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.
On our way to the Saline Valley Warm Springs, just as we came to the fork in the road where we planned on taking the left that led down into the valley via the South Pass, we drove past Hunter Mountain Road which continued on up the mountain to the right. We had been told by the nice bartender at the Panamint Springs Resort about an old log cabin that was up that way and so, on our way out from the Warm Springs we decided to take that road and check it out.
The road quickly devolved into a rocky, rutted, wash-boarded mess. There were several places where we decided to put the Tacoma into 4-wheel drive and even a couple when we shifted into 4-low and slowly crawled our way over, through or around some otherwise difficult obstacles. Many times we see maps with a “4-Wheel Drive Recommended” notation when what they really mean is “High Clearance Vehicle” but, in this instance the mapmakers were right. This is also in the late spring and one can only imagine what the road would be like in the winter or during the late summer monsoon season here. We need/want to come back then and give it a go.
Once we got to the top of the ridge the road flattened and smoothed out quite a bit. We quickly scouted out a few of the side roads/trails we came across, several which had nice little campsites for future reference. Continuing further down the road we eventually came to a cattle crossing and a small, dirt, deeply-rutted road heading off to the right. Taking that for about a mile we eventually arrived at a closed gate with another ubiquitous Hantavirus Warning sign.
We opened the gate, drove through and closed it behind us like you are supposed to do. A few hundred yards past the gate we spotted the cabin up the hill a bit to the right. Directly past the entrance to the driveway is the turn-around at the end of the road so there is no way you can miss it. We turned into its driveway and parked.
For a moment we were worried, because of the plywood “door” and lack of a handle, that the cabin was closed for some official reason. Happily the plywood was on hinges and closed with a simple hook and eye latch. Once we swung the door open we could see the dusty interior.
We neglected to take pictures of the inside but, imagine if you will, a single window on the right and left walls as you enter, poorly screened and covered with raw pieces of plywood each held in place by four bent nails twisted down to curve over the plywood edges with shafts of light and a cool breeze punching through numerous openings in between the decaying logs that make up the walls. At one point there may have been some material that was packed in between the logs to seal up the gaps but, if there was, it has long since flaked and fallen away. We took down the two pieces of plywood covering the windows to let some light and a breeze through the place as we began to unload our gear. This was, and is, the epitome of your basic, old school, simple, no frills log cabin. It was assembled on a foundation of local stones obviously pulled down off the mountain and hand laid in a nice, structurally sound manner.
The roofing material is good old galvanized corrugated panels with some gaps noticeable from the inside from old nail holes and a confounding lack of flashing to cover the seam at the peak between the two sides of the roof. We’re all for roughing it a bit but if that was a design decision we are baffled at the oversight. We did get many enthusiastic and sustained gusts of wind through the area throughout the days we were there so we can imagine that, some years ago, those winds worked their tendrils underneath any flashing that might have been present and eventually ripped it off and flung it into the surrounding forest.
Because of the possible presence of Hantavirus we chose to use the cabin only to store our gear and to sleep in the camper shell where the only scary thing I have to fear is doggie farts in such an enclosed space. Like Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome they are an asphyxiating assault on your lungs (and nose), except they won’t actually kill you.
We get how and why it happens but it is still pretty amazing to, in the space of a 1 hour drive, go from being at 1300 feet, 100 degrees and relatively barren to 6800+ feet, 60 degrees and in the middle of a forest. As I remember it, long ago in the Boy Scouts, I was taught that in general, for every 3000 feet you rise in elevation the temperature drops 10 degrees. That did not seem to be holding strictly true in this case. I knew I had some research materials on my tablet from my advanced SCUBA certification classes and so geeked out looked for clarification. Found it! Known as the dry adiabatic lapse rate (abbreviated DALR) the formula is actually about a 5.5°F drop in temperature per 1000 ft or 9.8°C per km. The formula is a bit different when there is pronounced moisture in the air (the moist adiabatic lapse rate is about half of the dry rate) but, in this environment, that was not an issue. So now I know and you have another useful or useless piece of party trivia depending on what types of parties you frequent.
Since there was that No Campfires sign on the entrance gate we did not make use of the small fire ring out in front of the cabin but we did still set up a doggie bed and a human chair so that we could relax out in front of the cabin, in the shade of the large pines surrounding it and watch over the wildlife that traipsed up and down the road to Hunter Spring which was all of 50 yards from the door of the cabin.
On the second day we were there, a Friday, we only had one human visitor who drove up to the turn-around, got out, took a look around and a few pictures and then headed on his way. We made it a point to ask him how he knew about the existence of this place since it is not on any of the official Death Valley National Park maps we had or our National Geographic Trails Illustrated map. He showed me his map and it was the Tom Harrison Death Valley Recreation Map that distinctly showed the Hunter Cabin.
On Saturday morning, sitting in my chair enjoying my coffee ritual I glanced up the hill across the road to discover some large rock overhangs at the top of that mountain. Since we were in another one of AT&T’s all-too-common “we-don’t-give-a-damn-about-our-customers-and-will-do-the-absolute-bare-minimum-we-can-get-away-with” zones we decided to take a hike up in that direction to see what we could see and maybe, just maybe, we might get a bit of a signal and see what has been going on in the world around us in our self-imposed technological banishment.
According to the GPS the top of the hill was only about half a mile from the cabin but it was essentially playing tree slalom through a dense pine forest with an unstable, rocky ground cover and straight uphill so the going was less than quick, smooth or easy. Truly a hike and not a mere walk. By the time we got to the top even an amazing athlete like Willow was beat and tongue-lolling about. I nicely asked her to go up on one of the rock overhangs for a picture and she politely declined. Since I am the bigger, smarter, more manipulative dog I put her collapsible water bowl up there and that finally forced her hand. I’m sneaky that way.
Unsurprisingly, AT&T still sucked up here but we did get the equivalent of a mid 1990’s 400 baud modem signal which was just enough to slowly receive and respond to two text messages and quickly see how the San Jose Sharks were doing in their playoff series against the Nashville Predators. Very happy to find out they had won in six games and were about to take on the St. Louis Blues in the third round. RANT: As a quick aside, in my perfect world, professional athletes would be paid partially by how many calories they burn during a game and not by how many jerseys, hats, tickets or TV commercials their presence can help sell. This means baseball players are woefully and obscenely overpaid. On the other hand, hockey players whose average build is something like 6′-2″ and 220lbs are on ice, wearing blades, skating hard, crashing into boards and “brushing” each other off the puck with nowhere near the scandalous amounts of PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs) that plagues Major League Baseball. Hockey Rules, Baseball Drools. /RANT
From our vantage point atop the mountain we could see back the way we came and make out the roof of the cabin.
We made it back down the hill and to the cabin at around 2pm. We were both zonked and so decided to take a quick nap to recharge. I had just put down the Tacoma’s tailgate and was about to help my dainty Princess up into the bed when I noticed what I thought was a piece of bark on her blanket and reached out to toss it away.
Knowing that Bark Scorpions are the most venomous scorpion in North America and that the young members of a venomous species can be more dangerous than their adult counterparts (they attack when they could flee and inject more venom than they need to as well) I carefully and gently coaxed the “cute little buggah” (I thought that in a late, great Steve Irwin accent and now you are too 😉 onto my palm (mostly on the penny – I’m no dummy), took it outside and released it about 40 feet away.
After a thorough blanket and bed search with our UV flashlight we found no more little nasties and finally got our nap in. One hour naps are good. We awoke around 4pm to the sound of some vehicles slowly making their way up the access road. As they came around the last corner the vehicle in the lead saw our white Tacoma and proceeded to begin a turn around maneuver within the narrow confines of the tree-lined road. Really, we do not want to be dicks and revel in another person’s misfortune, truly we don’t, but when we heard slamming car doors and raised voices proclaiming something along the lines of “what the hell are you turning around for” we peaked out of the camper shell and could see driver #1 pointing up this way at us and then driver or passenger #2 angrily and verbally being resigned to the fact that they got here too late and must now continue on to find another camping spot this late in the day. I mean really though, who the heck shows up to a campsite late on a Saturday afternoon and expects it to be empty? This is a prime example of why we always do our departure, travel and arrivals to the next site Monday – Wednesday, Thursday at the latest. Does the joy I felt at getting here in a timely fashion make me a bad person? Let us hope not and I don’t think so. I frankly think those are common sense (oxymoron… I know) travel guidelines which allow us the freedom to experience places we might not be able to if we were constrained by a more traditional schedule.
We made a few other interesting observations during our stay here. And when I say “interesting” I mean to me and so you might be left totally underwhelmed. Sorry, not sorry. The amounts of blooming flowers at this altitude is minimal but we still saw many hummingbirds stopping at the pollen-filled buds on the pine trees and having a go at them.
The only other prominent flowers around were these two purple species and the hummingbirds spent way more of their efforts at the pine buds than the flowers.
At first we thought these picky eaters were Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds cruising about because 1) they were hummingbirds 2) they had red throat feathers and 3) there is such a species of hummingbird. We also noticed that, unlike Anna’s Hummingbirds which we are far more familiar with and which regularly do not make vocal sounds when they fly, these kept up a constant trill which reminded me of the sound the Golden Snitch makes in the Harry Potter movies. Just FYI, I am not a Harry Potter geek. Never read the books but have seen the movies. When we looked up hummingbirds later we found that true Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are very much an East of the Mississippi species, don’t really overlap in range with other hummingbirds and are never found in Arizona. After a bit more digging we now believe that our beautiful, noisy little visitors were instead Broad-Tailed Hummingbirds.
We also had to be careful with the trees around the cabin as they were some of the most, juicy, drippy, sappy trees we have ever encountered. Besides all the broken branches from the winds that regularly rip through the area someone had been through in the past year it seemed and did a bit of clean-up trimming on many of the trees surrounding the cabin. Hopefully it was an NPS-hired arborist and not just some guy with a chain saw and some extra 40-to-1 mix to burn.
Not little drips of sap but copious rivulets that would get on and gum up anything that laid against, brushed past or sat underneath. Like big, dripping, aromatic candles, except not as easy to clean up after. After several bouts of wiping up with mentholated spirits on various items we had to make sure we placed things, including the Tacoma, out from under any tree overhangs.
Our last interesting thing we observed was a little black beetle. I know, boring huh. To me just one of those beetles with large black thoraxes that I’ve always referred to generally as “Stink Beetles.” I had never spent that much attention to them, I just knew that if you messed with one you usually ended up with a stinky finger, or stick, or shoe. I had never even considered what these things ate and actually would not have cared until I saw this little guy/gal cruising around, out and about, obviously looking for something in the area between the fire pit and the cabin’s front door. Willow too saw it and came over to give it a cursory sniff and it immediately reared up, butt-first and Willow immediately gave out a sneeze and quickly left it to keep doing whatever it wanted. Eventually we found that what it wanted was to attack, kill and eat this other beetle.
From where I was sitting enjoying my morning coffee you could hear the scuffle taking place at my feet between these two combatants. I might be empathizing and anthropomorphic a bit too much here but, beside the sounds of their little feet kicking around dirt and pine needles and small twigs, I can swear I heard more than a few of what I imagined to be vocal pops, chirps, clicks and squeals, either from the black one whooping in victory or the brown one’s horrified squeals of pain and anguish as it realized its fate. Once the battle was won the black guy immediately set about eating his prize, butt-first. This makes me laugh now that I know this beetle’s main predator is the Grasshopper Mouse (a vicious little thing who also happens to be immune to the stings and eats those bark scorpions, can kill and eat other mice and howls like a wolf). It gets around the problem of the beetle’s stinky defensive mechanism by grabbing the beetle, jamming its butt in the sand, and eating it head first. I was lucky enough to be able to hear those crunchy sounds as well and watch the vanquished beetle get smaller at a rather more rapid pace than you might imagine. He was probably half-size in about 10 minutes and the victor finally walked away after having his fill when there was probably only a quarter of the breakfast beetle left. YuuummmY.
With the maps we had at hand we would have never known about the existence of this old, historic cabin had it not been for the kind bartender. Once we were back in Internet range we did a little digging on the history of this cabin and managed to find quite a bit. Besides several online journals of people who have made the trip up here we also found the National Park Service’s official Historic Resource Study which had a large amount of interesting information and lots of maps and pictures from the cabin’s and surrounding ranch and mine area’s past.
We were not and expect to never be desperate enough to actually sleep in the cabin but it was certainly useful as a hard-sided tent for our gear. When inside the confines of Death Valley National Park this is a nice place to stay, at a higher elevation so as to get a bit of a respite from the high temperatures and crowds down below. Even if you only use it as a stopping point for a lunch in a high desert forest, if you have the time to make the trip and a vehicle that is capable enough we highly recommend you make the effort.