What do you do when Winter seems to be taking a little bit longer to arrive than usually expected? Well, you’ve already worked all the local Tahoe trails on your mountain bike. The paddleboard has been tucked away for the season. And, you’ve bagged all the peaks you set out to summit before the snow falls. Now, you’re sick of down-hiking. So, you’re basically waiting for it to snow to really enjoy the ups and downs. The best thing to do is to get away for a bit and make the storms hit.
Everyone knows that if you want it to snow, then it’s best to book a trip. It doesn’t matter if we’re enduring a long June-uary, or it’s time for Spring Break. Book a trip. Get out of town. And, Tahoe is guaranteed to get dumped on. Sometimes that good fortune is what we need to kick off the season.
Many Lake Tahoe locals take the shoulder season as an opportunity to get away and make Mother Nature take notice. We often abandon our high alpine oasis to hit up make a quick run to the desert. Many ancient civilizations had similar practices. So, it’s all just another aspect of our genetic makeup. This is the same genetic makeup that keeps us up at night with powder dreams. Sometimes we need a quick hit of vitamin D before the long nights and short days of Winter.
One of our favorite spots to seek out a desert oasis lies a few hundred miles to the south. It’s a blissful drive in the shadow of the Eastern Sierra, including Mt. Whitney. Mt. Whitney rises 14,505’ above sea level, as the highest peak in the lower 48. And, as you drop further and further south, you approach an area with the lowest elevation in the United States - Badwater in Death Valley at 282’ below sea level.
There are many ways to get into, around, and enjoy Death Valley. In fact, Death Valley is the largest national park outside of Alaska. There is an abundance of space to get away and get lost. That can be a good thing, as well as a bad thing. It’s also possible to follow the crowds and find some of our own Tahoe Tribe enjoying the desert. We have a few prime spots. But, it would be foolish of me to give them all away. Let’s just start with our latest adventure.
Tune In and Drop Out
In many cultures, the teenage years are a time for rites of passage. What better way to escape the electronics world and flee commercialism than to take it all back to the basics. The desert teaches you the value of what it really takes to survive. It’s possible to rid your life of frivolous wants. And, if you look close enough, then you just might find everything you need. But, whatever you do always bring more water than you’ll think you’ll need. The desert provides ample opportunity to reconnect mentally and spiritually, since many of life's distractions are left behind.
There’s No Better Connection
Our LTUSD students are fortunate to have the entire week of Thanksgiving free from school. That makes that holiday week an opportune time to escape Lake Tahoe. In all honesty, anytime you can get away is a good time to get away. Don’t let a rigid academic calendar keep you from keeping your head straight. Students are connected into a formal educational system with schedules, deadlines, and daily responsibilities. Over time, all that time connected will break you down. And, unlike adults, many people feel that kids have enough breaks that they may not need to disconnect. Well, we all need to disconnect, especially with hormones and adolescent drama clouding their overwhelming lives. But, what do kids really want to do? Most of them really don’t know. So, leave the electronics at home. Pack a simple bag. Then, hit the road.
Eastside And Down
Anyone that has traveled Hwy 395 knows the power and majesty that transcends from the mountain tops down to the valley floor below. Now that there aren’t any digital distractions, that means it’s time to open up the mind. Use this opportunity to teach simple, but lost skills. Break out the paper maps, especially since many areas will only make a digital connection difficult. Then, gaze out the window at the Sierra Nevada and the growing number or 13k & 14k foot peaks. About the time that your mind is melting away, you’ll find that your muscles are ready for a break. You’re in luck. All along Hwy 395 are incredible hot springs. We chose to enjoy the ones near Hot Creek, outside of Mammoth Lakes, CA.
Well, actually we had other plans. But, sometimes even the best laid plans will fail. This time I’ll blame our dwindling fuel supply and dramatic pitch for turning us around. You see, I had actually planned to get a little last glimpse of an area that usually isn’t clear of snow until Summer. I planned on stopping at Laurel Lakes. But, we never actually made it up to Laurel Lakes.
A couple factors changed our plans for us. The weather had been unseasonably warm, so many passes which are usually closed by this time of year were open. That meant that instead of cutting through Minden and Gardnerville, we took Monitor Pass over and skipped the affordable gas stations. Although I do occasionally splurge at the Whoa Nellie Deli and Mobil station (https://www.whoanelliedeli.com). This time they were closed for the season. So, I was very reluctant to spend so much at the neighboring stations, even if it was a little more than a top off.
Now, as we climbed the steep 4x4 grade, the needle on the gas tank started to plunge rather rapidly. I’m sure that I could’ve safely made it all the way up to Laurel Lakes. But, I was also positive that if I started this trip with an adventure like running out of gas that I may lose my captive audience and his wavering participation. So, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and turned around to head into Mammoth to refuel the tank and grab a tasty bite.
My navigator was quick to realize his good fortune in this situation. When we arrived at Mammoth Brewing (https://mammothbrewingco.com), he didn’t hesitate to grab one of their tasty root beers along with his BBQ chicken flatbread pizza. I had my mind set on their pork belly Bahn Mi sandwich. But, our server convinced me to try the beef. I must agree that his recommendation was on point. I grabbed one of their seasonal beers to wash it all down. Now, our trip was off to a pretty awesome start. But, where were we going to spend the night now that our Laurel Lakes plan faded? Where else but at the hot springs?
Wet And Wild
One thing about the hot springs around Mammoth is that they can and will get a bit wet and wild. This was the start of the holiday week, and a weekend, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I prepared Jackson for what might be going down. And, I also let him know that there probably will be some au naturale dipping going on. I could tell he had mixed emotions. But, I think he also realized that it might be a bit warmer around the hot springs. Since we were camping around 7k feet, that extra warmth might be appreciated.
We left Mammoth and got to the hot springs after a quick 30 minute ride through the dark. I passed one group of people enjoying their raging campfire and approached the hot springs. There was definitely a weekend crowd. But, one of my favorite campsites was also unoccupied. We better loop back and claim it before someone else does.
As luck would have it, I forgot to get some more gas. But, our fuel supply should be able to get us downhill to Bishop. However, I did remember to grab some firewood. We worked to level out the truck. Then, each of us started working on our individual tasks at hand. I setup the Habitat and camp. Jackson went to work on the firewood. He cut down our bigger timber and found some kindling. Eventually, we had a quick but warm fire to get us ready for bed. My young man was able to get the fire going rather easily. And, that fire was a nice way to wind down the evening.
I was pretty thankful that we did have that fire. The forecast was supposed to get down to 20°F. Later I heard that we actually got down to 14°F. It was a chilly night. Even the dog had her fleece jacket. And, I finally convinced her to seek some extra warmth inside my double bag. The condensation from the cold air mixed with our warm breath added an extra chill to the night. Thankfully, we were able to tuck into the bags and avoid any drip lines from above.
We awoke to clear, blue, skies, as well as lots more condensation and frost. What better way to shake off the night’s cold than to jump in some nice, warm, hot springs? The late night crowd had disappeared. But, there was one 4Runner that pulled up in the morning. Time to see if they didn’t mind some company.
As I always say, it really is a small world. We left Lake Tahoe less than 24 hours prior. Now, we were running into our first, fellow Lake Tahoe escapees and sharing a morning soak. It was great to warm up and shake off the night’s cold. It was also great catching up with a friend while sharing stories of the Eastern Sierra peaks painting the backdrop. But, we had some miles to go before our desert adventure really began. So, we gave our quick adieu and bid them farewell.
Fuel For The Journey
Never miss an opportunity to fuel up when venturing into Death Valley. That goes for food, water, and especially gas for your vehicle. The filing stations are few and far between. Plus, if you thought gas was expensive in Lee Vining, then wait until you have to fill up in Death Valley. It actually is a good idea to have at least one extra jerry can. But, I’ve been on this loop enough times to know that I’ll be fine with one full tank of gas from Bishop or Big Pine. The extra inconvenience and potential for spills kept our jerry can at home. I hope this wouldn’t turn into something I would later regret.
We headed up and over Death Valley Rd. near Big Pine on our way towards Eureka Dunes. Immediately, Jackson fell asleep. I guess all of those times calming him as a baby in the car have made him hypnotized by long car rides. The views in all directions are enough to make it difficult to concentrate on the windy mountain road ahead. After 25 miles, you leave the pavement behind. The road is manageable for non 4x4 vehicles. But, be sure to keep a close eye on the weather. These passes are pretty high in elevation. And, they WILL see snow. Don’t expect that snow to get plowed to keep the road clear. This is another part of your responsibility. Chains would also be a good road kit addition for this time of year. Not only are you crossing passes into Death Valley. But, most of 395 can have chain controls at any given moment.
I do love playing with the King Shocks (http://www.kingshocks.com/products/performance/coilover-performance-race/) suspension and seeing how it handles washboard roads, wash outs, and ruts. Once we left the pavement, that’s when our fun really began. I’m not aiming to race Baja-style across the desert. But, it’s nice having so few people around and driving with a purpose. It’s always so much better than being a drone stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. Death Valley is an area where you can get off on your own. There are many pros and cons to this. If you’re prepared...great. If not, it may be awhile before any help comes around the bend.
Eureka!!! There’s Gold In Them There Hills!!!
After a relatively quick 64 mile drive, we arrived at Eureka Dunes (https://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/eureka-dunes.htm). These dunes are a pretty spectacular display sandwiched between two mountain ranges. Their golden hue adds drama to any already stunning sunrise or sunset. I can see the attraction for visitors coming from far and wide. I was actually discussing the recent rise in visitation. Both of us remembered a time where we were the only ones at the dunes for miles around. Now, it seems that many more people are visiting the dunes. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? As of now, it really has yet to be seen. But, we’ve all witnessed what humans can do to environmental sites by loving it to death. Hopefully, this doesn’t happen around here. Be sure to invest in your National Parks Pass or pay the entrance fee. This area doesn't charge camping fees. But, it's all too easy for them to close down, especially if there's no incoming revenue.
There are a few picnic tables, as well as one pit toilet, and a few fire rings to setup for camp. All the camps are along the road and off the dunes. You’ll see signs warning visitors of the dos and don’ts. Remember, all it takes is one bad apple to spoil the bunch. I have to admit. I forgot about one of the don’ts. I took Aggy up the dunes. Pets are a big no-no on the trails or even in the backcountry. And, even if I am a responsible dog owner, many others are not. The dogs can wreak havoc on the delicate plant life on the dunes. In all of Death Valley, dogs are allowed along the roadside attractions. But, they are never allowed on the trails or in the backcountry. Sorry for my ignorance. But, now we all know.
Jackson and I cooked up our dinner and called it an early night. He had said that he wanted to get up early and watch the sunrise from on top of the dunes. We watched the sunset, so why not add a sunrise? Since it does actually get dark very early this time of year, you may not even realize that you’re going to bed at 6:00pm at night. But, that’s another great part of camping. You really can call it an early night, if you want. All you’ll hear is a bit a jestering from your neighbors in the morning. This night was a lot more comfortable than the cold night before.
Dedeckera Canyon - Do You Have The Key Master?
There are a couple different ways to get from Eureka Sand Dunes to the Saline Valley Hot Springs. But, if you have a capable 4x4 rig, then the shortest route will be up and over Steel Pass. Steel Pass is one of those Death Valley trails that usually makes the must-do lists for overlanding. But, this route isn’t without a few tricky sections.
If there’s one section of trail along Steel Pass that could be called a gate keeper, then it’s right at the North entrance to Dedeckera Canyon. Most of Steel Pass is easily managed with a capable vehicle. But, Dedeckera Canyon is where your 4x4 rig might get tested. And, you may even wish you splurged on some trail armor as you wriggle through the rocks. A good driver will pick their line very carefully. And, a good spotter is worth every penny.
Jackson got to step up and see how his spotter game was. Well, since this was really his first time, I’d say he did OK. But, I couldn’t really count on him for too much assistance. So, slow and steady with well calculated tire positioning was a necessity. Thankfully, we made it through without any additional body work or setbacks.
Once we cleared Dedeckera Canyon, it was relatively smooth sailing. As we were going North to South, I found myself contemplating which way would really be best. I could see the benefits of each way. But, as we descended down towards the Saline Valley, I was very thankful that we didn’t have to climb the loose rocks along the dry waterfalls coming from the south.
The entire Steel Pass from Eureka Dunes to Upper Warm Springs is only 24 miles. But, pay very close attention to the weather. Any precipitation will definitely create traction issues. And, that precipitation could also create a flooding issue. Much of the trail follows the washes and could put you in a very precarious situation in the event of flooding.
We watched through the windshield as a distant storm stirred up sand through the Saline Valley. Thankfully, we were free and clear from anything except wind at our backs. No need to worry about seeking higher ground. As I stopped to admire the view, as well as let the dog have some relief, the winds were really starting to pick up. The last night had been eerily calm. The usual singing dunes were absolutely quiet. So, I should've anticipated a change in the weather. How was this approaching storm going to affect our camping experience at Saline Valley Hot Springs? More importantly, how would this affect our trip back home?
Hold Onto Your Hats, It's About To Get Wild
In hindsight, I probably should've committed to the Upper Springs, and enjoyed their little bit of shelter. But, we continued on. I wanted Jackson to experience a bit more of the social aspect of the hot springs, instead of the isolated aspects of the area. So, we followed the wash down towards the more "developed" hot springs.
This area is an interesting part of Death Valley. There are non-native palm trees, developed pools, a caretaker's compound, grass, showers, a pit toilet, fire rings, campsites, and more. Recently, many aspects have been grandfathered in and will be preserved as a historical aspect to the area. But, other things will be removed. They have already had issues with the local wild burros in the area. That's why the upper springs are protected by a perimeter fence. Many of these issues are slowly being resolved.
All of the new palm trees have to be destroyed before they are allowed to establish themselves. And, the established older trees will be left to die on their own. Of course, that could take 80-90 years. So, I wouldn't really expect that to happen in my lifetime. But, it is great to see the area being well-preserved, as well as holding onto some of the history that has made this area so popular.
Speaking of popularity, one of the most popular activities for this area is to watch the aerial display put on by the Air Force and Navy jets flying high and low overhead. We were fortunate to witness some aerial combat maneuvers dancing through the clouds, as well as a couple low elevation fly-bys. The Stealth fighter banking, while framed between two palm trees, will forever be ingrained in Jackson's memory. But, the two high speed fly-bys that shook the truck were possibly the highlight of the adventure.
I feel very fortunate that I've been able to share this adventure with friends, family, and even those that are reading this. Death Valley is an amazing place that everyone should experience, at least once in their life. The heat of Summer is downright painful. But, the temperate climates of the shoulder seasons make Death Valley an excellent getaway, especially before snow blankets Lake Tahoe. If you're lucky, you just may get to see the snow-capped peaks surrounding the barren desert of Death Valley, while enjoying a relaxing soak.
I used to have a boss that would remind me to "keep my head straight". Whether it's with meditation, a night on the town, or a vision quest type of adventure into the desert. We all need to get out from time to time, get lost, to eventually get found.