Continued from Echo Canyon – Death Valley

Day 5 began with an early start and we were met with a chilly breeze as we stumbled out of our roof top tent, rubbing tired eyes and firing up the Jet Boil for some hot caffeine. It wasn’t long before the sizzle of bacon in the cast iron skillet had our stomachs growling and mouths watering in anticipation. Hot beverages in hand, we began to lay out the plan for the day.

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With maps stretched out and navigation tablets clicking away, we charted a route that would lead us south through Dead Man Pass, then back north for a stop at Badwater Basin, before rolling northwest to the entrance of Titus Canyon. We knew this would make for a very long day but with our stay in Death Valley quickly coming to a close, we needed to make as much trail as possible.

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With our plan in place we all pulled up our camp chairs and sat down to a feast of crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, and buttered toast while taking in our view of the Funeral Mountains.

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After a quick clean-up, we secured the camp site and loaded rigs with the day’s essentials. With CB’s squawking their morning radio checks we left our private and lofty perch just south of the National Park, and headed out on our next adventure.

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We pointed our rigs east bound on highway 190 to Death Valley Junction, then south past Eagle Mountain for Deadman’s Pass. Our trail head was less than obvious so it took a good 30 minutes of tracking and back-tracking before we found a trail headed the direction we wanted. We weren’t complaining though, with the desert in bloom we were just enjoying the ride through some incredible scenery.

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Our new BFG KO2’s in 275/70R17 (Load Range E) had no issues eating up what Death Valley had to dish out. We were very impressed with the increase in ride and performance over the original KO’s.

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It turns out that Deadman’s Pass trail was somewhat anti-climatic as we topped a small rise and saw the sign proclaiming our arrival. The mild trail was still enjoyable, and if we’re being honest, it was welcome change over the 9 hours of bouncing we had under our belts from the day before. After a quick photo-op, we were back in the rigs and headed to the next destination in the queue.

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As we completed the trail for Deadman’s Pass and made a westward turn onto 178 for our link-up to Badwater Basin Road, something stopped us dead in our tracks just a few miles down the paved road. Apparently we had forgotten to get the latest road closure information and found ourselves staring a series of blaze orange signs that read; “Road Closed”. Disappointed, and feeling a bit embarrassed at our error, we made the best of it and had lunch right in the middle of the highway… because we could.

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With our mouths full of fresh sandwiches, we mumbled out our options and decided to completely change course and head for Titus Canyon via the paved roads, as if we had any other option. This was an agreeable course of action, especially for my friend’s wife who was more than a little pregnant, and I’m sure welcomed the plan. So with food in our bellys and proper pressure in our tires, we reversed course and set the cruise control to warp speed for the canyon entrance.

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It wasn’t long before the need for less civilized travel took hold and we made a hard left onto a dirt road cutting through the desert thus taking a more “direct approach” for the trailhead. We may have had a little too much fun on this BLM land…

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Our “short-cut” was pretty fun- No, so actually it was really, really freakin’ awesome for some reason. Maybe because it felt like we were racing in the Baja, or the fact we were blazing our own route with no idea what we would encounter, or perhaps we were just high on Death Valley and the joys of sharing it with great friends. Whatever it was; it was one of those times you didn’t expect, but will never forget. The only bad part was that it killed much more time than we anticipated. So with the sun on its way to the horizon; we took one last look at the maps, stretched our necks out, and put the pedals down. It’s worth noting that I’m pretty sure my friend’s pregnant wife had her legs crossed tight too, since none of us wanted a desert delivery.

Here’s an example of the last stretch of our trail blazing adventure:

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Finally… we arrived at Titus Canyon. Let me just say that if you ever go to Death Valley, Titus Canyon should be first on your list. However, we recommend starting at least 2-3 hours before sunset for the best lighting.

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After driving for hours through some very barren wasteland, our convoy was awed to see this land unfold before us. We rode in reverent silence for a while, just taking in the beauty of the canyon.

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At first we were a bit bummed that light got away from us, but it was incredible driving through these rock walls in the dark since it gave you the feeling you were passing through an immense cavern.

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With every light bar angled up at the rock faces, we slowly made our way down the final stretch of the trail. It had been a long, hard day for our two families. As we talked about the day’s travel over the CB, we promised ourselves we would return one day to see Titus Canyon in a better light. Although, we speculated that not many people have ever experienced it at night and any regrets were quickly put aside as we recounted our adventure.

As we exited the shelter of the canyon we were greeted by a wall of dust as a wind gust rocked our rigs. We found a spot near the park road and began airing up as we shielded our eyes from the sandblasting wind. The abrupt shift in the weather slowly became a concern as the wind speed continued to increase during the hour-long drive back to camp. As we turned off the highway and made the ascent to our very high, very exposed campsite; it became very obvious that we were in for a long night.

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What had been 20 – 25 mph sustained wind speed with 30 to 40 mph gusts down in the valley, was now 35 – 40 mph sustained with 50 – 60 mph gusts on the rise we had chosen.
Straining to open our doors, we scrambled out of our rigs to take a quick damage assessment. The ground was far too rocky for stakes to be driven into the CVT annex so we had used large rocks to hold it in place. As it turns out, they were no match for the wind and we found the annex pressed flat against the side of the Turtleback. (In hind-sight, this is probably what saved us from any damage to the tent or annex.) Our portable privacy tent had a snapped a pole and was now a tangled mess of fabric, guy-lines, and somewhere at the bottom of the pile; an overturned potty bucket. Fortunately, the remainder of our gear was safely stowed in the Turtleback’s compartments. Unfortunately my friend’s stockpile of cooking apparatus and camp gear was scattered for what seemed like a half-mile down wind.
With the situation scouted, we retreated to the vehicles to discuss our plan over the CB. We decided that we would park each vehicle up-wind of our trailers to help block the brunt of the wind and hunker down for the night. It quickly became apparent that sleeping in the roof-top tent wasn’t going to be feasible as the wind seemed to intensify making the rain-fly snap like a flag in a hurricane against the tent. As we were contemplating a relocation plan, Evan offered to let us all hunker down in his pop-up camper. Since no one was likely to sleep anyhow, we decided to fold up shop on the Turtleback and circle the wagons around the slightly lower, marginally quieter pop-up.

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With both vehicles now snugly parked against the camper we retreated inside for some Mountain House meals, and maybe a splash of liquid courage to calm the nerves. Surprisingly the kids handled the situation like veteran overlanders and contented themselves with their electronics as we adults marveled at the change in weather.

Evan and I made a few more improvements to our fortress by adding a couple ratchet straps from the pop-up roof to our roof racks in an attempt at adding some stability. As if in response to this challenge, the wind increased its efforts even further as we took turns standing outside while the ladies prepared for bed. Soon, each family shoe-horned themselves into the (maybe) full size bunks and made an attempt at sleep, although the slapping of the pop-up’s canvas against its supports, coupled with the universal challenges of sleeping with a 2-year-old in a confined space, made that highly unlikely.

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Just as exhaustion took over and I inexplicably began to drift off into the early stages of sleep, a gust of wind, unlike any we had felt so far rocked, and then twisted the camper so that the door latch came undone and the door slammed open.  With blankets, cups, and paper plates from dinner now airborne and swirling about the camper, I clicked on my headlamp and looked into my wife’s eyes… “Get in the vehicles!” she yells, and without pausing for discussion; scooped up our daughter and bolted for the now open door.

We all retreated to our respective rigs and sat wide-eyed as the wind attempted to clear the face of the earth. After a few moments of processing what just happened, I picked up the CB and croaked out a “Holy crap…” through my dry and gritty mouth. Evan responded with, “Dude…” and we just sat watching the dust and wind swirl.

With relocation being out of the question now, we leaned back our seats and took turns holding our sleeping baby girl until morning. Around 4:00 AM we awoke to a strange stillness. The wind was completely gone. You could have heard a cricket fart in the silence that remained.
Wary, we waited another 15 minutes before cautiously slipping out of our rig to go stretch out on the bed of the camper until daylight returned. Just as we got “comfortable” (being a relative term); the wind, as if sensing a sprung trap, slammed full force into the camper again and we immediately scurried back to the safety of the 4Runner and stayed put until morning.

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Eventually, light began to etch the eastern sky and the wind calmed down to manageable levels (pictured above). Evan and I stirred from our vehicles and began rounding up the now scattered camp. It was obvious there would be no campfire breakfast this morning, so we all headed into Furnace Creek to find shelter and food as we recovered from the previous night’s events.

As we rolled down off our high camp plateau it was apparent that we weren’t the only ones who had a rough night. Alongside the destroyed remnants of bargain shelf tents, people slept in their cars, heads rolled back on headrests with mouths agape in a deep sleep that even our convoy couldn’t disturb.

After successfully locating a breakfast buffet we sat down and numbly looked at each other. Then we looked around, and it seemed as if everyone in the place had also been ridden hard, then put up wet in a dust storm. The service was a bit slow at the bone-dry coffee station and some folks nearly got in a fight when they brought out a fresh pot of coffee as they (literally) ran to get in line. We all just laughed at ourselves and the folks around us, simply glad we had survived and weren’t picking ourselves out of an overturned camper.

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With breakfast done; we slathered on a fresh coat of deodorant, dug out hats, and put up pony tails before heading out on one last Death Valley adventure.
We were done with camping in the wind, but there was one last place you have to go before leaving Death Valley, and that is the lowest place in the United States: Badwater Basin. It took us a lot longer than we anticipated, but we had finally made the waypoint. We spent an hour or so walking the salt flats while leaning into the constant wind. Standing at this vantage point you can get a sense of just how huge and diverse this area really is.

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On our return trip to camp, we took a quick detour through Artist Drive. Another location we would like to spend more time exploring in the future.

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With winds having died below 25 mph we returned to camp and packed up in order to search for greener pastures and less wind.

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Three days is far too short a time to experience the high points of Death Valley. So, we will return one day to complete our exploration, but for now we were trading in dust storms for salt spray and headed west for the coast. As you can see above, it appears as if we left just in time… while yet another wind storm descends on our convoy.

With overlanding, sometimes the misadventure becomes the adventure. You learn to enjoy the journey more than the destination and find pleasure in the little things along the way. Whether it’s a trail that takes longer than you expect, surprise road closures, or mechanical troubles, you simply improvise; turn on the lights and turn up the music. Or perhaps, just turn it all off and listen to the silence of the desert for a while. The whole point is to get away from the stress of every day life and let the journey shape your adventure. There are no time limits, no schedules to keep, no bosses to please; just you and the open road.

So what are you waiting for? Get out and explore!