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Chapter #376: Camping at Panamint Springs, Part 2 - September 30, 2020


Looking much like a tombstone, This handmade sign shows the way to Darwin, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Panamint Springs Resort and Historic Darwin, California - Pandemic Memories

Saturday May 2, 2020 (Continued from Part 1).

In the late afternoon, I departed Panamint Springs Resort, heading west on California State Route 190. Along the way, I found the unmarked entrance to the Old Toll Road, leading to Darwin Falls. Its entrance was blocked by concrete “Jersey barriers”. Likewise, the entrance to Father Crowley Vista Point had barriers and warning signs. Farther along the highway, I found the turnoff to the old mining town of Darwin, population 43, or perhaps 53.

The official sign at Darwin, California includes its establishment in 1874 and its population, that ranges around fifty souls - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The town, named for the 1860’s pioneer and miner Dr. Erasmus Darwin French reminded me of Bodie, a ghost town farther north. Darwin features many homes, commercial establishments and mining properties, most of which are in various states of decay. When the mining and smelting of lead and silver played out, the town rapidly descended toward ghost town status. Now, many of the buildings are in “arrested decay”, as are the minimally maintained buildings in Bodie.

The Darwin post office opened in 1875 and closed up for a time, starting in 1902. Although closed during my Saturday visit, it still operated in 2020. During my brief visit to Darwin, I saw many old buildings and one barking dog, but not a single human. It reminded me of the Twilight Zone TV episode, when all the people disappeared from a small town. Other than the dog, it seemed to me that there were no other living beings on the planet. In Darwin, I saw no buildings newer than eighty-three years, which is when Highway 127 (now The Post Office at Darwin, California was first established in 1875 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Highway 190) bypassed the city.

The bypass reduced the maximum grade from 19 percent on the Old Toll Road to 7.3 percent, and reduced the number of curves from 245 to 72. For the ten years prior to completion of the bypass, the naturally surfaced toll road to Panamint wound over hills and down steep walled canyons.

My mission that day was to travel the Old Toll Road down the canyon to Darwin Falls. Built in 1925-26, and originally known as the Eichbaum Toll Road, it featured a natural surface roadway, thirty-five mile long and from 15-20 feet wide. Officially named the Death Valley Toll Road, it began in Darwin Wash, east of the town of Darwin. From there it traveled over the Argus Range via Darwin Canyon, across the Panamint Valley, and on to the Stovepipe Wells Resort.

After a false start or two that day, I found a promising track. As with most roads in the area, it rose and fell with the terrain. Soon, I was four wheeling down a long, steep walled canyon. From the looks of the boulder strewn terrain, it was scoured by An old waterworks, located between Darwin and China Garden Spring, along the Old Toll Road to Panamint Springs - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)rushing water during eons of thunderstorms. Somewhere down canyon, I found an old waterworks, now long abandoned. It featured a huge, cast iron water tank and the shell of a wooden garage. The pipes and valves dated to the early twentieth century.

Traveling deeper into the canyon, I came to what appeared to be the end of the road. With so many floods having rearranged the canyon, the actual roadway was hard to discern.  Social roads and dry washes forked off in several directions. With no signage or markings to guide me, I took a wrong turn. Soon, at what seemed like the end of the Earth, I found an oasis called China Garden Spring. It featured many large trees and a dusty SUV parked by the side of the road. The vehicle appeared to be in running condition, with its side windows rolled down. Not wanting to disturb any campers or remaining descendants of the Manson Family, I traveled a bit farther. While preparing to
A 1937  Chevrolet two-door Town Sedan met its demise on the Old Toll Road near Darwin Falls, in Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)turn back toward civilization, I came across another side canyon. From a slight rise, I could see two tents at the oasis I had just passed, but true to form, there were no people or human sounds.

Similar to my previous experience at Minietta Road, I found the wreck of an old car nearby. This one was the shell of a 1930’s Chevrolet. Some chrome still shined back from the snaggle-toothed grill. On it, the word CHEV—ROLET appeared split in half by impact. Comically, the bullet-ridden hulk of the car appeared misshapen and smaller than its original size.  Had the driver made the same mistake I had at the fork in the road, ending up here? Based on its location and despite its battered looks, its vertical, truck-like grill, I assumed it to be a 1935-37 Chevrolet Suburban Carryall, making it one of the earliest examples of that vaunted model. After extensive photo research, I Prior to abandonment in the depths of a canyon in the Argus Range, Death Valley National Park, someone had welded a replacement grill on to this 1937 Chevy sedan - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)determined that it was a 1937 Chevrolet two-door Town Sedan. The vertical chrome grill initially threw me off the trail. Later, I realized that it was a replacement grill, welded into place.

The
new highway bypass would not to open until late 1937, so in the early summer that year Henry and Mabel drove their Chevy down the Old Toll Road. Earlier that day they had passed through the town of Darwin, buying gasoline at the sole gas station there. Despite the storm clouds and showers in the area, they wanted to make it to Panamint Springs by nightfall. Late in the afternoon, in the depths of the canyon, they took the same wrong turn that I had. While trying to turn around, their car became high-centered on a protruding boulder. Stranded there, they waited for help, but no one arrived. Sundown came early in the depths of the canyon, so they did their best by sheltering in their car. As the last light faded from the canyon walls, they thought they heard a large truck approaching from up canyon. “It could be a tow truck”, Henry said.

As they stepped out on to the road to flag down the truck, a debris flow ten feet high swept them away. “Goodbye, Henry”, Mabel said. “Goodbye, Mabel”, Henry replied. Pummeled and smashed by rocks and water, the wreckage of their Chevy remained high-centered, in that, its final resting place. After the flash flood, Henry and Mabel were nowhere in sight. To this day, all subsequent floods have left their abandoned car high and dry on a small knoll. When I found it, fenders and accessories were located in odd places around the body, as if exploded by dynamite. There were no tires or wheels to remount. Not even a frame was evident under the chassis, so I got back in my truck and retraced my tracks.

The town of Darwin, California looks much as it did when a new state highway bypassed the former mining town in 1937 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Legend has it that eighty-three years later, Henry and Mabel reappeared, overlooking the wreckage of a sports car near Minietta Road.

Retracing routes in the desert is harder than it sounds. Driving down a canyon is easy. Just keep turning downhill at every junction. When returning, upstream, later in the day, everything can look quite different. At two points, I had to follow a hunch and hope I was heading back to Darwin. Obviously, it was not safe for me to venture into the backcountry alone without an off-road GPS and a topographical map. Lucky for me, I had made the correct decisions on my return trip. Soon I found myself in empty Darwin, and then headed back to Panamint Springs via the 1937 bypass.

Sunday May 3, 2020

At the general store in Panamint Springs, Gold Medal all purpose flour was $2.29 per pound in May, 2020 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Other than my regular afternoon trip to Minietta Road for a phone call home, I decided to stay at the resort, compile my photos and write this communiqué. When I went into the general store to pay $5.00 for a late checkout on Monday, the counter man looked at me with a funny expression. He handed the money back to me, indicating that paying for a late checkout from an empty campground was not necessary. Since I had my five dollars back, I decided to search the store for something to buy. Wearing my worn-out N-95 mask, I prowled the empty store. Candy cost $2.50 each, which was ten times the quarter dollar I would have paid in my youth.

After a few minutes, I found three one-pound bags of Gold Medal all-purpose flour. At $2.29 each, I could afford two bags and still have some change left over as a tip for the counter man. Speaking through my mask, I told him that markets “in the city” had no flour. He remarked that he had tried to buy flour
A natural stone fire ring prepared for a campfire at Panamint Springs Resort, near Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)in nearby Ridgecrest the previous week, but struck out completely. “Strange”, I said. “I had to come to the desert to buy flour”.

On Sunday morning, some tent campers departed, leaving almost a full bundle of firewood behind. Searching the abandoned fire rings in the campground, I scrounged up a few more pieces of partly burned wood. After dark, I filled my stone fire ring with the plunder and lit my few remaining pieces of paper. The moral to that story is,
if you plan to enjoy a campfire, bring old newspapers or fire-starter. Upon lighting my last scraps of paper, some flakes of the wood started to burn. Soon I had a roaring blaze, which lasted almost two hours.

As the wood burned down to embers, I drew myself closer to the fire. The waxing moon was now almost overhead. When the last flame flickered out, I doused the fire and went inside for the night. Thinking back, I realized it had been fifteen years since I had last made a campfire. From now on, I will bring a bundle of wood and some kindling on every trip. Even though I was
A roaring campfire on my last night isolating at Panamint Springs, near Death Valley National Park in May 2020 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)alone and far away from family and friends, my campfire had made for a peaceful, warm and inspiring moment in the cool desert air.

Monday, May 4, 2020

On Monday, I broke camp and returned to isolation in the civilized world. If I learned anything in Panamint Springs, it was that you could isolate and keep up social distancing while enjoying some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. My adventures included finding enigmatic wrecked cars and communing with the spirits of those who may have died in them.
When you visit the desert, be sure to plan for unforeseen circumstances. If not, you might end up joining Henry and Mabel in the lost dimensions of this universe. Next time I visit, I plan to have detailed maps and an off-road GPS in my kit.

This concludes Part Two of a Two-Part Article. To read Part One, click HERE.

Email James McGillis
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By James McGillis at 02:59 PM | Mojave Desert | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #375: Camping at Panamint Springs, Part 1 - September 29, 2020


In the summer, Death Valley often hits 130 f. degrees in the shade - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Camping at Panamint Springs, Death Valley National Park, During a Pandemic

Friday May 1, 2020

My journey felt different this time, from Simi Valley to Death Valley. I had taken that road so many times before. With the National Park itself closed to all but through-traffic, the palpable fear of death hung in the air at Death Valley. To my surprise, the privately owned enclave called Panamint Springs Resort was open.

Ice is available in one of the hottest places on Earth - Panamint Springs, Death Valley - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Panamint Springs is not a resort in the classic sense of the word… no pool, spa or golf course. Up a nearby canyon, the perpetual Darwin Falls feeds a year around supply of fresh water to the small settlement. Included in the resort are a hardscrabble campground, tent cabins, and a few “luxury cabins”. Rounding out the services are an unpaved RV Park, a gas station, restaurant, motel, general store, and a rough airstrip. The place gets its name from the Paiute or Koso word Panümünt, which breaks down to Pa (water) and nïwïnsti (person).

Out here in the vast and unforgiving Mojave Desert, almost any settlement qualifies as a resort. Since I wanted to isolate myself from the cares and worries of a raging pandemic, this seemed like the perfect hideaway for several days and nights. After confirming my reservation, I hooked up my fifth wheel and sallied forth from Simi Valley, California.

Two desert burros walk into the desert, near the Panamint Valley Road, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The portion of my trip from Mojave to the Panamint Valley was mostly uneventful. Knowing that Panamint Springs had no mobile telephone coverage, I stopped to call home from the intersection of Panamint Valley Road and Minietta Road. Having received past text messages there, I knew that there was AT&T 4G-LTE mobile telephone coverage at that location. The location of the cell phone tower that feeds data to that one small spot is a complete mystery.

While making my call, I noticed a small, hand-lettered sign. With two screws holding it to a stake, it read, “Yard Sale Next Sat. 7AM – 3PM”. Minietta is a gravel road, which heads off from the highway toward the southwest. Not far along, it disappears over a low hill. From my location, I saw no buildings, people or other vehicles. Still, the mysterious sign caught my interest. I planned to return on Saturday and check out the yard sale.

A small sign advertised a possible yard sale in the middle of the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon arrival at Panamint Springs Resort, I went inside the general store to check in. Inside, the unmasked counter man told me that Friday was barbecued ribs night at the restaurant. After completing my check-in, he invited me to come and enjoy the food and drink. As the blood drained from my face, I smiled from behind my mask and thanked the man. “No way”, I whispered silently, while ducking out the front door.

Looking uphill from the store, I noticed a huge tent pavilion, which served as the outdoor dining area for the restaurant. At that time, all was quiet, with just a few people sipping their drinks and enjoying the expansive view of Panamint Valley. Until well past midnight, I could hear raucous sounds, including hoots and hollers echoing across the otherwise quiet landscape. That night, from the comfort and safety of my camp chair, I heard some serious, alcohol-fueled mingling under the big tent. Apparently, management later Evidence of ancient vulcanism abounds at the Panamint Springs Resort - Click for larger image (htttp://jamesmcgillis.com)changed the dining policies at the resort. As of late September 2020, their website included the following information. “Our restaurant is open for take out everyday for lunch (11:30 am - 2:30 pm) and dinner (5:30 pm - 8:30 pm). We have plenty of available shaded picnic options adjacent to the restaurant for your eating pleasure”.

The rustic campground and RV Park is located just across the highway from the Panamint Springs General Store. There, I found eight or ten RV sites with full hookups. Other than my rig, all of the other sites were empty. Elsewhere in the campground, there were only a handful of tent sites and tent cabins occupied. Over the next few days, a few campers arrived and a few departed. Still, no one spoiled my unobstructed view of the ancient seabed that is now the parched and dry Panamint Valley.

In May 2020, the entirety of Death Valley National Park was closed to visitors - Click for larger image (hhtp://jamesmcgillis.com)Saturday May 2, 2020.

At the national park entrance, a Public Advisory sign declared, “Death Valley National Park CLOSED Until Further Notice”. Through-traffic could transit the park on the main highway, but there were no services open to the public. The counter man at the store had warned me not to go sightseeing in the national park. “Even in the parking lots at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, they are handing out $1,000 tickets to anyone who lingers”, he said. Within the geographic confines of the national park, only Panamint Springs, a privately owned oasis, was open for business. Without access to the national park, it appeared that I would be a virtual prisoner in a place of my own choosing.

I called home from the intersection of Panamint Valley Road and Minietta Road, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Undaunted, I knew that the phantom yard sale, which I saw advertised on Minietta Road lay outside of the national park boundaries. That afternoon, I navigated The Panamint Valley Road back toward Trona and the Searles Valley. Ten miles east of Panamint Springs I located the turn-off to Minietta Road. There, I sat inside the air-conditioned confines of my truck and called home once again.

After my call, I headed up the dirt and gravel surface of Minietta Road. After surmounting the first set of hills, I paused to survey the lower reaches of Thompson Canyon. Could there be a home with a yard at the end of this dusty track? Alternatively, did the little sign represent some kind of code or a prank? After four-wheeling over dry hills and washes, I spied an ersatz settlement tucked up near the base of the barren mountains.

Unpaved Minietta Road disappears over a knoll and into the depths of the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a wildcat mining operation consisting of about ten vehicles and various small buildings. I could not see a gate, garage or any sign of welcome. Near there, in 1969, Charlie Manson and his murderous “family” faced arrest at Death Valley’s Barker Ranch. With that in mind, I decided against rolling up unannounced at this foreboding enclave.

From my location in a broad arroyo, various unmarked roads and trails split off in all directions. Not having an atlas or topographical map to consult, I was wary of driving deeper into the unmarked desert. Getting stuck or breaking down out here could be deadly. When the main road turned into a trail, I stopped. There, about twenty yards away were the remains of an automobile. I knew it was an automobile because I could see one wheel and tire still attached. When I approached on foot, I discovered the flipped-over and rusting hulk of what once was a small sports car.

The remains of a small sports car, wrecked many years ago in the lower reaches of Thompson Canyon, near Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Looking around the area, I located two other tires and wheels. One of the whitewall tires featured the embossed words, “JCPenney Aramid Belted Radial”. In later research, I found of an old Desert Sun newspaper advertisement that dated the tire back to circa 1978. There was still some chrome on one of the wheels, but what remained of another tire looked like it had spun apart at very high speed.

What was the story here? Did the wreck happen here on this dusty track? More likely, someone had gotten that car up to high speed on the Panamint Valley Road. If that tire had blown at high speed, the car could have rolled over on its roof. Resting upside down, flat as a pancake, there was no room between the car body and the desert floor for a human to survive. Rather than transport the wreck to the nearest junkyard in Trona, someone may have simply moved it several miles and dumped it in its current location.

After I remounted two of the wheels on the wrecked sports car, it began to look like an automobile again - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After I located two of the detached wheels nearby, I rolled them back to the rusting hulk. Although the fourth wheel was not anywhere in sight, I soon had three wheels resting back on their original wheel hubs. Satisfied that I had turned back the hands of time, I took a few pictures and left the rusting remains for the next visitor to find. I pictured an elderly couple, in a 1937 Chevrolet coming across this wreck in the desert. “Mabel, how do you think those wheels got back on that car?” asked Henry. “Divine providence, I suppose”, Mabel replied.

Returning to the highway, I paused to enjoy the view out my front windshield. Directly across the Panamint Valley was the impressive Panamint Range. Tallest of all was Telescope Peak, elevation 11,043 feet, 11,049 feet or 11,053 feet, depending on which source you consult. Is it possible that the mountain had grown or shrunk by a total of ten feet? The 7.5 magnitude Owens Valley (or Lone Pine) Earthquake of 1872 occurred only fifty miles west of my Snow-capped Telescope Peak, as viewed from the Panamint Valley, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)location. That event generated a fault scarp more than two meters high. Therefore, it is possible that the Telescope Peak did grow or sink by ten feet between official surveys.

Since the base of the mountain is at 1,800 feet elevation, Telescope Peak makes for an imposing sight. Snowstorms in early April had blanketed the upper reaches of the Panamint Range. The angle of repose is so steep there; avalanche-chutes were clearly visible on the upper reaches of the range. The west-facing flank of Telescope Peak featured three avalanche chutes, all of which converged at a single point. It was an awesome and fearful site. No human could survive a climb up that face. If the steep terrain and baking sun did not kill you, the avalanches would.

After ruminating on the effects of geologic time, I drove back toward my campsite, ten miles away.

This concludes Part One of a Two-Part Article. To read Part Two, click HERE.

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By James McGillis at 05:07 PM | Mojave Desert | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #374: Camping at Mojave Preserve in 2020 - September 6, 2020


A clear sky and white, puffy clouds above the Hole in the Wall Campground at the Mojave National Preserve - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

2020 Closure of All Mojave National Preserve Campgrounds and Facilities

By March 2020, the current health crisis had burst out like a California brush fire. On March 19, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a “stay-at-home” order for the entire state. Only essential services were to remain open. Under that order, residents were to stay at home and venture out only for essential purposes, such as food, medical care or if one’s work was deemed essential. Mobile dog grooming did not appear on the “essentials” list, yet mobile dog groomers plied many streets.

The Hole In The Wall Campground closed in March 2020, due to the ongoing pandemic - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Having already planned a winter camping trip to the Mojave National Preserve, I contemplated cancelling that annual tradition. In those early days of the pandemic, different jurisdictions were struggling to determine their best course of action. When I visited the Mojave Preserve website, they had closed all visitor centers, but their developed campgrounds remained open.

With my self-contained RV, I could carry everything I needed for three nights of dry camping in the desert. My favorite winter camping spot is Hole-in-the-Wall Campground, 267-miles from our home in Simi Valley. With luck, my only contact with others would be at fuel stops in Barstow and again at Ludlow, just off Interstate I-40. With two five-gallon fuel containers stowed in the back of my pickup truck, I would have plenty of fuel for day trips and exploring remote desert sites. For the entire trip, I planned not to visit restrooms, convenience stores or any other indoor venue. While pumping fuel, I planned to wear gloves and my bandana as a mask.

My portable generator is great for recharging the house batteries on my RV after a full day of use - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On March 22, I hit the road. Including two fuel stops, the whole journey took less than seven hours. Upon my arrival, I found a perfect campsite, along the edge and away from other campers. I had my portable generator, solar panels and storage batteries for power. I had enough propane to run the furnace and refrigerator. My fresh water tank was full.

Although it was already spring, a cold storm had recently swept the area. As the sun set early behind The Universal Reflector, the air temperature cooled rapidly. Before sunrise, the outdoor temperature would dip to near freezing. I was comfortable and secure in my self-contained isolation pod. On my first full day, I planned to remain in camp, except to take a couple of short hikes.

The 200-watt solar panel attached to the roof om my RV produces adequate electrical power for off-grid camping - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)At mid afternoon, I changed plans and drove north from the campground and up the muddy dirt track called Black Canyon Road. About five miles north, I turned westat Wild Horse Canyon Road. After I passed the turn-off to Mid Hills Campground, the road narrowed. A prominent sign read, “Four Wheel Drive Only”. Realizing that the sun was sinking toward the horizon, I hurried to complete the loop back to my campsite before sundown. During my entire trip of about fifteen miles, I did not see another human or vehicle.

On the second half of the loop, the road crosses a ravine and later runs down the middle of an arroyo. Where the road crosses the ravine, I encountered a bovine traffic jam. Three yearling calves, and two horned cows were crossing the road. Leading the herd, the mother cows had surmounting the adjoining Hardy brown calves are well adapted to the harsh environment of the Mojave National Preserve - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)hillside. Not wanting to scare the calves, I stopped my truck and waited. One cow stood watching the scene from summit of the hill. As if they had never encountered a motor vehicle, the calves stood in the road. They appeared to be in awe of my big, growly diesel truck. I sat patiently, but with the engine running. This far from my camp, the last thing I wanted was a stalled vehicle.

Soon, the sturdy calves made their way, one at a time, to the top of the hill. I was in the high desert, with an elevation of up to 5,600 feet at Mid Hills Campground. From November to April, most nights are at or below freezing. In the summer, temperatures often rise above 100 f degrees. There was no shelter for miles around. I marveled that these animals appeared to be so well adapted to their harsh environment.

This Cal Fire pickup truck served double duty as a ranger vehicle at the Mojave National Preserve - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On the following morning, I enjoyed a leisurely cup of coffee in camp. As I contemplated where to hike or explore that day, there was a rap on my door. When I answered, I encountered a female ranger, standing about fifteen feet away. “We are closing the campground”, she said. “Everyone needs to leave before 2 PM”. “Why are you shutting down?” I asked. “Everyone else is shutting down, so we are too” was her answer. “Everyone has to leave as soon as possible”, she said with authority. “You can camp on open land, at an existing campsite, but not here in the campground”.

Having planned to stay another night, I was determined to find a suitable place. I scouted several campsites that were near the road, but none of them looked inviting to me. At one point, I made the mistake of driving my rig to the end of a dirt track, only to find it occupied by another camper. Ingloriously, My final day in the campground at the Mojave National Preserve before all facilities were closed in March 2020 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)I had to back my rig up several hundred yards. When I reached the end of that strenuous task, I turned too sharply, impinging the fifth-wheel hitch on the bed of my truck.

The damage was slight, but my judgment had been faulty. Never take a rig down a road that you are unsure of, I reminded myself. After that, I made my way toward a level area near the end of my previous day’s loop-road journey. My rig is tall and top-heavy, but I was beyond my better judgment. I determined that I could surmount the rise in the rough road and have an idyllic spot to camp for my final night. Going in was not difficult. Although there was one campsite occupied nearby, my own campsite had a 360-degree view and the peace and solitude I desired.

My remote campsite at the Mojave National Preserve, in March 2020, after the campgrounds closed for the pandemic - Click for a larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)The next morning, I prepared my rig and headed back up the dirt track to Black Canyon Road. I shifted my truck into four-wheel drive and crawled along in low-range. The previous afternoon, on my way into camp, I had seen some car campers setting up in a big dry wash. I had looked at them as if they were crazy. Any experienced camper knows not to camp in a dry wash. Flash floods are all too common in the desert. At the time, those campers had looked at me as if I was crazy for driving such a huge rig over the rough road to my destination.

On my way back out to the paved road, my right-front wheel lifted off the ground, meaning that my rig was tilting badly to the left, behind me. I pressed on. My front wheel returned to the ground and the rig leveled out. As I passed the arroyo, I looked at the campers again as if they were crazy to have spent the night there. They looked at me, astonished that I was able to get my rig back to the highway.

Another view of my remote campsite at the Mojave National Preserve in March 2020 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)In the end, it all worked out OK for everyone. At that time, I had wanted to stay another to stay another night in the peace and quiet of the Mojave Desert. If presented with the same circumstances today, I would opt for cutting short my visit to the Mojave National Preserve.


As of early September 2020, due to National Park Service orders, all visitor centers, campgrounds, pit toilets, the Lava Tube and the Zzyzx area are closed. Please plan accordingly and travel safely. Emergency response times may be much longer than usual.

Email James McGillis
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By James McGillis at 05:12 PM | Mojave Desert | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #373: Death Valley Winter Camping 2019 - May 30, 2020


In 2019, Death Valley National Park celebrated its 25th Anniversary - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Winter Camping in Death Valley National Park

Each year, I visit the Mojave Desert in late fall or early winter. My two favorite spots are the Hole in the Wall Campground in the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, farther to the north. I go to experience the unrivaled ecosystems and terrain of those wild places. The winter season is a great time to visit the desert. Crowds are small and attractions are often empty or nearly so.

In December 2019, before most of us had ever contemplated the need to stay at home or shelter in place, I headed alone to Death Valley. For four nights, I planned to camp and explore some sites I had not yet seen. This is how it transpired.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 – The distance from Simi Valley, California to Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley, California is 280 miles.The Sylmar Cascades are near the end of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the San Fernando Valley. - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) Departing the San Fernando Valley, I headed up Interstate I-5 North through the Newhall Pass. From there, I could see the historic Sylmar Cascades, which represent the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. That system of gravity-fed trenches and pipes transports water to Los Angeles from as far away as Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra Nevada. On its final leg, powerful pumps raise the water, thus allowing it to take a final plunge down a concrete aeration channel and into the Van Norman Reservoir. From the high country near Mono Lake to Los Angeles, most of Eastern California consists of a parched and thirsty desert.

It took just over five hours for me to reach my destination. In that 280-mile stretch, I crossed the San Andreas, Garlock, Searles Valley and Panamint Valley Fault Zones. In July 2019 alone, the Searles Valley and nearby Ridgecrest, California experienced more than 80,000 earthquakes, including a 6.4 magnitude quake on July 6 of that year. On December 16, 2019, just a few days after my return, Ridgecrest registered a 3.5 magnitude aftershock.

Solar Farms, many owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power cover thousands of acres in the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Along my way, I passed through the high desert community of Mojave. Over the past sixty years, I have traveled this route many times. On this trip, I reminisced about how the vast territory from Mojave, to Ridgecrest was once an almost uninterrupted stretch of desert. In the past decade, much of that formerly untrammeled desert has given way to thousands of acres of passive solar panels. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) owns many of these "solar farms".

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles notoriously bought up the water rights in and around the Owens Valley, north of Ridgecrest. More recently, Los Angeles has given up much of its water rights, but has quietly industrialized huge swaths of the Mojave Desert. These so-called “green energy” projects have disturbed more desert tortoise habitat and denuded more desert greenery than the L.A. Aqueduct ever did.

The vast emptiness of the Panamint Valley, with Telescope Peak above is hard to describe in words - Click for a larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With Death Valley as my destination, I had a choice of routes. On one hand, I could continue on California Highway 14 (“The Aerospace Highway”). Farther north, that highway becomes U.S. Highway 395. At Olancha (population 39), I could then turn east toward Death Valley. Instead, I elected to travel the more scenic route through Garlock, Searles Valley and the Panamint Valley.

The word “scenic” is wholly inadequate to describe that area. “Surreal” better describes the vistas and terrain. Traveling so quickly from the crowded confines of the San Fernando Valley to the vast emptiness of the Panamint Valley feels like going back a billion years in time. Near Panamint Springs, I turned east on California Route 190 and soon surmounted Towne Pass.

An afternoon view of the Panamint Range, from Towne Pass shows at least five distinct geologic layers - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)While descending the long grade into Stovepipe Wells, a McLaren, a Bentley, two Ferraris and a Lamborghini passed me at speed. The designers at the great automotive houses of Europe never anticipated the whoopdeedoos on Highway 190. After dipping into each swale, the exotic sports cars bottomed-out, with sparks flying. Watching them fly off each successive alluvial hump was dramatic, to say the least.

Once I arrived at the Furnace Creek Campground, it felt like I was at home. In the past three years, I have camped there four or five times, so it has the feel of a local neighborhood. Two nights of dry camping on an asphalt pad, then two nights in a full RV hookup (water, power, and sewer) would make for a unique experience. For my first two days and nights, I had to live by my wits, my solar panels and my portable inverter/generator. Nights were cold and my house batteries ran low. I turned off the furnace (at Furnace Creek) and stayed warm in bed by wearing high tech base-layer garments and sheltering under three blankets.

An early sunset at Furnace Creek Campground, in December 2019 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Wednesday, December 11, 2019 – At Furnace Creek, the mobile phone and data coverage is surprisingly good. A mile away, there might be no signal at all. After staying up late watching YouTube, the quiet of Death Valley (and some earplugs) allowed me to sleep uninterrupted for hours. When I awoke, was it nine o’clock or ten o’clock? I do not know. Coffee and a banana helped ease my transition back into terrestrial life.

As noon approached, the sun warmed my coach and the solar panels recharged my house batteries. Soon, I was charging up my phone, earbuds, Bluetooth speaker and camera, all with the batteries and inverter circuit in my coach. As the sun rose further, I had a steady flow of “solar-power in” and an abundance of “electricity-out”.

In California, December daylight hours are short. From Furnace Creek, the sun appears to set behind the towering Panamint Range by 4:15 PM. Following that, is a long twilight, as the sun still shines up into the limitless sky, but not down on Death Valley. One way to avoid such an early sunset is to visit Zabriskie Point, which is on the east rim of Death Valley. From there, you can watch the sun set behind Telescope Peak. If you do, you will experience a phenomenon like no other. As the sun sets, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity comes into play.

Zabriskie Point at sundown creates a long-duration bending of sunlight - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As with Einstein’s faraway planet, which bends the light from a solar eclipse, the clouds above the Panamint Range bend the light down to each of us who are waiting in the plaza that sits atop Zabriskie Point. There is a redemptive quality to the experience. When the sun hits the perceived horizon, it does not set, but instead creates a parabolic bend of light. The delay of sunset creates a pause in time, which lasts for several minutes. Most days, it is impossible to tell exactly when the sun passes behind the ridge at Telescope Peak.

That concluded “day two” of my visit. At the time, I was still living off frozen food, well packed and enjoyed. It was a few degrees warmer that night, so adjusting blankets and then, turning off the furnace (at Furnace Creek) now made sense. Can you imagine the first Anglo emigrants, spending almost two years, marooned at Furnace Creek? That was 1849, ninety-nine years before my birth.

The Death Valley `49ers had no idea that their hardscrabble camp would one day be replaced by modern travel trailers - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Their forced stay was the ultimate in unexpected self-isolation. It was freezing cold on winter nights and baking hot on summer days. In addition, the ragtag group enjoyed no contact at all with the outside world. As time passed, their situation became more desperate. A full winter and a full summer in the hottest and one of the driest places on Earth took its emotional toll.

Realizing their plight, the scraggly emigrants sent two riders all the way to San Fernando Mission, near Los Angeles. Local ranchers took pity on the riders, giving them three horses and a one-eyed mule to transport supplies back to those who remained at Furnace Creek. Retracing their steps along dry washes and old Indian trails, the rescue party rode one horse to death and abandoned the two others. Upon arrival back in Death Valley, they found only two families, with children had awaited their return. All the other emigrants had departed, trying to find their own way back to civilization. It is unknown how many survived and how many succumbed to the elements in Death Valley and beyond.

The Death Valley`49ers would have passed through the Panamint Valley and the future site of Trona, in the Searles Valley - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)After scraping together what remained of their belongings, the hapless but grateful families boarded their remaining wagons. From there, they faced an arduous 23-day trip across the Mojave Desert. Upon completion of their 250-mile trip to the Santa Clarita Valley, there were no parades or celebrations; only the relief of having survived. Just two years earlier, during the winter of 1846-47, the ill-fated Donner Party, trapped by heavy snow in the nearby Sierra Nevada resorted to cannibalism to survive. Of the Death Valley ‘49ers, only one man is known to have lost his life during their ordeal.

Thursday, December 12, 2019 – On the morning of “day three”, I moved my coach to a “full hookup” site at the campground. The Death Valley ‘49ers, 170 years earlier knew nothing of running water, electrical power, wireless data or propane gas. Using those technologies, I resumed access to all the comforts of contemporary life.

At an estimated age of approximately 2,000 years, Ubehebe Crater, in Death Valley National Park is one of the youngest volcanic explosion sites in the Western United States -  Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) Ubehebe Crater. Actually, there are two craters at the site, but the smaller one gets no credit. Visiting that place is enough to give you the Ubehebes.

It is the second youngest documented site of a major volcanic explosion in California. Although Ubehebe Crater erupted prior to European or American exploration of the area, only the massive eruption of Lassen Peak in the early 20th century was more recent. Ubehebe is approximately 2,000 years old, or so they say. It is a strange site to see, in that its volcanic ash exploded up through ancient seabed sediments. Although it issued forth around the time of Yeshua, it still looks fresh today. If you like your volcanic explosion sites low-risk, this one is relatively safe. If it only explodes every several thousand years, what were the odds that it would explode on the day of my visit?

Near the entrance road to Scotty's Castle, in Death Valley National Park, recent extreme erosion of a large alluvial fan is evident in this photo - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On the way to the crater complex, I passed the turnoff to Scotty’s Castle, a remote desert mansion built in the Spanish Revival and Mediterranean Revival style. Completed in the early 1930s, the property was the ultimate self-isolation hideaway. Despite its name, Chicago industrialist Albert Mussey Johnson had it built as a getaway for him and his wife. During Mussey’s long absences, front man Walter Scott, known as “Death Valley Scotty” maintained and presided over the castle.

In 2015, the buildings and grounds at Scotty’s Castle experienced severe damage from thunderstorms and flash flooding. Since then, there has been a massive effort by the National Park Service to create new flood control channels and repair damage to the buildings. The road and buildings that comprise Scotty’s Castle will not reopen until at least the fall of 2021.

Compared to fuel stations outside of Death Valley National Park, gasoline and diesel fuel fetch a premium price - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)As I mentioned before, mobile telephone coverage in Death Valley National Park is limited mainly to the Furnace Creek complex. Yet, for reasons unknown, as I passed the entrance road to Scotty’s Castle, I received a call on my mobile telephone. It was a jarring phone message telling me that the IRS was after me for non-payments. Even though I knew that the IRS does not call you to request anything, it induced a brief feeling of panic in me. Then I hung up the phone and ignored what seemed to be a fraud call.

Upon my return, I visited the new “Ranch at Furnace Creek”. After purchasing some expensive diesel fuel for my truck, I headed out for nearby Salt Creek, which features habitat for the rare Desert Pupfish. That afternoon, there were no visible pupfish and no crowds. In fact, I was the only person at the trailhead.

Solitude is the major theme there in December. Unless a U.S. Navy Salt Creek in Death Valley is home to the rare Desert Pupfish - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)jet is thundering across the Panamint Valley or a Harley Davidson is on a nearby highway, the loudest sound you will hear is the ringing in your ears. If you do not think your ears ring, come here to Death Valley. You may experience silence for the first time in your life. There are no lawn mowers or leaf blowers here. If you are lucky, you may hear the rustle of a desert breeze.

Friday, December 13, 2019 – It was another day in Paradise, as we like to say in Death Valley. The local motto is,
“Death Valley - See it BEFORE you die”.

There was not much on my agenda for my fourth day. I could zoom down the road to Badwater (elevation 280 feet below sea level) and see all the sites, or I could enjoy midday in the comfort of my coach. Before 2 PM, I headed out to The Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley operated for only a few years in the late 1880s - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the Harmony Borax Works, only a few miles away. Most 19th Century mines or chemical production facilities in the West lasted only a few years. Towns like nearby Rhyolite emerged, produced ore and faced abandonment, all within a decade.

After the discovery of borax ore closer to the railroad at Mojave, the Harmony works closed down in 1888. For its brief productive era, a team of twenty mules pulled the semi-refined ore across the desert to Mojave. In the 1960s, none other than future U.S. President Ronald Reagan hosted a quasi-documentary television show titled Death Valley Days. The prime advertiser on that show was "20 Mule Team Borax". The main attractions at the old Harmony Borax Works are two original Borax wagons and a matching water-tender. With the arid desert to preserve it, this Two ore wagons and a water tender made up the heavy load pulled by the famed twenty-mule teams of the Harmony Borax Works - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)original rig looked ready for twenty mules to hook up and pull the wagons across the desert.

Leaving the defined pathway at the Borax Works, I ascended a draw and hiked among hillocks of soft sediment. The sandy soil had a crust of clinkers and small rocks, distributed randomly. Likely, they had rained down from various prehistoric volcanic blasts. From the crest of a final hill, I could see the heart of Death Valley. Within my field of vision, there were no roads, buildings or other human made objects. Other than my sandals scraping along the rocks, there were no sounds. I felt like Yeshua, mounting a hill and beholding the Sea of Galilee.

Saturday, December 14, 2019 – Before noon, I departed Death Valley, heading for home, 280 miles away. In four short days, what did I learn there? I learned Author, Jim McGillis at sundown, at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)that if you feel compressed (or depressed) by the conditions of your human life… the ticking clock, unwanted crowds or the snarl of traffic, then come to Death Valley in December. You might find peace and quiet here. My visit offered me a time and place to rest, rejuvenates and prepare for the unknown events of the coming New Year, 2020.

Email James McGillis
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By James McGillis at 03:54 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link

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