Jeep 101: Always Carry 2 of Everything
Refusing to be anywhere near “civilization” on Black Friday, we decided to head out to the desert over Thanksgiving weekend. As many others, the trip started with a prompt departure after the end of the workday. Death Valley is normally about a 7.5 hour drive from the Bay Area, but with increased traffic between the San Francisco and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, traffic often crawled. After 10 hours of driving, we finally reached our destination around 2am. Turning onto a high-clearance 4×4 road only a few miles from CA-190, we found a nice flat spot, pitched our tent with the auxiliary backup lights illuminating the site, and crawled in.
As the sun warmed the inside of the tent, we crawled out, ate our tofu scramble, faux Canadian bacon, and English muffin sandwiches, packed up the car, and settled into our seats all while blaring Jane’s Addiction on the stereo. Finally ready, Luke turned the key. Then again. Once more and after a short pause, again. Nothing. There was only a clicking noise as the combustion process failed to start. Seems our electric usage drained the battery. We carried a portable jump-starter, left over from the Jetta, but that also did not have enough amperage to ignite the 6 cylinder engine.
Surprisingly, neither of us panicked. We were only a couple miles from the road and not much farther from Panamint Springs where we knew there was a gas station. As we sat around deciding what to do, we spotted a Jeep caravan coming up a nearby road. Waving and shouting we got their attention and rejoiced as one of the rigs turned around and climbed the hill to our location. The two gentlemen from Mad Hatter 4×4 club of the East Bay Area gave us a jump and chatted as they sipped the beers Luke offered. We’re not sure what they made of the Brew Free or Die IPAs as they looked puzzled at the elaborately decorated craft brew cans. “Well, at least it’s the right color,” one of them proclaimed about Ellie. “You need a second battery, a winch, and a lift, and then you’ll have a fine rig,” the president of the club chimed in. After a little bit of a lecture about how “2 is 1 and 1 is none” (we should have had a second battery under the hood) and how its not very safe to venture out alone, we got back in our cars and drove down the road. They followed for a bit, making sure everything was OK.
The plan for the day was to hike Darwin Falls, but having wasted so much time already, we decided to skip the excursion. Instead, we headed straight for the beginning of our next day’s hike. Along the way we stopped at Ballarat. This was a town servicing the nearby mining camps with a post office, a saloon, and a jail. Most of the old buildings were in ruin, but the location now housed a little store with food and drinks, as well as a campground filled with RVs, ATVs, and off-road rigs.
Surprise Canyon and Panamint City
After the briefly running around among the ruins, we continued up the road to the mouth of Surprise Canyon , many camp exist along the road.
As we scrambled up the slippery rock and through the stream trickling down a hundred meters (300ft) of cascades it was hard to imagine that only a few decades ago the canyon housed a gravel road or that after flash floods washed away the fill and restored the natural stream bed, off-roaders managed to get their rigs up the often steep falls. After about 4 hours of route finding, retracing our steps at dead ends, quasi-bushwacking, and getting our feet wet we finally reached our destination of Panamint City.
A smokestack was all that remained of the original mining mill and city, which housed at times over 1,000 residents. The rest, like the road below, was flushed out of the canyon by heavy rainfall. A few newer-looking cabins still stood and we found out from a backpacker that these were now used by people for overnight stays. He referred to his destination as the Hilton.
It was near the smokestack that we were introduced to Battie, a 1992 bat Beanie Baby abandoned here. The androgynous bat would keep us company for the rest of the trip and hopefully on many adventures to come.
The terrain made the hike take longer than we expected and although we agreed to turn around at 2pm, we didn’t leave the smokestack until 2:45pm. With the short days this time of year, we knew we had to hurry to make it out of the canyon before night fall. We did not want to down-climb the waterfall in the dark.
Panamint Mountains and Telescope Peak
In the morning we broke camp and drove to the other side of the Panamint Mountains (Western wall of Death Valley) to tackle Telescope Peak. Though we brought our crampons and ice axes just in case, we felt it was a bit warm for ice and left them in the car. As we ascended 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) over 10.5km (6.5mi) to the 3368 meter (11049 foot) peak, the highest in the Panamints and Death Valley NP, the trail crisscrossed between the two sides of the spine of the Panamints. The East side, baked in the sun, was hot while the shaded West was quite chilly. We ended up hitting several patches of ice at the switchbacks leading up to the summit. Nothing requiring crampons. We were glad we weren’t carrying the extra weight. Check trail conditions before heading up.
The ridge, as well as the summit offer amazing views of Death Valley to the East, Panamint Valley to the West, and even the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada 160km (100mi) away. Signing the register and taking pictures of ourselves and Battie, now dubbed the Peak Bagging Bat, we headed down.
Mohagoney Campground is located by the trailhead; it is free but offers no water, just a pit toilet, table, and fire pit. The campground is at 8,200 feet and can get very cold.
More Trip Reports from Death Valley National Park
- Eureka Valley
- Ubehebe Crater
- Scotty’s Castle
- Racetrack Valley
- Epsom Salt Works, Saratoga Springs, Titus Canyon
For more national park adventures, visit our National Park Service Guide.