“The high was 120 degrees yesterday in Death Valley — are you sure we’ll be OK?” my friend Josh asked, just a few days before our planned departure over the Sierra Nevada mountains and into the basin and range province.
“Yes,” I reassured him. We’d be in the northern section of the national park at about 5,000 feet in elevation, where it is 25 to 30 degrees cooler than at the park headquarters near Furnace Creek, 190 feet below sea level.
The remote yet awesome Eureka Dunes in the far northern reaches of Death Valley was to be the planned rendezvous point for a two-vehicle caravan that would set out past the dunes and into the four-wheel drive trail through Dedeckera Canyon and over Steele Pass, the back way into Saline Valley.
It’s one of the most remote 4-by-4 roads in California in one of the most unrelenting deserts, so preparation in advance of the excursion went far beyond taking extra food and water and stemmed into preventative vehicle maintenance. My go-anywhere Toyota 4 Runner had proved itself numerous times before in many places, and I had no doubts about its performance, yet I decided it would still be safer to change the vehicle’s timing belt. Doing the job myself proved time-consuming yet rewarding, knowing the $800 in labor saved and peace of mind earned for safety along the way.
With the vehicle packed and filled with every knick-knack needed for the road ahead, our crew of merry travelers made our way to the Eastern Sierra beyond Mono Lake and into Nevada in search of the ruins of a ghost town called Aurora. It seemed simple enough to get there, according to the map, but after a couple of wrong turns and washed-out roads that had to be backtracked, it seemed as if we’d never find it. Finally, right before the sun set, we came upon the remnants of the 1860 gold mining town.
Not much was left from Aurora, which had boasted 10,000 residents and produced more than $27 million worth of gold. Vandals had taken off with or destroyed all but the heaviest of items that remained. The scattered remnants of the stamp mill, along with the shallow stone foundations of various structures and dilapidated wooden buildings, gave an eerie feeling to our time there as the sun set behind the cloudy skyline. The weather report listed a chance of rain in the forecast, so we slipped back into California and the Owens Valley to avoid delaying our rendezvous with Josh and the second vehicle.
After camping near Mammoth Lakes, it was off to find the rest of our ragtag group of travelers, which we found stocking up at the last station in Big Pine along Highway 395. We packed our coolers full of ice, filled our vehicles full of gas and left what little civilization there was in Big Pine for the expanses of Death Valley.
Josh, in his stock-height Ford Explorer, reached the first of the three Dedeckera Canyon “steps” just ahead of us. The craggy wash, the gatekeeper of Dedeckera, called for the most technical four-wheeling of the trip, which needed to be cautiously negotiated to avoid any vehicle body damage. However, watching Josh float his SUV over each of the steps reassured me that I would have no problem with the high clearance 4-Runner.
A delay on the road
With high morale and the most difficult part of the trek behind us, we decided to hold off on camping in Steele Pass to try and make an evening camp at the Saline Valley warm-springs oasis only a few more miles down the road.
The saturated light from the setting sun helped reveal the vibrancy of color in the barren rocks that towered all around us while traversing down the washes of Steele Pass. Soon, the sun would stretch the silhouettes of surrounding Joshua trees to the star-filled night sky as we sped down the pass with eager anticipation of a shower and a soak at the springs.
Driving the dirt road was relatively easy, aside from a few boulders we had to dodge here and there. However, somewhere along the way, I didn’t dodge quite enough. Suddenly, the vehicle pulled hard to my right, giving very little steering response. My co-pilot stuck his head out the window and confirmed that, indeed, I had a flat tire. It appeared I had hit a rock hard enough to bend my rim and cause a sidewall puncture. We radioed ahead and told our driving companions we had found our camp for the night.
After a beautiful star-studded night, we changed the tire for a spare and packed up camp in the early morning before the Saline Valley sun got any higher in the sky.
At the oasis
The temperature rose as we dropped lower into Saline from Steele Pass, but it quickly cooled when dark ominous clouds slowly encroached, sending up a wall of sand in front of a storm that seemed sure to come our way.
While the sandstorm kept its distance from us, lightning strikes were visible in the towering Inyo mountain range across the valley, in conjunction with a different storm converging on us from Steele Pass to the east. Our camp at the warm springs was the perfect vantage point to witness the wrath of nature. We just hoped it wouldn’t rain too much to wash out any roads the next day, when we were supposed to leave.
Among the multitude of free campsites at the springs, we finally settled on a group campsite situated around the cold springs of the oasis. The flowing cool water filled a concrete-lined pool surrounded with palm trees and vegetation, perfect for cooling down in the hot part of the day. Water from that spring feeds through a series of pipes that leads to the warm springs, where it is used to water the lawn, and for showering and dish washing. In fact, all of the cemented-in pools at the warm springs are interconnected with underground piping, so they can drain, clean and refill the pools when needed.
We met the camp host, Lizard Lee, who was cleaning the cold spring when we set up camp. He warned us of a rattlesnake that had been spotted in the area. I had always known of Lizard Lee, but I had never met the recluse before. I guess it takes a certain type of character to live in such a harsh environment year round with so few services, but I’m sure he thoroughly enjoys it.
I knew there was a collection of used tires he had stored at his camp, so I asked to see if he had an extra 31x10.50 to put on my bent rim so I’d have a spare tire again. He told us we were the first to come through Steele Pass in a long time and said to stop by in the morning for the tire.
It was clear sunny skies again the next day as I approached Lizard Lee’s shack, where he already had a gas generator chugging away. Over the radio in front of his place, the weather report came on: “Fifty percent chance of thundershowers.”
Lizard Lee motioned for me to take my busted tire over to the tire-changing machine he had neatly placed under a tree in the yard, next to every tire size for any machine imaginable. There were motorcycle tires, forks, rims, random parts, vehicles that looked forgotten and forsaken and many other vehicular appendages that could be used to piece a car back together, enough to avoid a $1,500 tow truck trip back to Big Pine.
In fact, Lizard Lee was eager to finish with my tire so he could help a weary traveler who had hiked in six miles early that morning after smashing the radiator of his Lincoln Continental rental car.
The sky was clear when we left the warm springs, but we could see a storm brewing in the Inyos off to the distance where the North Pass road out of Saline Valley was to take us. The cloudy and rainy weather throughout the trip had been a welcomed cool-down. However, we had to be cautious on our drive out not to get stuck in a sizable rainstorm that could cause a flash flood and wash out the road. We forded a few rushing creeks that crossed the road, but nothing too serious.
All in all, a successful adventure.
• Patterson Irrigator photographer Elias Funez occasionally writes about his outdoor adventures for the Irrigator. Contact him at 892-6187 or firstname.lastname@example.org