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Arlo walks across the crest of the Eureka Valley Dunes

Death Valley Grand Loop Part III
October 2009

Crankshaft Junction to Eureka Valley
After we fuel up at Stovepipe Wells and say farewell to Graham and Agnieszka, we head north to Crankshaft Junction. This drive is uneventful, with many miles of straight, washboard dirt road. We stop briefly at Crankshaft Junction and snap some pictures. I'm not sure if anyone ever replaced their crankshaft here, but there's certainly plenty of them lying around. Trash turned historical artifact.

Since my phone has a signal - surprising as we are in the middle of NOWHERE - I call Brenda to let her know that we're headed to the Eureka Dunes and having a blast. Descending a narrow canyon a few miles west of Crankshaft Junction, we startle a group of seven or eight Desert Bighorn Sheep. They quickly scamper up the rocky side of the canyon and turning back at the top to watch us drive by. What a treat! The road then takes us by the Crater Sulfur Mine, which looks like a large scale mining operation, mostly deserted.

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Crankshaft Junction (click picture to see larger version).


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Crankshaft art.


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Bighorn sheep watch as we drive by.

The road is paved at Crater Mine and we make good time to the Eureka Valley Road, where we turn south, (washboards again - ugh!) and get busy with the last ten or so miles to tonight's campsite. The Eureka Dunes rise into view, growing large and complex as we near. We find camp and set up the chairs and cooler; relaxing on the shady side of the Jeep. The dunes look steep and somewhat intimidating; we wonder if it'll be possible to hike to the top.

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The Eureka Valley Dunes from the north.


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David and Arlo relax.

As we watch, the afternoon light keeps changing on the dunes and, being able to hold back no longer, we hike off into the dunes. They start working their magic on us almost right away, and soon we're "oohing" and "aahing" at wind driven sand rushing over crests and cascading down steep slipfaces. Every once in a while the wind picks up blows sand in our faces; we are glad we left the cameras at camp. As the sun sets, the lighting on the dunes becomes more and more seductive, kindling our excitement, and our eyes keep wandering to the summit, almost 700 feet above us.

Eureka Valley Dunes
Arlo and I awake the next morning eager and excited to hike up to the top of the dunes. We eat breakfast, pack a lunch and water, and discuss a possible course up the dunes. Before heading out, I notice a few obsidian flakes on the ground; it appears that folks camped here a long time before we did.


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Obsidian flakes abound.


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Arlo hikes ahead.

The dune surface is surprisingly firm at times and we walk on top of the sand without sinking in. It's an interesting effect, allowing us to conserve energy for the steep and loose slopes that we assume are ahead of us. As we hike further into the dunes, I find myself reluctant to "ruin" the pristine lines by leaving my footprints on the dune crests. We are the first hikers since the wind died down; everyone who follows will see our tracks. Since there's really no way to avoid this, I let go of my guilt and enjoy the hike, knowing that sooner or later, the wind will again wipe everything clean. 

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A different world.


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Looking west; midway to the summit.

I have a correction to make: we actually are not the first here since the wind died down. Everywhere we go we see animal and insect tracks crisscrossing slipfaces and skirting crests; kangaroo rats, beetles, coyotes, and ravens; hopping, running, and crawling over smooth sand.

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Kangaroo rat tracks.


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David tracks; so subtle.


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Last Chance Range in the background.

As we continue upwards, I am enthralled by the landscape, finished as it is with softly curving lines; every time I turn there's another view worthy of any magazine cover. The light changes by the minute, scenery constantly evolving with interplay of soft curves contrasting with sharp boundaries between sun and shadow. I take a million photos, filling my camera's memory with sandy bytes upon bytes. As we near the top it becomes clear that we'll be able to reach the summit. With anticipation growing, we pick our line and push on up the last 100 feet to the summit.

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Arlo blazing the trail to the top.


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Summit ridge; a kangaroo rat was here first.


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David on the summit ridge.

It is impossible for me not to think in mountaineering terms: peak, summit, ridge, arete, etc. It feels like we are up on a mountain, which is essentially true - a 700 foot high mountain of sand, that is. We wish for a flag to plant and pose by: "We claim this mountain for the US of A!"

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Looking west along the summit ridge.


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Arlo traverses the summit ridge.

A few words about fighter jets. Death Valley is in relatively close proximity to several military installations, each reserving huge chunks of air space for supersonic dog fights and low altitude training. The desert quiet is occasionally obliterated by a roaring jet making a low pass overhead. Having never really left my teenage years behind, I revel in the overpowering display of sound, speed, and technology. While lunching on the summit, a pair of F-16s make a low pass around the dunes, the lead jet flying lower than us, screaming by at many hundreds of miles an hour. Wahoo!

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An F-16 passes by.

While hiking around on the dune, we stop often to dump sand from our shoes. During one such episode, Arlo disgorges a black widow spider from his footware. Near as we can figure, it must've crawled in during the previous night, hitchhiking a ride to the top of the dune in quite close proximity to Arlo's toes. It is bedraggled and half alive at this point; Arlo is happy to be bite-free.

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Black widow spider; hitchhiked a ride inside Arlo's shoe.

Arlo tutors me in "Booming the Dunes", an exercise whereby one makes the dune sand "sing". If a small landslide is initiated, the sand can be made to ring forth with a curious low-pitched groaning sound. After several attempts, we finally are rewarded with our own sand song, our dune boom.

After a nice lunch at the top of the dune, we hike east and up a small canyon in the Last Chance Range. It's a steady slog across the trail-less desert; the last mile up the alluvial fan climbs an uneven wash filled with rocks and sand. Eventually we reach the canyon, take a quick break in the shade, then hike on in. Ultimately we don't get very far and after scrambling up a couple tough spots, decide to forego the chimney climb blocking further progress and hike back out.

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Arlo, having removed the spider, surveys our route east.


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Arlo and David in unnamed canyon; Eureka Valley in the distance.


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We snap this shot of the dunes from the top of the alluvial fan at the canyon's mouth.


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We spot more obsidian.


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We walk by this jeep camper - quite the setup!

After returning to camp we kick back and relax for a while. Our hike was more strenuous than we expected: we eventually figure out that we covered 8 miles that day. We have company back at the campground and Arlo, being more gregarious than I, walks over to say hi and get the scoop. It looks like they're doing research of some kind; turns out there's an invasive non-native thistle spreading out around the Eureka Dunes. The researchers are trying to convince the Park Service to let them introduce a mite that will keep the thistle in check. We wonder what that little mite might eat after the thistles are gone. Towards sunset, we take a short hike up the dune, taking advantage of the last of the day's light.

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Coyote tracks.


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Left to right: Arlo tracks, raven tracks, David tracks.


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Hiker returns from the summet; Last Chance Range in the background.

We arise the next morning, eat a breakfast of fruit and granola, and pack the jeep. Though we are ultimately headed for Saline Valley, we stop on the southern side of the dunes for a shorter hike on the sand. This section of dunes isn't quite as high as the main summit, but is just as interesting; I am pleased to have a second day on the sandy surface.

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We pass this large creosote bush.


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Beetle tracks.


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Quite the highway.


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Wandering in the south dunes.


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At the summit of the southern dune field.

You can read more about the Eureka Valley Dunes by clicking here.


Eureka Valley to Saline Valley
Upon returning to the Trusty Jeep, we devour salami sandwiches and head up the Steele Pass Road. Our final destination is the Saline Valley Hot Springs and the thought of a nice soak sounds pretty good right now. This day's drive proves somewhat grueling, with 25 miles of rough dirt, beginning with Dedeckera Canyon's rock steps, the trip's third technically challenging section. While Dedeckera Canyon's rock steps prove straight forward, the following miles and miles of road are wearing, and more than once I wish for the driving to be over.

At Steele Pass we visit the Marble Bath, as marked on the old USGS topographic maps of the area. No one really knows what the Marble Bath really was, (perhaps a spring flowing out of a marble outcrop?) but someone with a sense of humor has installed a bathtub and filled it with blue and green marbles.

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Marble bath.


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Rubber ducky, you're the one.

An interesting article about refilling the marble bath with new marbles can be read here. While hanging around the marble bath, another jet flies by very low overhead, blasting north to Eureka Valley. The sound is so loud I have to plug my ears. Hooah!

Saline Valley Hot Springs
After another hour we reach Upper Warm Spring, the first of the three main springs. This one is undeveloped and is a mile or so north of Palm Spring, our destination for today. But since we have it to ourselves; we quickly jump in, letting the water brush away the aches and pains of a day in the Jeep. We soak for 20 or 30 minutes, watching birds flitter around palm trees, marveling at all this water in the midst of so much desert. I recall a prior visit in 1993, with my good friend Gulliver - this is my first time back since that time. 

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David in Upper Warm Spring.

We climb back in the Jeep and after a short while we arrive at Palm Spring, where we find a nice site and set about making dinner. After dark we visit Wizard Pool and have our second soak of the day. The warm water does wonders for muscles and joints; we are renewed . After turning in, we hear wild burros hee-hawing in the night, a first for me.

I get up early the next morning and drink my coffee in Wizard Pool, waiting for the sun with an early morning soak. Ah, such luxury - this is one of the highlights of the trip. It was tough to get the pictures that follow: most folks at Palm Spring eschew the wearing of clothes and I didn't exactly feel comfortable snapping their pictures!

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Palm Spring's Wizard Pool; morning light on the Inyo Range in the background.


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Wizard Pool and palm trees.

This is the trip's last day; we will be sleeping soundly in Santa Rosa by its end. After packing up, we head down to Lower Warm Spring and from there to Chicken Strip. Prior to the trip I had read that the two higher springs were clothing-optional, while the lower one was not. However, pretty much everyone we see at Lower Warm Spring is naked or partially so. Not quite a nudist colony, the Saline Valley Hot Springs are known as a place where folks can practice this non-conformist lifestyle. We later meet a few burros munching happily on palm fronds laid out for them. One of them gets quite close to Arlo, looking for a handout; Arlo takes its picture instead. Burros are not native to Death Valley; these are descendents of burros brought in by settlers and miners. We wander around the lower springs for a little while, marveling at the lawn and abundant water - they even have a koi pond. Some live here year round, amazing considering that average summer daytime highs are between 110 and 120 degrees.

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Burro.


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Shade and lawns at Lower Warm Springs.


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Koi pond.


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Sunrise Pool; Inyo Range in the background.

You can read more about Saline Valley Hot Springs by clicking here.

Chicken Strip
Arlo has been anticipating our next stop: the infamous Chicken Strip, a primitive back country airstrip a short walk from Lower Warm Springs. If the strip passes Arlo's inspection, he'll fly his GlaStar here in just a couple of hours, have a nice soak, and be home in time for dinner. Compare that to 12 hours in a car, and that's just one way! Given the primitive nature of the dirt and gravel landing field, it makes sense to walk the runway prior to flying in; we drive over and do just that. Charles Manson once rolled boulders onto Chicken Strip to prevent folks from landing here.

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Chicken Strip sign; this plane arrived while we were here, making a low pass over the airstrip first, then circling around and landing.

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Looking south down Chicken Strip's runway, Inyo Crest in the background; we've come full circle.

Arlo pronounces the strip suitable, no Mason inspired rocks blocking the rough surface. He notes that perhaps the most significant problem occurs when pilots taxi to the end of the strip - too much power to the prop can blow rocks and sand up into the fuselage. I whine and plead to come along on his first flight here; if I get to go, you can bet you'll see a trip report featured here on Smeethpics!

We take a last look around Saline Valley and head out. I am sorry that our trip is ending, yet looking forward to a comfy bed and a warm shower. We reach Saline Valley Road in a few minutes and head north to pavement.

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We pass this sign just after Chicken Strip; Batrock Road connects the hot springs to Saline Valley Rd.


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Looking back once we reach the pavement of CA 168 near Westgard Pass; so long Death Valley.


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On the pavement and heading home, Sierra Crest in the background.

Thanks so much for reading this travelogue; I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If I kindled interest and appreciation for the Death Valley area, so much the better.  Perhaps you'll be inspired to visit sometime in the future, if not on a trip with me, then via whatever method you find most comfortable. Death Valley offers travelers a lot; regardless of whether you sleep in a sleeping bag or a hotel.

 

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