Owens Valley to Saline Valley to Death Valley and back

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Day Trippin'' started by De Eee, Mar 23, 2012.

  1. De Eee

    De Eee Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Mar 30, 2006
    Oddometer:
    172
    Location:
    20 miles from Santiago Pk.
    Last year I had been making plans to do a Death Valley ride when my bike started making some loud knocking noises (it’s a 2007 KTM 450 EXCR). The mechanic determined that it was rebuild time and I handed the bike over hoping it wouldn’t end the desert season for me. Well, it did. He ended up having the bike for 6 months (long story) which ended the desert season and even used up the summer season much to my agony. I finally got it back in the fall.
    I wanted to get a handful of engine confidence building rides in before doing a multi day ride and after a few Saddleback Pk. and Mojave desert rides I trusted my bike again.

    Obscure Mojave singletrack.
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    So last month I set a date and went for it. The idea was to explore the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:placeName w:st="on">Saline</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Valley</st1:placeType> area, camp at the <st1:City w:st="on">hot springs</st1:City> and loop back through <st1:place w:st="on">Death Valley</st1:place>. I wanted to go alone so that I could follow my own whims, explore side roads, take as many pictures as I desired and not inhale any dust.
    My plan was pretty vague. It was either leave my van in Olancha and go from the south or leave it in Big Pine and go from the north. I had been reading the Mitchell SUV guide and knew I wanted to do the <st1:placeName w:st="on">Steel</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Pass</st1:placeType> road past the <st1:City w:st="on">Eureka</st1:City> dunes either going to or from the <st1:placeName w:st="on">Saline</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Valley</st1:placeType> <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">hot springs</st1:place></st1:City>. On the drive up I decided it was a Big Pine start. There is a campground at the north end of town I have driven by many times. I thought that might be a good place to leave the van. Hopefully it wouldn&#8217;t cost too much.
    I left home at 5:30 am on a Wed. and got to Big Pine at 10:30 am. I stopped to ask about the snow conditions on the <st1:Street w:st="on"><st1:address w:st="on">Big Pine Rd.</st1:address></st1:Street> heading east. It goes over 7500&#8217; and I could see a fair bit of snow up there. I was a little concerned since my rear tire was darn near bald. The Fish and Game guy at the gas station said &#8220;no problem, it&#8217;s been warm for a few days.&#8221; It had snowed just a few days earlier. The weather was perfect with 70 degrees forecast for <st1:place w:st="on">Death Valley</st1:place>. It was a pleasant surprise to find I could leave the van for $2 a day! I packed up, ate lunch and was ready to go at noon. There is no feeling like setting off on an adventure on your own. I was filled with the anticipation and the slight nervousness that is typical when launching into the unknown. I love that feeling!

    Near the Waucoba Crest.
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    After stopping near the Waukoba crest of the Inyos for a last view west at the snow covered Sierra I blasted east heading for the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Eureka</st1:City></st1:place> Dunes.. The dunes are famous for &#8220;booming.&#8221; A strange phenomenon occurs there with the right wind conditions. When just right, the sound of the sand blowing off the crest and cascading down the sides (of the dunes) makes them &#8220;sing/boom.&#8221; It is only one of two places in the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">U.S.</st1:country-region></st1:place> (or the world?) where this effect has ever been observed. The dunes are beautiful. I thought I might stop and hike to the top but I was a little anxious about the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Dedeckera</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Canyon</st1:placeType></st1:place> narrows and decided to continue after a few photos.

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    The Nat. Geo. map mentions &#8220;deep sand&#8221; looping around the dunes and I read about an ADV. inmate dumping his 950 SE there. Also, the Mitchell book mentions class 3-5 4x4 sections in the narrows. After doing the Dusy-Ershim a couple of years ago I knew that class 4 and 5 can be ultra gnarly. I figured I could always move some rocks around and/or take my load off and carry it (the load, not the bike!) up the rock steps in the canyon.
    The deep sand section was very soft and deep but I made that without mishap.
    After a photo break at the mouth of the canyon I headed in. I came around a corner and saw a step and cruised right up. There were a couple more and I thought &#8220;the gnarly part must be just around the corner.&#8221; However, the canyon proceeded to just open up, hmm wtf? I went another half mile and sure enough that must have been it! I laughed and went back for photos and rode it again. When the road has been scoured by flash floods and the sand washed away it can be much worse.

    Class IV?
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    The road between the dunes and the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">hot springs</st1:City></st1:place> is considered one of the most remote in the desert southwest and it is. I didn&#8217;t see another soul between the dunes and the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">hot springs</st1:place></st1:City> and I was really digging the remote vibe. There is one other very steep, but short, part the book mentions. It wasn&#8217;t bad either.

    Looking down the bajada towards Saline Valley.
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    The views are epic and the scale of the place just slaps you in the face. What looks like 5 miles turns into 20 miles. The colors of the mountains are surreal and my photos couldn&#8217;t do it justice. I stopped a couple of times and was blown away by the silence. There wasn&#8217;t any sound at all. One time I was stopped I did hear a strange noise, but before I could identify it a jet shot by about 40 feet off the deck heading down the bajada towards the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Saline</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Valley</st1:placeType></st1:place> which loomed about 20 miles in the distance.
    I could see the oasis of the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">hot springs</st1:place></st1:City> off a ways ahead. I had been there as a kid with my family 40 years before but didn&#8217;t remember a thing about them. The map shows three separate springs. The furthest one east is the most primitive and the other two are where most folks go.
    I pulled up to &#8220;Upper Warm Springs&#8221; at around 3:30 and stopped to check it out. This one has a fence around it to keep the wild burros from eating all the vegetation. There are two small pools. One is about 100+ degrees and the other is cooler at about 85-90. There were 2 young couples camping there and they were very nice even offering to share their &#8220;supplies.&#8221; I had to decline their generous offer. It was 3 miles down to the next springs and I headed down to investigate where the best camping would be.

    The pools at Upper Warm Springs.
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    The next lower springs (known as &#8220;Palm&#8221; springs) were more popular with maybe 8 different groups camping nearby. These pools are paved with stone and have stone decks around them. It is all very sano. There is even a shower for pre-soak rinsing. The vibe wasn&#8217;t quite as friendly here. I asked the two guys in one pool how many pools there were and said &#8220;it looks like people are living here.&#8221; One of them sternly told me &#8220;this is a National Park, there is a 2 week limit.&#8221; Like I didn&#8217;t know. I walked over to the other pool and one ole naked dude notified me that I had already broken the &#8220;rules.&#8221; I had to laugh and asked &#8220;wow, that was quick, what did I do?&#8221; &#8220;You&#8217;re standing on the deck in your boots.&#8221; I told him &#8220;this is the first <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">hot springs</st1:place></st1:City> I&#8217;ve ever been to that has rules!&#8221; Then we all laughed. He told me that &#8220;sitting on sand on the deck is hard on the bum&#8221; and that the caretaker had just cleaned everything up. It was no big deal but I decided to camp at the upper springs anyway and headed back up the road. It was about 80 miles from Big Pine to the springs.

    Camp at sunset.
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    I set up camp and jumped into the pool with the youngins&#8217;. Ah, the pleasure of a hot soak with views into geologic time, awesome. I cracked a beer and all was perfect.
    Later that night I was alone in the pool. There were hundreds of bats dive bombing into the pool all around me to get drinks. I turned on my headlamp to watch. One cute little bat dive bombed the water and then crashed into my face. He splashed into the water one foot in front of me. He sat there for 10 seconds, shook it off, and flew away. I tried to take a video of the bats but the lighting didn&#8217;t work out.
    In the morning I got up pre-dawn to watch the sunrise while soaking in the pool. There is nothing like watching the sunrise on distant snow covered mountains while sitting in a <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">hot springs</st1:place></st1:City>. Then, I went for a short hike, packed up and headed out.
    I rode 3 miles back to the &#8220;Palm&#8221; springs and another mile or so and came to the &#8220;Lower Warm Springs.&#8221; There were quite a few cars camped around a thick brush and palm oasis next to the caretakers site. He had quite the setup with solar panels and a makeshift cabin made of plywood and junk. I didn&#8217;t stop to check the pool but continued on by and on towards the snow covered <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Inyo</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Mtns.</st1:placeType></st1:place> in the distance. The eastern escarpment of the Inyos rises ~ 10,000 feet from the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Saline</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Valley</st1:placeType></st1:place> to its highest points. It is very impressive.

    A few towers on the salt tram.
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    I hit the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Saline</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Valley</st1:placeType></st1:place> road and turned south. In the next 20 miles I stopped to check out the old Boraxo Works, the Salt Tram and the wildlife preserve. The &#8220;Salt Tram&#8221; was an amazing bit of early 20<SUP>th</SUP> century technology, a line of towers all the way up and over the Inyos and down the other side to <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Swansea</st1:place></st1:City>. It climbed 7,700 feet and was 13.5 miles long. In the 12 years of it's operation between 1912 and 1933 it hauled some 30,000 tons of salt to the rail line. The guys that built that rig were bad-ass. Sometime that morning a couple more jets rocketed by just above and did a wing wave.
    This is what I had come for; cruising along on my moto in the solitude of the remote desert.
    The road going south is pretty good with the exception of some deep silt and surprise washouts. The further south you go the rockier it gets. After awhile I came to the Lippencott grade turnoff. This steep 4x4 road climbs out of the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Saline</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Valley</st1:placeType></st1:place> and up to the area of the &#8220;Racetrack.&#8221; I had ridden the grade before and found it almost as steep and just as rocky as I remembered.

    Lippencott turnoff.
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    The Racetrack is a usually dry lakebed famous for its mysterious moving rocks. I stopped there to hike out to the &#8220;Grandstand,&#8221; have lunch and look for some of the famous rocks. I talked to a guy there who had come over Hunter Mtn. from Panamint Springs and &#8220;Teakettle Junction&#8221; on his KLR. That was the way I planned to go next but in the opposite direction. After quizzing me he decided that the Lippencott descent would be way too sketchy on his KLR and he decided to head back the long mellow way via the Ubehebe Crater.

    The Grandstand at the Racetrack.
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    Looking back at the Racetrack. The small island is the Grandstand.
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    Off to the Teakettle Junction and I took a right through Lost Burro Gap and into Hidden Valley. A few miles in I could see a huge cloud of dust from a vehicle a couple miles ahead. Soon I was there and sure enough there was a long deep silt section. Five miles past that I stopped at an intersection to check the map. A 4x4 pulled up and the lady in the passenger seat asked me if I too had missed the turnoff to the Racetrack. I laughed and told her they had missed the turnoff quite a ways back but that I was right where I wanted to be. They had gone almost 20 miles out of their way before turning around.
    I turned right and started climbing up towards Hunter Mtn. The desert scrub gave way to junipers, pinyons and other mountain flora. Soon I was back in the snow. I saw many great campsites and all with tons of wood for campfires. From the top of the Hunter Mtn. area Mt. Williamson and the snow covered Sierra were visible over the top of the Inyo range.

    Near the top of Hunter Mtn.
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    I was soon over the top and down to &#8220;South Pass,&#8221; where the views down into the <st1:placeName w:st="on">Panamint</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Valley</st1:placeType> to the left and the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Saline</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Valley</st1:placeType></st1:place> to the right are stunning. Instead of bee-lining it to Panamint Springs, I decided to take the dirt to the old mining town of <st1:City w:st="on">Darwin</st1:City> and around to the south past the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Darwin</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Falls</st1:placeType></st1:place> trailhead and then out to Panamint Springs.

    You've got mail?
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    <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Darwin</st1:place></st1:City> is virtually a ghost town but does boast of 50 (&#8220;or so&#8221;) inhabitants. There is at least one active mine there. In the canyon that I looped around to the south there were wild burro trails all over the place. I jumped off the road and followed the burro trails that run parallel. I stopped at the China Garden Springs where there is water and then on to Panamint.

    Year round water.
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    The bar in Panamint has a huge fancy beer selection so I got a couple of &#8220;Arrogant Bastards&#8221; for my camp, gassed up and headed NE into the main part of <st1:place w:st="on">Death Valley</st1:place>. It was getting a little late so I decided to head for the Mesquite Springs campground for the night. As I passed the main dunes I realized I could hit <st1:placeName w:st="on">Titus</st1:placeName> <st1:placeName w:st="on">Canyon</st1:placeName> on the way and turned towards Beatty, <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Nevada</st1:place></st1:State>. The approach to Titus was very cool but it was dark by the time I got just past the ghost town of Leadville so I didn&#8217;t really get to see the canyon, just the walls of the narrows as illuminated by my headlight. I got to <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Mesquite</st1:City></st1:place> at 7:30, grabbed a site and moved in.
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    After beers and dinner I was laying in my tent reading (Cormac McCarthy &#8220;All the Pretty Horses&#8221;) and realized the extra miles of the Titus excursion might have jeopardized my chances of reaching Big Pine with the gas I had. It was going to be very close. I had significantly less than 2 gallons left in my 4 gallon Safari tank and it was 80+ miles to the van. The bike gets ~50+ miles to a gallon. In the morning I noticed my neighbors had a KLR and a DR and I could see gas cans in their truck so I asked if I could buy a gallon. They were from <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Oregon</st1:place></st1:State> and very friendly. They sold me a gallon and I was set.

    Ready to go. Cool neighbor camp in background.
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    Heading north out of <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Mesquite</st1:City></st1:place>, the feeling of desolation sets in quick. The north end of the valley isn&#8217;t as visually stimulating but the emptiness is. I could see a dust cloud far, far to the south from a following car while I stopped to take care of business. It never seemed to get any closer.

    Crankshaft Crossing.
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    At the north end the road goes west at Crankshaft Crossing and into the appropriately named Last Chance mountain range. Soon after that it dropped into the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Eureka</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Valley</st1:placeType></st1:place> and I could see the Eureka Dunes to the south. I had come full circle. From there it was 36 paved miles back to Big Pine. I stopped and took a panorama photo series of the Sierra. The dark hulk of Split Mtn. (14.058') is visible in the middle left.


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    Back at the van.

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    To wind down a little I grabbed a beer in Big Pine and went out to the Keogh <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">hot springs</st1:place></st1:City> for a soak. I sat looking at the Inyos to the east with that mix of accomplishment and happiness that accompanies the end of a great ride and the disappointment that it is over. Oh well, time to plan the next one.

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    My new Trail Tech Voyager GPS had recorded 382 miles for the ride. ~80 the first day, 220 the second and another 80 the last day. I was impressed by the accuracy of the Voyager. From ~7500 feet above sea level to ~100 feet below sea level it was always right on. When I got home and downloaded the ride on Ride Leader/Google Earth I could zoom in and even the several small loops I made while trying to decide where to camp were distinctly visible.

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    #1
  2. madeouttaglass

    madeouttaglass Hippie Ki Yay! Humboldt changed my life.

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2009
    Oddometer:
    6,112
    Location:
    The Lost Coast of California, and lower Arizona
    Thank you for posting that. I'm looking for places to go on my way through there next month. This helps.
    #2
  3. sealsam

    sealsam Sam...I am. Supporter

    Joined:
    May 30, 2010
    Oddometer:
    7,564
    Location:
    seal beach, ca.
    Sure enjoyed your narrative of DV. Your pics seem 'different' than what i'm usually seeing of DV. Very good stuff! Simple, yet very descriptive.

    Nice report, thanks for sharing. :thumb
    #3
  4. dabracing

    dabracing Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2008
    Oddometer:
    498
    Location:
    NorCal
    Nice ride. I did a very similar ride last spring on my 950SE but on day 2, I went south and did North South Rd and Mengel Pass, then back to Big Pine.
    Maybe it was my RR you read: http://advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=680888 because I did have a tip-over at that spot you took that picture heading towards Hot Springs from Eureka dunes.
    Nothing like traversing Death Valley solo!!!!
    #4
  5. PinkPillion

    PinkPillion Husqy pilot too...

    Joined:
    Dec 21, 2009
    Oddometer:
    563
    Location:
    Northeastern California
    "In the morning I got up pre-dawn to watch the sunrise while soaking in the pool. There is nothing like watching the sunrise on distant snow covered mountains while sitting in a hot springs."


    So damn true!!
    Great report De Eee. Bummer you couldn't catch the bats on film. Thanks for sharing.
    :thumb
    #5
  6. eakins

    eakins Butler Maps

    Joined:
    May 29, 2002
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    36,707
    Location:
    Fort Collins, Colorado
    very nice.
    #6
  7. De Eee

    De Eee Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Mar 30, 2006
    Oddometer:
    172
    Location:
    20 miles from Santiago Pk.
    Hey dabracing
    yeah, that was your report I read about the tank-slapper in the sand. That is some fine (i.e. small particles!) sand!
    D
    #7
  8. Ozmandrew

    Ozmandrew Adventurer

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2012
    Oddometer:
    12
    Location:
    Southbay / SoCal
    Enjoyed your RR. Been all over southern Death Valley & looking forward to criss crossing the wonderfully, peaceful & empty north. Just how it should be! Glad your 450's back & healthy.
    #8
  9. dabracing

    dabracing Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2008
    Oddometer:
    498
    Location:
    NorCal
    Ah, cool! The tank-slapper...not so cool. My bike is a bit heavier than yours :-)
    #9
  10. HOFNAR

    HOFNAR Nobody panic. Let’s all clam down.

    Joined:
    Feb 26, 2011
    Oddometer:
    205
    Location:
    Placer County
    sent pm.
    #10
  11. BrockEvan

    BrockEvan Brock Warwick Supporter

    Joined:
    Dec 8, 2008
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    2,533
    Location:
    Brea, CA
    awesome solo trip and great report!
    #11
  12. DeFens

    DeFens Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Jun 12, 2006
    Oddometer:
    512
    Location:
    Monroe, WA
    Very cool report of a fantastic trip. It's been years since I was in DV for a spring seminar as a geology student. You really rekindled my desire to go back, this time on a bike!
    #12
  13. MasterMarine

    MasterMarine Long timer

    Joined:
    Jan 22, 2007
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    Location:
    Now serving just Snohomish County
    Nice report and pics. Thanks for sharing!
    #13
  14. dwrads

    dwrads Right Wristed

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    Dec 4, 2005
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    Orange County California
    #14
  15. De Eee

    De Eee Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Mar 30, 2006
    Oddometer:
    172
    Location:
    20 miles from Santiago Pk.
    Hey Dave. I enjoyed reading your report from '08 again. Your pics were better!
    #15
  16. BSchu

    BSchu Adventurer

    Joined:
    May 24, 2008
    Oddometer:
    68
    Location:
    Mammoth Lakes
    I remember seeing you on the 395 heading south...Noticed your van in the pix. I was headed to a D37 race that weekend, with a KTM on a 3 rail trailer. Sweet Trip Report!
    #16
  17. CREnorth

    CREnorth Adventurer

    Joined:
    Sep 16, 2007
    Oddometer:
    11
    Location:
    Eastern Sierra, Ca.
    Very nice report De Eee, Thanks for posting.
    #17
  18. De Eee

    De Eee Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Mar 30, 2006
    Oddometer:
    172
    Location:
    20 miles from Santiago Pk.
    A couple more pics.

    A sign
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    The slope the salt tram went up.
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    #18