Wandering Desert Backroads

My New Year’s resolution for this year is to visit as many National Parks as I can in 2017. For my first trip I had had my sights set on Death Valley National Park. Everything I had read indicated that February was one of the ideal times to go there. I ordered maps and guidebooks and started looking at the NPS website. My goal was to explore some of the desert back roads and do some day hiking. As I began researching I learned that two years ago Death Valley had experienced a rare 1000-year flood that buried several roads in mud and heavily damaged Scotty’s Castle, one of the big attractions in the park. Death Valley normally only receives two inches of rain in an entire year but during that storm they received over two inches of rain in less than an hour. So as I researched I learned that many of the roads I wanted to travel there were still closed due to the time and labor it takes to dig them out. Still, it looked like there was enough left open that I could still have a great trip. So I proceeded to plan for a mid February trip to Death Valley.

 

Well, what’s a great adventure without something going awry? Three days before I left the weather forecast was suddenly calling for an inch of rain in Death Valley! So my options were to wait or go somewhere else, a Plan “B.” I had put some thought about where else I might go but I hadn’t done much planning for that area. I had a strong urge to go back to southern Utah but it wasn’t looking the most promising due to more snow in the forecast. So at the very last minute I came up with Plan C, which was to go to Palo Duro State Park in the Texas Panhandle and hike for two or three days while I waited to see what the weather was going to do in Death Valley.

Palo Duro Canyon

The first thing I learned when I reached Palo Duro Canyon on Friday afternoon was that I was lucky to get one of the last campsites available. The second thing I learned was that every Texan for hundreds of miles around had decided it was a good idea to head for Palo Duro Canyon for the weekend and all the campsites were reserved for Saturday and Sunday nights. No problem, I thought to myself. I’ll camp Friday night, hike Saturday, and by then somebody will have cancelled their reservation. Saturday’s hike on the Lighthouse trail made me change my mind about all of that. There were so many people hiking that I couldn’t even take a picture without someone either being in it or walking right into my frame. After a few hours of that I became very claustrophobic (or whatever the word is for not wanting to be in a crowd of thousands of people when you are trying to enjoy nature,) and I decided I wanted to get the heck out of there as quickly as possible. After I finished my hike I drove to the top of the canyon so I could get a cell signal and called a park ranger in Death Valley hoping to hear good news about the rain passing over. Well, there was no good news. She told me it was raining heavily, roads were flooding, and part of Death Valley had become a lake! She told me she thought if I could delay my trip several more days some of the roads would be passible again. So it was settled: I wasn’t going to stay another minute at Palo Duro, I couldn’t go to Death Valley, so I decided I was going to go wander around southern Utah and take my chances with the snow forecast.

On the trail to The Lighthouse, Palo Duro Canyon, TX
The Lighthouse, Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

As I drove through northern Arizona on Sunday the temperature dropped into the low 30’s and the skies alternated between giving me rain, sleet, snow, and sunshine. Once I was in Utah in the Bear’s Ears National Monument area the skies were much kinder to me but it was very apparent that many of the backroads were total mud bogs. On my first evening in Utah I camped at Natural Bridges National Park where I learned from a ranger that they winter snows had just melted and the ground, trails, and back roads were sopping wet and muddy. That night it dropped into the 20’s but I slept comfortably inside the Wander Wagon. The next day I drove Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 from Natural Bridges NP to Capital Reef National Park.

Desert Roads of Utah

Natural Bridges National Park in morning light
Scenic Byway 12

At Capital Reef NP I talked to a park ranger about the conditions on the famous Notom Road, a back road that goes 34 miles south from Capital Reef to the Burr Trail switchbacks near Boulder Utah. About 14 years ago I nearly tore up a two wheel drive car while driving on this road. I’ve also read stories about people getting trapped by flood waters while trying to cross the many washes the road crosses. When I traveled the Notom Road I was in awe of it’s beauty. The Notom Road goes right down the middle of the Waterpocket Fold, a one hundred mile long buckle in the Earth’s surface that is pushed up creating beautiful rock formations. So each time I’ve returned to Utah I’ve wanted to travel that road again. However, each time there has always been some weather event that made the road impassable thus preventing me from traveling it.

 

While I was talking to the ranger about the conditions on the Notom road a guy overheard us and interrupted. He said he had just come off the road and he had nearly been stuck several times in his Toyota Tacoma. He strongly warned me to not get on the road. He said it was extremely muddy. With that discouraging news I reluctantly drove down the highway thinking that I’d miss driving the Notom Road again. Well, about 10 miles down the highway I did a U-turn and decided come hell or high water, or deep mud in this case, I was going to go for it! I was going to take my chances on a muddy Notom Road. I figure in a worse case scenario if I got stuck and wasn’t able to recover myself I’d just camp there until the sun and wind dried the road out enough that I could keep driving. I had plenty of food and water!

 

As I reached the end of the pavement I hit the gas as I passed the sign stating to stay off the road if there were any chance of rain. For the first mile the road wasn’t bad at all and I was able to stop and snap a photo. When I reached the first mud pit I could see dryish road on the other side so I gassed it and the Wander Wagon glided through with hardly a fishtail. The road was fairly solid for the next mile but then I encountered a longer and muddier section. Again the Wander Wagon performed beautifully with only slight fishtailing. The mud pits became longer and wetter, and deeper as I continued down the road. There would be a section of mud but I could usually see a dry spot further down the road on the other side so I just took it one mud spot at a time. As I adapted my driving to the longer and muddier sections I realized I transformed from driving a leisurely drive down a country road into a rally race. As the mud pits grew longer I began hitting them faster and faster. At one point I realized I was doing 35 and 40 miles per hour while fishtailing down this mudd road and I didn’t dare to try to even peek at the scenery. My eyes were glued to the road ahead. Sometimes out of my peripheral vision I could see mud flying away from my tires.

Notom Road, before the mud

Half way down Notom Road I hit a very long section of mud at about 40 miles per hour and as I neared the middle my speed dropped significantly and I began to worry. Suddenly the grade pitched upward, I lost my momentum, and I came to a complete stop, stuck in the mud! My first thought was “I guess I’m camping here tonight!” But when I threw it into reverse she moved, so I knew it wasn’t over. Inching forward in first it was losing traction again so I reached down and hit the button to disengage the symmetrical all-wheel drive. Oh boy! If I thought my tires were slinging mud before they were really slinging it now!!! But it allowed me to move forward again and once I started gaining speed I flipped the switch to allow the computer to control the all-wheel drive again. Well, another mile down the road and I encountered another long boggy mud pit that took away my momentum and I found myself stuck again. Then, just like before, by manually manipulating the all-wheel drive I was able to get myself unstuck! I was amazed at how well the Wander Wagon preformed! I was also very happy I had installed the skid plates. There were times during my mud run I could hear the skid plates scraping on rocks!

 

When I reached the junction of the Notom Road, Burr Trail Road to Halls Crossing, and the Burr Trail Switchback to Boulder I decided I better go find a place to camp before it got too dark and save traveling the Burr Trail Road for another day.

Dry spot at the end of Notom Road looking north
Burr Trail Switchbacks 1
Burr Trail Switchbacks 2
Climbing the Burr Trail Switchbacks

I spent the next two days exploring back roads in Grand Staircase Escalante National park. I also hiked to a couple of slot canyons and camped in the Wander Wagon off of some of the back roads.

Hole in The Wall Road near Escalante UT
Devil’s Garden near Hole In The Wall Road, Escalante, Ut
Devil’s Garden near Hole In The Wall Road, Escalante, Ut
Slot canyon

After several days of sun and wind the mud on the Burr Trail Road was nearly dry. From the Boulder, UT to Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell it’s just under 70 miles. Half of that is unpaved and has many risky stream crossings if there has been rain. However, compared to a few days before on the Notom Road the Burr Trail Road was almost anticlimactic. I was able to stop and take photos whenever and wherever I wanted. Once I reached Bullfrog I talked to a Ranger about the Backroads in the nearby Henry Mountains. He said the Mountains had just gotten more snow and said the roads would be impassable for another month or two. So maybe next trip!

Stream crossing on Burr Trail
Burr Trail cattle

From Bullfrog Marina I drove Scenic Byway 95 north past the Henry Mountains. Then I took Scenic Byway 1212 east to Blanding UT where I got a hotel room, took a hot shower and laundered my clothes. By then the rain in Death Valley had ceased and the sun and wind were working on drying the roads, so my plan was to drive on to Death Valley. The next morning I headed south with the intention of going through Monument Valley. As I was heading south I spotted a back road I had somehow missed on previous trips. It turned out to be a backroad that meandered through Monument Valley. Of course I couldn’t resist! I think I could make a whole trip out of photographing Monument Valley. I could see setting my camera up on the tripod in one spot and taking photos all day long as the sun and clouds change the light and shadows on the landscape. It was beautiful!

Scenic Byway 95 near the Henry Mountains
Scenic Byway 12 near Blanding Utah
Fry Canyon Bridge
Valley of The Gods Back Road
Winding Backroad through Valley of The Gods
Valley of The Gods Desert Road
Valley of The Gods Desert Road B&W
Valley of The Gods Desert Road 2
Valley of The Gods Desert Road 2 B&W
Monument Valley

Death Valley National Park

When I reached the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center in Death Valley it dawned on me that it was Saturday and I was around thousands of tourists again! I quickly found a ranger and inquired about what backroads were open. Turns out that there were still many roads closed due to the flood damage from two years ago, plus there were additional roads closed due to the previous week’s rain. However, I did find two back road areas I could explore. The first was Echo Canyon, which is where I wound up camping that night. Like many of the National Parks in the southwest you can camp for free off of many of the backroads in what is considered “Dispersed camping.” So after just a short time dealing with the crowds the solitude of Echo Canyon was refreshing.

 

The next day I explored Badwater Basin which is the lowest point in North America. It’s 282 feet below sea level. Normally Badwater Basin is a dry salt plain. However, due to the recent rain I had the rare opportunity to see standing water in Badwater Basin! In the summer it reaches 120 degrees there but on that February day it was only in the 70’s. However, once out on the salt plain it started feeling pretty toasty under the bright sun. I also thought I was going to go snow blind! It was so bright that even with my sunglasses I was having trouble seeing after being out there for nearly two hours.

Badwater Basin Flood
Sun reflecting off flood water in Badwater Basin

My next destination was the Eureka Sand Dunes. It wasn’t so much the sand dunes that I wanted to see but it was the solitude I was seeking away from all the tourists. When the park ranger told me that it normally takes three hours to drive from the ranger station in Stove Pipe Wells to the Eureka Dunes I knew that was the road I wanted to take! The road didn’t disappoint.

Desert Road #2
Crankshaft Junction
Desert Road to Eureka Sand Dunes

While at the sand dunes I played around with shooting astrophotography. According to an iPad app I have that night was supposed to be moonless and the Milkyway was supposed to run north and south overhead. Even if my first attempts at astrophotography weren’t the best I still enjoyed a moonless, cloudless, and starry night, that was unobstructed by trees or buildings or light pollution. It was a nice experience.

Playing with asltrophotograpy and long exposures
Eureka Sand Dunes in morning light.
Eureka Sand Dunes at morning
Sunrise on Eureka Sand Dunes

The next day I drove back to the ranger station at Stove Pipe Wells hoping to hear good news about more roads reopening. Unfortunately there was no such news. So I headed west over the mountains into Panamint Valley to explore there. While there I visited the ghost town of Ballarat. There isn’t much there except the main attraction is the 1946 military surplus Dodge Power Wagon. A four wheel drive pickup truck owned by Charles Manson. The truck earned the nickname “The Manson Getaway Truck” when Tex tried to use it to escape being captured. He made it as far as Ballarat before it broke down. From there he hitchhiked to his home in Texas and evaded capture for another month. In the mean time the truck still sits in Ballarat. The white pentagrams can still be seen on the inside roof of the cab where Manson’s followers painted them.

Charle’s Manson’s 1946 Dodge Power Wagon – The Escape Truck
The Escape Truck, Charles Manson’s 1946 Dodge Power Wagon. The truck Tex Watson tried to escape in.

While in Ballarat I talked to the caretaker of the ghost town. It turns out its now private property and he was hired by the owner to live there and oversee it. It also turns out the caretaker may have been a classmate of one or more of Mary’s siblings during high school! Probably due to possible friends in common he relaxed and began telling me about his conspiracy theories centering on the “real” reason the government acquired the land for the national parks. Then he opened his refrigerator and handed me the Mason jar of moonshine and told me to have some. When I opened the lid and smelled it there was no odor but pure alcohol. My first reaction was to say “we used to thin shellac with this!” When I asked if he had made it himself he said yes. Having previously noticed he was already blind in one eye I decided I’d better pass on drinking the Mountain Dew. Instead, I told him I’d sure like to, but I needed to be able to drive.

Back Road in Panamint Valley

As I drove north up the road in Panamint Valley I suddenly heard a very loud roar. At first I thought something was wrong with the Wander Wagon. It occurred to me that one of my skid plates had fallen off and I was dragging it down the highway. Just as I was formulating that thought saw a fighter jet passing over me at a very high speed. So I was actually buzzed by a fighter jet! When he buzzed me he had to have only been about 150 to 200 feet above me! After buzzing me he flew to the north end of the valley and then shot straight up into the sky. After doing some rolls and turns he shot off into the horizon in the south. It all happened so fast I wasn’t able to get the car stopped and my camera out before he was gone. Once I was back in my car he buzzed me again! Again he was going so fast that there was no way I could stop and get my camera out to shoot! It was pretty amazing!

 

Once back into Death Valley I headed back to Echo Canyon. From reading the map I knew if I went further into Echo Canyon than I had a few days before I’d find the Inyo Gold Mine. As the sun was setting I drove the 9.5 miles of rough back road through the canyon to the remains of the gold mine. I reached the mine and the old miner’s shack in just enough time to set up my camera on the tripod and compose the shot with the miner’s shack in before the sun set. While I waited for the stars to come out I ate my dinner.

 

Once dinner was done and the stars were in full force I began shooting the Milky way above the miner’s shack. I began experimenting with the long exposures and illuminating the shack with my flashlight. Then I even put a spare light inside the shack to illuminate it from the inside. All the while I was doing this I kept hearing noises but couldn’t figure out what they were. Sometimes it sounded like an animal in the sage brush off to the side but I never saw one with my light. Then there were times when I could hear a metal ticking sound. After a while it started to get a little bit creepy but I tuned it out. So I was standing at my tripod and camera in the dark illuminated only by starlight. I’d take a few shots and then I’d review them on my camera to make sure I was still doing the exposures and lighting the way I intended. Suddenly as I was looking through my viewfinder to preview the image I had just shot I saw a man standing by the doorway of the miner’s shack! I quickly flashed my flashlight at the shack, which was about 200 feet away, but there wasn’t anyone standing there. When I looked back into my viewfinder at the image he was there again and the hair on the back of my neck stood up! Again I flashed my light at the shack but nobody was there. I’m not one to spook easily but this really had my attention for a brief moment. When I looked closer at the image I realized there was a piece of tin nailed up next to the doorway. So looking through the small viewfinder in the low light setting made it look like someone was standing there!

Milkyway over Miner’s Shack

The next morning I cooked and ate my breakfast and then shot photos of the mining camp as the sun rose on it. After wandering around the miner’s camp for a few hours I decided it was time to drive back out. When I reached pavement I got a call from Mary. After talking to her for a few minutes we decided it would be nice for me to go home for a while. I’d been on the road for two weeks.

Inside miner’s shack # 2
Miner’s shack # 2
Inyo Mine
Inside miner’s shack #1

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