5th Annual Death Valley Trip Report

[Last updated: 04.November.2021]


For the fifth year running, over the Martin Luther King holiday (Jan 17-19, 1998), a group of 5 4x4's, led by our fearless leader Terry Johnson, met in Ridgecrest, CA. early on the morning of January, 17, 1998 in preparation for two days of off-road adventure in Panamint and Death Valleys. The group consisted of:


Trona PinnaclesI had arrived about midnight and decided to head out to the Trona Pinnacles National Historical Landmark, about 25 minutes northeast of Ridgecrest. I was surprised to find a large trailer and lots of equipment at the main parking area. The caretaker, a local gun shop owner, informed me that they had just wrapped up location filming at the Pinnacles for an upcoming dinosaur movie (tentatively titled "The Trouble with Dinosaurs") which should be released in 1999. They were packing up to move first to Poison Canyon (which is between the Pinnacles and Ridgecrest) and then to the Arizona desert to finish the location shots. Post production would add in the computer-generated dinosaurs and live actors. Evidently, this area is heavily used by Hollywood for location shots. Anyway, I got to see the sunrise before I had to leave. Next time, I'm going to spend more time here. There are countless dirt roads winding through nearly ten miles of the tufa formations and it looks quite interesting.

After a quick drive back to Ridgecrest, the group formed up and headed north through Trona, a town right out of the B-movies of the 50's. Looks like the abandoned town being attacked by space aliens.

Panamint ValleyThen we crested the pass and dropped into Panamint Valley. The "town" of Ballarat is in the distance.

Ballarat General StoreAfter leaving the pavement and crossing the valley floor, here is the General Store, now run by Louie, after the recent departure of Don. We stocked up on the essentials, T-shirts, maps, etc.


Surprise Canyon:

After airing down to 25 PSI, we then headed up Indian Ranch Road for a few miles before turning up Surprise Canyon (at the large white rock), where we drove up to the first winch waterfall. There were a few interesting spots on the road after it dropped into the creek bed. The water was running pretty good, leaving a slick mossy coating on the smooth rocks.

HINT: When driving in a canyon and the road forks, you'll generally want to take the lower fork if you intend to stay in the canyon. Surprise was no exception, you reach a fork halfway up the canyon. The upper one looks to be maintained, while the lower one is not much more than tire tracks. The upper road leads to the old Chris Wicht camp and is less than amiable residents (as evidenced by their rock art (below) and propensity to blockade the canyon road).

WaterfallA small waterfall, required a bit of guiding for the non-locked rigs.

Rock 1, Bronco 0The full-sized Bronco managed to find rocks on the side of the trail, one of which had a bite of James' step and bumper.

Jeep Truck Go Home!There is a small mine/homestead near the waterfalls and the locals are not too pleased with their 4-wheeling neighbors as evidenced by their graffiti.

You've got a winch, Terry!The first waterfall was awesome, especially when you think of trucks winching up and down it and considering it would be rated a Class 3 climbing route in Yosemite. We walked up the first three falls, enjoying the scenery. The ghost town of Panamint City is between 5-6 miles further upstream, past 4 more waterfalls.

After turning around in the narrow canyon (an adventure in its own right), I lead the way back down the canyon. When we reached the little waterfall, I went right down the dropoff I had climbed on the way in. The wheels lost traction about a foot from the bottom and I ended up bouncing the rear end a bit, testing the outer corners of my rear bumper on a few of the rocks lining the falls. We guided Don around the drop.

Major air!Tim went down the drop. His left front went down first, offering this fantastic photo-op. James and Terry took the outside route.


Goler Wash:

Once clear of the canyon. we headed back to Ballarat. then south along a fairly good macadam road to the Briggs Gold mine. After the mine the road turned to washboard for the next 10 miles.

Don West in Goler WashAt 15.3 miles from Ballarat, is the left turn into Goler Wash. After the canyon narrows, there are a few challenging spots. Don couldn't quite make this ledge in 2WD. Dropping into 4-Hi did the trick. Here's a QuickTime clip of the climb (300 k)

The gate.The ranch houseCharlie, is that you?At the top of the canyon, we made a sharp left turn just after passing the DVNP boundary sign, passed through a dense stand of trees and arrived at the infamous Barker Ranch, one-time hideout of Charles Manson. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed the scenery. Pictured above are the front gate, the main ranch house and one of the out buildings. In case you are wondering about the colors above, I did take a few liberties with the color saturation during post processing. I found that the bright desert sun caused the colors on the video to be washed out. I like the affect, it adds to the surrealistic quality of the ranch.


Butte Valley:

Butte Valley and Striped ButteContinuing eastward, we crested Mengel Pass, dropped into Butte Valley and its abandoned cabins followed by Warm Springs Valley and its abandoned mines, finally reaching the West Side road in Death Valley itself just after sunset.Sunset in Warm Springs Valley

A mad dash north in the dark past Badwater and Furnace Creek, led us to our overnight stop in Beatty, NV. Copious quantities of cheap food were consumed before retiring for a good nights sleep. Rumor has it that a few souls braved the casino and may have even come out ahead!


Titus Canyon:

Sunday morning dawned clear and cold. I disconnected my sway bar which I had neglected to do the day before. After a hearty breakfast ("Could we get some more coffee?") we gassed up and retraced out route back to the Titus Canyon turnoff. About 15 miles of whoop-dee-doos and washboard later, we entered Titanothere Canyon, where Terry stopped to check out some noise in his front suspension. It turned out the top nut had come off his shock, leaving it to rattle around. I pulled the second steering stabilizer off my rig and the nut, cup washer and rubber bushing fit his Rancho shock perfectly.

Upper Titus CanyonOver a narrow pass, we (along with our jaws) dropped into upper Titus Canyon with its brightly colored rock.

Leadfield ghost townShortly thereafter, we came to the site of the Leadfield ghost town, then some india petroglyphs and Klare Spring. It is this spring that attracts the big horn sheep in the summer months that prompts the closing of Titus Canyon from May-Oct.

Notice the mud on the canyon wallsSoon we entered the lower canyon and the high narrow walls were breathtaking. You would see signs of dried mud 30-40 feet up the sheer walls where flash floods left it. Wouldn't want to be in there when a thunderstorm hit!

Exit to Death ValleyAt the exit to the canyon, the group split up. Don and James turned north to visit Scotty's Castle, Ubehebe Crater and if time permitted, the Racetrack. I assume they made it back or else Don's computer is sending out e-mail on it own!


Echo Canyon:

[Click here for another Echo Canyon trip report]

Terry, Tim, Bob, and I turned south towards Furnace Creek and Echo Canyon, beyond. Under the clear sunny skies, temperatures were in the upper 70's. On the paved road, Tim's 22R lost a cylinder and we pulled over. Bob noticed a sparkplug wire had fallen over on the the exhaust manifold and was shorting out. A bit of electrician's tape and it seemed to run better. A few miles up Echo Canyon and the smell of burning plastic signaled the end of the repair. I dug a zip-tie out of my parts box and a more permanent fix was done. The Echo Canyon road shows no sign of grading, it looks just like someone just drove off over the desert.

Terry >Terryon the first ledge

Here's a QuickTime clip (450k)

Tim > Tim's up the first ledgeTim's up the second ledge

Roger > I cut the turn too tightThat rock moves!Glad BFG uses 3-ply sidewalls!

Here's a QuickTime clip (390k)

At the top of the canyon, we came upon the waterfall obstacle. It looked to be a 45° 8' high rock ledge, with a sharp turn to the left follwed by a second ledge and sharp turn to the right. It looked worse than it actually was, although Terry and I managed to find some nasty bumps to the left side. Looking at the video, I seem to have come in too tight on the first ledge, which put me too far to the left for the second turn. It looks like my left front pulled a large flat rock back, effectively launching me towards the canyon wall. This obstacle definitely requires either 4WD (maybe 2WD with rear locker) and some decent ground clearance. Long wheelbase and full-size vehicles must have fun here!

Squeeze play on the way down.After a brief lunch break, we continued down the other side, past an off-camber section, and one rather tight spot, at least for a full-size rig. For the narrow Toyotas, this quite spacious, but a full-sized truck may need some spotting through here.

The end of another long day.There are lots of side roads, and somehow Terry managed to keep us on the right ones and around dark, we emerged on the highway south of Beatty. After gassing up, Terry headed for Lone Pine to meet up with Don and James, while Tim, Bob and I made a bee-line for Bakersfield.



The background for this page is an image of Zabriske Point. I post-processed the image with Silicon Graphics Image Vision toolkit by running a Sobel Edge Detection filter on it, then rotated and cropped the image slightly to get the edges to tile properly.

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[Last updated: 04.November.2021]