Desert Trail Day 4 – 8.5 miles (and beyond)

We have been getting up in the dark and walking around first light, mainly to avoid some of the heat. Even though it is November, day time temperatures can still get in the 90s, and since we dropped 4,000′ yesterday, we are almost at sea level, and in for real heat. We were walking as soon as we could see the ground, about quarter to 6. The entirety of our miles would be in the open, leaving the mouth of Marble Canyon on the large alluvial fan that spreads out towards Stovepipe Wells.

Stovepipe Wells is one of the only places in the park with a cell phone tower, and since it was November 7, I powered up my phone to find out some election results. Most of us were from Oregon and had races we were all following. Some elation, some depression, but the election results fueled our walking and conversations for a while.

We were moving quickly between the debris and dry washes that fan out from the canyon. Up and down, in and out of the eroded banks, around and over the creosote bushes. As we approached Stovepipe Wells the bushes got bigger and bigger, soon they looked like jellyfish emerging out of the sand.

I spent a lot of the time talking with Bob, a Portlander. He had been president of the mountain climbing group in Oregon, the Mazamas, and had numerous great stories to share. John was also from Portland. Gary and Dan were from the Madras, Warm Springs Reservation area, and Skip and I from Sunriver and Bend…respectively. Only Kim was from out of state, and as a Nevadaer from nearby Pahrump, he was able to dive into these deserts and mountains on a regular basis. Jealous.

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She-ra and her crew

The night before we realized we’d be done with the hike much sooner than originally thought, so instead of all going out for dinner tonight at the Stovepipe Wells restaurant, we might make it in time for breakfast. In fact, we rolled up on the campground where Dan C and Skip were waiting for us about 9am. We threw on clean t-shirts, and hobbled over to the all you can eat breakfast buffet. Oh yeah. It’s a universal pleasure to finish up a hike with a big meal, and our plates never saw it coming.

Most of the group had decided to start heading home today, and I had been playing phone tag with my good pal Amanda “Not a Chance,” a thru-hiker friend who is working in Death Valley this fall. We wanted to connect, but it happened to be her days off when I got back, and she was out exploring another canyon in the park. I decided that I wanted to hike Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley, but first I wanted to play tourist.

We said goodbye as we all went our separate ways, and I got in the car to head to the visitors center at Furnace Creek. After dodging sweet-smelling tourists in the halls of the exhibits, I got back in the car to go see Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the park. At -282′ below sea level, this place was HOT and covered in salt flats. I stopped at the Devil’s golf course to see the salty cracks in the earth push up into interesting formations, then on to the white panes of salt that make up the Badwater area. I could see directly across to Telescope Peak, where I would be hiking tomorrow, if all went well.

Then back in the car to drive all the way around the park, up the marginal dirt and rocky road to the Mahogany Flat campground at the base of the 7-mile climb to Telescope Peak. I made it all the way around before dark, and made myself a cozy little bed in the back of the truck with a dinner of cheese, meat stick, crackers, and wine. Glamping all the way!

I did not sleep well and was up before light, as was our pattern this week. I made coffee and waited for the sun to crest the horizon and make the world much warmer. The campground was at 8,133′ and the morning was brisk.

I drank my coffee, and read a bit before venturing out with my day pack to start the hike. Seven miles up and back. I started walking at 7:15 and the trail was in great shape. It was sloped gently enough that I could cruise without too much effort and it felt so good to stretch my legs after a half a day in the car.

The ridgeline trail was visible when I rounded corner after corner, and I had an incredible day to be up on the top of the world. Badwater Basin was shrouded in fog, and I could see over to the Sierras and Mt. Whitney! There was NO SNOW on the Sierras, and that was a bit eerie for November. Little did I know a huge fire had broken out on the other side of the mountains and had devastated the whole town of Paradise.

I encountered a whole herd of deer at one point, several being nice big bucks. And then some campers that were perched in one of the only spots a group could have camped up here.

Then up and up and up. The trail started switchbacking, and I knew I was getting closer. I had yet to stop for a break, and wanted to keep pushing.

Finally, the top! Three hours to hike the 7 miles up to 11,043′, and I was the only one up there. I signed the register and soaked in the views for a few minutes, eating lots of snacks from my pack. It felt good to be alive.

Then down. The way down went much faster, and I only saw one person heading up. It was a quiet day on the mountain. I guess the crowds of people I saw at the visitors center and at Badwater Basin are not mountain climbers.

I was back to the car by 12:15, and by then I had decided to head over to the base of the Sierras and drive back to Bend on the other side of the park. I cued up a few hours of podcasts, and spent the next few hours driving through the east side of the Death Valley park. (This place is enormous!) By dinner I was in Bishop, and decided to call it a night, finding a cheap hotel, delivery pizza, and the first shower of the week.

The next morning I weighed my options after a delicious visit to Erick Schat’s Bakkery. YUM.

I decided I would try to find a theater playing the new film, Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s free climb of El Capitan. The film isn’t playing in Bend, and I saw that Reno had a few showings, so drove up there for an early afternoon movie. INCREDIBLE film. So good.

When I got out and looked for a place to camp, I saw Bend wasn’t too far away. Maybe close enough to just drive home? Maybe?

So I drove home, getting back to Bend about midnight.

Desert Trail Day 3 – 13 miles

Did I mention 3 of us on this hike were Peace Corps volunteers? I love that. We are still trying to save the world in our own ways.

We woke in our rabbit brush rooms to the first light and quickly ate our breakfast and finished our coffee. Today was Marble Canyon!

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Now I don’t have much knowledge of Death Valley, but when I told a few people where we were hiking, they got a glint in their eye when I mentioned Marble Canyon. The word was petroglyphs and incredible canyon walls.

The canyon started slowly and morphed from an open chaparral landscape to more confined granite walls a mile or two in. The colors and patterns were dramatic and got even more so as the day progressed. We would stop occasionally to ooo and ahh at the crystals in the rock, or the striking folds of the earth. We could tell there had been a recent flooding event, and there was a mud wall plastered to the side of the canyon much like the ring in a bathtub, and it could have been from a recent rain event about a month ago that closed the road to the original section we were looking at doing.

 

Two of the hikers, Kim and Dave, decided to do a side loop down Dead Horse Canyon, so the group split up and reconnected about an hour later.

The canyon got really good after that and had narrows smoothed by years of water erosion. Simply incredible. We spotted some petroglyphs and took a few minutes trying to decipher the images. At another spot a few of us climbed up to reach some others, and after lunch break I got up from my tyvek seat to see a scorpion scurry out from underneath. Eeek!

 

 



Lots more interesting walls, a chockstone we had fun posing with, and some pretty easy walking took us to the spot where the canyon widened enough for cars to drive in to find Dave Chamness there with water for us. Very excellent!

 

Skip’s foot was bothering him, so he decided to head back to stovepipe wells with Dan while the rest of us continued on. We walked within a mile of the canyon opening and found camp on a sand bench above the gravel drainage/road.

 

It’s warm tonight. We lost over 4,000’ of elevation today, but it doesn’t feel like it, except it is a warm mild night. Tomorrow we will finish the hike and we are already talking about the celebratory meal we will eat together at the restaurant.

Desert Trail Day 2 – 9 miles

Since daylight savings just happened it was dark by 5pm and we had a solid 12 hours in our sleeping bags.

 

We were hiking before the sunlight hit us this morning, and had a short climb up away from Hidden Canyon and took a minute up top to shed some layers, soak in the warming sun and slather ourselves with sunscreen. What little cloud cover we had the day before was gone and the sun was strong for November.

 

We had easy walking through Joshua trees and dry washes, skirting around the numerous animal burrows that peppered the landscape. At the edge of Salt Flat we debated the way down, and folks took off in several directions, each convinced they had the best path. At the base of some impressive quartzite mountains we took a break, filling up with snacks and plenty of laughter. These guys are a hoot to hike with!

 

The next stretch was hot and exposed as we worked our way through salt flat, and had to take several shade breaks in slivers of shade from rocks, the side of a wash or the lean shadows of a Joshua tree.

We turned to climb a dirt road past an old mine, and the mining debris was scattered all over the place. Historical trash my foot, I don’t understand why some of this junk isn’t cleaned up.

By early afternoon we made it to Gary’s car, and our water cache. Gary graciously agreed to pack out our trash and we bid him a farewell… He was on his way to Baja… lucky guy.

We only went a short distance further before finding small flat spots between the thick rabbit brush that was choking the start of Marble Canyon. It was early and half the group took off to explore Shorty Harris canyon while I and a few others stayed behind. I read some of my Harper’s Magazine and enjoyed some quiet time.

Dinner was more laughter and a wide array of freeze dried and dehydrated dinners. Bed time early again… Tomorrow the famous Marble Canyon!

Desert Trail (Death Valley Section) Day 1- 5.5 miles

 

Since starting work on the Oregon Desert Trail I’ve been working with the Desert Trail Association. Also known as the DTA, this group of hikers had been working on creating a Mexico to Canada route in the deserts of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington since the 70s. Fast forward over 40 years and the group has been successful in designating several sections as national recreation trails, particularly in Oregon in the Pueblo and Steens Mountains. The Oregon Desert Trail ties into their sections here, and first brought me in contact with the group, based in Madras, Oregon.

Now many of the original members have passed, and many others are old enough that the Desert Trail has lost a lot of the energy and drive to continue refining the route and telling hikers about it. Now the members like to go on hikes along the route several times during the year, and I’ve started leading some of those hikes for them. I love the stories from this group, and especially the fact that many of the hikers are in their 70s or even older. When one of the board members, Skip, asked if I wanted to co-lead a few sections of the route through Death Valley in California, I jumped at the chance. I have never been to Death Valley and have heard marvelous things about the hiking there.

The Desert Trail is very much the precursor to the ODT, and much like my route, this has almost no trail, and that’s how this group likes it. There have always been bad ass desert rats wanting an immersive wilderness experience, and I very much identify. The ODT can learn a lot from this OG route, and has.

We chose November as the summers are an inferno, and it was their traditional time to meet and go hiking. When I looked at the forecast and saw 90 degree days, I knew the trip would be like one last hurrah of summer. I left Bend after work on a Friday and drove about 5 hours to just outside of Winnemucca and pulled over on a BLM road to park and sleep in the back of the car.

 

The next day I drove through the middle of Nevada and past many mountain ranges I was itching to explore. I pulled into stovepipe wells mid afternoon and found the group in the campground. Several folks I had met before, and several I hadn’t. We were joined by some other people from the Death Valley Hikers Association, and spent the first night camped together. Not everyone would be hiking, and some would be helping to cache water and shuttle cars.

We started at the Racetrack, a large alkali playa where the rocks have an eerie way of moving on their own. Our plan was to hike back to Stovepipe Wells in 4 days. About 40 miles. Because I was the youngest hiker (and the only woman) by about 30 years, we had planned some modest mileage. Skip had hiked this section several times before, although from the other direction. We figured between us we would have our bases covered. I had the guidebook to the desert trail in death valley, and the route waypointed on Gaia. Even though I haven’t been here before, we had enough resources and first hand knowledge to do the trip.

The drive to the Racetrack took 3 hours even though it was only 72 miles. About half was on a rocky washboarded road, although the group told me it was in much better shape than they had seen it before. Two cars went to drop off a vehicle at our night 2 spot as one of the hikers would have to leave early. We had water cached inside – there is no water available for the 4 days otherwise.

We all met at the Racetrack and started hiking. The Playa was beautiful and the Temps were a much more pleasant low 80s. We checked out the grandstand, a rocky outcropping in the middle of the flat, and then made our way up the climb of the day through a series of washes.

 

The mountains are enormous here, and I loved it all. After huffing and puffing up the climb we had lunch on top. The rest of the way we wound our way back down past Joshua trees and creosote bushes. We descended down to Hidden Valley, which didn’t seem so hidden because we saw a bunch of cars cruise by on the dirt road that passes through the middle. We took a lay-down break before crossing the valley to find camp at the mouth of the next climb. Basin and range baby!

 

I’m cowgirl camping tonight and it’s fairly warm… so nice to be out here.

Get creative with what you love

Some of you probably know that I’m a graphic designer, and over the years have enjoyed making logos and designs in the hiking community.

I was thrilled to help out friend and fellow badass hiker Mandy “Purple Rain” Bland with a logo for her company, Purple Rain Adventure Skirts. I’ve been wearing her skirts for the past 4 years and can confidently say they are my favorite piece of hiking gear.

I think this logo embodies Mandy and the brand so well…take a look and consider a skirt for your next hiking adventure. They look great in town too.

ODT Section 23: Day 4 – 12 miles (71 total)

I didn’t fall into the canyon for the night…the walls held for another day. As dawn broke I watched birds float above the abyss.

I wasn’t in a hurry to go, so I finished the book I had started on the hike, Timothy Egan’s Lasso the Wind. I think it was published around 2000, and there would be much to add to his survey of the “new west” if he were to do a part two. I enjoyed it immensely and it was incredibly depressing at the same time.

I headed off for a short stint on dirt roads, and the rest of the morning I hiked cross country across a vast expanse of golden bunch grass. Two cows watch me go. I wonder if this is a new grazing area because most of the public land where cows are allowed are quite simply hammered. This was different, and the walking was quite pleasant.

By late morning I faced my last big obstacle: Jordan Creek and the canyon that contained it. Several hundred feet of steep basalt walls stood between me and the end of this section, so I walked to the end where the map directed me, trusting there was a way down. And there was.

I picked my way down the steep slope, crossing the shallow creek carefully. Hikers had warned of rattle snakes in the tall grasses, so I thrashed the thick brush with my hiking poles, no snakes! In fact I haven’t seen any rattle snakes on this whole trip.

And then up. Up the other steep side. Ooofta.

I got to the top and flopped down sweaty and exhausted on my tyvek for a short lunch break. Rome was calling, and at only 4.5 miles away, it was a siren call of food and a long shower.

I got plenty of wondering looks as I walked the last 2 miles to the store on the side of the highway, and one guy who had pulled over in his semi had plenty of questions. He had no idea what the slow, lazy river that passes through Rome was capable of just a short distance away. In fact many of the people I meet out here have never been to Leslie Gulch or any of the other stunning landscapes within this area.

The rest of the afternoon was like any afternoon in civilization, and not what I came here for.

It was an incredible week, and I will do what I can to make sure this area doesn’t get drilled, extracted, exploited, or loved to death.

ODT Section 24/23: Day 3 – 16 miles (59 total)

I was lulled to sleep by the gentle flow of the Owyhee River, but woke with a panic a few hours later to the smell of smoke.

Fire can scare me quicker than almost anything else, and I sat up under the bright moon, heart racing. Since I was in the bottom of the canyon I had no vantage point to see if something was close, and had to remind myself that smoke could be coming as far as the next state, carried by the winds. What was disconcerting was that there had been no other smoke yet this week. No smells, no haze. This could be something new, and close. There wasn’t much I could do, my spot by the river was probably the best place to be even if it was close. Finally my heart returned to its normal pace, and I actually slept really well the rest of the night.

In the morning I tanked up with water in preparation for a water carry the rest of the day, tonight, and about 7 miles tomorrow. I would cross Bogus Creek in a few miles, but with the Owyhee water relatively clear, I figured I would fill up when I knew the water would be good.

The morning I walked across a lava landscape called Lambert Rocks and could spy the stunning chalk basin across the river. I finished Section 24 and started on 23. There isn’t really access to the section end, there is a road of sorts, but it was so full of jagged lava rocks that it would mean certain death for almost any tire out there. This is really a 60 mile section from Leslie Gulch to Rome, if you are talking about something vehicle accessible for a section hike. Or you could break it up at Birch Creek, a pretty good road and popular rafting take out.

The road that wasn’t a road came to an end and I crossed country-ed over to the towering basalt wall where there was supposed to be access to the top of the rim. I had already noticed the databook said there was a road there, but my map said cross country. I was very relieved to see a “road” steeply climbing up to the top. It’s good when I can catch little discrepancies like this that I can fix later. I would never in a million years drive on this road, ride a bike, motorcycle or horse on it. On foot was the only way to go. Beautiful views!!!

This started the on and off again walking of the Owyhee Rim, at hundreds of feet above the river below.

Then some cross country. I visited some dry dirt reservoirs and some nasty neon green cow trough water. I took a liter of that just for an emergency and hoped I wouldn’t have to drink it. The hue made me think maybe there was something chemical or toxic going on.

More rim, more hot exposed desert. I used my sun umbrella most of the afternoon and took breaks under it too.

I made a stop at a water trough in between a bend in the route and found good clearish water. I dumped out the day-glow green in favor of clear. Whew. I will definitely drink it.

Back to the rim where I found camp right on the edge. So close in fact that after about an hour I changed my mind and moved farther back from the edge. Thousands of years of rock fall from the vertical cliffs was apparent below and I didn’t want to be the trigger for the next big release of rock.

Last night of the section, I’ll be staying in a cabin in Rome tomorrow! Burger, beer and bed!!!!

And no evidence of fire, haze or smoke today. Nice.

ODT Section 24: Day 1: 15 miles (26 total)

Last night I had climbed up on the arm of the potentially sketchy game trail portion of the problem area and cowgirl camped in a flatish spot. There was a slight downhill tilt to the area, so I put all my extra gear on that side so it would block me from sliding into the dirt. I bet of all my nights outside a good quarter of them are in less than ideal spots. In this case the benefit far outweighed the tilt for I had an incredible view of the Owyhee reservoir.

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The night was incredibly quiet and still. Once the waxing half moon set the stars gave any planetarium out there a run for their money.

In the morning I ate my cold soak oatmeal (a Katie Gerber idea… she is a nutritionist who is currently hiking the ODT with my good friend Allgood and another lovely thru-hiker I know, Swept Away.) It’s my goal to find them after my hike this week and bring them treats.

I headed up the trail that looked more legit than just a game trail. I bet people from Leslie Gulch hike up here to check out the canyon. I went slow and reminded myself of my CDT mantra: one step at a time. Each time I rounded a rocky outcropping I saw the path continued, but it most definitely was a game trail by about half way through. The earth was dry and crumbly and I had to be intentional with many steps, although some sections were in great shape. As I neared spring creek the going got tougher and at one point I was downright scared as I had to cross a steep washed out section… I sat down, braced my hiking pole on a rock below me and willed my feet to stay put as I tried for purchase to cross the void. I was sweating a little. But all went well to the bottom of the next drainage. The high game trail goes, if you don’t mind one hairy section. From water level again it looked easier to walk the steep edge of the water than it had from the other side, I’m pretty sure Allgood and crew crossed this low way two weeks ago.

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Spring creek was running, and I crossed over it to walk the muddy banks of the water to my next landmark, Willow Creek.

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The guidebook advised to stay higher on the west side of the drainage, but I walked up the middle following the braided cow trails that had pushed trails through the brush. After a while I decided to go up as the canyon narrowed, and spent the next 2+ miles up and down, on cow trails and off. Nothing terribly difficult, just taxing. The upper end was choked with willows and a few bigger trees, and the canyon was lined with incredible rock formations.

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I met up with a dirt road next. Relief! I freaking love walking on an easy dirt road after an arduous cross country morning. I took a short break in some shade and switched to my chacos for some blissful road walking.

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I got to the turnoff point for the alternate route I had wanted to connect with what Becky and I had hiked yesterday, but it looked narrow, brushy, and exactly what I didn’t want to hike at the moment. Seeing it now in person, I doubted this side of the alternate would work, but I do think a higher elevation option could do the trick. I know I can get some good detail on Google earth as I could see a way up (or down) from my vantage point, and from looking closer at the topo maps, think it could be doable. I just didn’t have the energy to climb a few thousand feet to scope it out all the way.

I continued on and had lunch in the shade of am incredibly large sagebrush. Next was a fabulous spring that was pouring cold clear water into a cattle trough. Yum! I tanked up and took 6 ½ liters which would have to get me to tomorrow’s night camp some 20+ miles away. Not a huge water carry by ODT standards.

I trudged up a break in the Rimrock and took a moment to take some photo monitoring images in a narrow pinch point in the terrain. This year I’m getting some baseline photo data for places on the trail where hikers are funneled through the terrain. I want to gauge if we are having impacts on cross country sections within Wilderness Study Areas along the route. In this instance I was walking on a well defined cow trail…and the evidence was all around. Cow pies of various ages, and grasses chewed within inches of the ground. No sign of hiker impacts. We’ll continue to get photos from about 20 different spots along the route each year and see what is happening. So far, the cows have a dramatic impact, hikers, none.

The top of the Owyhee Canyon is flatish and dry. I hiked cross country by a few dirt reservoirs, two with water, one with cows, and a couple dry ones. The rest of the afternoon was on two track dusty roads before I pulled off at a viewpoint down into the Birch Creek area. I’m far enough away that I can’t quite tell what I’m looking at, but it’s gorgeous!

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Oh! And I can see the Steens from here! The unmistakable Kiger Notch marks the presiding hulk of the 50-mile mountain over the rest on the Oregon desert. That’s only about 300 ODT miles from here.