Death Valley hikes, Thanksgiving 2003

Cast: Ryk and I (Grigsby). Everyone else was evidently off stuffing themselves with turkey.

Thanksgiving: get in car and drive. It's about 530 miles to Stovepipe Wells if you can't cut through Yosemite. After taking a wrong turn and ending up near some abandoned mines, we decide to pull off the main road and camp.

Friday: Unfortunately we're at 5000 feet and it's a cold weekend: the snow-capped mountains around us don't make getting up at 6:15 any easier, though they make it more scenic. We head down below sea level to the Titus Canyon road, home of Fall Canyon trailhead, and hit the trail about 9:30.

The geology of Death Valley is utterly insane. The rocks have been deposited, uplifted, volcanoed upon, eroded into fan gravel, metamorphosed, re-uplifted, mineralized, and generally abused so many times that it's almost impossible to guess what's around the next bend. In Fall Canyon it's a big crosswise layer cake, occasionally folding over on itself, bending into banana shapes, and forming solid plugs of dolomite with narrows carved through them. We scramble up the eponymous rockfall and enjoy the silence: Death Valley on a windless day is eerily silent. Since we don't feel like paying campground fees, we drive up to the gravel road to Ubehebe Crater and camp at a pullout. Silence results, and restful sleep.

Saturday: The approach to Red Wall canyon requires an "uninteresting 45-minute hike up the long gravel fan". Perhaps for Superman or Jim Keller, but for Ryk and I it's an uninteresting hour-plus of mixed talus, gravel, and washes that never quite go the direction you're going. But as we arrive, the canyon walls turn bright red and close in right away, and the geology goes bonkers. Sedimentary rock layers folded over themselves in a couple of feet? Check. Whole canyon walls that appear to have been melted with a heat gun? Check. More dolomite narrows? Check. Stripey rocks, rough as coral, that rip your hands and jacket? Check. Scrambling up falls and boulder jams? Check.

We trot back down the fan just as darkness falls, which is good because otherwise we might end up nowhere near the car. (One advantage of a bright red vehicle.) We camp just outside the park, past Scotty's Castle. It's so cold that my breath condensed into snow during the night, leaving a Christmasy-looking dusting on my sleeping bag.

Sunday: We stop by Scotty's Castle in the morning but it isn't open yet and we have hiking to do, so we proceed to Grotto Canyon. The road is supposed to be 4WD but my truck makes it all the way to the end -- the hard part was finding the turnoff, which is not signed at all. About 10 feet in we find the first obstacle, about 15 feet of moderately slick dryfall. Somehow we scramble up, and the next one is easier. This canyon would be great if we were real rock climbers; as it was, we gave each other footholds and arms/legs up and somehow managed to get well beyond the grotto that someone had chiseled "The End" into. The only trouble we had was getting down the first fall...we looked and looked and couldn't figure out how we had got up it in the first place! So we ended up scrambling around a bypass route that was probably more sketchy and dangerous, but by then it was getting dark. We camp at a pay campground near Furnace Creek and are only awakened once -- by two coyotes howling about 30 feet from our tent.

Monday: Slit Canyon is fun but mostly a rerun of previous canyons...some narrows, some boulder jams, some tricky scrambles around big dryfalls, weird uplift geology, a beautiful sunset...yawn. We head out, checking out the Zabriskie Point overlook and driving through Twenty Mule Team Canyon on the way out. If I wanted to shoot a movie that took place on an alien planet, it would be in these vegetationless, bright yellow badlands. We take a detour to Shoshone to fuel up at the Crowbar, whose tacos and enchiladas are nothing special, but the "Famous Cactus Salsa" is worth it and the tortilla chips are cut and fried while you wait. Way better than the "Famous Burgers" you expect out in the middle of nowhere. Next stop: downtown Tecopa, where the hot spring baths are open 24/7 and feature -- wait for it -- HOT SHOWERS. We soak with some locals and start the long slog back, eventually crashing at a seedy motel in Fresno.

Lots of places still to go...Racetrack Valley, Ubehebe Peak, Eureka Dunes, Saline Valley, the Artist Drive canyons and badlands...I'd even do a rerun of Red Wall Canyon. Summary: a great holiday weekend!

// grigs