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Death Valley Grand Loop Part I
October 2009

I hope that you find my account of this adventure interesting and educational, and that I inspire you to visit these or similar places. My love for the desert and primitive camping is deep and I like few things as much as hanging out with good people in the middle of a stunning natural environment.

During this trip everyone took tons of photos; counting all of us, we logged over 1500 individual shots. Of those posted here, about half are mine, half are Arlos, with Graham and Agnieszka contributing a few here and there. In addition, Arlo took most and processed all of the extra wide panoramas. A big thank you to everyone for sharing their efforts. We used the following cameras: Canon G10, Canon S70, and a Samsung S730. As always, you can see a larger version any picture just by clicking on it.

Trip Preparation
I send a first email to Graham on June 5th 2009, four and a half months before we actually leave. Here's a snippet:

"Are you cool with Death Valley? Arlo and I went to the north part in 2001 and drove up the back side of the Cerro Gordo silver mine, then north along the Inyo Crest. Mazourka Canyon also climbs up into the Inyo Range, perhaps offering some challenging 4x4ing. Saline Valley is very beautiful and offers another 4x4 route over to Eureka Valley and its nice dune field. And there’s also Racetrack Playa, home of the sliding rocks."

I am hopeful that I can convince him to take 10 days off from work and spend it jeeping around with me in the desert. I am pretty sure Arlo will be game and know from past experience that he'll make an excellent traveling companion. After a gazillion more emails and phone calls we agree on dates, the itinerary, and the food. Graham's sweetie, Agnieszka, decides to come as well.

When planning a venture with as many moving parts as this one, I keep my head on straight with lists: one for gear, one for food, one for the Jeep, one for tasks, and one to keep track of all the lists. Once everything's crossed off, it's time to go!

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The gear list. (Yes, I do bring a pillow!)

Arlo drives down from Mendocino the afternoon before our departure and we spend a few hours with last minute gear sorting and food packing. Even though I am anxious to get started, I sleep well that night.

Santa Rosa to Bishop
We get up early and are on the road by 8am. After driving east to Sacramento, we head up into the Sierra on Hwy 50 and pass over Echo Summit. The tail end of an early storm is still moving through and our drive is blessed with views of snow-capped peaks and scudding clouds.

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We stop at the Lake Tahoe overlook and enjoy this view.

After reaching the bottom of Echo Pass, we head to Gardnerville and Hwy 395 and from there to Bishop.

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Hwy 88, just west of Gardnerville; winter is coming.

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View south over Mono Lake from the Conway Summit overlook; Boundary Peak (13,140') in the background above and just to the left of David.

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Arlo shoots this nice panorama of Mono Lake.

After 365 miles and a long day of driving, we pull into Pleasant Valley Campground, a few miles north of Bishop. Pretty basic and not terribly scenic, this campground is situated right on the Owens River, which gurgles softly nearby. The LA Dept of Power controls the entirety of the Owens River and this is one of the places where part of the river is allowed to flow in its natural channel. Mostly it is managed into aqueducts and pipes for its long journey to thirsty LA.

At dusk we are visited by a family of raccoons. I elect to sleep in the tent - I am not sure I want them sniffing and clutching (they have those little hands!) around me as I sleep. I awake at one point in the night to hear them climbing on the picnic table.

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Our first camp on the Owens River; the river is hidden by the mass of greenery behind the site.

Bishop to Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills
After a good sleep, we arise early, eat our oatmeal, and pack the Jeep. Packing is an evolving process, hopefully improving each time everything is crammed inside. The stackable Roughneck tubs are a great help and keep miscellaneous items from rattling around and getting lost. Arlo's technique is to place the sleeping bags on the coolers, providing extra insulation and making the ice last a good deal longer. Our challenge is to pack up with enough room on top so that the driver can see over the pile in the rear view mirror.

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Arlo and Jeep, packed up and ready to hit the road.

Graham and Agnieszka are leaving Atascadero today, joining up with us later in the afternoon. We head south on Hwy 395, the view dominated by the eastern escarpment of the Sierra, fresh snow from the recent storm adding to the grandeur.

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Hwy 395 to Lone Pine, Sierra peaks on the right.

Upon our arrival at Lone Pine, we check in Portagee Joe Campground, our pre-arranged meeting spot with Graham and Agnieszka. We secure a good site and make a few calls; Arlo to Ann and I to Brenda. Then we call Graham. The recent storm brought rain and high winds to his town of Atascadero and his departure has been delayed due to emergency roof repairs. We reach them on the road and are stoked that we'll see them tonight.

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David calls Brenda; Mt. Whitney in the background.

After our calls, we head out to the Alabama Hills, an area of desert granite west of Lone Pine. Since the 1920s the Alabama Hills have been used for Hollywood B-movie westerns and TV shows, a much-storied past chronicled in several local saloons. Classics such as How the West Was Won and The Lone Ranger were filmed here and it's not hard to see why: easy access to beautiful scenery, all in a dramatic setting. After a lunch of salami and cheese sandwiches, we take a short hike through the granite outcrops.

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David and Arlo, Alabama Hills and Sierra Crest in the background.

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Alabama Hills granite, Sierra Crest in the background.

Graham and Agnieszka Arrive At Portagee Joe Campground
After our hike, we retreat to Portagee Joe Campground to relax and wait for Graham and Agnieszka. We have the entire campground to ourselves and enjoy our shady spot.

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That sure is a comfy looking Thermarest pad Arlo's got there!

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Graham and Agnieszka arrive, my but that's a big Land Rover!

Graham purchased his 1997 Discovery Land Rover at the auto auction for $2500 - a total steal. Being the jeep-geek that he is, he promptly modified the heck out of it, installing many upgraded components, including HUMONGOUS 35 inch tires. A very photogenic ride you've got there sir!

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A boy and his Land Rover.

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David and Agnieszka prepare salads for our first dinner as a group.

I do my best to bring fresh food while on the road; you can click here to see my menu. Folks who bring only packaged, processed food are missing out as it is easy to eat well while camping. I have a portable, well equipped kitchen and enjoy camp cooking immensely.

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Good whiskey, now that's something Graham can brag about!

While making dinner, three vans pull into the campground and disgorge about 25 folks. In just a few minutes they erect a small tent city and set about preparing their dinner. Graham pays a them cordial visit and learns that they are geology students from San Jose State. They camp at the other end of the campground and prove to be excellent (and quiet) neighbors.

After dinner Graham gets out his telescope and we look at Jupiter and four of its moons. Arlo points out a few other interesting items, including the Andromeda Galaxy and a couple of star clusters. The night is still and clear, and the stargazing is excellent. Given the early October sunsets, we spend a lot of time looking up during our evenings. Arlo impresses everyone with his knowledge of the heavens, and shows us something new each night.

The last time Arlo and Graham saw each other was at my wedding in 2002. We talk well into the night, catching up and sharing stories. For those who don't know, the three of us are old school chums, and between us share elementary, secondary, and college schooling.

Ascending The Swansea Grade
We arise before dawn and watch the morning light spill down the Sierra, Mt. Whitney pressing lightly against the sky. This is the official start of the trip and we're eager to hit the road. The San Jose State students are well organized and hit the road while we're still eating our granola. Given what I remember of Geology field trips at UCSC, this group's ability to move quickly is impressive.

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David, Graham, and Arlo and early morning sun on the Sierra.

After a quick stop in Lone Pine, we head to the ghost town of Swansea where, in 1870, ore was processed from nearby mines, including Cerro Gordo. This ore was ferried across Owens Lake and ultimately shipped to Swansea, Wales (yes, in Great Brittan) for final refining. Unfortunately the massive Lone Pine Earthquake (1872) leveled Swansea. This quake was one of the largest to hit California in recorded history and is thought have measured near 8.0 on the Richter Scale. To add a final nail in Swansea's coffin, the quake generated a giant tidal wave on Owens Lake, which washed away what little was left of of the town. Today old Swansea is invisible, consisting only of indistinct ruins and an historic highway marker. We find our road and head on up to the Inyo Crest.

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The Swansea Cerro Gordo Road is 4X4 only. Fine with us!

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Arlo and David ready the Jeep for the tough terrain ahead; Arlo lowers tire pressure while David disconnects the front sway bar for better articulation (axle flexing).

Four miles up the grade, we come to the first challenging section of the trip: about 1500 feet of rock steps, tight turns, and steep climbs. Both vehicles traverse the terrain with ease. It's somewhat of an anticlimax, since many blog and guidebook writers had described this section as very challenging. In fact the Jeep performs exceptionally well for the entire trip, never stumbling on even the roughest terrain.

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Graham's Land Rover on the first rough section, the 35 inch tires making short work of this challenge; David shots some video.

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David's Cherokee on the same section. 

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Land Rover Power!!

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Graham and David stop and enjoy the view of the Sierra Crest.

The Swansea Grade continues upwards and after another hour or so we reach the top of the Inyo Crest. Our elevation is now about 9200 feet and cool breezes have replaced the hot, still air of the Owens Valley almost 6000 feet below. We're at the Burgess Mine, site of a minor gold rush in 1908. The mine works are spread out along many branching jeep roads, most of which are now closed to vehicles. The road extends a few miles to the north, where more prospects and ruins can be found. Instead we head south to the Saline Valley Salt Tram. The day is clear and the views extend for a hundred miles.

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Graham and Arlo look down into Saline Valley, home of the Saline Valley Hot Springs and Chicken Strip, a rough back-country airstrip.

The Saline Valley Salt Tram
Before checking out the Salt Tram, we claim the "super nice" campsite for ourselves. Though primitive, there are a few rough tables built into the junipers and the view of the Sierra is stupendous. Arlo and I camped here on our 2001 trip; the return kindles fond memories.

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We sit a spell after lunch, digesting before visiting the Salt Tram.

The Saline Valley Salt Tram was constructed between 1911 and 1913 and operated until 1933. At the time, this electrically powered ariel tramway was the highest of its kind in the world. The 13 mile conveyance was composed of 39 large towers and 123 smaller towers, with five separately powered sections. When in operation the tramway carried almost three hundred 750 lbs buckets, transporting 20 tons of salt an hour. And what a journey that salt took - from an elevation of 1020 feet at the salt mine in Saline Valley, up to 8720 feet here at the Inyo Crest, and back down to 3635 feet in the Owens Valley, where it was refined and transported to market by railroad. Unfortunately, tramway was never profitable, even though four different owners gave it a go. I want a ride in one of those buckets!

Much of the tramway's rough-hewn and durable construction has survived 75 years of wind, rain, snow, heat, and dry desert air. The summit station transports me back to a time when everything was rougher and larger; when tough men got things done with their hands and old fashioned know-how.

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The Salt Tram summit station from the north side, Saline Valley is down to the left.

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Inside the summit station - I imagine salt buckets cresting through here on their way to Owens Valley.

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Summit station detail - the timbers are rough, oversized, durable.

After a hour or so at the summit station, we return to camp and relax for the remainder of the afternoon. Actually, Graham pops up the hood on his Land Rover and fixes a small problem with the adjustable shock mount kit he installed before the trip. While it never breaks down, the Land Rover continues to teethe for the rest of the trip. Fortunately Graham is the uber mechanic and easily up to the task. 

After a yummy dinner of spicy chicken drumsticks, rice, and lentil soup (thanks to Agnieszka!) we spend a couple hours chatting, gradually getting colder and colder as the night sets in at almost 9000 feet. We decide to have a hot cup of ...  wait, there's no tea? No hot chocolate? What kind of trip is this? We end up drinking cups of hot water, which, actually, is pretty satisfying and gets us through another hour of stargazing, chatting, and reminiscing. I sleep outside again and enjoy the steady stream of stars pin wheeling over my head.

Along the Inyo Crest to Cerro Gordo
The next day, I rise before dawn and brew my morning pot of espresso. I cherish this early time to myself and watch the Sierra greet the day. 

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David enjoys the dawn.

After breakfast, we pack up and head south along the Inyo Crest. While I'd originally planned to spend two nights here, we decide to move along to Cerro Gordo and points south. Looking back, I realize that a second day would have be justifiable. I guess I'll just have to come back - care to join me?

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Looking back at the Salt Tram from the south, the tender's cabin is on the left, New York Butte (10,663') in the background.

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Graham and Agnieszka.

Driving south along the Inyo Crest is like balancing on a knife edge. To the left the terrain falls away into Saline Valley, at times more than 8000 feet below. To the right, Owens Valley is 5500 feet below. The views extend for 100 miles and the air is clear, crisp, and invigorating. The road descends steep side canyons, only to climb back out and perch precariously on the steep side of the crest, threatening to tip the Jeep over the edge. The descent into Boiler Canyon is steep and I feel like I'm literally standing upright on the brake pedal. In other words - FUN!

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Driving along the Inyo Crest, Pleasant Mountain (9,690') in the background on the left.

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A "tippy" section of narrow shelf road after Boiler Canyon - notice that how it tips the Jeep to the right? Arlo has to fight the urge to lean into the center of the Jeep.

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Looking down into the Owens Valley.

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Graham on another tippy section.

The Land Rover is somewhat bouncy on new springs, making the tippy sections more exhilarating. Graham is an old hand at this and I doubt he is nervous for even a second. After a few more miles, we come to the Cerro Gordo Mine.

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Our first view of the Cerro Gordo Mine and ghost town.

Cerro Gordo is one of the most productive mines of the region, with silver, lead, and zinc among the minerals extracted from over 50 miles of tunnels and shafts. Between 1868 and 1875 alone about $13,000,000 in silver was mined; Cerro Gordo is the largest silver mine in California history. During these boom years, silver-lead bullion bricks were smelted quicker than they could be shipped down the mountain, and lay around in stacks like so much cord wood. Mining activity at Cerro Gordo helped birth the towns of Swansea and Keeler, and continued until 1957.

Upon entering the town, we are approached and offered a tour for $10 each. We elect to continue on down the mountain get started on the second leg of the journey. In retrospect, I think I would've enjoyed taking more time here as well. The tour would have been interesting and I'd have some pictures of Cerro Gordo to share. A few can be found here.

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We pull over to discuss our options.

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Cerro Gordo plaque.

As we descend Yellow Grade to Keeler, several mines appear close by the road. Graham, with infectious enthusiasm, stops to explore one of the horizontal shafts. It goes back at least 100 feet before we turn around and head back to daylight.

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With relish, Graham gets ready to go inside a mine.

After the mine we pull off the road for a quick lunch, then head on down to Keeler and rejoin Hwy 136, just a few miles south of where we left it at Swansea. We turn south and drive to Olancha, where gas, ice and the beginning of Leg II await us.

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Descending Yellow Grade, Graham in the distance, the Sierra beyond.

Part II: Lee Flat to the Lost Burro Mine
Continue to the next chapter by clicking here.

Arlo's pictures of our 2001 trip to this area can be found here:



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