Handy things to know for 4×4 camping in Death Valley

“The difference between an adventure or an ordeal is attitude.” – Bob Bitchin

Here is my short list of important tips to help make your trip more of a fun adventure than an unpleasant ordeal.

    • Carry TWO spare tires. Expect to have a flat tire when exploring 4×4 roads in canyons with old mining equipment and debris. Having a 2nd spare insures that you can get out of the backcountry. There is no towing service nearby.
    • There is NO cell phone service in most of Death Valley. Pay phones are available at Stove Pipe Wells and Furnace Creek. 2 way radios work well most places and help when you are separated to keep tabs on each other.
    • Don’t rely on Google maps or online maps relying on cell or wifi reception – bring a real life map. Our favorite maps are: Death Valley National Park Recreation Map (Tom Harrison Maps) and Death Valley National Park (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map) .
    • Weather – our favorite time to camp is from November through April. Be prepared for snow, high winds and temperature extremes. The beauty of camping in Death Valley is that if you are too hot, simply drive to a higher elevation – or too cold, drive to a lower elevation. Death Valley boasts to have the most difference in elevation in the U.S.; Telescope peak is at 11,049 and Bad Water is 282 ft. below sea level!

Read more

Rattlesnake savvy

Rattlesnake savvy

It is inevitable while traveling in the California desert, Sierras and Pacific coast range, that you will come across a rattlesnake. I live in rattlesnake country and it is still unnerving to have a close encounter.

Rattlers tend to mind their own business and are an important part of rodent control. It is good to educate yourself as to where they like to hangout and simply make yourself a rule to never put your hands where you cannot see and to wear protective boots when hiking in their domain.

Behavior:

My own close encounters usually involved a snake considerate enough to buzz its rattles to let me know I was getting too close. The ones who did not were simply curious or taking a snooze while digesting a ground squirrel. Rattlesnakes come in many different colors varying from a very dark green (dubbed Mojave Green) to different shades of brown and tan. They have natural camouflage and blend in well with their surroundings which is why it is easy to accidentally come close. As long as you give them a wide berth they are usually content to watch or quietly slither away.

Rattlers can swim and climb trees or rafters in old buildings as well as rocky cliff walls while hunting for rodents. We were amazed to watch a rattler appear directly out of a crack in a sheer cliff overlooking the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. They especially like the cool temperatures found in the openings to old mines. When disturbing old wood or tin by a potential campsite, be aware a snake may be residing there. Sidewinders have been seen in the sand dunes of Death Valley and have amazing speed. I have found the young, smaller snakes to be more aggressive whereas the big ones are wiser and usually just want to keep their distance. Be especially alert when rattlesnakes are most active in the Spring after hibernation and during mating season. Read more

Explore the Minnietta cabin’s mining history

Explore the Minnietta cabin’s mining history

Death Valley contains many canyons where old mine shafts, cabins, millsites and various ghosts of past mining operations lay silent to be discovered by the exploring traveler.

One such place of interest is the Minnietta cabin and mine in the Argus range. The well maintained cabin is one of the many mining shacks in Death Valley adopted by off-roading groups. Travelers caught in the harsh elements can find a place of refuge, or like us, simply camp in our truck nearby to enjoy exploring the ruins and equipment abandoned where it was last operated.

The type of equipment spans the century from old west wood trams and iron rails to 1940s and 50s boilers and trucks. Rust comes slowly in the dry desert leaving the ruins preserved for the history buff to puzzle out how the mines were operated. My hubby once worked as a stationary engineer and he loves to examine the old steam boilers and machinery closely.

Read more

Squatting hazards in the back country

Squatting hazards in the back country

Answering the call of nature is an integral part of wilderness camping and requires some heightened awareness of your surroundings.

We dig a hole designated for this purpose when we camp and choose an area free of cactus, bristle poppy, rattlesnake hideouts, and water courses.   As we have gotten older we have purchased a “throne” that fits nicely above the hole to support the buttocks and save the knees.

While hiking a lovely trail with wildflowers and pines in the Sierras, the call of nature urged me to pull of the trail to take care of business (no hole digging for #1). I found a suitable spot and dropped my drawers while taking in the scenery and listening to the lazy drone of insects. Upon completion of my task I pulled up my pants and zipped only to discover that I had “captured” a wasp in between my underwear and jeans. The wasp protested by stinging me at least 6 times before I could quickly get my britches off to see what had set them on fire.

Read more

Shadows of the past at the Manson hideout

Shadows of the past at the Manson hideout

A favorite “short cut” into Death Valley from the west side of the Panamint Range is to go across Goler Wash. Be sure to check road conditions before entering as one year we found so many rock falls it took the joy out of driving it.

From the rocky road into Goler we were able to gain access to the Barker Ranch, infamous for once being a hideout for the notorious Manson gang in 1969.

The serene beauty of the area where this ranch is located belies the heinous deeds of Charles Manson and his gang who used it to hide from the pursuit of lawmen after their murder of five people, including Sharon Tate and Abigail Folger. The Barker Ranch is where the group was apprehended by Inyo County Sheriffs. You can read the story as an insider law enforcement account in the book Desert Shadows. Ironically my hubby worked where Manson was incarcerated for a portion of serving his life sentence.

Read more

Camping after the Mud Creek Slide in Big Sur

Camping after the Mud Creek Slide in Big Sur

This summer 11 miles of Highway 1 was cut off to the rest of the world and only accessible via the long, windy route of Nacimiento Fergusson Rd. that takes us through the Fort Hunter Liggett military base.

Either end of this section of highway was cut off after storms brought long needed rains following a drought and terrible wildfires in Big Sur. The Pfeiffer bridge to the north was demolished by Cal Trans after deeming it unsafe due to age and storm damage. The massive Mud Creek Slide between Gorda and Ragged Point made the highway in between those 12 miles inaccessible.

Reshaped coastline from the massive land slide

New coastline:
In latter May of 2017 the Mud Creek Slide along the Big Sur coastline became the largest in known California history. The slide has changed the shape of the coastline, looking like the mountain is sticking out a big toe into the ocean. The new toe of landfill is reported to be 16 acres. The slide has closed Hwy 1 between Ragged Point and Gorda for at least a *year.

We had the privilege of walking down the middle of the closed off highway beginning in Gorda at the road closure gate when construction crews were not at work. It is a short hike to where the 2 lane highway has been literally wiped off the mountain side with a view of the new toe of coastline. As we walked we saw water seeping out of the mountain, running alongside the road and actually seeping up out of the asphalt! The mountain was not yet finished moving, further hampering repairs. Read more

Death Valley sample itinerary and menu

Death Valley sample itinerary and menu

Part of the fun of planning your trip is getting out a good map and choosing where you want to explore. Guide books are very helpful with deciding where to drive and camp. Just be aware that back roads and campsites can change dramatically due to the harsh elements.

Adventure planning:
A favorite 4×4 road into Death Valley was impassable the last time we visited Goler Wash in 2015. A large rock slide had enveloped the road making progress so slow and rough it took the fun out of the journey – nearly an hour to travel 1 mile. We like the Goler route as it usually a “short cut” from the west side of the Panamints to visit the Barker Ranch, Stella’s Cabin, Stripped Butte and other scenic campsites. Otherwise it is a very long way around via the Park’s Highways. So, have a plan B for camping if the desert has changed the terrain from what your favorite guide book reads.

Sample itinerary with menu:
I am posting a sample itinerary of a trip we took that you can customize to your own liking.

Read more

A desperate adventure in the Kern River

A desperate adventure in the Kern River

Although this is not a camping story, it is an outdoor experience we shall never forget and perhaps a lesson that will save someone’s life. I have posted our lessons learned at the end of this story:

A desperate adventure:
The deafening roar of the water added to its shocking power to hold me underwater. I could see the turbulent water bubbling just above my head and raise my hand out into the life giving air, yet no matter how hard I fought to swim, I could not push my face past the raging surface to gasp for breath.

As I was inner tubing with my husband Pres, he had been waiting for me below a section of small waterfalls. When I did not float down behind him, he worked to find a way back up the rushing cascade. He ditched his inner tube to swim and crawl up the rocky waterfalls where he had seen me disappear. When Pres saw only my hand above water waving desperately, my alarmed husband quickened his pace.

Knowing seconds counted in saving me, Pres jumped into the dark swirling water behind me. My hopes for rescue were quickly dashed when Pres disappeared underwater, swallowed by the force of the *water hydraulic we were now both trapped within. Read more

How do you define camping?

How do you define camping?

Camping – a word that evokes different things for different people.

I was not raised a camper, but married an avid camper who shared his love of exploring the back country with me. I first got to know Pres on a rock climbing trip while camping with friends in Joshua Tree National Park. We started as newly-weds with framed packs on our backs and Pivettas on our feet. Our camping equipment grew into a large tent and cookstove for a family of five.

After over 40 years of camping we now are empty nesters with some physical challenges, thus making the welcome change of “glamping” in our Alaskan camper mounted on a 4×4 utility truck. Read more