I have a very lengthy photography bucket list of places I would like to visit to capture amazing imagery. Death Valley National Park has always been high on that list! When my friend, Kevin, mentioned to me that he was going on an expedition led by a local adventure company I was intrigued.
Kevin had purchased a Toyota 4Runner about a year ago and immediately started a "build". Everything from underbody protection, a full aftermarket suspension, LED lights all over the place, a roof cargo rack, and much more....were outfitted on his vehicle.
What my friend had built was a rolling survival unit that would be a safe haven in the event of an apocalypse or a zombie invasion! After outfitting his vehicle he began taking all sorts of off road training with Tom Severin of Badlands Off Road Adventures. Kevin was eager to put all his off road training into practice!
In addition to off road training Badlands Off Road Adventures also offers guided tours. Kevin had signed up for a four day three night Death Valley expedition. Kevin invited me to be his co-pilot and I realized this was my chance to not only see Death Valley, but to see it in a way many never experience. I committed and could not wait for the four day three night expedition!
The trip began at 4:30AM on Friday October 21st. We had loaded his truck the afternoon before. We packed his roof rack with a tent, 20 gallons of water and 8 gallons of extra gasoline. In the back of the 4Runner Kevin had a Yeti packed with ice and enough food for more than four days, our clothes, and a ton of other stuff....including lots of my camera gear...filled up the rear of the truck.
We headed out to our rendezvous spot which was an Albertson's parking lot in the city of Ridgecrest. Ridgecrest is a little over an hour outside of Death Valley. We arrived in Ridgecrest in a little under 3 hours and we were greeted by Tom, the owner of Badlands Offroad Adventures and the other fine folks in our caravan.
Tom of Badlands Off Road Adventures...our fearless leader
As soon as all the vehicles (12 including Tom's) had arrived Tom briefed us on safety, the Death Valley mission statement as well as the plan for the first day. The plan was to head out of Ridgecrest past a town called Trona, which you may have seen if you are a Star Trek fan. The Trona Pinnalcles have been featured in a Star Trek movie, and I believe Planet of the Apes was filmed at the Pinnacles as well.
Anyway, I digress. After driving through Trona we made a right down a road towards a mountain range where we pulled aside to deflate tires for the beginning of our journey off road. We headed over the Slate Range of the Inyo Mountains to the Panamint Flat Dry Lake. We drove down Windgate road through Gohler Wash, up and over the Panamint Mountains. In all from the time we pushed off from Ridgecrest we drove 140 off road miles that day.
One of the best things about the whole trip is every vehicle was required to have a Motorola 2 way radio for communication. In the image of Tom above he is talking on his 2 way radio. Tom gave us a history lesson of Death Valley during the whole entire drive using the 2 way. It was very cool!
We arrived at our campsite just after 6PM when it was getting dark. It was a LONG day, but well worth all the hours and miles! We quickly setup our tent, cooked dinner, had a cocktail with the others around the campfire before calling it a night. I did manage to take a few long exposures of the AMAZING night sky!!!!
Video: Caravan stops to take in the beauty
After a quick dinner of steak and veggies we joined the group for some rye whiskey and a campfire under the stars. A perfect ending to a perfect day!
After a very good nights sleep I awoke before sunrise and was treated to the majestic light and scenery Death Valley offers at dawn. Kevin got up and prepared coffee, oatmeal and scrambled eggs. We ate, cleaned up, broke down the tent, packed the truck and headed for the drivers meeting at 8:30.
Tom briefed us for day two, the plan was as follows: First, stop at the visitor center for our permits and then head up to Chloride City. From Chloride we would return to Death Valley by way of Titus Canyon. From Titus Canyon we would head into Beatty Nevada to take advantage of the last chance to fill our tanks before the end of the trip in two days. From Beatty we would make our way to Mesquite Springs Campground where we would setup and spend the night.
Early morning desert landscape
Packing the 4Runner for day two of our adventure
Headed up to Chloride. The drive up was pretty scary with narrow, rocky roads and STEEEP cliffs!!!
Keep going up!
And we continue up to the very top of Death Valley
After that amazing day of driving we reached Mesquite Springs before sundown, setup our tent, met with the rest of the group for hors douerves, cooked dinner, cleaned up, drank more whiskey, took more night photos and hit the hay to get a good nights sleep for day three which was going to be EPIC!
Sunday morning I woke up early to take sunrise photos and encountered a ranger who informed me the Dodgers lost game six, and the series to the Cubs. I was sad for a half second...the surrounding beauty of Death Valley, and the amazing experience I was having with my friend Kevin could not be buzz killed by the outcome of a baseball game.
To all my friends who are Cubs fans....good luck in the World Series!!!
I took some sunrise panoramas, had coffee and breakfast, helped Kevin break down camp, packed up the truck and we headed for the drivers meeting.
Todays trip plan was...drive to Ubehebe Crater, Teakettle Junction, the Racetrack, Lippencott Mine and our final destination was Warm Spring which is where we would camp our final night.
The running joke amongst a few of our party was that Warm Spring is "clothing optional". Let me backtrack for a moment. This was Kevin's first expedition with this group, and obviously mine too. Some of these guys have done this trip before, as well as the Rubicon in Oregon and Moab Utah amongst other guided tours. There was definitely a camaraderie amongst some members of the group. The whole trip, all the regulars kept making "inside" references to Warm Spring. In addition to "clothing optional" Warm spring is rumored to be home of someone named "fun fun" and "Lizard Lee" We had no idea if they were serious or it was a joke. Regardless, in about eight hours we would find out.
A time lapse video before leaving the campsite
By about 2PM on Day 3 we had made our way over Lippencott Mine Road and into the basin of Death Valley where we would finally end up at Saline Warm Springs. We did not want to get to camp too early, or we would setup and just be sitting around for a few hours. We decided to stop and take a look into the mountains where mined minerals were transported over in extremely large quantities back when Death Valley was a real resource for mining.
After stretching our legs for a bit and looking for the conduit to transport minerals over the mountain some suggested we visit Beveridge Ghost Town. To be honest, I wanted to head to Saline Warm Spring as I had had enough off road, bumpy driving. Furthermore I was told there was a warm spring shower and after over 60 hours in the dust of the desert, a shower sounded GLORIOUS!
I am glad the group decided to go up to Beveridge Ghost Town. We slowly climbed a bumpy, very rocky road to just about 5,000 feet above sea level. What we found was a small, eerie mining town that time had forgotten. There were abandoned structures, broken down rusted vehicles, rusted tools, and perhaps the eeriest thing I have ever seen, a rusted old swing-set overlooking the basin of Death Valley....
After passing the abandoned blue truck the wind started really picking up! It got so bad we were actually experiencing a white out and we had to slow the caravan to a crawl as the visibility was pretty close to zero.
Video: Desert white out
After making it through the white out we arrived to Saline Warm Spring under a dark, ominous stormy sky. The winds were really kicking hard which was going to make setting up a tent a real pleasure.
Upon entering the campsite we found the first place we thought we were going to setup camp. We stepped out of the vehicle and I quickly learned, "clothing optional" was not an inside joke amongst the old school members of our group. Nope! As soon as I touched foot to dirt I looked straight ahead and saw something that can't be unseen. An 80 something, tanned, wrinkled man walking around nude. I just threw up in my mouth a little bit thinking about it.
Then another naked man with a wheel barrel suddenly appeared to collect the wood that someone had left behind at our campsite. He muttered something that was inaudible and grabbed the wood and then walked it back to his campsite...complete with a barking pitbull. Great. The best way I could describe this character to give you a visual....Billy Bob Thornton's character in "Slingblade".
If that is not bad enough there were burro everywhere!!! Burro tend to eat a very high fibrous diet, and anyone who eats a bowl of fibrous cereal can tell you what happens next. Yup, burro shit everywhere. We had to clear the area we were setting up camp, dig a trench around camp in case it rained....
After clearing and digging, but before setting up the tent I went to get a lay of the land. I was not too comfortable, and I don't think Kevin was either, about the spot we had chosen. I found a better spot by Tom, our guide. Actually Tom found it, we just set up capmp next to him! The campsite was nestled by foilage and between Tom's truck and Kevin's truck we were better sheltered by the wind. There was also less burro shit, no "clothing optional" folks and no pitbll.
We setup camp to the sound track of two men in the distance fighting over something irrelevant. After camp was setup we spent the next hour and a half talking to Tom while drinking tequila and beer. Tom shared stories of some of his best expeditions, and we talked about his unicorn 80 series Landcruiser which he put 370,000 miles on....after buying it used with 120,000 on the odometer. After shooting the shit Tom was gracious enough to lead us in the dark desert to the warm spring. There were plenty of "clothing optional" folks taking advantage of the many warm spring hot tubs. I looked around and was amazed at how this was truly an oasis in the desert. But I really wanted to take a shower....after moseying around a bit I finally saw it...the shower!!! This was not a normal shower, rather a bathtub dug into the ground with a shower above. I ran as fast as I could in the dark back to the truck, grabbed my toiletries and headed back to the shower. Best shower in my life!!!!
Saline Warm Spring is surreal. As you drive up through the desert basin you see a group of palm trees and in your mind you are thinking, "That is truly an oasis in the desert". I guess it is an oasis...a redneck, nudist oasis filled with sand and burro poop. It is a neat place, I am glad I saw. Once was enough for me :) If you twisted my arm lightly I am sure I would go back again!!!!
After breaking down camp and packing the 4Runner for the final time we headed to our 8:30 drivers meeting where Tom would brief us for our final day. I thought to myself that each day had gotten better and better, there was no way today could be better than the previous three.
Boy, was I wrong!
The plan for the day was to work our way from Saline Warm Spring up the wash ten miles to Steal Pass. then on to the high meadows over and down Dedeckera Canyon which meets Eureka Sand Dunes at the bottom. From the sand dunes we would make our way to Big Pine before gassing up and heading home.
We had reached elevation over 4,000 feet...we were driving amongst the clouds!
Making our way through Dedeckera Canyon
Video: Going down the narrow, dry waterfall of Dedeckera
After inflating tires back to normal pressure we made our way around the group and said our goodbyes. It was a great four days, with a wonderful cast of characters!
Besides Kevin's 4Runner and Tom's Landcruiser there were ten other vehicles. Those vehicles were populated by some of the nicest people you could meet. They were also very, very handy. A couple of tires punctured during the trip, no problem. A spring busted going down Lippincott Mine Road on a Jeep...but Mike, the driver of the Jeep, is a real life McGyver. He fixed it and caught up with us like it was nothing. I felt that if anything were to happen to any of the vehicles this group was prepared and willing to help anyone. Simply amazing!
A big thank you to Kevin...Death Valley was an amazing experience and I am lucky to have a friend like you! Also, thanks for knowing how to operate your vehicle and not making us part of the statistic of number one cause of fatality in Death Valley....single vehicle rollover.