Trip Overview: Death Valley and Beyond

Views north from Wildrose Peak, Death Valley National Park, California
Views north from Wildrose Peak, Death Valley National Park, California

I returned a few weeks ago from a fantastic trip to the American southwest!  We hiked over 100 miles (despite the short days of November), laughed a lot, stargazed almost every night, and just had a wonderful time hanging out as adults in the slower-paced world of the desert.  Oh – and we saw some amazing scenery, too!  I’m sharing photos from each hike here… so you can look forward to what I’ll be blogging about for the next year or so!

Mt. Whitney - the highest point in the contiguous US - from the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Mt. Whitney – the highest point in the contiguous US – from the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California

We drove straight to Death Valley, which would be our center of operations for 2 weeks.  Our first hike (which was probably the most boring hike of the trip) was up into Willow Canyon:

The dry waterfall in Willow Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
The dry waterfall in Willow Canyon

The next day, we took a gamble and tried for Grotto Canyon.  We had to haul some of the group up the dryfalls via our clothesline (it doubles as a climbing rope from time to time), but what an awesome adventure!

A mostly flat section of Grotto Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
A mostly flat section of Grotto Canyon

In the afternoon, we hiked to Darwin Falls.  Who’d have thought Death Valley would have a year-round waterfall like this?

Darwin Falls, Death Valley National Park, California
Darwin Falls

The next morning, we ate breakfast up at Father Crowley Vista overlooking Rainbow Canyon.

Rainbow Canyon from Father Crowley Vista, Death Valley National Park, California
Rainbow Canyon from Father Crowley Vista

We arrived at the Alabama Hills (between Lone Pine and the Sierras) in time to hike the Arch Loop before lunch.

Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney through the famous Mobius Arch along the Arch Loop, Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney through the famous Mobius Arch along the Arch Loop

In the afternoon, we scrambled around to find arches, rock formations, balancing rocks, and great views!

Balancing rock arch in the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Balancing rock arch in the Alabama Hills

I got up early(ish) in the morning to catch sunrise over Mt. Whitney.  Beautiful!

Sunrise on Lone Pine Peak (left) and Mt. Whitney (right), Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Sunrise on Lone Pine Peak (left) and Mt. Whitney (right)

On our way back to Death Valley, we stopped at the Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark.  The spires stick up out of an old lakebed.

Spires at the Trona Pinnacles National Natural Area, California
Some of the Trona Pinnacles

Back in Death Valley, we spent a very happy morning exploring around the 20 Mule Team Road.  I trekked up a hillside or two

Colorful badlands from a hillside in the 20 Mule Team area, Death Valley National Park, California
Colorful badlands from a hillside in the 20 Mule Team area

…then explored 20 Mule Team Canyon.  It’s pretty cool, with only one really sketchy dryfall to overcome.

Canyon walls in 20 Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Canyon walls in 20 Mule Team Canyon

We drove down to the far southern part of Death Valley and got there in time to take the non-trail to Ibex Dunes before sunset.

Evening on the Ibex Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Evening on the Ibex Dunes

The whole reason we were down there was to hike the old mining road by Saratoga Springs the next day.

The Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California
The Saratoga Springs

We found at least two mining areas with old structures.  Very cool!

An old ore bin at the Saratoga Mine, Death Valley National Park, California
An old ore bin at the Saratoga Mine

Our next adventure in Death Valley was to try to hike up Corkscrew Canyon, per instructions I’d found on the internet.  Unfortunately, it’s apparently private property (even the rangers can’t tell you where the private property begins and ends), so we did our best to obey the signs and still managed to see some nice views.  Sadly, we couldn’t get to the old mining stuff or the slot canyon.

Looking back down Corkscrew Canyon from public property, Death Valley National Park, California
Looking back down Corkscrew Canyon from public property

The next day might have been one of the most fun hikes we did on the entire trip: Sidewinder Canyon.  We explored three out of five slot canyons, saw an arch, whispered within a dark part of slots, and climbed up and down more dryfalls than I can count.

In one of the side-slots along Sidewinder Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
In one of the side-slots along Sidewinder Canyon

When I learned that the Keane Wonder Mine was once again open to visitors, I insisted we needed to visit one more time.  The amazing thing is that it really hasn’t changed much except for the road in (which seems to have been washed out and then moved).

Towers from the aerial tramway along the Keane Wonder Mine Trail, Death Valley National Park, California
Towers from the aerial tramway along the Keane Wonder Mine Trail

On the top of the list of “must-do” hikes for several of my group members was to hike across Death Valley.  A first for about half of my group, the rest of us had only ever hiked it one way, never as an out-and-back.  It was a hot, blinding 13 miles, but oh, the salt flats were beautiful!

Afternoon on the Badwater Salt Flats, Death Valley National Park, California
Afternoon on the Badwater Salt Flats

Along the way, we sought out the cairn marking the lowest place in North America – 282 feet below sea level!

My GPS proving that the lowest point in North America really is -282ft.!  Badwater Flats, Death Valley National Park, California
My GPS proving that it really is -282ft.!

We went back to the Alabama Hills for a day…

Sunrise on Lone Pine Peak through a little window arch, Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Sunrise on Lone Pine Peak through a little window arch

…then returned to Death Valley to hike up to John Cyty’s Mill.

John Cyty's stamp mill, Death Valley National Park, California
John Cyty’s stamp mill

Feeling adventurous (well, I was anyway), we hiked up the old mine trail behind the mill.  We didn’t make it all the way to the Big Bell Extension, but we did see several potential mine shafts and some fabulous views.  Did you know that you can see both the lowest point in North America (Badwater) and the tallest peak in the contiguous US (Mount Whitney) from that trail?

One of the mine shafts along the trail to the Big Bell Extension, Death Valley National Park, California
One of the mine shafts along the trail to the Big Bell Extension

The steep climb up above the mill got us in shape to hike up Wildrose Peak (below Telescope Peak) the next day.  What views!  Snow on the trail didn’t keep us from the climb.

Telescope Peak from Wildrose Peak, Death Valley National Park, California
Telescope Peak from Wildrose Peak

Our last day in Death Valley, we checked out Fall Canyon, near Titus Canyon.  I loved that hike.  The towering walls were beautiful, and we found a way around the dryfall that stops most hikers.

Hiking up Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Hiking up Fall Canyon

Above the dryfall, the canyon narrows down to a true slot with beautiful curving walls.

A part of the slot in Upper Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
A part of the slot in Upper Fall Canyon

It was high time to be heading toward home, so we decided to take a side-trek to Moab.  But first, we stopped at the snowy Sand Bench Vista on I-70.

I-70 from the Sand Bench Vista, Utah
I-70 from the Sand Bench Vista

In Arches National Park, we took the mostly-trailless trek up Courthouse Wash to The Tunnel

Inside of The Tunnel - it's long!  Arches National Park, Utah
Inside of The Tunnel – it’s long!

…and beyond to Ring Arch.

Standing under Ring Arch.  It's definitely a morning view, and I hit it at about 10am.  Arches National Park, Utah
Standing under Ring Arch. It’s definitely a morning view, and I hit it at about 10am

We had a few more hours of daylight, so we visited another off-trail area: Christmas Tree Arch.

Christmas Tree Arch, Arches National Park, Utah
Christmas Tree Arch

We were right on the Windows Loop, so we finished out the day by visiting the North and South Windows.  It’s amazing how few people are on these trails when there aren’t any tour buses running!

Turret Arch through the North Window, Arches National Park, Utah
Turret Arch through the North Window

The next day we hiked out to Murphy Point Overlook in Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park.  It was a beautiful morning view.  We hung out and watched vehicles on the White Rim Road far below.

Morning views from Murphy Point, Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Morning views from Murphy Point

Then in the later afternoon, we hiked out to the White Rim Overlook.  Talk about fabulous views!

Monument Basin from the White Rim Overlook, Island in the Sky Disrict of Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Monument Basin from the White Rim Overlook

I also caught sunrise the next morning from our campsite outside of the park.

Sunrise over the La Sal Mountains, Utah
Sunrise over the La Sal Mountains

Our last hike of the trip was to take the Lathrop Trail down toward the White Rim Road.  None of us really wanted to hike all the way back up all of those switchbacks, so we only did part of the trail.  But the views – oh, the views!  It was totally worth the hike to see those views!

Views from the Lathrop Trail, Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Views from the Lathrop Trail

On the way, we stopped to see the Lathrop Overlook (it’s not official).  You could stop right there and have seen glorious views.

Airport Tower and the Colorado River from the Lathrop Overlook, Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Airport Tower and the Colorado River from the Lathrop Overlook

I also got some pretty good star photos along the way.  Short days mean lots of time hanging out stargazing (can’t complain about that!)  My technique isn’t great yet, but I’m still pretty proud of this one.

Stars over the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Stars over the Alabama Hills

And that was our trip!  I’ll be posting more pictures and blog posts over the next many weeks!

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