December 3-6, 2008
We arrived at Mesquite Springs Campground in Death Valley and got the tent set up right away in spot #7, the same site we had in January with Dean and Diane. I walked up to pay the $12 fee at the solar-powered, satellite accessed, self-registration kiosk. I was having trouble with the credit card input when Ken and Karen drove in. We greeted one another enthusiastically.

Ken and Karen’s full-size 4x4 pickup has a unique pop-up camper that Ken built himself. It is roomy and conveniently arranged with a table, seating, a cooktop and sink, with the large bed over the truck’s cab. It even has a porta-potty! Judson and Pat soon arrived, along with friends Bill and Elaine. This year there was a camp host and the couple who was in residence graciously consented to let us leave our Honda and Judson’s A-Liner trailer parked in an empty spot when we took off on our backcountry adventure. The roads we were going on were not suitable for trailers or Honda sedans!

Bill is an astronomer and of course he had with him a powerful telescope. We all got a good look at the moons of Jupiter after dark as we listened to Bill explain many interesting facts about the universe. Next morning, we loaded our stuff into Ken’s camper and moved our car to our designated spot. We hopped into the back seat of the pickup and bounced along the rocky roads toward Crankshaft Junction behind Judson, our fearless and experienced leader. Bill and Elaine joined the caravan in their Volvo Cross Country wagon. They planned to stay with us as far as Eureka Dunes. They would then drive out of the park on Big Pine Road, back into DV over North Pass, and meet up with us again at Warm Springs. Judson and Ken would be driving over Steel Pass, a famously difficult route. Clark and I had no idea what was in store, but we had confidence in our drivers.

Camping at Eureka Dunes Dry Camp (no water) was a kick. The “toilet” did not have a door and it was open to view. I tied an orange bandanna to one of Karen’s walking sticks and we propped that up by the doorway to let folks know when the room was occupied. That worked well for us, but any approaching cars would have a still clear view. Wouldn’t you know that Karen would get caught in there when a vehicle came driving into camp!

The view at the dunes goes on forever, especially when you get high on the 600-foot summit. Clark and I did not go all the way, but the others did. After dinner, we all enjoyed a bonfire and entertainment– two guitars, Ken playing the violin. We sang old songs and sat quietly mesmerized by the flames and Karen’s lovely voice. It was a very cold night. We were not warm enough. I had left our down blanket in the Honda, mistakenly thinking we were at a lower and warmer elevation.

Next morning, we took down the tent, stuffed the sleeping bags, and tossed our gear into the camper. Judson lead us toward Steel Pass, stopping along the way for interesting views and desert mysteries. He halted his small Toyota below the pass to check it out on foot. Another vehicle was firmly stuck in the narrowest spot. The couple had been working to free their Montero for over two hours without success. Judson got out his tools and we all headed up the road to help.

Gino and Maria were from the Bay Area and were on a photographic safari too. Gino makes his living as a photographer. We had fun getting to know them during the time it took to free the Montero. I put together a two-minute Quicktime® movie of the adventure when we got home. See the DV Extras page to view.

Judson dearly wanted us to see some little-known condor petroglyphs. Ken followed the Toyota down the very bumpy road, as we ogled at the desert wonders. There were Joshua trees and black lava, vistas of striated hills with sagebrush and cactus. Only Judson knew the location of the trail, though there really wasn’t a trail at all. Pat and Judson took off across the washes and led us into the hills, but we felt he knew where he was going. Finally, we came upon several large carvings of condors, along with smaller animals and symbols, on the canyon walls. It was worth the walk, even though the light was fading, making photography less than optimal. Wow. We felt privileged to have seen these ancient artifacts. Not many people are so lucky.

We had to find Warm Springs in inky darkness after sunset. The headlights of the truck barely penetrated the blackness– seeing the gravel “road” was difficult. It looked so much like part of the desert itself. After what seemed like hours, we came upon a man standing beside the road with a flashlight. It was Gino! He was waiting there to direct us to the primitive camp where he and Maria were already set up. Bill and Elaine had also been waiting for hours, but fortunately had spoken to Gino, who assured him that we were on our way. Again, we pitched our tent and rolled out the bedding, set up the table and chairs inside the tent. We were so tired! Clark prepared some dinner before we walked over to the hot pool where everyone else was already soaking. It was so dark that we just stripped down to nothing and climbed in. Ahhhhhh. Lovely. We would sleep well. We heard burros and coyotes outside the tent during the night.

Next morning, some of us took another soak but Clark and I decided to explore the area we had only seen by flashlight. We wanted to see what the pool looked like in the sun! There were more campers about than we expected, some of them walking around with no clothing. This is quite an interesting spot that is, by and large, maintained by those who use it. There are people who have been coming here for decades. And then there are those who have just had the opportunity to discover it!

On the agenda for the next day was a drive past old salt evaporating ponds and over Lippincott Road, where we would camp at Homestake Dry Camp. We posed at the unique Bat Road signpost before proceeding down a road marked with a “CLOSED” sign. Someone had scratched in “but passable”. The salt ponds intrigued us. The unique tram system that carried the salt was built between 1911-1913. The first full bucket went over in 1913. The entire system only ran 13.5 miles, but was remarkable in that it carried its heavy loads over the Inyo Mountains, up to the summit, and down the other side to Swansea near Owens Lake. The tram derricks are still standing tall and weathered against the reflections of the surrounding hills in the algae-colored waters. The shores sprout stubs of pilings and dikes used to contain the drying ponds.

The farther along Lippincott Road we went, the more worried Karen and I became. It was extremely slow going over the loose, sharp and broken rock. Luckily, we had a closet pole overhead to hang onto when the jostling was the worst, but we also had our heads banged on that same pole several times! When the road made an inside turn, there was invariably a washout. Ken’s big truck wheels tipped precariously over the edge. We gals got out to walk around many of these. It seemed safer! Judson would stop his smaller Toyota ahead and walk back to spot Ken as he maneuvered the really tight corners. It was fortunate that while we two were slowly making our way up the mountain, nobody else was coming down. There were no wide spots to pull over, even for a Jeep. The road snaked along the edges, we two 4x4 vehicles just barely clinging to the steep incline. What a ride! Judson, who had come this way before, said he’d never seen it this bad and that if he’d known, he never would have chosen this route. But we were stuck– there would be no turning around.

Before reaching the summit, we stopped for a look over the wide Saline Valley from whence we’d come so many hours before. After pitching our tents on hard, lumpy rock, we filled our bellies. The long day ended as we sat wrapped in blankets and warmeing ourselves around a nice fire before heading off to bed. Thankfully, Karen lent us a spare down sleeping bag to spread over the top of our bedding. It was icy cold overnight and no at all fun getting up in the middle of it to climb out into the frosty air and pee behind the tent. The down saved us from freezing solid.

We made it to The Race Track! We had so wanted to visit with Dean and Diane back in January but were worried that our Hondas would suffer too much from the rocky roads. Now we were here! What a wonderfully strange place this is– a huge expanse of flat clay that becomes slick when wet. That is when the rocks travel across the playa, powered by wind gusts. Fascinating that nobody has actually witnessed the rocks moving, but the trails they leave are testament to their mysterious behavior. We took lots of photos and I didn’t want to leave when the others went back to their cars.

Ken, Karen, Pat and Judson all hiked up to the top of Ubehebe Peak. Clark and I relaxed at The Grandstand, taking photos and napping until they returned. Everyone enjoyed the lunch we had laid out on the tailgate. Bouncing down the road back to Mesquite Springs, we passed Teakettle Junction, and stopped for a quick look at Ubehebe Crater. Ken and Karen unloaded our stuff back at campsite #7, Judson hooked up his A-Liner, and they both drove away, leaving us to pitch our tent one last time before driving home. Our great southwest adventure had come to an end. What a memorable month– spectacular sights and wonderful friends. We absolutely have to do this again! (Maybe not with a tent though...)../../DV_Extras.html../../DV_Extras.htmlshapeimage_2_link_0shapeimage_2_link_1