Some Answers to Common Questions
- What was the plan?
Due to an injury I was unable to complete the trek that I had set out to do in December of 2004. However, I think the original plan is a good one and would like to give it another go sometime in the future. Briefly, my plan was to hike south from Mesquite Springs Campground in the north, stopping off at Stovepipe Wells for water. Then, continue south for a while, before crossing the Badwater Valley on an old corduroy road to reach Furnace Creek, where I could again fill up on water. Back across the Badwater valley and then south all the way to the junction of West Side and Warm Springs Canyon roads, where I would pick up a food and water cache that I had planted before hand. This is what I actually did, except that I hauled extra water from Stovepipe so that I would not have to go into Furnace Creek for more water.
From the cache, I had planned on hiking west through Anvil Spring Wash to the Butte Valley. There are no trails, but the topos that I have make this look very doable. From the Butte Valley, I was planning to follow a jeep track across Mengel Pass and through Goler Wash to reach the Panamint Valley, which is the first big valley to the west of Death Valley, and is outside of the national park boundaries, but still on BLM land. I then planned to hike due north, following the bed of a large, dry lake, stopping off at a ghost town called Ballarat before dodging northwest to get to Panamint Spring Resort, where I could fill up on water and pick up a food box that they had agreed to hold for me.
Unfortunately, from Panamint Springs Resort I saw no way except a road to get back to a desert track that I could take through the Last Chance range to get to my car. So, I had planned on either hitching or walking west on HWY 190 up to the Darwin plateau. Walking would be very dangerous, as in places the highway goes through canyons where there is almost no space (an inch or two) between the road and the canyon wall. Once on top of the plateau, I was going to hike cross country until Grapevine canyon, where I'd pick up an old trail (said to be mostly nonexistent by the park service) up the canyon and to Big Dodd Spring, then down and into the RaceTrack Valley. Up the valley, with a sharp right turn at Tea Kettle Junction , where some jeep tracks would lead me past White Top Mountain, and eventually to the start of Big Horn Gorge, which I was planning to take through the Last Chance Range. Big Horn Gorge comes out about 8 miles southwest of Mesquite Springs, so I would have a little backtracking to do to get to my car.
- Are there any guidebooks for such a thing? No, not really. There is very little information in books or on the web about long trips in the backcountry in Death Valley. However, there is a lot of personal knowledge out there and you have to go looking to find it. George Huxtable, aka Grubstake, has written a book on a traverse of Death Valley, although my route and his route are much different, and are after different things. George was of immense help in planning my route and his suggestions were right on the money. He helped me with the Anvil Spring route and with possible water cache information, along with many other logistical hints that I would never have found on my own. Moreover, his encouragement gave me added drive to do this trek and I was rather sorry not to be able to complete it. Grubstake is the head of the Death Valley Hikers Association, whose webpage you can find at: http://www.homestead.com/deathvalleyhikerasso/ Also available on the website is Grubstake's book.
- What was your favorite place? This isn't really a fair question and can't really be answered. However, I did like the Devil's Golf Course quite a bit, along with the Salt Cove and all the interesting salt formations that I found along the way. I really liked traversing through the sand dunes north of Stovepipe wells, and a one sided canyon that I found south of Mesquite Springs. There were some really cool plants along the way also. Oh, and there was the daily sunrise and sunset. And the stars. I also really liked taking naps under creosote bushes, which are the most common plant that one sees on the desert floor. There was also this cool crow out on the Devil's Golf Course. And, of course, I can't forget the faint smell of the desert. I suppose I could go on, but you probably get the picture by now.
- What about water? The first rule in the desert is to drink a lot of water. The second is to always know where your next water is located. Water in Death Valley is very simple. There isn't any away from man made sources. While not entirely true (there are a few springs which flow and at higher elevations you can melt snow), no hiker should go into Death Valley without carrying all water needed, plus a little extra for safety. How much water you need depends on your body, what you are doing, your comfort level, where you are going in the park, and, most importantly, when you are going. In December, the day time highs on the Valley floor were in the low 70s or upper 60s, although on salt flats the reflected light makes it feel a bit hotter. I found that 4.4 liters of water a day was enough for me.
I started with 4.4 liters of water at Mesquite Springs and hiked south to Stovepipe, where I filled up with 14.4 liters (my maximum capacity) for the roughly 60 miles to the junction of Warm Springs Canyon and West Side roads, where I had planted a food and water cache. One could easily cross the Badwater Valley to get to Furnace Creek and fill up there with water, thus alleviating some pack weight. I had originally planned to do this but changed my mind at Stovepipe, opting for a heavier pack, but less walking on the salt flats. The next man made water on my route was at Panamint Springs Resort, about 70 miles from the cache (estimated!), although the ranger I talked to before my trip said that there were flowing springs in the Butte Valley. However, the park has a large population of wild burros, and they tend to foul the natural water sources. So, if you do find a natural, non-saline source, you'll have to treat it, and get lucky.
There was probably enough snow near White Top mountain that I could have planned on melting water, but this seemed like more trouble than it was worth. So, the 70 mile stretch from Panamint Springs back to Mesquite Springs (again, estimated) would mean another 14.4 liters of water. I was told that water was available at Ballarat by several people, but this, probably, changes rapidly.
- How did you carry your water? I'm normally a big fan of either plastic water bottles (or soda) and of the soft, 2.4 liter Platypus water bags. However, because of how critical water was, I opted for a tough sided 10 liter MSR Dromedary bag, along with a 2 L Dromlite bag, and a 2.4 liter Platypus. I was trying out a prototype pack made by ULA, which had a large pouch inside the pack, directly against the pack, where I could jam the 10 liter Dromeday. This meant that the water was directly against my pack, rather than sloshing about. The other two water bags I carried in external pockets where I could get to them during the day.
- Did you use a GPS? Yes, this was my first trip with one. I carried a Magellan Explorist, which is the cheapest model that REI carried (about $100). While not critical for the trip that I did, I found it useful in the Valley for estimating distances traveled. For the trip that I had planned, I think it would have been very useful indeed. I carried a backup compass, but never used it.
- And maps? I used the National Geographic map to the park, which is big enough for the Valley sections, but not sufficient for the mountainous areas. I went to REI, where they have a computer topo kiosk. I made up 8 custom maps showing the routes through Anvil Spring Wash and Goler Wash in the south, and the cross country route past Big Dodd Spring and Bighorn Gorge in the north.
- What kind of permits did you need? One of the beautiful things about Death Valley is that there is no permit system of any kind for backcountry hikes. The entrance fee to the park is $10 per vehicle (cheap by the NPS standards), but I have an annual parks pass, so it was free for me. I filled out a voluntary solo-hiker form at the visitor's center at Furnace Creek, but that is mostly to assist Search and Rescue and to identify my body, if found.
- What are the regulations for backcountry travel? The same as at any other park, except for an injuction against camping within 2 miles of West Side road, which is a dirt/gravel track. I suspect the main reason for this is to keep people from driving out to the road and camping along it. As I was on foot, I saw no reason not to violate this rule, though I did try to keep my camps out of sight of the road. No fires are allowed in the park's backcountry, except for campstoves.
- What facilities does the park have? Wilderness in spades, for one. There are two free car campgrounds in the park. One is up at Wildrose, the other is at Emigrant, near Stovepipe Wells. Both are basic, but have water, picnic tables, and a place to through out a sleeping bag. The other campgrounds in the park are built up for RVers, and are comparable to the free ones. The pay campsites all cost different amounts, with the most expensive ones being those near Furnace Creek. I stayed for a night at Mesquite Springs, which cost me $10. They have a nice electronic registration system and you can use a credit card if you want. Furnace Creek is the main visiting area, and there is a resort there (complete with golf course), along with a restaurant, some supplies, and a nice Visitor's Center. Stovepipe Wells is the other big tourist area, although smaller than Furnace Creek. There is a resort (with swimming pool), small store, restaurant, pub, etc. That is about it in the park, although Scotty's Castle in the north is supposed to be better than expected.
- How far did you hike? About 90 miles, although that is a pure estimate. The GPS told me that it was about 80 miles, in a straightline, from my last campsite to my car. I did some weaving along the valley floor trying to find a reasonable track, so I think 90 miles is on the conservative side. I had planned on hiking about 240 miles, however.
- What was the weather like? Sunny and pleasant, with most of the day in the mid 60s or low 70s. Breezy. It was chilly (mid 40s, low 50s) in the early morning. The sun would come up around 6:30 or so, and would go behind the mountains at 4 pm. I had usable light until around 4:40 and generally stopped hiking ten or fifteen minutes before that so I could get a choice spot. Once the sun went away, the air temperature began to plummet. Overnight, on the valley floor, it never got colder than the upper 30s or low 40s.
- Did you bring a tent or a tarp? Neither. I did pack a bivy sack just in case, particularly as I was planning on being at higher elevations, in the mountains, during the trek. Snow was on my mind, so I opted for the bivy sack, rather than my original plan of packing a double sized groundcloth.
- What kind of camera did you use? I carried an Olympus D-395 Camedia digital camera, which has a fixed lens. I put in a 256 MB memory card and NiMH batteries. This is Olympus' bottom-of-the-line camera and I think it works pretty well for web pages.
- How did you spend the long nights? I alternated between reading Dostoevsky's, The Idiot, and watching the stars. This sounds dull now that I am home, but I was never bored at night. Indeed, I looked forward to them as a nice treat at the end of the day.