Here we go again – Thanksgiving weekend. The majority of the population in this country will be gorging on some food and assaulting shopping malls, often in the middle of the night. But that is the common people, the somewhat majority. The weirdos like me (or the wise ones – depending on the point of view) will try to use this small vacation to enjoy some of the best places that the nature have given to this country. Which usually ends up being backpacking in some national park. Since the season is almost Winter, the choice of places to go is somewhat limited. However, due to the cold weather this time allows for enjoyment of places that in other seasons are just too damn hot.
The initial plan was to visit Grand Canyon (again). Well, technically that was Viyasan’s plan. He discovered some trail that he never visited before. Something like the only trail in GC left for him to explore. Unfortunately that was the New Hance Trail going down, which is pretty much the most difficult and dangerous trail in the park. Viyasan was a bit concerned to say the least about taking inexperienced people there. As a result he scared Rita into not going to Grand Canyon. This added a bit of a headache for me because I had to quickly come up with some alternative trip. (The joke was actually on Viyasan: after the post he received a lot of interest, as usual. However, the majority of people were even less experienced than Rita).
I have considered driving around the greater Northern California. There are a lot of scenic drives around Redding, CA, Lava Beds NM closer to the Oregon border, and so on. That area of our state is very diverse, very scenic, and seems rather neglected by the trips. We usually all go to the Sierra Nevada south of Lake Tahoe. Well, maybe it is just closer. It may take about 9 hours of driving to get to Lava Beds NM, for example. Anyways, I have decided against going further North this time around due to the short daylight and somewhat inclement weather. Perhaps doing all these scenic drives in Spring will be better. As a result I turned my attention to the South side.
One option was to lead a parallel trip to the same Grand Canyon, just take a less treacherous trail. However, getting camping permits in GC on such a short notice has proven impossible. I have called them and the ranger said that they have plenty of room Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, but during – all full. So I had to find an alternative.
Death Valley NP appeared to be a viable alternative:
- It is the largest national park in lover 48.
- Being located in California the rent on vehicles would be cheaper.
- The permits are free. I guess not many people actually go there to camp. It seems that Death Valley NP to Grand Canyon NP is like Lassen NP to Yosemite NP.
- I found just the right trail – Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop – to do in the allotted time with return on Sunday. And the trail was difficult enough so that you feel you’ve accomplish something. This particular trail also had water. Thus we wouldn’t have to carry water supply for 3 days.
- Death Valley being a relatively low desert I wouldn’t have to worry about snow storms at the altitude 10000 feet. It is winter after all.
So that was it. I rented two mini vans from some local place called Vickers Auto Rental & Repair (it is nice to support local businesses, plus it is cheaper). The whole group consisted of 12 people, some experienced and some not, but since this trip isn’t that technical all what was needed is good physical fitness.
Wednesday, November 24
Today was supposed to be the drive day.
I have gotten the vans early in the morning at around 10AM. Good vans – Toyotas. A bit scratched up, but that didn’t matter to me. One advanced group under the leadership of Girish wanted to leave early, thus we got the vans in the morning. Good idea actually. I would have liked to leave early too (had a day off anyways), but I had to wait for a couple of people to finish their working day.
So eventually we rolled out at around 4PM. Waited at all the usual places and arrived to the Stovepipe Wells campground at around 1:30AM. Not so bad. It was a bit chilly, but not too much due to some clouds. However, the view of the campground in the middle of a flat desert valley ringed by mountain ridges and lit a bit by moonlight was quite incredible. I didn’t sleep well anyways – maybe because I was tired and agitated from all that driving or maybe because it was just cold.
Thursday, November 25
First day of hiking. The group was still in an adjustment phase. In reality, I haven’t even seen everyone before this day. It was so funny: so at around 7AM I started waking people up. I knocked on some tents around our sites. And then I saw some people I’ve never seen before. Ups, I must have knocked on some wrong tents. But it was fine.
This day I got up really early. Perhaps due to some lack of sleep. It was rather cold, probably hovering around 0°C. But it was dry cold, crisp, not some sleet falling wet cold, which was good. Suji was already up also. We walked around this small Stovepipe Wells Village. It is a nice little community in the middle of a flat desert valley surrounded by mountain ridges. Early in the morning you can see sun coming up slowly from behind the mountains. It was quite a sight. The village has a general store, a ranger station, a motel, and some sort of restaurant. Things open there early – at 7AM. I guess this is the prime time to do things, especially in Summer. Suji got a free coffee at the restaurant. They were serving the standard breakfast to the residents in the motel and the older gentleman there let her get a cup. I have gotten a photo of “the racetrack“. It’s too bad we won’t be able to make it there, not with the cars we have.
Eventually, by 10AM, the group got up, washed, ate, and loaded into the vans. I just had to visit the ranger station and we were good to go. The ranger wasn’t very helpful. It seems that his main job was to scare people from doing anything out the ordinary (ordinary in this case means staying on the highway). Perhaps they are just trying to prevent the lawsuits – the ranger told us, we went there and run into trouble. Now we are suing for emotional damages. Stupid people. He said right away that we won’t drive into Cottonwood canyon. I had to explain to him patiently that we weren’t planning to. All I was interested in what the quality of the road that goes to the entrance. He was a bit reluctant to take the note that we were going to the mountains and plan to come back at some point. I suppose people don’t notify them when they come out (note: guilty also, I completely forgot to go to the station on the last day). But he did give me a tag to count the number of people going to the area. The backpacking is free in Death Valley – no permits, not even fees. Much better than other places further North (well, at least until the Summer season).
Interestingly that this National Park has these electronic entrance fee paying machines. Usually there are gates at the entrance with people checking. But I guess this park is not so popular for this sort of measure. I wonder how this machine was connected to the main network – there were no visible telephone cables running to Stovepipe Wells, nor was there a cell phone connection.
Before the walking can start we had to drive a bit on some old sand road. The road leads right up to the wash. You can actually see it from space. It seems that some long time ago a lot of water rushed through this division in the mountains and fanned out into the valley. It brought all these rocks and sand with it. It probably had happened quite a while ago. There were smaller washes in the fan, you can see them while walking. And you can clearly see that the big one brought a lot more material – the layer of that old sand is about a meter higher than the current road. So we parked the vans on the last flat piece of land (sand) before going into the wash and started walking.
It was basically walking in the dry river bed in the Cottonwood Canyon all day, for about 10 miles. The goal was to walk until we find water and can camp. The problem with walking in a canyon is that one doesn’t feel the elevation change. In reality, since you walk up river, there is constant up-hill, very gradual. By the end of the day we did about 2000 feet climb. We actually saw a couple of people on motorcycles, one dude from Washington State on a truck, and I found many empty pistol rounds in this canyon. So it seems to be quite an active area. Not many backpackers went there, though, at least not in this season.
We set camp at about 5PM. The sun has already set and it was getting very cold very quickly. People were getting tired (we kind of started late and took too long of a lunch brake) and were rather anxious to settle down. I have to admit that after walking all day and sweating it was not comfortable with all that wet closes in cold, but that was expected, right? The camp was set right after the end of the gravel road – in the official wilderness. There is a flat patch large enough for all the tents and, allegedly, there is water too. Now, I knew that there is reliable source of water in Cottonwood Canyon (the ranger said). The problem is that the small river runs underground a lot of time. So we had to find spots where it was above the ground to replenish the water supplies. There was usual dinner procedures – cooking water and eating. Girish was trying desperately to relieve himself from all the extra food supplies he brought. By the time that ended it was really cold. Because of that no one really wanted to sit around and thus people just went to their tents. It was around 7PM.
Friday, November 26
Get up early – around 6:30AM. I guess I was very tired from the last couple of days because I slept for almost 12 hours. It was crisp cold morning. We were camping in a canyon, so until the sun comes up high enough to illuminate it it isn’t going to get warmer. I found water. A tiny spring flowing amount the trees. The water looked clean which was good (despite the availability of filters it is always a good idea to have a clean source in the first place). So I got the people going. Slowly. They were still a bit reluctant to move due to cold. Some water froze overnight. But eventually we started walking at around 9AM. Strange, but it seems in normal conditions it takes about two hours for a group to wash, cook, eat, pack, and be ready to go.
The first order of busyness was to finish the Cottonwood Canyon. According to the map the canyon is supposed to end and become a wide open area where we had to turn right (towards North). However, this was supposed to happen already, but it didn’t.
In fact, the canyon was actually getting very pretty, though a bit long. It was morning with the sun already high enough to warm up the bottom of the canyon. There was no sandy road any more, just a sandy trail that often disappeared in fall-colored vegetation. The tiny stream had become larger (weird place – the further up-river you go the larger the river becomes). It was still in places covered in ice from the previous night which added to the eeriness of the place. Eventually the canyon became so narrow and overgrown that we had to do some serious bushwhacking and scrambling. That was right at the end.
We made it out into the open right before lunch (1PM). It took quite a bit longer than I expected. We still had 8 or so miles to go with just about 4 hours of daylight (and warmth). Plus we had to find water, but let’s worry about it later.
On one of the sparse reports on the web about Cottonwood canyon people describe seeing wild horses. I was kind of hoping to see them too (it is always nice to see some elusive wildlife). However, I didn’t count on that. But it seems that the horses appeared to us right in the same spot as to the other group. Perhaps they were just keeping it close to the water (and food) source. They paid very close attention to our group – once they spotted us they were all just standing there looking. It was quite a sight.
After quick lunch under the attentive eye of the horses we marched north further up Cottonwood Canyon. Officially on the map it was still a canyon. However, it looked more like an open valley. The valley had a different shape as opposed to glacier valleys due to the fact that different forces were active in its formation. It was all just walking, walking uphill and on the sand. I wanted to make a good progress so that would still have time to set up camp and find water. At the end of the valley before the Cottonwood River was leaning left we had cross the mountain ridge and descent into one of the canyons.
I did find the crossing point. However, after that it was tricky. It was already getting late and cold. There was actually snow on the shady side of the hill. People were tired. Rita had some problem with her knee and was going very slow. George, who was marching in front, said that he had some sort of trail which we had to follow. However, what we were descending into was a wrong canyon. There was no water in it on the map and it would lead us passed Marble canyon back to Cottonwood. They were going so fast down that I couldn’t keep up. I said several times that the group should stay together to no avail. Eventually I managed to reach the main group and convinced them to stop (another reason could be that George just lost the trail). After that I steered the group that we had to go a bit further north to a different canyon, just after the next ridge. I was hoping that there will be water (at least there was a spring on the map). We crossed the saddle and the sight wasn’t good at all – the hills were very steep with no visible place to camp. It was getting so dark that headlamps were in order. Eventually, the advanced running party found a flat place surrounded by some greenish vegetation promising water. We could see this advanced party from the hills. Well, we could see their headlights, not them. I had to stay with Suji, Rita, and Shafi while they were slowly struggling down. But we all made it to the camp well, in the dark. Setting up camp in the dark was not a problem. The problem was that we had no water. Probably just 0.5L per person leftovers. I have looked around a bit in the cold dark, but didn’t find anything.
Well, there wasn’t much we could do at this point. So we gathered around the lonely eco-candle fueled by some extra wood and just talked. Perhaps the water will appear the next morning. It was nice to have a campfire, even a small one. We swapped some relationship stories, ate that food that could be eaten without water, and finished all the alcohol.
Saturday, November 27
It might be ‘dry’ day, completely. The water was mostly gone. We didn’t have a hot breakfast because there wasn’t much to heat up and I also wanted to get going and find water quickly. Perhaps we could have heat it up at the spring which was shown on the map very close to the camp. I didn’t count on this spring much. It was shown on the map made 20 years ago and it might not be there any more. Plus the spring might just run underground. On top of that we had to cross the ridge to get to the Marble Canyon, I thought (we were in the Deadhorse Canyon now).
So we bushwhacked a bit down the canyon. The vegetation was there, the spring wasn’t. Then I made a decision to scrap it and cross the ridge which, in retrospect, wasn’t completely correct. First, this canyon would lead us to Marble canyon perfectly well. I though, mistakenly, that this was a wrong canyon. I didn’t want to bail out and return to Cottonwood bypassing very beautiful Marble canyon. Second, again in retrospect, we would have missed the only water source for miles.
We started climbing the ridge. It was very steep, but manageable (for some people). Not only it would take a while and might lead to some injuries, but also we’ll get exhausted quickly without hot food and adequate water. Rachel was leading.Then I started hearing all the earful from Rita that the route was difficult and so on. Very encouraging words. Suji was going, however slowly, but didn’t say anything. I was ready to bail out, but then I looked at the map better and saw that we were in the right canyon. Well, at least we were in the canyon that would lead us to Marble canyon and we didn’t have to do any more elevation. With this problem out of the way I told the group that will continue in this – Deadhorse – canyon. That was a relief, for everyone.
In order not to the same route again I decided to go back down into the canyon after a small hill. There was a flat patch of dry creek. We could regroup there, wait for the rest, and maybe eat something (there was no breakfast before that). While doing that I saw a rather fat raccoon walking in the bushes. Someone said that an animal this large cannot exist unless there is a source of water. And what do you know, the people who came down to the canyon a bit further up yelled that they found water! Sweet, now we were set – there was water and there route was known and easy downhill. Life was good. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits to finish this trip.
I suppose at this point the real fun began. People were fed and hydrated. The path was through a very interesting colorful marble canyon with a slight incline down. We were joking, taking funny pictures.
This canyon was a bit different from the canyons I saw in Utah. It was wider. It was also wavy.But it didn’t have these straight passages like buckskin gulch did. And this one had a different color. True to its name it seemed that the wall of the canyon were chiseled from fine layered marble. Well, maybe that was real marble. But it was finely layered with visible different colored sediments. It was fine to see. Not only the marble part, but a bit further the rocks had distinct horizontal patterns.
We met a couple of hikers on the way back. Some people made quite a bit into the canyon. It was funny, on the way back, in the area where you already reached the flat open wash road, hikers who could drive closer to the marble canyon would pass you on the way out. It looked like a scene from colonization of some poor undeveloped place. However, in this case I was the poor local walking with rich whites passing by in their cars.
We made it to the camp at around dusk. The question came up from people to start driving right away. It was about 5PM, so with good driving we could have made it back by 3AM. Nice. I thought about it and decided to stay for one night. In reality I just didn’t like to drive at night for so long and I also wanted to see the Kern river valley road (CA178). And so we stayed. One more night in the cold. Rita has deserted me to sleep in the van (heh, she thought it would be better to sleep on a car seat). I though that stovepipe wells village had a restaurant. And I was really looking forward to it while struggling through the canyon. However, due to some fire somewhere it wasn’t doing dinners at the moment. On top of this the local store completely run out of firewood. Oh, well, no camp fire. Actually, we asked the neighbors for some leftover wood to have a small fire but they gave us enough to keep it going all night. Nice people were spending all Thanksgiving weekend on that campground.
Since it was the last day we had some sort of potluck mix dinner. Rita and I had the instant ramen soup mixed with tuna, some ham, and all sorts of other stuff. After that I was drinking tea like there is no tomorrow. I guess I was still dehydrated. At the end people wet to sleep at about 10PM. Amazingly it was drizzling a bit.
Sunday, November 28
The plan was to get up early and without cooking just pack and go. The plan sort of pan out and we were on the way at around 7AM. I wanted to see some more of the Death Valley. In reality, last time I was in Death Valley someone else was driving and most of the time it was dark. As a result I don’t remember a thing. So instead of taking the faster route on 190 and 395, I went down via Emigrant Canyon Road to Wildrose. It was a great drive, certainly much better that if we were do it in the dark. The mountains were beautiful, sun shining. On top of this that rain the night before manged to dump maybe an inch or some weird dry crisp snow. Driving in it, especially on some very steep mountain roads was exciting to say the least.
We then passed though Lake Isabella. It is probably very nice there in other seasons, but this time it was very windy and deserted. The drive through the mountains and Kern river was gorgeous as I expected. There were some fall colors, some greening after the rains, some snow. And it wasn’t scorcher like it probably gets there during Summer. Very nice. After many attempts Suji convinced us to stop on the side of the road and make some photos of the river.
On the way to Death Valley Suji and Jaquelin saw in Bakersfield, among all the chains, some family run Mexican place. As a result we had to find it on the way back. We did. The food was rather authentic but very heavy. There was a lot of meat and cheese but not a lot of vegetables. This sort of food is good if you have to physically work hard all day. For just driving it was a bit too much.
Well, the trip went as planned. Very close to as planned. At least the route was accomplished. Perhaps a bit too close to comfort. If that small spring was missed we would be … quite uncomfortable. But we wouldn’t die there. However, maybe next time I’ll organize a Thanksgiving trip to some place warmer – like Hawaii.