The evening of Friday, March 15 found me southbound on I-5, headed for the Columbia River Gorge and Eastern Oregon. I was bound and determined to start my Death Valley Road Trip 2019 with a birthday soak. My first destination was Willow Creek Hot Springs, in deep SE Oregon, not far from he Nevada border. I only made it as far as the Flowers Gulch on Hwy 395, north of Ukiah, OR. By noon on Saturday, however, I had made it down the Steens Hwy (78) to Hwy 95, and was approaching the hot spring.

I pulled into the far campsite, well behind the vault toilet and tucked up under the rocky cliff of a small mount, right next to the wetland. A boot path wandered along the base of the cliff and up to a saddle between two summits up top. First, tho – a soak, arriving just in time to chat with a couple of locals. Good folk, didn't stay long. As I finished my soak, a small crowd started arriving, and I took that as an opportunity to wander up the mount, down the other side, and out the closed 'road' across the flat. I didn't know about it setting out, but there are the ruins of an old Pony Express station out there. I would have had to cross the creek in a ravine to get to it, so satisfied myself with shots from a distance. There were only two buildings I could see. I followed a trail off the road toward a lovely sitting spot in shade further up Willow Creek, and finished up by following the remainder of the road to the other end of the closure. The road is closed to protect the wetlands and soils in the area. I see now, in looking at Google Maps that there is access to the ruins from Whitehorse Ranch Road, just a little further down from the hot springs road, and there is also a spring out along that path – something to do between soaks on my visit. I ended up taking another soak in the evening, and again the next morning, and again in the afternoon. It was that sublime.

I was told by the locals that the drive out the remainder of the Whitehorse Ranch road and out thru Denio back to the highway was far more beautiful than retracing my route back to the highway. I didn't think I had enough gas to do that, tho, and sadly returned the way I came. Driving thru the cattle herd was rather fun. And I saw pronghorn antelope on both the way in and out. The drive further down Hwy 95 was interesting, but I suspect the other route would have been better. In any case, as I approached Winnemucca, things really began to take on an interesting appearance, and I saw my first Joshua Trees.
Continuing thru along Hwy 305 and Hwy 376 thru Austin and Tonopah before getting back on Hwy 95, I made it as far as Beatty, NV, parking just outside of Rhyolite to sleep. That put me in perfect position to explore the ghost town of Rhyolite at first light – which was a rather amazing thing to do, even if I was rather turned off by the rusted trash everywhere. I saw the grave of Isabelle “Mona Belle” Heskett Haskins, who was a prostitute murdered by her pimp. The good townfolk couldn't have her buried in the cemetery tho, so they buried her here, near the jail and red-light district. Who knows if this is real, and other versions of the tale have her buried here in WA, in Ballard. Visitors have been decorating her grave her in Rhyolite with gifts for years, it seems.

Salt Creek was my first stop within Death Valley National Park – this location is below sea-level, and is a great place to see the park's famed pupfish. These fish are adapted to living in the high-salinity stream and to both hot and cold water. The landscape was rather lunar any distance from the stream, providing a great contrast to the stream-side vegetation. A trail wanders up the stream toward the highway some miles distant. I explored that for a couple of miles, and then continued on to Stovepipe Wells where I checked in with the ranger and got information about Cottonwood and Marble Canyons, where I intended to camp and do some hiking.

The road into the canyons starts with an 8-mile jaunt across the wasteland, most of it soft sand. Where it wasn't soft sand, it was rock. Lots of rock. And when I entered the canyon, I was really just driving up a wash along a well-worn jeep track – very rough and bumpy indeed. While I didn't actually need 4WD, I did need high-clearance. I chose a campsite immediately past the intersection of Cottonwood and Marble Canyon roads, on a sandbar above the wash, and some many yards into the wilderness area, parking alongside the road, and walking the short distance to where I set up my tent. I wanted to sleep under the stars, but also wanted a retreat in case things got wet. Having set up my camp, I set off on foot to explore Marble Canyon, opting to walk the 2.5-ish miles up the road, being quite done with driving for the time being.

My walk up Marble Canyon was life altering. The road walk itself was boring, but after less than an hour, I came to the end of the road, a sign designating the area as wilderness, and a mind-blowing landscape of layered rock towering far overhead, slot canyons, and surprising little oases – a pair of ravens even greeted me, one of which was missing a primary wing feather. About a mile in, I encountered a couple who understood the mouth-agape way I was literally turning about in circles to witness the canyon walls above and around me. They assured me things were only to get more amazing, and they had gone on a bit further before being turned about by an obstruction at a dry waterfall. I made it that far and decided to have a sit before I turned back. The way was truly obstructed – a boulder the size of a VW Bug was firmly wedged between the canyon walls above me, and the gravels of the canyon floor had filled in behind it. There was no way over, under, or around the massive boulder.

While sitting on a convenient trail-side ledge of rock, the two ravens winged their way overhead, back down the canyon. The one with the missing primary turned up the dry waterfall on my left, while the other landed on the ground a few dozen feet away. And what a friendly raven it was. He strutted all about, looking directly at me a number of times, and quite nonplussed when I looked directly back at him. He marched this way and that, turned over a few stones, and marched right in front of me to the space under the large boulder. He explored that area, then flap-hopped up to the rock above left shoulder. We looked at each other a few times, he pecked at the rock, gestured at me, and even made a few soft sounds. This all took place over the course of about 20 minutes. After a bit, his mate returned from over the waterfall, and they continued together down the canyon. I had the distinct impression he was trying to tell me something, and his mate's time spent up the waterfall had me curious. Sure enough, I found a faint trail up the dry fall, which allowed me to continue or a number of miles further up the canyon.

I was so thankful that raven pointed that trail out to me – the most amazing parts of the canyon were yet ahead of me. Here were canyon walls of black basalt that twisted about in delicious curves, the sky disappearing overhead with the convolutions of the canyon, fine gravels paved the canyon floor in a smooth, walkable expanse, a perfect corridor to someplace magical. Unfortunately, my camera battery had died, so I did not get pics of this area. I used my iPhone to take a few pics, but their too small to post. Next time!!

I finally turned about as dusk was settling in. I knew my walk back would be in the dark, and I was looking forward to it. My return thru the twisted slot canyon was accompanied by bats, their clicks and chirps bouncing off the canyon walls, and I could imagine how fun this space must be for them – like a cave, but filled with food. By the time I made it back to the wilderness boundary, it was pitch dark. I could see one vehicle parked off the road, the lights in the camper a dim beacon just outside the canyon. By the time I made it back out onto the wash, the jeep track was becoming hard to see, and I found myself repeatedly scanning the ground with my headlamp for tire tread marks.

I made it back to camp with no problems, thankfully, and settled in for a night of stars and whiskey. Well, maybe just whiskey, as clouds were moving in. Soon, raindrops, few and light, began to fall. A great wind came up, and pushed a lot of weather across the sky. I saw some stars, but after a few hours, a Supermoon showed up, flooding the wash with silver light. The Cottonwood Mountains to the west were quite visible in the moonlight.

The next day, I drove up Cottonwood Canyon road for nearly 7 miles – what a rough adventure that was, I used my 4WD for that. I walked up the canyon about 3 miles, turning back when the trail got faint in a wet part of a deep cottonwood grove. I didn't encounter the magical slot canyons I had enjoyed in Marble Canyon, but I did see a variety of plants and trees, flowing water, and wild horses. I ended the day with lazing about, reading my book. The weather this night was even worse, and by 4 AM, it had started raining for real. By 5 AM, I had my tent pulled up and thrown in the back of the truck, and I was working on coffee and breakfast.

My visit to Death Valley was nearly over. The only thing left to do was to drive thru the rain and fog out of the park. I have to say, seeing the deep desert in fog and rain, water clinging to every surface, the ground wet and rocks shiny, sight reduced to a couple of hundred feet, was very intriguing. I suspect few see it that way. The roads were running with water, and ditches were filling. I had hoped to see a flash flood, but had no such luck. The weather did break for the trip across the Panamint Valley into Panamint Springs, so I enjoyed the short drive to, and walk up to, Darwin Falls. Darwin Falls is a classic desert oasis, complete with a refreshing stream, a waterfall with an inviting pool below, waterfowl, willows, and wildflowers, all wedged into a narrow canyon.

I spent the rest of the day driving north into the Eastern Sierra. By the time I arrived at Mono Lake, the sagebrush was giving away to pinon. Pulling into Bridgeport, I made my way to Travertine Hot Springs, where I spent the afternoon and evening soaking. The view of the sunset over the Sierra, then getting lit up by the moon behind me was magical – so magical, I decided to be back at the very same pool for dawn. Watching the clouds pink up over the Sierra was amazing. I failed to bring my camera down with me, tho, and at something just above 20 degrees, I was in no hurry to get out of the hot water to retrieve it. I used my iPhone to take a few snaps, but again, I am not happy with them. I'll just have to go do that all over again.

I capped the day with a drive up Hwy 338 and 339 to visit an old friend in Stagecoach, NV – how great to see Kristy again! We spent a few hours catching up, then I made my way toward the Black Rock Desert, where I spent the night alongside a lonely Hwy 447. I awoke to snow – lots of snow, and a slippery, 4WD drive down off the mountain. Arriving at Eagleville Hot Springs, my last destination, marked only by a wide space alongside the highway, the weather was crappy, and I could not find the spring, so I motored on. Weather finally improved after Lakeview, OR, and I was home via Bend and Gresham by dark.

By the numbers:
Miles hiked = 33.77
Miles driven = 2,542
Gallons of gas purchased = 126.482

Images taken March 16-24, 2019, at various locations in SE Oregon, Nevada, and California, including Willow Creek Hot Springs, OR, Rhyolite, NV, and Death Valley National Park and Bridgeport, CA.

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