Trucks, Trains, and Mines: Death Valley National Park


5 trucks in the desert

How does one retell the story of a 9 day trip in the desert? If I was Hunter S. Thompson, I’d probably enlist the help of an attorney, a multitude of controlled substances, and a bottle or two of whiskey, creatively crafting my words to tell the tale. I’ll have to settle for Sharon and a cold Lagunitas IPA.

I must warn you. A blog is not the perfect medium for such a tale, so if you’re looking for a quick read, you might as well close your browser window. But, if on the other hand, you’re interested in immersing yourself in the awe inspiring world of the desert, then by all means, continue scrolling.

Just 10 people, 5 trucks, their camping gear, and the desert as their oyster; or perhaps a scorpion would be more fitting.


Trash Row by Jake’s Cabin


Mating time!

On the way into Death Valley National Park, it is always wise to fuel up before entering. Gateway to the Mojave; the town of Baker is a great place to do so.


Jake’s Cabin

Jake’s Cabin

Jake’s Cabin is not for from Baker and is a pet project of Jake; he often does small renovations. Respect the cabin.

The cabin is in excellent shape. An outhouse, complete with toilet paper and flower pots, sat just a hundred feet away. An inviting front porch houses a couple of chairs, ash-trays, makeshift tables, and ammo rounds, both spent and live. The targets lay just across the wash. Inside we found supplies such as canned food, bottled water, cooking pots and stoves, jackets, hats, and even 3 bunks. The back porch was complete with more chairs and a hammock stretched from the support beams. A weary traveler could arrive here with nothing and subsist in desert luxury for a few days.

From the journal and photographs inside we were able to gather some history of the place. The one room shack was known as Jake’s Cabin, though it did not belong to Jake. Jake found the place with his two dogs 12 years prior and spent his spare time repairing it. Using the cabin as his personal retreat he collected the scattered roof shingles and nailing them back. He built the outhouse and outfitted the place with supplies. A sign, written in sharpie on the front door read, “Use but don’t abuse…duh”. Quite the find indeed.


EEEK! Rattlesnake

In the morning, anxious to get our boots sandy, we started exploring. First, hiking up the wash, we discovered and old ore chute. From there some of us started ascending switchback up the mountainside towards a tailings pile. Though the mines here were not very impressive, the switchbacks lead to somewhat of a plateau. We discovered desert blister beetles, mating, and feeding on what I believe was brittlebush. Their black bodies contrasted with their bright red-orange heads and legs and the yellow of the flowers are still imprinted in my head.


Just needs a new motor and she’ll be fine

Owlshead Mountains is not a far drive from the cabin. We discovered the remnants of an abandoned, old car and after piling in for a group photo we headed to Owl Hole Springs. Here, lay the remnants of a large mining operation. The spring itself emptied into a watering hole providing sustenance for lush vegetation. Given the corral fencing around it, the hole must have served ranchers in the past.


Danger, Danger, there’s a bat in the mine!


To the Crystal Hills (center)

Epsom Salt Works

The abandoned Epsom Salt Works are in the Crystal Hills.


No tortoises in sight this day 🙁

3.5 miles out and cutting through the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Center (yes we did disregard the “no trespassing” signs). The beauty of the Crystal Hills is hard to illustrate with words. The remnants of an ancient lake bed, the hills themselves take on many shades of pink, red, yellow, and brown. The name comes from the crystal deposits in the hillside which shimmer in the sunlight.


Who thought a monorail in the desert was a good idea?


What is this guy trying to hide from?

We explored many of the structures in the area, the highlight of which were the deteriorating trustless from an old monorail. That’s right, a monorail. In order to excite investors, 28 miles of monorail were built to lug ore from the mine. The desert conditions not being favorable to the system along with the problem of finding an engine powerful enough to pull the carts yet light enough to ride the single rail made this project a failure. The mine, however, seemingly saw some degree of success. What investor riding a monorail could refuse?


Beautiful Butterfly


Lesser Mohavae?

Tonight was also the night that the desert flamingos infiltrated our camp. One by one they appeared. On the hillside. Next to a car. One even made a home out of our tent vestibule. Soon enough a dozen of these pink plastic creatures were scattered around camp resting on their metal wire legs. Where did they come from? As if Frank didn’t have enough “gear” in his truck, he carried a box of 20 of them in the back. Excessive? Maybe. Delightful? Certainly!


Saratoga Springs


The endemic Death Valley Pupfish

On our way back towards pavement and fuel we stopped at Saratoga Spring where a surprisingly large pool of water served as habitat for the Death Valley Pupfish. These tiny creatures are endemic to the area and so were truly amazing to see. I would think very few visitors to the park see them first hand. We ate with the sweeping sands of the Ibex Dunes in view.

Grandview Mine and Ryan


Inspecting the rail switch


Ellie has too much clearance. Clearly she needs a lift.

Passing through Death Valley Junction we headed toward the mining town of Ryan and pulled off the road to start the day’s hike. We climbed up a “road” towards the Grand View Mine and the old Death Valley Railroad. Hiking next to the road was almost easier for as our theory goes some anti-road zealot brought in tons of rock and boulders and tore up the former road to the point that it would never be useable again. I’m not sure I understand bringing in foreign material to prevent a handful of vehicles from passing by.


Rail line leading to Ryan

The Grand View was nothing more than a giant sinkhole. Any shafts that may have been there in the past, and we did see evidence, were now caved in. The “baby” gauge rail was once used to carry ore between Ryan and the Grand View, eventually extending to the Lizzy V. Oakley and Widow mines.

After mining halted the rail was used to carry park visitors. Much of the rail was in “decent” shape though parts were badly damaged. We even found a railroad switch which was still functional. From the imprints in the rails, they were forged in Illinois in 1915, the year it was built. Nearly a century old! We followed the railroad past the Lizzy V. Oakley Mine. Though from a distance this mine looked very interesting with possible un-gated shafts, lack of time and the condition of the railroad grade leading to it did not allow for exploration on this trip. Be careful when entering mines!


Grades leading to Oakley Mine

The hike terminated at the Widow Mine where we found giant pit after giant pit. The railroad definitely ended here; and how!



Hole in the Wall is definitely something else. After driving through a road in a wash, surrounded by blooming wildflowers, the geographic marvel appears as a gateway to a fantasy land, all that much more impressive dressed in the colors of the setting sun.


The vacuuming mine cat ready to strike


Located in Nevada is the ghost town of Rhyolite. The crumbling structures gave me a hard time imagining the 10,000 individuals that once inhabited the area. The railway station was the most intact and an old railroad car sat out front. Naturally, we peeked inside, only later to discover the “Danger: Do not enter” sign posted on another door.


Desert bottle art

Walking around town we headed towards the Bottle House, which as the name suggest, was built out of old glass bottles. Though it’s hard to believe that any miner would have the time to create an art installation, the town’s multiple saloons surely provided ample building supplies. A miniature glass and mortar town decorated the yard.

Titus Canyon

Titus Canyon Road to Leadfiled. This ghost town played its role in history as a scam. The Western Lead Mine Company’s false advertising, including images of steamboats crossing the typically dry Amargosa River 20 miles away, interested investors. Though the town grew to 300 residents and a post office opened, it was closed within a year.


A True Rock Climber


Not the best shot but damn cute!

As we headed into Titus Canyon the walls became steeper and the canyon became narrower. Out of the corner of her eye Jenny spotted bighorn sheep scaling the canyon walls; a feat which later earned her the nickname Eagle Eye. Only 500 of these magnificent creatures reside in the park and this group had 4 members; 2 adult females and 2 babies. We watched them for a long period of time until somewhat of a traffic jam formed behind our convoy. Moving on, not a half a mile further, Jenny spotted another larger group of at least 6 to 10 sheep. These were lower down and more sheepish. They ran before I had the chance to grab my camera and take pictures.


Titus Canyon


Hole in the Wall

Darwin Falls


Zebra-tailed lizard

We parked our trucks at the trailhead, Dave and I taking advantage of the “4×4 parking area,” and headed up Darwin Wash. The scenery quickly changed from the expected arid desert to a trickling stream of water with cottonwoods filling the canyon. As we approached the vegetation, the terrain became rockier, while the vegetation became lusher. Moths the size of hummingbirds whirled overhead and we spotted some zebra-tailed lizards. These seemed to go airborne as the scampered over the rocky surface.


Lower Darwin Falls

The lower fall took the shape of an upside-down “Y” dropping into a luxurious pool, begging for a dip. We resisted the urge as cautioned by signs at the trailhead. With the amount of visitors to this area, swimming would greatly disturb the ecosystem. While some decided to venture no further, a contingent of about half of us continued to scramble up the canyon side to visit the upper fall. I bouldered right above the fall while others took an easier path and soon enough we caught hold of the magnificent Upper Darwin Falls. The 80-foot tall drop of water was breathtaking. Our only concern: photographing the stream below without dropping cameras or ourselves. A fall which would surely not end well. Though the path seemed to continue upwards and a trail presented itself on the other side, we had the view that we came for. We headed back to the trucks.


Mysterious carving

As we exited the canyon the desert heat struck us. Such a difference. We pondered how some fortunate miner must at some point have wandered into the canyon and found this cool, watery haven, drinking to content and perhaps cooling off in the pool below the falls. I also noticed an engraving in one of the canyon walls. Native Americans? Miners? Perhaps nature? Given the symmetrical nature of the 3 sets of 3 lines the latter was rather unlikely.


Battie and Faustie become friends


Little Petroglyph Canyon

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Which way to Little Petroglyph Canyon?

Individuals from Friends of Last Chance Canyon were meeting us to escort us through the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Center on a tour of the Native American petroglyphs.

As they arrived Sharon and I couldn’t help to notice the “Obama is what happens when welfare recipients and illegals get the right to vote,” “we speak English and wear deodorant here,” bumper stickers as well as a Confederate flag with the word “redneck” written across it. Given that both my parents and Sharon’s mother were immigrants who struggled to learn the language (some better than others) and eventually gained their right to vote, we were quite offended. Had it been just the two of us we would likely have just driven away. I highly recommend that you do take the tour, but if you do so arrange it through the Maturango Museum (read on for more reasons). I think all of us were also a bit upset that while we arranged for a private tour, the docents brought other guests with them.


The famous shamans of Renegade Canyon

As it was, we formed in line with the other trucks and drove to the base entrance across the street. Here we subjected our vehicles to military police inspection, no glass allowed. The inspection went off without a hitch and after an hour of driving through the base we hiked down into Little Petroglyph Canyon (a.k.a. Renegade Canyon if we can trust what the lead docent told us). We soon learned not to ask any questions as the docents seemed to make up answers on the fly. They were reluctant to tell us the age of the carvings or of the rocks (fundamentalists?), the latter of which geologist Dave clarified to be 15 to 30 million years old. They made outrageous claims about current geological activity in the area and authoritatively explained the meanings of the petroglyphs. That was on top of the 15 minutes of BLM bashing while USGS geologist Dave was sitting nearby and the cracks about software developers (a good portion of us). I guess they did admit that Frank, the Linux developer, “can’t be all that bad, he’s wearing a Tilley hat.” The only one of the docents we liked was Gary, who shared the knowledge he had, and when posed with questions he did not know the answers to, told us so and recommended visiting the museum and purchasing some reading materials.

The artwork was amazing. Bighorn sheep, atlatls, shamans, and various geographic shapes. We even found numbers, dates, initials, “E=mc2”, and a car. The latter likely made by cattle ranchers or more recent visitors to the canyon. Though these were a form of vandalism we appreciated that at least it wasn’t crude phallus illustrations.


“Oh look! Rocks!”

The short hike, or should I call it a saunter, through the canyon took hours because we stopped every few feet to gaze at yet more petroglyphs (and in one case a pictograph) taking hundreds of pictures. The more one looked at any wall, the more carvings appeared. We were amazed at all we saw and I really can’t wait to read up on the subject.

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R.I.P. Faustie :,( haha jk


Since moving to California, Sharon and I had probably spent about 2 months in and around Death Valley. Though this may seem like a long period of time to the casual visitor, I feel we have seen only a tiny fraction of what the park has to offer. This is not to even mention the rest of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts

More Trip Reports from Death Valley National Park

For more national park adventure, visit our National Park Service Guide.


  • Kristin

    Part of the problem is that they aren’t tour guides. They are escorts. They have an appreciation for the canyon and hiking, but aren’t necessarily knowledgeable on the history of the canyon. I am taking my first trip this weekend as an escort. We get some training as to the history of the canyon, as much as we can decipher (by the base archaeologist), but it is up to each escort to learn more about it. I’ve purchased a couple of books, but in no way, shape, or form am I an expert. I’ll do my best to answer questions, but there is a limit as to what I know. We aren’t docents like you would find in a museum. We are people who volunteer our time because we like the area and are willing to be escorts for those who also appreciate the area. You may have ended up with a particular guide who was particularly bad, and for that, I’m terribly sorry. This county and the base are heavily republican, pro gun, pro military, and sometimes, that means intolerant.

    And while you may have been on a private tour, so might another group have been on one. A private tour doesn’t mean you and you alone in the canyon. There can be several tours going through at the same time. You just have your own set of escorts.

    • Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment! Sorry it took so long for me to get it approved. Been a busy time.

      I’m glad to hear you’re approaching your responsibility with diligence. You’re right, it was just a particularly bad guide, who did not do any additional prep work. Not only that but he brought along friends to join our group, mocked the history of the canyon which I assume he learned during the training, and showed up to the tour with some, as you say, intolerant, bumper stickers which were directly targeted at the ethnicities of some of the members of our tour, including Sharon. This completely ruined the experience of what is otherwise an amazing and awe inspiring place.

      If we ever do decide to go again maybe I’ll be contacting you!

      • Kristin

        In our training, most of what we learn is the safety precautions and rules of the base. We do learn some of the meanings of the petroglyphs. However, all of that is open to interpretation. It’s very hard to date petroglyphs. All you can do is try to date it by what is being depicted (atlatls vs bows and arrows). The Maturango Museum does a short video prior to making a trip, and gives some data on other attempts to date the petroglyphs. They are anywhere from 7000-12,000 years old, and some more recent at 2000-700 years if I remember correctly.

        The E=MC2 is a throwback to the scientists that lived on base during the Manhattan project. Back then, the canyon wasn’t as protected and those that lived there could freely go and visit. While it is wrong that they carved it into the rock, it is a major part of the history of the base. It’s been there about 70 years. The escorts look for any damage to the area and report any new graffiti. We do our best to take care of the area.

        If you come again and I’m your escort, I can promise no offensive bumper stickers and an open and accepting person of all.