppose that means we will just have to go back to Desolation later for another look.

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The second falls.
Next up we drove to the Artists Drive loop. At the first dip, we got out and hiked up the narrow canyon there about 1000 feet to the first falls, an 11′ wall of rock. Z and I took turns climbing sans children and peeking around the corner at the final chockstone obstruction, another 800′ for so up the canyon.

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Hiking up the “first dip.”

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Successful climb of the “first dip” falls!
Our final canyon hike was found at the second dip. This one began with a fun climb up a pink rock falls to get to the canyon. Someone had made a neat little camp just beyond the first bend in the canyon. This canyon was filled with more boulder pile and chockstone obstructions. We found our way up all of them, even a huge 25′ pile of rocks. I made it to the second-to-last wall and was ready to stop. Z went in just a little bit further to where the canyon opened up and the walls rose to over 300′ high! He took pictures for me while I stayed with the kids below.

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A big obstruction in the “second dip” canyon.
Getting back to the car, we continued on our way down Highway 78 past Badwater about 27 miles to the Ashford Mill site, where we picked up the road to Ashford Mine. The road here was extremely bumpy and rocky, and by the time we began our way up to the mine the sun was already beginning to set. I didn’t read the route description in my guidebook closely enough, so I thought the road went all the way to the mine, but it does not. By the time we got to the end of the drivable road, we were looking at 2 miles more of hiking to reach the mine complex. Since we were already losing light, we decided to head back to camp for the day and revisit Ashford another time.

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Losing light up near Ashford Mine.
There were two coyotes just sitting in the middle of the highway as we drove back. They stayed in the road long enough to make us slow down and then scattered. We figure it must be their scheme for getting handouts from tourists.

As we drove, we could see rain and snow pouring down on the Wildrose Mountains across the valley. We had wanted to take the West Side road on the opposite side of the valley back to camp, but it didn’t seem like such a great idea with so much water falling down from higher elevation. The storm never did make it to the side of the valley we were on, and for that I am grateful. When we opened up the car back at camp, we discovered that Max had spread applesauce across his entire body and all over his car seat. The things that happen while camping with kids!

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