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Chapter #385: Snow in Death Valley National Park - November 9, 2023


The road to Wildrose, also known as Emigrant Pass was the original highway to Death Valley from the west - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Experience a Blizzard In Death Valley National Park 2023

In California, the Winter of 2023 produced record rain and snowfall, especially in the Central and Southern Sierra Nevada. As that moisture traveled east, even the Panamint Range, in Death Valley National Park received record snowfall. As spring approached, the sky-rivers kept flowing, sometimes warm and sometimes cold.

On February 28, I watched a snowflake or two fall outside my window in Panamint Springs. Toward sundown, the clouds descended to a low level, obscuring any remaining sunlight. That eerie and early darkness kept me inside all night. What will tomorrow bring?

On March 1, 2023 snowclouds hung low over the Panamint Valley, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)In the morning, the distance-obscuring clouds hung low on the Panamint Range. Around noon, the clouds had lifted enough for me to strike out in search of that elusive cell phone signal. As I descended into Panamint Valley, I encountered a shallow lake, with Highway 190 running like a dry ribbon down the middle of it. Rising through a long series of switchbacks on the far slopes, I could see snow clouds ahead.

Soon, sloppy wet snow obscured my windshield. The normal flow of traffic to and from Death Valley kept the snow from accumulating on the roadway. As I ascended Towne Pass, the snow fields to either side grew thicker, and the temperature dropped. Over the top and slightly downhill on the Death Valley side, I came upon the venerable old stone Emigrant Junction Station. Built in the 1920’s, just beyond the junction of Emigrant Pass and the newer Towne Pass, it has stood the test of time. Abandoned now and silhouetted by snowy peaks behind, the haunting building added to a forlorn tableau.

The old Entrance Station to Death Valley is located at the intersection of Emigrant Pass and Towne Pass, west of the valley itself - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Almost adjacent to the building was the Junction of Highway 190 and the old Emigrant Pass. There, an open gate beckoned me to take the old road to Wildrose and Skidoo. Both places were old mines, which had played out well before the National Park era. I had driven Emigrant Pass once before, in late spring. At that time, I had traveled up the canyon from the Panamint Valley. On this day, I faced a treacherous and snowy road first created using mule teams in the 1920’s. As snow fell all around, I felt a sense of mystery and drama. Without fanfare, I slushed past the open gate.

After seeing only one SUV, traveling in the opposite direction, I realized that I might be alone for the rest of this journey. Was I foolhardy, foolish, or just allowing my sense of adventure to lead me on? Whatever the reason, or lack thereof, I was on my way to Wildrose and beyond. As I progressed, snow
covered more of the road and plastered itself on my windshield.

A snowstorm in the Panamint Range had completely covered the road to Wildrose, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Undeterred, I soldiered on. Why turn back when you can still proceed forward, I thought. Being a child of the 1960’s, I had brought a four-CD pack, which included Moody Blues entire songbook. Their upbeat songs, like “Sitting at the Wheel” were a perfect accompaniment to my snow blown trip into the snowy unknown. A series of crowning curves on an old mountain road lay ahead of me. Although I had four-wheel drive, I began to think that the tread on my rear tires might be too thin to clear the snow from the grooves.


 

 

 

Experience a Blizzard in Death Valley National Park

Half way down the Road to Wildrose, the trees lay heavy with wet snow - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)As I traveled deeper into the wilderness, I remembered that I did not bring any survival food or shelter greater than a light jacket and a space blanket. Inexplicably, I had left my Zoleo satellite text communicator back in camp. Now I put my faith in driving twenty miles in a blizzard. If I could get over the endless ridge-top curves, I knew that the highway would drop into the warmer canyons, below the snowline. What I did not fully anticipate or appreciate was both the beauty and the stress of making that perilous journey.

Without further drama, I will report that I did make it through a harrowing and sobering experience. Despite a fallen tree, which almost blocked the entire roadway, I was able to skirt that problem, and descend below the snow line for the remainder of my trip. Looking back from the alluvial fan of Wildrose Canyon, I could see the storm still clinging to the slopes of the Panamint Range. To my relief, the safety of the Trona Road lay only a mile or two farther down that gravel road.

As the snowstorm lifted from the Panamint Valley, Death Valley National Park, the Phoenix Bird took flight over the Panamint Range - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Looking back, would I take that drive again? Well, how many people do you know that almost got snowed-in on March 1 in Death Valley National Park? Of course, I would do it again. Next time I will bring more emergency supplies, better tires and my Zoleo communicator, just in case I get stuck.

Thinking back now, I am amazed that a secondary road, which no agency might plow until at least the next day, remained wide open to the public. It was my choice to go into harm’s way, but luck was with me, at least in spirit. That entire day, I did not find that elusive cell phone signal. With one driving decision piled upon another, I had made my way into harm’s way and back again to civilization.


As I headed back to camp, I caught sight of the elusive Phoenix Bird flying low over the Panamint Range, toward Death Valley.

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