Death Valley: the back end of nowhere

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I spent the month of February gallivanting around Vietnam having a grand time while Jack stayed at home and worked to bring home the bacon.

When I finally got home I thought it only fair that he get some playtime, too.

So we took off for Vegas. Upon arriving in sin city we drove right by all the glittering lights and the magnetic pull of luxury casinos, room service and stone massages and proceeded three hours northwest to Death Valley—the back end of nowhere. We laughed in the face of modern amenities and instead headed straight for desolation and rust bucket ghost towns a billion miles from civilization (and sometimes the nearest gas station).

Why? We’re odd.

There’s just no easy way to say that, but it’s true. We’re odd.


(Disclaimer: I’m sorry to say that my wide angle lens is broken—I broke it while in Vietnam. Had it been available for this trip to Death Valley these photos might actually look as incredible as the landscape does in real life. As it were I glumly toted my 60mm thinking I might just take closeups of plants only to later realize that Death Valley is full of rocks, not plants. Duh! So, I apologize up front for the mediocre pics. Just squint your eyes and imagine a little more IMAX imagery.)


It was our first time in Death Valley. It’s barren. It’s dry. It’s a landscape that seems endless. And every few miles it seemed to change, sometimes rather dramatically.

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Sand dunes.

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Desert scrub.

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Salt lakes. I kept looking around expecting Steve McQueen to come roaring up on his motorcycle at any moment. Sadly, he never showed.

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As folks that spend a decent amount of time in Bay area traffic it was mostly refreshing to be completely alone on the roads. You could see the road go on for miles and miles without sight of a soul. Refreshing and simultaneously creepy.

We were alone. In the middle of nowhere. Completely. Alone.

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We headed out to Ballarat, an old mining town on the west side of the Panamint range.

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Not much action anymore.

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But that’s okay … we were looking for the turnoff to Surprise Canyon, base camp for our trek up to Panamint City, another old 1800s mining town.

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The road to Surprise Canyon was long.

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And super rocky. Dude, everywhere you looked there were rocks, rocks and more rocks.

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Finally, we hit the base of the canyon, loaded up our packs and took off uphill. Starting at the base of the hill it’s about five miles, and you climb 3900′, to Panamint City, which is at an elevation of 6280′.

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As we climbed into the canyon we quickly encountered a series of waterfalls. The first couple miles of the trek walks along, and sometimes in, a crispy cold bubbling stream. It was a beautiful find amidst the dry and rocky canyons. Be prepared to clamber along narrow, rocky canyon walls. In fact, to make your life a little easier be prepared to walk up the rocks in the waterfalls. Waterproof shoes would be advisable for this trek.

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The canyons were filled with amazing geological formations. I loved looking at the rocky canyon walls and observing millions of years worth of Mother Nature’s work. I loved the first three miles of the trek, which traversed the waterfalls, rocky canyons and thick brush. Walking in streams and bushwhacking didn’t bother me one bit.

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However, the last two miles of the trek were on some pretty gravelly paths. There were lots and lots of rocks. I didn’t love the last two miles so much. Conversely, it was Jack’s favorite part; he hated trekking through the brush that I loved so much. Go figure.

Start to finish the trek took us about five hours. Before starting out we thought, “no problem!”, but you do climb nearly 4000′ over some pretty steep trails and heavy brush.

Finally we reached Panamint City right before sunset.

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Panamint City’s iconic smokestack and 1870s mining operation still exists.

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Once again the landscaped had changed pretty dramatically. We were now surrounded by pines and snow.

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There are a couple of abandoned cabins that are used mostly by hikers. Inside is a log book with comments from other hikers along with tools, some canned food, fuel, stacked firewood and a wood burning stove. Despite the amenities we weren’t impressed by the amount of rat droppings within the structures so we decided to go find a secluded spot elsewhere to pitch our tent and make camp. It ended up being much more beautiful and very peaceful.

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But before leaving to make camp elsewhere we decided to sit a spell on the porch. Phew. It was time to change out of our sweaty clothes, sit, relax and watch the sunset.

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We broke out some wine, fruit, cheese and pate. Oh man, it was a nice way to wind down.

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In fact, the whole entire weekend was a terrific way to wind down. Lots of fresh air, hiking, beautiful landscapes, campfires, stargazing, spending time with your sweetie. … There’s something about camping that just soothes the soul.

(The only change that we would have made to this trek is that we would have started out much earlier in the day in order to reach Panamint City just after lunch, rest a bit, drop our heavy packs and then do the short 2.5 mile hike up to the summit before dark. Without packs on the last bit up to the summit would have been a lot easier especially since you’ll be traversing snow.)

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4 responses »

  1. Dispite the broken wide lense, the pictures are STUNNING!!! I’m not much of a camper, but I could get into hiking.

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