Butte Valley

Butte Valley

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Death Valley, December 2016 Part IV

The day started out fine with clear skies and no wind.  It's a treat to be out in the desert climate during our typical wet northern Sierra winters.  We like the change of climate.

We got a fresh start in the crisp morning.  We had scouted the Bonanza Mine the evening before and had picked up the beginning of a faint trail climbing up and left above the copper mine.  We were fresh and fired right up the steep, rough terrain.

The route ascended a series of ridge lines providing opportunities for spectacular views.

We had a deep, twisted canyon on our left.  I had a copy of the Diggonett guide which identifed a 35' fall in the canyon.  It would be fun to hike the upper canyon and rappel down the pour over.

There had been rain a week earlier and I stumbled onto an odd mushroom, with a dusty orange cap.  Using online forums, we think it was aa battarrea phalloides.  Pretty rare to see mushrooms in the desert, but we see them once in a while.

The trail consisted of 100 year old tread, probably both men and mules.  But there were missing sections, and we reached a dead end overlooking the steep canyon.  But the mantra was to "follow the ridge" so we booted up, hiking with one trekking pole each.  The poles add significant traction and balance on difficult terrain, and I can still manage my Fuji camera slung over my shoulder.

We were able to overlook Lippincott road and see a group hanging out on a switchback.
This road was built move lead and silver ore from the Lippincott Lead Mine to Keeler, which previously had a much rougher road to Goldfield.   It's an amazing road.

The trail is very lightly traveled and there was brittle vegetation growing right in the middle of the trail.  We found spoor and scat from desert big horn sheep and kept a sharp eye out.  A beautiful raptor chased the morning thermals while SR watched with her binocs.  About this time my mirrorless camera battery gave out and my spares were not to found.  
I took phone photos for the rest of the hike.

We reached a quartz outcrop with many half-formed crystals.  As I poked around I found a brass shell casing.  The size was much larger than anything a hunter would want to use.  What could be the purpose of this armament?  

A quick google search on a U-34 indicates a long barrel gun, which we assume were used when the Ubehebe area was used for target practice during WWII

China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) uses Saline Valley and large portions of Death Valley to practice training flights.  The sound of the those jets must strike fear in the hearts of our enemies.  We looked up and found a pair flying tandem, chased by a third plane.  They would play a game with the leader spiraling pure vertical until very high, then peeling off into an inverted maneuver.  It was jaw-dropping and we stood there and watched the show.  It felt like they knew we were there and they did do a couple of close runs while we waived. 

After a chilly lunch we began our descent towards Lippincott Road just north of Home Stake Mine.  We could see the Race Track in the distance as we traversed the final slopes.  
The trail disappears at the end.  

We stopped to admire the sign.

We had climbed 1,600' and hiked about 2.5 miles, but a bit off trail.  Now our knees would pay as we walked down the road to complete our loop.  

Once in camp we took advantage of the warm afternoon and fired up our shower system.
Propane heat with a home-made heat shield made from spare aluminum camper siding, heats our two gallon Zodi water tank.  We've got a nice doormat to stand on and use a little table for soap and shampoo.  Nothing like a good hot shower in the great outdoors!

We descended back to the Saline Valley which had been our home for a week and ascended the South Pass.  There was some ice and snow, but the upper stretches of mud were the biggest challenge.  
We caught the summit, exiting Grapevine Canyon just at sunset.  Telescope Peak was gleaming in the alpenglow while Panamint Valley and dunes were deep below.  We always stop and admire this view.

We rejoined pavement after a week of dirt roads and went to Lone Pine.  It's always so jarring to rejoin commercial America after spending some time in the backcountry.  We went to a gas station where several groups of young adults in jacked up trucks and SUV's were yelling and carrying on.  They had street worthy sound systems that they pumped up, affecting everyone within earshot. 

I looked at all the fake, packaged food and couldn't find anything but beer to purchase.  A six pack of Negra Modello was calling my name, even though it was glass bottles.  They had no sparkling water, such as Callistoga or Arrowhead.   Somehow mineral water is not standard fare at convenience stores.

We went up Whitney Portal Road, to the Alabama Hills.  We weren't alone, as we spotted numerous camps with their fires along both sides of the road.   I had photographed Mobius Arch here a year ago, but the sky was disappointing.  Staying here our last night would give me a second chance.

I arose half an hour before dawn and assembled my tripod and camera as another car came zipping into the parking lot.  Then it left,  and returned; odd behavior.  City folks always drive so fast on dirt roads.  Another vehicle came in and a group of people jumped out as large van pulled up with an older couple.   I said good morning, then hoofed it down the trail leaving everyone at the parking lot.  I knew where I was going.

I got set up and waited for the sun to rise.  The clouds turned pink and red over Owens Lake, just south.  The morning light was beautiful.  I talked with some of the young folks wandering around with selfie-sticks and share my space so they could take photos too.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Death Valley, December 2016 Part III

It was time to move on.  We wanted to move our camp to the southern part of the valley where we could access some backcountry hikes.  I was interested in the Ubehebe Trail, which parallels Lippincott Rd, and Upper Dodd Spring.  We did not get to Dodd Spring on this trip.

I had spent time with google earth pouring over the landscape, spotting sections of hundred year old mining trails.  We originally used Backcountry Navigator with our android phones, but now I work with the DeLorme/Garmin Inreach GPS, while Susan still uses BC Nav.   It's not for the luddite, but I do find it to be incredibly handy to have waypoints and routes on my phone.  Running two different maps on different devices is redundancy along with different data.  We also believe carrying the sat-link Inreach emergency beacon is a good idea when remote.

Popup campers were popular at the springs.   There were half a dozen including several WTW members.  We had heard that Sunman might be visiting after exploring the Nelson Range.  Our meeting was brief but great to catch up on things.  We met Suni five or six years ago, when we teamed up for Steele Pass.  Lawnmower man was there and had wanted to go with us, but we hadn't realized.  Plenty of stories to recall, and more opportunities to join up for futures adventures.

We spend the mild afternoon visiting the Saline Dunes.  The sand dunes are mesmerizing and have unique ecosystems and other hidden treasures.

We enjoy visiting and dogs love playing in the sand.
With the Inyo Mountains standing two miles high to west, the dunes go into shadow halfway past three o'clock.  The sun sits much lower and the light softens about an hour earlier.

Callie has this same reaction to snow.  She loves to drag her belly along, in the joyful doggy way.

It was a nice family outing.

Panoramas - stitched from six images each

The light was improving as we looped back toward our vehicle by dead reckoning.
Navigation in the dunes is like other bad lands, where everything looks the same, and there are no immediate landmarks.  The dunes follow each other in parallel rows with remnant playa exposed at intervals.

The texture of the untrammeled sand is fascinating.  The shadows were extending.

It was time to make for camp!  We continued south along the Saline Road, heading for the Lippincott turnoff.  

We saw several groups of two or three vehicles coming into the valley, as the population grows for the New Year.  We avoid those crowded times and were happy to head for quieter places.

We drove across the wash following Lippencott Rd., noting several roomy flat spots to camp.  Our goal was to camp higher up, near our trail head.  We have driven this road all the way to the Race Track, once before and knew about the narrow sections and the rock garden.  

We found our spot and tucked into a nice camp off the main road.  The view was spectacular with front row seating overlooking the Saline Valley and Inyo Mountain Range.

It was a quiet night and we watched Jupiter set over Cerro Gordo.

I call this image
Death Valley Dreams

Stay tuned for Part IV

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Death Valley, December 2016 Part II

We've come to know many of the regulars who visit Saline Valley this time of year.  We look forward to seeing Geo Mitch, Barry, Russel, Idaho Mike and others each year.  Discourse over morning coffee while soaking allows for a wide range of subjects and education.  We especially enjoy learning about the remarkable geology of Death Valley.

Mitch invited us to his annual spaghetti feed.  He puts on a huge pot of pasta and a meat based marinara.  There's a large campfire to hang out and in true winter fashion, the party starts at 4pm when the sun sets over the Inyo's.

We don't eat meat, but came prepared with sun-dried tomatoes and dried porcini mushrooms from our fall mushroom hunting.  It had been a great year for boletes with plenty of rain, so we had plenty to share using a mixture of butter and queen boletes.  They add that chewy texture with a nutty, earthy flavor.

I rehydrated and softened the dried tomatoes and mushrooms then sautéed with shallots.  I added plenty of garlic plus fresh rosemary, oregano we had clipped from our herb garden.  It was delicious and Lawnmowerman, another foodie, gave us the thumbs up.

We had seen a pair of coyotes trotting down the road at sunset, and I leashed Callie when Susan gave me the high sign.  Mitch dumped his excess pasta about a hundred yards out in the rock.  We should have anticipated the next event.  Callie suddenly charged into the dark, barking with fury.   Headlamps were turned and we could see the coyote moving back and forth along the perimeter while Callie charged and charged, finally returning to our calls.  It happened a second time and the last time we thought the eyes were closer together with larger ears, indicating a kit fox.  Mike repeated last years gift and had saved a pork bone for Callie from his split pea soup.  That kept Callie busy in camp, but the next morning we discovered a nasty gash on her foot.


We were getting a bit stir crazy after several days fixed in camp and decided to take a short drive.
I wanted to explore some of the colorful canyons beyond the Burro Spring, a fenced warm pool with interesting collection of vegetation and bird life.

Callie got to ride in her elevated bed, and had to stay in the popped camper while we went on a five mile cross country hike.  We were trying to heal her torn pad, and were treating it with betadine.

We climbed the limestone hill above the Burro Spring.  Visible marks on the hill from decades old jeepers showed just how long scarring can last in this environment.  There were mining prospects scattered here and there.  We found a shelter on the crest of limestone overlooking the Saline Valley.

We dropped down to the backside, debating whether to descend a steep drainage or to follow one of the two canyons leading uphill.  A convenient connection from a mining prospect led us into a nice walk up the canyon wash and we took the path of least resistance.  In the desert, it is best to plot a route that avoids rough terrain and obstacle, even if the result is a triangulation on the destination.  

We explored a side route to take a close look at the steeply inclined limestone butte to the north, but it would have taken more time than we wished, so we returned and considered our options.  A viewpoint to the east showed a ridge with scarp of limestone ledges that looked like good going.  We decided to head up canyon and look for that cut off to gain the ridge between us and the main valley.

Sections of dried mud recalled the July flood that had overturned a good part of the drainages.

Barrel cactus were proliferating in this microclimate.  Their incredible thorns must repel all but the most dedicated forager.  

I was enjoying a new 90mm lens for my Fuji X-T1, which has a 1.5 crop factor, resulting in a 135mm equivalent lens.  Similar to the vaunted Canon 135 f2, the Fuji is also f2 resulting in good separation, aka pop.  I found the lens to be quite sharp and very light compared to the full frame alternate.

Stay tuned for Part III
Disclosure:  Looks like this will become a four part series

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Death Valley, December 2016

For the last six years we've made a pilgrimage to Death Valley over Christmas Break.
Eschewing the traditional yuletide tree, we run for the hills and take advantage of the end of year break, visiting the vast deserts and mountains of Death Valley.  It is an acquired taste.

The weather was iffy.  NOAA was calling for a massive storm to hit on Friday night before Christmas.  Our bottleneck was to cross the Sierra, using Hwy 80 as our artery.  We were not alone with the massive holiday traffic flowing from the Bay Area through the Central Valley, heading for the Sierra.  Timing was everything.

All week long we talked about how we would get away.  By Thursday the camper supplies were purchased and we were ready to go.  I had kept my Friday calendar open and when we saw the opportunity to jump a day ahead of the holiday traffic, we went for it.

I woke up at 530am and looked at the radar.  I-80 was getting hammered and would be impossible.  I rolled over and dozed until 730am, when I read reports of four vehicle crashes and that 80 was closed.  We bided our time and I made breakfast.

We left at 9am to open, but wet roads.  We hit chain controls four times:  Hwy 20 ten miles from home, Brockway Summit at Truckee, 395 at Topaz and again on 395 south near Mammoth.  No worries, we were in our Tundra 4wd with BFG AT tires!  I had my unused chains in the camper, but again they were not used.

Heavy storms were impacting the Sierra and 203 to Mammoth was backed up with chain controls approaching town.  We zipped down the Sherwin grade, marveling how 395 is often just in the rain shadow and open while the mountains half a dozen miles east are getting pounded.

We made a quick family call to sister and asked about mom.  I looked east and saw the clouds lifting and the White Mountains came into view with blue sky beyond.  There was not much snow on their upper reaches.  This was very important information!

We had a loose agenda, but hoped to enter the Saline Valley before Christmas.  Seeing the open sky to the east and lack of snow on the Whites gave me hope.  We decided to try for North Pass and raced against the earliest sunset of the year to get over the pass with enough light.  I thought if I could get down Whipoorwhill Canyon by dark, the rest would be routine.

We found the Waucoba road to be smooth and well graded.  We made good time with light snow in the gullies.  The high country near Waucoba Mountain had three inches of fresh snow on the road.  I had observed clouds shrouding the mountains while on the DV road and suddenly we drove into the fog of cloud as snow filled the air.  Visibility was suddenly reduced to fifty feet, as I used my driving lights to show the texture of the roadbed.  The first few pitches of the canyon are steep and I used low range to keep the Tundra/Hawk under control.  In truth, there are only a one or two hair-raising spots.  After that the canyon wraps around you and the grade decreases. The lower section was fun and interesting as we exited the canyon without incident.  There was rain falling around us.  Death valley rain!!!

We followed the dirt road in our bubble of light down to valley floor, finding the Bat Road turnoff and went to the upper springs where we like to camp.  We missed the views we normally enjoy when we enter the graben valley in daylight.  It was after dark when we arrived to find our favorite camp available.  Half an hour later we walked out in light rain to find the Wizard Pool empty and waiting for us.  What a fine way to start our vacation.


We soon returned to our typical springs schedule of coffee and a soak at sunrise, followed by a day's outing, then another sunset soak, followed by dinner activities.  Oh, it was rough, but an essential purifying practice to decompress from busy schedules.  We had no internet, and no link to the outer world, other than word of mouth weather reports from campers with satellite radio.  They say ignorance is bliss, and it was refreshing to detach from the news cycle of national politics.  I suppose we could get bored after several weeks, but wouldn't recommend less than three or four days to get the full benefits of desert camping in Saline Valley.


We hiked the black hills to the north, following a burro trail along the ridges.  Our goal was to look over the other side and see the dry lake others had reported.  There were also comments about petroglyphs to pique our interest.  However, the only 'glyphs found appeared to be modern rock graffiti.

We climbed the established trail, then took a right hand run along the ridgeline, following intermittent  burro trails. We reached a familiar high point then looked ahead to another saddle and a climb, where we hoped to traverse to low point between two high points, where we could see the view.  I suggested to SR that we weren't the only people to want to make that saddle off this ridge we were following.

We walked along, picking our way along the wide ridge, finding remnant hunting blinds along the canyon edge to our left.  As we hoped, we found the remains of an old trail, partly missing due to landslide, that helped us get to the saddle without too much side hill work.  How old are these ancient footpaths?

We reached the saddle and we were at last able to look over the other side, towards the Waucoba wash. The dry lake was disappointingly small, but the rest of the view was spectacular.  There's another dry lake farther back, for us to explore another time.

We soaked in the view.

We looked across at Waucoba Mountain, an eleven thousand foot peak in the Inyo Range.  The road we had driven starts at the middle right below the snowline and drops down and left across the image.

We took a moment to celebrate reaching this far.

Odd volcanic rocks were visible on the path back.

Looking towards the Last Chance Range with snow on summits.

Looking towards Saline Valley

Coming home in late afternoon light wrapping up an eight mile tour.

The trail home

Follow along with Part II (under construction)