The Geologists’ Cabin

This is only one of the many posts relating to our Death Valley adventure. If you would like to see more of what we did on that trip please visit our main Death Valley page.

The Geologists’ Cabin was our intended destination when we first set about (barely) planning our trip to Death Valley. Circumstances led us instead to another old, historical cabin when we first arrived. Stella’s Cabin was an interesting and worthwhile introduction to the recent past in Death Valley and we were happy that our lack of planning and frustrating yet fruitful first day in the park led us to that destination. Once we got the opportunity to claim the Geologists’ Cabin as our own though it became the cornerstone and base of operations for the rest of our time in the park.

We pulled up to the cabin on a Wednesday morning at around 10am mere minutes after we had watched the previous occupants vacate the premises. We were so stunned by the magnitude and splendor of such a site, in such a setting, that we completely forgot to take any pictures until later that night. Instead we gleefully unloaded our gear into the cabin and set about getting ourselves situated for the coming week.

My Girl Outside the Cabin On Our First Night
My Girl Outside the Cabin On Our First Day
Tacoma in front of Cabin next to old chairs past vistors have left to be "helpful"
Some Old Chairs And Card Tables Left By Past “Helpful” Visitors

Embedded in the concrete of the doorstep is a brass plaque with a quality suggestion for visitors.

Plaque at the Front Door
Plaque at the Front Door

I write the plural Geologists’ Cabin instead of the possessive Geologist’s Cabin because of some information we dug up which seems to indicate that there was more than one Geologist linked to the cabin. A little research reveals that the history of this cabin is shrouded in mystery. There is mention of it being built in the 1880’s by Mormon settlers or in the 1930’s by Asa “Panamint” Russell of Russell’s Camp fame. In Emmett Harder’s book These Canyons Are Full Of Ghosts there is a story related to him that says the cabin was indeed built in the 1930’s but by a “Dr.” Todd and a Captain William Fison with assistance by a Dr. Wolff. More digging reveals that the Todd in the related story was one Wallace Todd. Born Wallingford Todd on August 21, 1897 in Baltimore Maryland, he earned a BS from the New Mexico School of Mines in 1927 and a Masters from Stanford University in 1931. He was an Assistant Professor in Geology at Occidental College and then a lecturer in Geology at USC in 1944. He eventually became a director of the Rawhide Queen Mining Corporation of Nevada and was quite successful. He died on November 6th, 1980 in Los Angeles. He was, seemingly, the first Geologist connected to the cabin.

Wallace Todd
Wallace Todd

But wait, there’s more. The other Doctor mentioned in the story told to Emmett Harder was a Dr. Wolff. A Dr. John Elliot Wolff is mentioned in numerous publications related to the history of Death Valley. We found that he was born in Montreal, Canada on November 12, 1857 but his family moved to Boston when he was a child. Apparently he was a smart dude or else he had really good study habits as he earned a B.A. at Harvard in 1879 and a Ph.D from there as well in 1889. His list of professional accomplishments make me sad to be a slacker. He taught at Harvard from 1881 until 1923 and rose to the rank of Professor of Mineralogy and Petrography. He had a side job with the United States Geological Survey from 1885 to 1893. He served as the President of the Mineralogical Society of America and was Vice President of the Geological Society of America. Let’s just say this guy knew his rocks.

Dr. John Wolff
Dr. John Wolff

He died doing what he loved, out in the desert studying a rock formation near Lancaster, California. His car apparently became stuck in some sand and he had a heart attack trying to free it. He was found a few days later by the Sheriff led by some friends who knew in general where he was, what he was doing and where his car might have become stuck. So that is the second geologist affiliated with the cabin and the reason I write its title in the plural (Geologists’) instead of the possessive (Geologist’s). Yes, I know, TMI. Sorry.

Just like in every other old cabin in the park that we visited there is a Hantavirus warning out front and so we decided to again sleep in the camper shell. Inside there was a pamphlet from the CDC on what Hantavirus is, how not to catch it and how to clean up if you think you might have Hantavirus-carrying rodents in your building.

CDC pamphlet on the Hanta Virus posted on the wall of the Cabin
CDC pamphlet on the Hantavirus posted on the wall of the Cabin

On Thursday we began a closer inspection of the cabin, its features and its surroundings. Unlike Stella’s and the other cabins in the area that we explored this cabin was relatively clean and set up so that a wide variety of people can use and enjoy it. The were book shelves well filled with a wide variety of reading material, several board games and a Backgammon and Cribbage set as well. While one glass window was cracked there were no actual holes in any of them. Also, there was no grossly obvious gaps in the stone or mortar to let breezes and other less than desirable types in. In addition this cabin does, truly, have the best view in the valley.

Striped Butte through the Cabin Window
Striped Butte through the Cabin Window

There is a 2 gallon water container with a spigot on it on a shelf over the sink along with dish and hand soap for your cleanup duties.The fireplace worked but you really have to get a good, hot fire up and roaring if you want to overcome the breezes that think they are Santa Clause and this is xmas and are constantly fighting to enter the cabin by coming down the chimney. Anything less than a full-out effort results in a small, smoky fire and a smoky, aromatic cabin interior.

We always carry several light sources with us (headlamp and little battery-powered LED lights to name a few) and cannot imagine life without our iPod and Bose SoundLink Mini to bring those tunes to life. Expecting to have to use those we were instead amazed to find that someone, fairly recently, had installed a small solar panel on the roof that powered a motorcycle-sized battery in a custom-built storage box that had switches for internal and external LED lights. There was one light mounted over the front door and another in the fixture over the table inside. Since the battery and solar panel were small the builders wisely decided to put a timer switch inline so that, at most, you could have one hour of electricity at a time before having to turn the switch for additional time.

Light Over the Table in the Cabin
Light Over the Table in the Cabin

In addition to the unexpected LED lights there was also a small amplifier powering interior and exterior speakers so you could attach your own music source and annoy the burros with your lousy musical tastes. We did this and found out, as a generalization, that burros have fickle musical tastes. When we put on music with a strong harmonica presence like Blues Traveler or Charlie Musselwhite they made happy braying sounds and were not adverse to coming closer to the cabin. If music with a predominant brass sound (Miles Davis, Chicago, Maynard Ferguson) came on they Hee Haw’d their displeasure and moved farther away. There is no accounting for taste in wild burros.

We’re just guessing here but it seems to us that someone, somewhere is affiliated with a church or diocese that had a house cleaning and got ahold of some ornate chairs that you would not expect to see at a stone cabin in the middle of Death Valley. The padding was thin and uncomfortable though and so we used our Oregon Ducks closed-cell foam seat pad to augment the torturous original padding that was presumably designed to make you uncomfortable enough to not fall asleep during church services or functions.

Don't Mind My Oregon Pad. There Chairs Had Thin Padding.
Oregon Ducks Saving My Ass

Our first general observation is that this cabin is loved. Past visitors have enjoyed their time here so much as to have offered their artwork to adorn the walls.

Original Watercolor Artwork By A Previous Visitor
Original Watercolor Artwork By A Previous Visitor
Another Original Watercolor of the Valley Presented Below the Cabin
Another Original Watercolor of the Valley View Below the Cabin
Ball Point Pen Artwork of the Cabin
Ball Point Pen Artwork of the Cabin

Sadly far, far  too many other visitors over the decades have felt the need to immortalize their presence by leaving their names and/or dates written, carved and even painted into the structure of the cabin itself. There were dozens of inscriptions dating back all the way to the 1950’s and some people have even used their complete first and last names or created a continuing list of all the years they have been able to make it out here. Again, there are far too many to pollute this post with so we have decided to create our own Wall of Shame to document and expose those criminal vandals who deem themselves worthy of posterity on the walls of a federally protected, historic cabin in a National Park.

About 20 yards or so up the hill from the cabin is a relatively new outhouse. Like the one at Stella’s Camp this is extremely well-engineered of nicely welded square tube framed by cement sheets and then faced with local stone to give it more natural look that blends in better with the cabin itself and its surroundings.

Newer Outhouse Up The Hill From The Cabin
Newer Outhouse Up The Hill From The Cabin

There was a small solar panel on top connected to an LED light inside via another timer switch for nighttime use. It is such a nice out house that the burros seemed to have tried to use it but couldn’t get inside.

Burros tried to use the outhouse
Burros Claiming The Outhouse For Burrokind

I’m not an exhibitionist (and you would need an extremely high-powered scope to see anything worthwhile from any vantage point) but the view from the loo was far too good to keep the door closed during use.

A View From the Loo
I Wasn’t Actually Using It When I Took This Picture

A hundred yards away or so we found the old toilet and let us just tell you, this new one is way nicer.

looking towards the cabin from the old toilet
The Old Bathroom Facilities

For some odd reason we were curious enough to open that old toilet and found that it was essentially full to the brim. We restrained ourselves from taking a picture so you could see what we saw. Feel free to thank us profusely in a comment.

We found this old discarded can near the old toilet that we found interesting. Again, interesting to me, most likely not to you. It was an old, rusty can that had a rust-free top.

bi-metal can
Steel Body, Aluminum Top?

We wondered if, at some point during the can-making past, there was a gradual shift from steel to aluminum and this can represents a transitional time when the bodies were still steel but the tops that got crimped on during the canning process were the newfangled aluminum ones. We ended up being correct. After a little research we have another useless piece of trivia to glaze your eyes over with. The first all-aluminum flat-top beer can was marketed by the Hawaii Brewing Company for its Primo Beer brand in 1958. In 1960 Schlitz introduced an aluminum top on steel cans, the “sofTop” can that still had to be opened with a “Church Key” can opener like steel cans had been for the last 30 years. In 1962 Alcoa developed the aluminum pull top which was initially mounted on steel cans and by the 1970s the lower weight and lower cost won out and the beer cans evolved into the all-aluminum Container of Liquid Joy we recognize today. So, since the can we found had an aluminum top but was not opened with a church key we believe it had to have been produced between 1962-1970. We actually believe that this is the first interesting thing we have ever found out about due to a litterer. Who’d have thought?

Taking the “…Leave It Better Than You Found It” Plaque to heart we unloaded our boxes of tools and set about fixing what we could.

the two tool boxes full of tools we always carry with us
Tools We Always Have With Us…Just In Case

If it was loose, we tightened it. If a dowel was pulling out we glued and clamped it back into place. If a hinge squeaked, we Zep 45’d it. FYI – Zep 45 is a modern penetrating lubricant with Teflon somewhat like WD40 but way better, more in a class like Tri-Flow. We noticed that the left speaker indoor and the right speaker outside both didn’t work. We opened up the box with the battery, timer and LED light switches to take a look and found a maze of wires all butt-spliced together. We have a box of assorted butt splices and could have had a go at it but it just was more than we wanted to tackle. It was good we left that alone as, later, all four speakers worked again. And then they didn’t again. We finally figured out that the cheap little audio amp was to blame. Touching the volume knob with anything but a hummingbird’s wing touch would cause the speakers to pop and hiss and go out. Giving the knob a gentle flick would usually work to get everything working again but not always. Sadly, we don’t carry a spare amp with us or we would have swapped it out. We also used the speakers more than the original installers had probably envisioned and so soon came to notice that the battery gave up the ghost sooner than we would have liked. Taking a look at the solar panel up top revealed the probable cause. Sometime in the recent past it had rained and then immediately had a dust storm blow through and the panel was coated with a thick layer of, essentially, mud. Plus, even with the little, vicious, medieval metal spiky thing mounted across the top rim of the panel some large, well-fed bird had gotten way too comfortable up there and let loose with, like, a liquid ounce of bird poop and even more deeply covered a portion of the panel. We gave the panel a thorough cleaning and brought it back to its normal, clean and shiny self and it rewarded us with an obvious increase in its output if the doubled battery life is any indication.

When you wake up early in the morning out in the desert one can get a sense, however obviously untrue, that all your gaze beholds, the entirety of all you survey is yours. Sitting out in front of the cabin looking over the vast valley below one might be forgiven for thinking that, even though you know it not to be true. You are the master of your domain and the king of your castle.

Panorama Of All We Claimed As Our Own
Panorama Of All We Claimed As Our Own With A Disturbed Bird (Arrow)

That’s fun and all but then the sun decides to smack you back into place and so the front of the cabin becomes a less-than-welcoming environment. To remedy that we popped up our cheap little, triangular Costco sunshade so we would have a bit of shade to read and relax no matter what time of the day it was.

sunshade installed out front of the cabin
Our Installation Held Up Surprisingly Well to the Continuous Gusts of Wind That Battered the Cabin

Once the shade was up we spent numerous hours under its protection reading, writing and just gazing out over the vastness that was our kingdom for the week. Willow also enjoyed using the shade as a respite from the sun after laying out and keeping tabs on all creatures great and small.

 Willow Lording Over "Her" Domain As A Storm Rolls Into The Valley
Willow Standing Watch Over “Her” Domain As A Storm Rolls Into The Valley

We should mention now that, if you make the trek here for peace and quiet you will be regularly and continuously disappointed. Yes, there are short stretches where relative silence prevails but the burros regularly break the silence with vocal outbursts and, at least once a day, a military war plane or three flies over or through the Valley and shatters any notion that you are in the middle of nowhere. Literally, out of the blue, the grating sound of amplified fingernails on chalkboard (a.k.a. burro-speak) can break out at a moments notice and all ears in the Valley turn to see who, what or where the fuss is coming from.

Willow knows better than to mess with the burros who could easily kick or stomp her to death or cost me a really expensive vet bill so she spent more time keeping us safe from the rats that are a regular presence at the cabin and its surroundings.

Several times we watched the clouds roll into the valley from the North East. The first time we saw that we quickly closed up the Tacoma and made sure we were prepared for the coming rain. It dropped all of 12 drops on us and instead dumped on Striped Butte and the hills across the valley.

storm clouds on the other side of the valley
A Storm Enters The Valley
storm in full effect
Storm In Full Effect

Each time a storm over on the other side of the valley dissipated the smell of Petrichor wafted over to this side and was strong enough to wrinkle your nose. After a couple of false starts a storm finally made it over to our side of the valley and made up for lost time by dumping hard for at least an hour and sending us inside by the fireplace. A small and not-too-bad concession to not being outside.

Once the rain had cleared though we were right back outside sitting under our sunshade and quietly observing the wildlife that congregates at the outflow from Anvil Spring all of 50 feet down the hill from the cabin.

Anvil Spring with a dead half-a-tree that used to be a big tree
Small, Unstable Planks on Cinder Blocks Lead to the Outflow Pipe

With Enough Water It Must Have Been Lightning or Disease That Killed The Tree Above. The Woodpeckers and Crows sure liked it as a platform to mouth off to one and all though.

outflow pipe from the spring
About One Gallon A Minute From The Anvil Spring Outflow Pipe

I, literally, stood in shit to get that photo for you.

Standing in burro poop
Not Kidding

As you sit and look out over the entire Valley as well as the spring essentially at your feet you can’t help but notice numerous birds throughout the day come overhead, circle two or three times to make sure all is well and then tuck wing, descend and land at the spring to then immediately set about the job of preening and hydrating oneself only to inevitably be rousted by the regular appearances of a burro or five. Several times we were graced with a performance of the Burro Mating Ritual. We have come to the conclusion that Ring-Necked Doves are like the grunting female tennis players of the avian world when they are disturbed. “OH. MY. I. MUST. FLAP. HARD. AND. GRUNT. EACH. AND. EVERY. WING. STROKE. OH. MY.” For their obvious size discrepancy to the burros some red-headed woodpeckers (not sure if that is the actual breed but they were pecking wood and they had red heads so…) would show up and scream their presence to all that would listen at a volume that was quite impressive being that they were only in 2nd Place in the Cabin’s “How Much Noise Can We Make” contest.

Throughout the day a veritable zoo would stop by to take advantage of this readily available source of water. Burros were the most obvious both because of their size and habit of announcing their arrival to all their burro friends and enemies at the top of their lungs. Besides the huge number and variety of birds we also saw large numbers of Jack Rabbits with their huge, black-tipped ears and tails as well as ground squirrels, chipmunks, a few Kangaroo Rats, snakes, lizards, beetles and other insects galore.

Jack Rabbit on the Entrance Road to the Cabin
Jack Rabbit on the Entrance Road to the Cabin

Something we at first thought was a racoon ambled by one morning but it was the wrong color, more rust than black, and we think it was a Ring-Tailed Cat. We heard some fox and coyotes but none made an appearance when we were on the lookout. At night bats would make a visit and gorge themselves on as many of the unwary insects as they could. Just so as to keep humans and domesticated canids in the count we wandered down to the outflow pipe at least once a day to scrub off any dirt accumulated during our home improvement projects or our hikes up and down the mine tailing piles. After we asked the rangers in Furnace Creek about the potability of the water they said just as long as you filter it we’d be fine so we saved the tap water we brought with us and instead used the spring water after collecting it and filtering it through our MSR Miniworks filter. It’s a bonus to not have to use water you’ve brought with you to fill up a solar shower.

The fire ring in front of the cabin is made of rocks that are well suited as little Hidy holes for lizards. I spent over an hour and just watched the one pair that we’ve seen numerous times. One is bit larger with the blue tail while the other is a bit smaller and mostly brown and gray speckled. Again I am no herpetologist but I believe the blue tailed one is either the male of the species and the smaller one the female, an adult and the smaller one is a juvenile of the species or they might just be different species all together. Who knows.

The Bigger of the Two Lizards on the Dark Rock by the Aluminum Pole
The Bigger of the Two Lizards on the Dark Rock by the Aluminum Pole

We watched the little dance they do as the small one finds a suitable spot on a sunny warm rock and then, inevitably, over a set range of time from 30 seconds to three minutes the blue tailed one finds the small one and rousts it from its spot. It’s not aggressive per se as the small one seems to voluntarily give up its spot before contact is made. But, when the large one leaves the pile of rocks to go across the sand into the bushes the smaller one inevitably follows so they are somehow linked. I think the Sunshade we put up disrupted their normal routine as, at certain times of the day, when the sun would normally be basting the rocks, they are now shaded and both lizards would be on the rocks and you could kind of tell that they were just not comfortable with this lesser amount of sun at that time of day and keep flitting about looking for a more suitable basking spot. Sorry Lizards, we’ll be gone in a couple of days.

We awoke early each morning, usually before sunrise to try to take some “artistic” pictures. This is our favorite one of the cabin.

Sunrise at the Cabin
Sunrise at the Cabin

Throughout our time here we had only a few visitors and then only on the weekend. A group of four Jeeps and their occupants from the Riverside 4 Wheelers Club stopped by. They had two beautiful dogs with them, Granite and Onyx, who were friendly enough but were obviously more interested in giving the area and Willow a good, thorough sniffing than letting me pet them. Silly doggies, you know not what you are missing.

Visitors from the Riverside 4-Wheelers Club
We Think They Parked Their Jeeps To Be Higher Than The Tacoma On Purpose 😉

Another group came by, stopped for a smoke, littered their butts on the ground and then resumed their drive but not before telling us about the Heart-Shaped Pool and “the place with the School bus” (which turned out to be Emmett’s Lone Tree Mill Site). The most intriguing drive-by during our time at the cabin though was the group of three, a Jeep and two VW’s; a Baja Bug and a Thing and they were coming from the direction of Mengel Pass!

A VW Baja Bug and a Thing!
A Strange Sight Indeed

While we try to only carry cans of quality ale in the ARB refrigerator and, you know, food and stuff, sometimes you just have to bring what you have available. We waited for our last night in residence which also happened to be a stellar, storm-on-the-other-side-of-the-Valley evening and celebrated our presence in such a splendid spot with a bottle of Wild Horse Chardonnay.

Wild Horse chardonnay, Willow and Striped Butte in the background
A Wild Burro chard Would Have Been More Appropriate And No, You Cannot Have Some

We packed up the Tacoma the next morning and headed out by 7:30am. We kind of broke the rules a bit and left the flag up. This was so that, of the three people who stopped by and inquired about when we were leaving and then went to camp nearby waiting for our departure, the second and third people would see the flag and think we were still in residence while first guy who asked and was camped across the Valley at Willow Spring and knew when we were leaving would come claim it. You’re welcome Nathan 😉

Our next stop and Adventure, the Saline Valley Warm Springs.

2 thoughts on “The Geologists’ Cabin

  1. Kim

    Nice to see the posts about Death Valley. We didn’t make it to the bus. We went down Coyote Canyon to where the road ended. Then we continued down Coyote Canyon until we hit a thicket of greenery that we were not going to get through. That’s where we turned around and when the rain started. We zipped back to camp (with a brief stop at the little white shack at the Geologist’s Cabin) in the rain and dark. We made it back at 9pm. We will have to find Emmett’s and the bus on our next trip. Granite and Onyx send sniffs to Willow!

    1. Willow

      I have a picture of your caravan heading back past the Cabin in the rain with your headlights on that I was going to add to that post. Riverside 4 wheelers in the rain Will do that next time I have reliable internet access. So you headed back over Mengel Pass and out Goler Wash? That was brave in the rain.

      Regards, Eric & Willow sitting alongside the Mogollon Rim above Strawberry, AZ

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