Our First Day In Death Valley

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.

That first day in the park we bit off more than we wanted to chew but, along the way, had several adventures we would not have had otherwise.That being said it was a very long day so this will be a relatively long post. Hopefully we will impart to you the frustrations that sometimes crop up on an adventure which will explain why we were happy to just get to a cabin, any cabin, that night and just go to bed.

After stopping by Father Crowley Vista Point we passed through Panamint Springs and continued down into the Valley. Knowing we would have zero AT&T signal we had previously downloaded the section of the park we expected to be in most of the time as an offline map in Google Maps. We hoped and expected that would be enough and we were wrong. At first it worked out alright. We knew that we wanted to get to the old ghost town of Ballarat which was on the way to Goler Wash and so we headed in that direction. We turned right onto Panamint Valley Road and headed south into the Valley. As I write this two weeks after our trip I cannot remember how it exactly happened but I believe we veered to the left onto Indian Ranch Road instead of staying on Panamint Valley Road (which turns into Trona Wildrose Road right there) because we know Ballarat was at the base of the mountain range on our left and the main road we were on seemed to head away from that direction. That part all worked out and we eventually pulled into the little town which is considered a ghost town but still had people living in it.

The Extensive Road Sign In The Center of Ballarat
The Extensive Road Sign In The Center of Ballarat

We pulled up to the still standing and working remains of what was once a General Store which had an older gentleman who has apparently seen some hard times sitting out front. As two late-model Camaros with German tourists in them pulled up, piled out and proceeded to take pictures of anything with rust on it we hopped out of the Tacoma and I said “hello” and asked if it was okay for Willow to sniff around. He replied in the affirmative and off she went. I had seen Goler Wash on the sign and asked how far it was and the reply was, essentially, “just go thataway, you can’t miss it” and I was dumb enough to say “thanks” and leave it at that. By this time Willow had wandered into the store itself and I rushed to get her out of trouble if she was getting herself into it. The caretaker didn’t seem to mind though and mentioned he had cold sodas and beer for sale should I desire. Our ARB refrigerator was full but we wanted to give a little thanks for his (snark) detailed directions to Golar Wash (/snark) and so went to look at his selection. Lots and lots of crap American lagers and pilsners with nary an ale in sight. I settled on a 12 ounce can of 7-Up and was then informed of its price – $3! WTF!?! Truly a fine example of extortionate roadside robbery but, just to be nice, I caved and handed him the cash, said thank you, collected Willow and headed out the door. So, first LPT of the day: bring your own sodas if you visit Ballarat.

We drove out of town on Wingate Road looking for a left up into a wash that would hopefully indicate Goler Wash. We found a wash that headed up to the left and so took it. We got lost. Well…not lost but more not sure where we were. We continued up the wash and eventually, farther up the hill, saw something that looked like a cabin and momentarily got excited. The closer we got the more our excitement quickly died down. Not a cabin.

Old mining equipement we thought was a cabin from far away
Coming Up The Wash The Opposite Side Looked Like A Cabin… For A While

Well, since we’re here we might as well take a look.

Looking Up At Our Find From Where We Parked
Looking Up At Our Find From Where We Parked
The Hopper From Above Clogged With Rock
The Hopper From Above Clogged With Rock

So, interesting but not what we were looking for. The road continuing on up the hill past this looked difficult and Mengel Pass is supposed to be difficult so…must be Mengel Pass and all we have to do is make it up and over and the Geologists’ Cabin will be right there presenting itself to us. Ah…nope again.

Stout, locked gate across our path
We Briefly Considered Dremeling Our Way Through This

So…not Mengel Pass which means we get to turn around on a very narrow road with steep drop offs on one side and solid rock on the other. Adventure, yay. Once we finished the 14-point turn to reverse direction we looked back down upon all that wonderful, useless progress we had made over the past hour.

Looking Back Down The Way We Had Just Come
Looking Back Down The Way We Had Just Come

Once we made it back down to the bottom of the wash we got back on Wingate Road heading south and hoped for the best. From the non-detailed offline maps we had in Google Maps we could see that, eventually, the road would take a 90 degree turn towards the mountain range and that should be the correct place.

Our first clue that we were getting somewhere was when we came to a fork in the road (that was not on the map) that had what I remember to be the remains of a beat to shit 55 gallon drum that looked like it had been used as a non-successful-slalom point in a smash-em-up car derby and then taken to a rifle range and used as a target…for a decade. There was some writing on it along the lines of:

(a big hole made up of many smaller bullet holes)er Wa
1.2 Miles

My superior translation skills interpreted that to be “Goler Wash, 1.2 miles” so our mood brightened for a bit. In the specified time the road did indeed take a hard left and started up towards the mountain past a modern tractor and a lot of old hunks of mining equipment. We also saw our very first burro of the trip just standing to the side of the road making sure the invaders in the white truck didn’t try anything funny.

From the opening in the hillside before us it seemed we had finally found Goler Wash. At least we now knew where we kinda sorta were which is always a good thing on an adventure.

Our First Glimpse Into Goler Wash
Our First Glimpse Into Goler Wash
Around The First Corner
Around The First Corner

As we wound up the canyon we could see that the ground was wet and there was openly running rivulets of water crossing the road in many places as well as a long run of modern, white 2 or 3″ PVC pipe running alongside the road which to us means a spring is near and humans are attempting to use it or direct its runoff.

Moisture in the Road
Moisture in the Road
Pipe Laid At The Side Of The Road
Pipe Laid At The Side Of The Road

Pretty much as soon as the ground started getting moist we came across a pair of vehicles blocking the road; an FJ62 Land Cruiser and a Mitsubishi Montero, both seemingly set up well for such an excursion. We hoped the way was not too muddy and that they had gotten stuck. We dutifully stopped to render assistance if needed, like any good overlanding Adventurer should, and were told that they were only taking a break. They quickly pulled off to the side of the road so we could pass. We asked where they were headed and they indicated over Mengel Pass into Butte Valley to a cabin. Gulp, we had a momentary fear that they were going to say “The Geologist Cabin” and, even though we were now in front of them what would the trail etiquette be about now getting to their planned destination first? Luckily they answered that they wanted to stay at Russell’s Camp and we breathed a sigh of relief and mentioned out loud that “good, we were planning on heading to the Geologist’s Cabin so, have a good time.”

We continued on up the canyon and eventually came around a corner and saw our first evidence that humans had been raping and pillaging this area for over a hundred years, a large, faded orange semi trailer filled with the cast-offs of humanity.

large, faded orange semi trailer filled with garbage along the trail
Humans Have Been Here

Just past that were the remains of a mine up to the right with a large, unfaded sign out front making sure we knew about the dangers of old mines. I can swear that I have found more than a few websites that call this the Lotus Mine because of the nearby Lotus Spring but I have since been unable to find them again and have found mention that this was, in fact, called the Keystone Mine.

Mine Warning Sign with American flags on it
An Upstanding American Mine Warning Sign

Driving up the mine road is not “entering the mine” so we turned right and immediately had to shift into 4-low to get up the steep, loose and deeply graveled road.

Abandoned Mine Buildings
Abandoned Mine Buildings
Mine Equipment Further Up The Hill
Mine Equipment Further Up The Hill

Since we had already taken one wrong turn today and we really wanted to get to the cabin we decided to leave the exploration incomplete and turn around to continue on up the wash.

Not far past the old mine we came to another conundrum. A fork in the road with no indication which way we were to proceed. This was the second time today that we think there should be some sort, any sort of signage indicating what road leads where and that signage was glaringly and annoyingly conspicuous by its absence. We randomly chose to go to the right and made it all of an 1/8th of a mile before we came to what we, at the time, thought was more rock crawling than we wanted to do and so made another ugly multi-point U-Turn and headed back down the way we had just come…right into the two vehicles we had passed 30 minutes ago. They again pulled to the side to allow us to just squeak past them, we nodded an acknowledgment and went our separate ways for the time being. So, if the right fork goes somewhere we don’t want to go maybe the left fork is better and so we took that one. Within all of a minute we came to an actual sign, on a post, looking all official like. I don’t remember the exact wording but it was something along the lines of “Barker Ranch, a short distance and an arrow pointing to the right” and “Some other place, a longer distance with an arrow pointing to the left.” Now, we had heard of Barker Ranch and if it was easy, sure we would give it a look-see but, as we sat idling in front of the sign we realized…you cannot go to the right, at all. 10 feet past the sign this little turn-around dead ends into the side of a rock hill. That essentially made the choice easy – smash our beautiful Tacoma into rock wall or turn to the left and not do that. We chose the cheaper option. In retrospect I truly believe that someone was messing with travelers on the road and had moved that sign from where it should have been, down at that earlier Y in the road and that the right we initially took would have eventually gotten us to the Barker Ranch. Douche move Sign Mover whoever you are.

Before we arrived at our next major known point on the trail we encountered another left-or-right conundrum and ended up going in obviously the wrong direction. We turned around and just took the road that was in the general direction we thought we should be going (East instead of West). Right about then we also came to our first bit of, to advanced beginners at rock crawling like us, what was a bit white knuckly. Putting our trust in the Tacoma gods that blessed our truck’s assembly in Fremont, California back in 2004 we just took a deep breath and slooooowly rocked our way back and forth and up and over and down the obstacles in our path. I thought we did pretty good – no major metal-on-rock smashing or grinding sounds so we had that going for us.

As we continued to climb up the hill we eventually got sight of a large cairn of rocks at the top of a ridge crossing between two peaks on either side. This must be Mr. Mengel’s grave site. We pulled up along side it and stopped for a break and to take a closer look. I had read somewhere that, after Carl Mengel died, he was cremated and the urn holding his ashes and his wooden leg were interred within this pile of rocks at this, one of his favorite vistas in the pass that would eventually be named for him.

Mengel Stone Grave Marker Atop Mengel Pass
Mengel Grave Marker Atop Mengel Pass

Here we came to our third left or right choice of the day. Again, there was a post that had, at one point, obviously held a sign of some sort but now was bare. Taking a look around we had two obvious choices:

Road off to the right from mengel's grave
We Could Drive Up That Hill To The Right Or…
The Road To The Left And Down The Hill
We Could Take The Road To The Left And Down The Hill. Looks Like A Nice, Smooth Dirt Road…

For the moment we had no clue and so decided to walk up to the high point on the right and take a look.

From Our High Vantage Point Back Down To The Tacoma And The Marker
From Our High Vantage Point Back Down To The Tacoma And The Marker
Native American Art! Nope, Just Spray Paint
Native American Art! Nope, Just Spray Paint

In retrospect we decided that the big butte down in the valley was obviously striped and so that was probably Striped Butte and the Geologist Cabin is near Striped Butte so…let’s take that road.

Striped Butte Is That Way And The Road Looks Easy...
Striped Butte Is That Way And The Road Looks Easy…

Decision made we got back in the Tacoma and started over the hump of the ridge right there and immediately came upon another white knuckle zone for semi-newbs such as us. Standing at the grave marker you really cannot see over the hump of the ridge and so we were in good spirits until we nosed over the hump and around the first corner right into this:

looking down from the driver's seat at the hard part of mengel pass
Ummm, Not The Smooth Dirt Road We Had Just Seen
looking up at the hard part of mengel pass
We Parked And Walked Down To Take Another Look

Steeling ourselves for the upcoming “fun” and hoping for no body damage or, worse, anything broken in the running gear or suspension we put the Tacoma in 4-low and started our descent. Right at that exact moment a Jeep comes around the corner on the way up and we each had to quickly decide who had the right of way and if it was easy to take it. He made the decision first to back up and turn off into a small, Jeep-sized turn out near the bottom of this rocky road. Happy that he was kinda/sorta out-of-the-way should everything go wrong and we end up careening out of control down the hill we again started our delicate descent. One rock was a little too large to get over gracefully and on the downward slide we went a bit to quickly and something smacked hard into it and rattled our teeth. Since we didn’t immediately burst into flames or explode in a fireball we figured the Tacoma was fine and continued on. After a few more dicey moves and slow, steady, controlled (some might say masterful) steering inputs and judicious use of the brakes we made it down with a smile on my face and pulled up next to the guy in the Jeep waiting patiently with a large grin on his and his wife’s face. Apparently newbies are obvious and stick out like a sore thumb and they had both enjoyed the free show in how he used to make that descent 30+ years ago. Oh well, happy to amuse you if it didn’t cost me anything but a bit of dignity and a fresh shiny spot somewhere on my undercarriage. He informed us that the rest of the way was substantially easier and wished us well and we parted ways.

I later found my first chunks in my new(ish) wheels that had obviously happened some time that day.

chunk in my aluminum wheel from rocks in goler wash or mengel pass
The Horror!
another wheel chunk
Chunk On Another Wheel

Grrr. Actually… it’s a truck that gets used, not a poser princess or garage queen so we’ll consider those to be marks of character.

Not long after we rounded a corner and came upon yet another unmarked fork in the road. This is getting tedious. Since we knew the Geologist Cabin was not back up in a canyon like the road to the left we instead stayed straight and were almost immediately rewarded with the sight of a cabin, made out of stone, right there up to the left on the lower hillside with a view of the valley. Must be the Geologists’ Cabin, right? Well, as soon as we had driven slowly past the burros in attendance, swung open the gate and closed it behind us we pulled up to the structures and started to unload our stuff. The first thing that greets us is the Hantavirus warning sign on a NPS brown fiberglass stake.

Hanta Virus warning sign
Yay, Not The Plague

During our last adventure in and around the Stanislaus National Forest we came across numerous warning signs about The Plague possibly being present in small rodents so this was a refreshing change of pace 😉 Not really but, again, too tired to care. Wasn’t planning on sleeping in the cabin anyway and now this just makes the choice easier and we would simply use the structure to store all our stuff out of the camper shell and sleep in our nice, comfy, hanta-free bed in the shell.

As we were transferring our stuff into the cabin we came across the guest books all saying “Stella’s” on them so that was a pretty good indication that this wasn’t the Geologists Cabin but, at least it wasn’t Russell’s Camp so we would not be stepping on the plans of the people in the other two vehicles coming up through Goler Wash with us. For those first two nights though it served us well and we enjoyed our stay.


Leave a Reply