Death Valley, Part Two: canyon way-finding

Part Two:

Yesterday’s post (read that first) left us in a strong, hot wind in a canyon trailhead in Death Valley, tying up our hiking boots and eating trail mix outside our rented SUV.

GroupFrom there, we started on the roughly 27 mile loop, traveling in a clockwise circle. We did it in three days and two nights, and at times relied heavily on screen shots of topo maps and photos stolen from other blogs that I had on my phone, to figure out which notch between peaks to take to dive from canyon to canyon. DO YOUR RESEARCH before you go; the way finding between canyons was far more difficult than we’d expected.

We all remember the wind most strongly. It was the fifth presence on our trip, constant and fierce. In a way, we were grateful for it – temperatures were over 105, but the dry wind made it bearable. Our first night, though, we kept stumbling through the then-broad, flat, sandy base of the canyon, too many miles in for our first day, exhausted and hungry and aware of the deepening shadows. We wanted to find somewhere sheltered from the wind; kept saying, “Maybe around this next curve.” We finally found a sandy, open, cactus- and wildflower-free zone that was perfect, except for that wind, and we stood two on each side of the dry wash in the middle to try to compare gusts of wind. One side seemed mildly less intense, and we set up our tents there and boiled water for dinner on top of a ridge, ducking behind sandstone boulders to keep the stove’s flame alight. We were buffeted even there by sage-scented gusts and tiny creosote flowers, tossed in the wind. The sun had set by the time we finished eating and washing our bowls, and after we passed around a silver flask of whiskey and talked for awhile, we climbed into our two small tents. The far canyon wall still seemed to glow.

Tent View

That night, we all lay in nearly restless agony – except for Niko, who can apparently sleep through anything. The wind got stronger as the night went on, and our tents were flattened against our bodies, the poles bending to the ground, then ripped back with a whirling gust and a rustle of nylon, then flattened against us again. Sand was forced through the tent walls and collected over us; I could feel it in my teeth. “I felt like our tent was going to fly away with us in it,” Jen said. “The wind was screaming down the canyon.” In the morning, the wind blew her and Ty’s contacts off their fingers, where they were lost in the sand and rock, and they had to rummage up spare pairs.

We got a reprieve from the wind the second early afternoon, but later in the day it was back. We were navigating from a long, gradually uphill valley climb into a different canyon, and had to scale a dusty, steep hill thick with thorned brush that we weaved a complicated pattern between. As we left the broad valley and climbed higher, the wind got stronger and stronger. We ducked our heads and pushed, as if we were tunneling into the air. At the top, the wind quite literally took my breath away and knocked me off my feet, so that when I picked one foot off the ground I was bowled over sideways, landing five feet away. Jen and I held each other’s packs and hurried down the other side of the slope, to put some distance between us and the beast.

Canyon View

There were two other hallmarks, besides the wind: there were the wild horses, suddenly spotted on the other side of the canyon just past a spring (“We turned the corner and magically, there was a group of wild horses across the stream! It was completely unexpected, and seemed like it was almost out of a book. Like, if we didn’t see and smell the poop, someone probably could have convinced me that it was a mirage.” – Jen) –

and there was water.

WaterWe were all hyper-aware, all trip, that our success depended on making smart decisions about water. The springs were marked on our map, and the photos I’d screenshotted on my phone; and in the real world, marked by  sudden upwelling of greenery and life – not just creosote and sage, but suddenly enormous cottonwood trees, lanky vines, long and bright reeds. When we hit one of these oases, we spread out to look for the best source: searching for a pool of water we could filter from, amidst the mucky, manure-drenched swampy areas, and cottonwoods springing from barely moist ground. I searched with my heart in my mouth, half terrified that the rangers were wrong and the spring was already dry for the summer, until we always found something small, maybe a few inches deep, but enough to collect water to drink.

“I remember how amazing water became as we carefully considered how much to pump whenever we found a spring, and the excitement of looking for that spring whenever we entered a green valley amidst the hot, dry winds. All the colors in the landscape seemed dull as we drove in, but the longer I was there the more vivid it became – some outcroppings seemed to be rainbows of yellows, reds, even green and blues.” (Niko)


“It was so empty and quiet in the valley on the second day, and I could hear the sound of planes way up in the sky. In the evening the sun went down and everything was a golden color and the air smelled cooked in a good way.” (Ty)


“That trip was one of the most beautiful backpacking trips I’ve ever been on. It was so different from the typical beauty of fall leaves and rolling green hills. Anything that grows there is …amazing.” (Jen)

There were narrow slot canyons we hiked through, staring up the rippled walls. There were odd, gray, phallic fungi growing out of the sand. There were brilliantly red and orange, purple and yellow wildflowers. There were sunburns. There was a starlit sky. There was running at breakneck speed down hills dotted with sagebrush, sand accumulating in every crevice, Ty a gleefully loping gazelle. There were lizards everywhere.

I recommend going. Do your research; bring a topo map; read others’ accounts; bring many water containers and multiple filtration methods; save time to seek a wind-sheltered site; go in wildflower season. And look for the horses and the cottonwoods and watch for the moon.

This post is dedicated to Ty, Jen, and Niko, an adventurous, wonderful group of people to spend some time on trail with, and to Carsten, who would have been if not for screwed up airlines!


One thought on “Death Valley, Part Two: canyon way-finding

  1. Liz, I could only read the first couple of paragraphs, and top or bottom links don’t take me to the rest of it. I think Mom had the same problem. I really want to read it!

    Sent from my iPhone


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