Desert Trail (Death Valley Section) Day 1- 5.5 miles

 

Since starting work on the Oregon Desert Trail I’ve been working with the Desert Trail Association. Also known as the DTA, this group of hikers had been working on creating a Mexico to Canada route in the deserts of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington since the 70s. Fast forward over 40 years and the group has been successful in designating several sections as national recreation trails, particularly in Oregon in the Pueblo and Steens Mountains. The Oregon Desert Trail ties into their sections here, and first brought me in contact with the group, based in Madras, Oregon.

Now many of the original members have passed, and many others are old enough that the Desert Trail has lost a lot of the energy and drive to continue refining the route and telling hikers about it. Now the members like to go on hikes along the route several times during the year, and I’ve started leading some of those hikes for them. I love the stories from this group, and especially the fact that many of the hikers are in their 70s or even older. When one of the board members, Skip, asked if I wanted to co-lead a few sections of the route through Death Valley in California, I jumped at the chance. I have never been to Death Valley and have heard marvelous things about the hiking there.

The Desert Trail is very much the precursor to the ODT, and much like my route, this has almost no trail, and that’s how this group likes it. There have always been bad ass desert rats wanting an immersive wilderness experience, and I very much identify. The ODT can learn a lot from this OG route, and has.

We chose November as the summers are an inferno, and it was their traditional time to meet and go hiking. When I looked at the forecast and saw 90 degree days, I knew the trip would be like one last hurrah of summer. I left Bend after work on a Friday and drove about 5 hours to just outside of Winnemucca and pulled over on a BLM road to park and sleep in the back of the car.

 

The next day I drove through the middle of Nevada and past many mountain ranges I was itching to explore. I pulled into stovepipe wells mid afternoon and found the group in the campground. Several folks I had met before, and several I hadn’t. We were joined by some other people from the Death Valley Hikers Association, and spent the first night camped together. Not everyone would be hiking, and some would be helping to cache water and shuttle cars.

We started at the Racetrack, a large alkali playa where the rocks have an eerie way of moving on their own. Our plan was to hike back to Stovepipe Wells in 4 days. About 40 miles. Because I was the youngest hiker (and the only woman) by about 30 years, we had planned some modest mileage. Skip had hiked this section several times before, although from the other direction. We figured between us we would have our bases covered. I had the guidebook to the desert trail in death valley, and the route waypointed on Gaia. Even though I haven’t been here before, we had enough resources and first hand knowledge to do the trip.

The drive to the Racetrack took 3 hours even though it was only 72 miles. About half was on a rocky washboarded road, although the group told me it was in much better shape than they had seen it before. Two cars went to drop off a vehicle at our night 2 spot as one of the hikers would have to leave early. We had water cached inside – there is no water available for the 4 days otherwise.

We all met at the Racetrack and started hiking. The Playa was beautiful and the Temps were a much more pleasant low 80s. We checked out the grandstand, a rocky outcropping in the middle of the flat, and then made our way up the climb of the day through a series of washes.

 

The mountains are enormous here, and I loved it all. After huffing and puffing up the climb we had lunch on top. The rest of the way we wound our way back down past Joshua trees and creosote bushes. We descended down to Hidden Valley, which didn’t seem so hidden because we saw a bunch of cars cruise by on the dirt road that passes through the middle. We took a lay-down break before crossing the valley to find camp at the mouth of the next climb. Basin and range baby!

 

I’m cowgirl camping tonight and it’s fairly warm… so nice to be out here.

Get creative with what you love

Some of you probably know that I’m a graphic designer, and over the years have enjoyed making logos and designs in the hiking community.

I was thrilled to help out friend and fellow badass hiker Mandy “Purple Rain” Bland with a logo for her company, Purple Rain Adventure Skirts. I’ve been wearing her skirts for the past 4 years and can confidently say they are my favorite piece of hiking gear.

I think this logo embodies Mandy and the brand so well…take a look and consider a skirt for your next hiking adventure. They look great in town too.

ODT Section 23: Day 4 – 12 miles (71 total)

I didn’t fall into the canyon for the night…the walls held for another day. As dawn broke I watched birds float above the abyss.

I wasn’t in a hurry to go, so I finished the book I had started on the hike, Timothy Egan’s Lasso the Wind. I think it was published around 2000, and there would be much to add to his survey of the “new west” if he were to do a part two. I enjoyed it immensely and it was incredibly depressing at the same time.

I headed off for a short stint on dirt roads, and the rest of the morning I hiked cross country across a vast expanse of golden bunch grass. Two cows watch me go. I wonder if this is a new grazing area because most of the public land where cows are allowed are quite simply hammered. This was different, and the walking was quite pleasant.

By late morning I faced my last big obstacle: Jordan Creek and the canyon that contained it. Several hundred feet of steep basalt walls stood between me and the end of this section, so I walked to the end where the map directed me, trusting there was a way down. And there was.

I picked my way down the steep slope, crossing the shallow creek carefully. Hikers had warned of rattle snakes in the tall grasses, so I thrashed the thick brush with my hiking poles, no snakes! In fact I haven’t seen any rattle snakes on this whole trip.

And then up. Up the other steep side. Ooofta.

I got to the top and flopped down sweaty and exhausted on my tyvek for a short lunch break. Rome was calling, and at only 4.5 miles away, it was a siren call of food and a long shower.

I got plenty of wondering looks as I walked the last 2 miles to the store on the side of the highway, and one guy who had pulled over in his semi had plenty of questions. He had no idea what the slow, lazy river that passes through Rome was capable of just a short distance away. In fact many of the people I meet out here have never been to Leslie Gulch or any of the other stunning landscapes within this area.

The rest of the afternoon was like any afternoon in civilization, and not what I came here for.

It was an incredible week, and I will do what I can to make sure this area doesn’t get drilled, extracted, exploited, or loved to death.

ODT Section 24/23: Day 3 – 16 miles (59 total)

I was lulled to sleep by the gentle flow of the Owyhee River, but woke with a panic a few hours later to the smell of smoke.

Fire can scare me quicker than almost anything else, and I sat up under the bright moon, heart racing. Since I was in the bottom of the canyon I had no vantage point to see if something was close, and had to remind myself that smoke could be coming as far as the next state, carried by the winds. What was disconcerting was that there had been no other smoke yet this week. No smells, no haze. This could be something new, and close. There wasn’t much I could do, my spot by the river was probably the best place to be even if it was close. Finally my heart returned to its normal pace, and I actually slept really well the rest of the night.

In the morning I tanked up with water in preparation for a water carry the rest of the day, tonight, and about 7 miles tomorrow. I would cross Bogus Creek in a few miles, but with the Owyhee water relatively clear, I figured I would fill up when I knew the water would be good.

The morning I walked across a lava landscape called Lambert Rocks and could spy the stunning chalk basin across the river. I finished Section 24 and started on 23. There isn’t really access to the section end, there is a road of sorts, but it was so full of jagged lava rocks that it would mean certain death for almost any tire out there. This is really a 60 mile section from Leslie Gulch to Rome, if you are talking about something vehicle accessible for a section hike. Or you could break it up at Birch Creek, a pretty good road and popular rafting take out.

The road that wasn’t a road came to an end and I crossed country-ed over to the towering basalt wall where there was supposed to be access to the top of the rim. I had already noticed the databook said there was a road there, but my map said cross country. I was very relieved to see a “road” steeply climbing up to the top. It’s good when I can catch little discrepancies like this that I can fix later. I would never in a million years drive on this road, ride a bike, motorcycle or horse on it. On foot was the only way to go. Beautiful views!!!

This started the on and off again walking of the Owyhee Rim, at hundreds of feet above the river below.

Then some cross country. I visited some dry dirt reservoirs and some nasty neon green cow trough water. I took a liter of that just for an emergency and hoped I wouldn’t have to drink it. The hue made me think maybe there was something chemical or toxic going on.

More rim, more hot exposed desert. I used my sun umbrella most of the afternoon and took breaks under it too.

I made a stop at a water trough in between a bend in the route and found good clearish water. I dumped out the day-glow green in favor of clear. Whew. I will definitely drink it.

Back to the rim where I found camp right on the edge. So close in fact that after about an hour I changed my mind and moved farther back from the edge. Thousands of years of rock fall from the vertical cliffs was apparent below and I didn’t want to be the trigger for the next big release of rock.

Last night of the section, I’ll be staying in a cabin in Rome tomorrow! Burger, beer and bed!!!!

And no evidence of fire, haze or smoke today. Nice.

ODT Section 24: Day 1: 15 miles (26 total)

Last night I had climbed up on the arm of the potentially sketchy game trail portion of the problem area and cowgirl camped in a flatish spot. There was a slight downhill tilt to the area, so I put all my extra gear on that side so it would block me from sliding into the dirt. I bet of all my nights outside a good quarter of them are in less than ideal spots. In this case the benefit far outweighed the tilt for I had an incredible view of the Owyhee reservoir.

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The night was incredibly quiet and still. Once the waxing half moon set the stars gave any planetarium out there a run for their money.

In the morning I ate my cold soak oatmeal (a Katie Gerber idea… she is a nutritionist who is currently hiking the ODT with my good friend Allgood and another lovely thru-hiker I know, Swept Away.) It’s my goal to find them after my hike this week and bring them treats.

I headed up the trail that looked more legit than just a game trail. I bet people from Leslie Gulch hike up here to check out the canyon. I went slow and reminded myself of my CDT mantra: one step at a time. Each time I rounded a rocky outcropping I saw the path continued, but it most definitely was a game trail by about half way through. The earth was dry and crumbly and I had to be intentional with many steps, although some sections were in great shape. As I neared spring creek the going got tougher and at one point I was downright scared as I had to cross a steep washed out section… I sat down, braced my hiking pole on a rock below me and willed my feet to stay put as I tried for purchase to cross the void. I was sweating a little. But all went well to the bottom of the next drainage. The high game trail goes, if you don’t mind one hairy section. From water level again it looked easier to walk the steep edge of the water than it had from the other side, I’m pretty sure Allgood and crew crossed this low way two weeks ago.

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Spring creek was running, and I crossed over it to walk the muddy banks of the water to my next landmark, Willow Creek.

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The guidebook advised to stay higher on the west side of the drainage, but I walked up the middle following the braided cow trails that had pushed trails through the brush. After a while I decided to go up as the canyon narrowed, and spent the next 2+ miles up and down, on cow trails and off. Nothing terribly difficult, just taxing. The upper end was choked with willows and a few bigger trees, and the canyon was lined with incredible rock formations.

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I met up with a dirt road next. Relief! I freaking love walking on an easy dirt road after an arduous cross country morning. I took a short break in some shade and switched to my chacos for some blissful road walking.

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I got to the turnoff point for the alternate route I had wanted to connect with what Becky and I had hiked yesterday, but it looked narrow, brushy, and exactly what I didn’t want to hike at the moment. Seeing it now in person, I doubted this side of the alternate would work, but I do think a higher elevation option could do the trick. I know I can get some good detail on Google earth as I could see a way up (or down) from my vantage point, and from looking closer at the topo maps, think it could be doable. I just didn’t have the energy to climb a few thousand feet to scope it out all the way.

I continued on and had lunch in the shade of am incredibly large sagebrush. Next was a fabulous spring that was pouring cold clear water into a cattle trough. Yum! I tanked up and took 6 ½ liters which would have to get me to tomorrow’s night camp some 20+ miles away. Not a huge water carry by ODT standards.

I trudged up a break in the Rimrock and took a moment to take some photo monitoring images in a narrow pinch point in the terrain. This year I’m getting some baseline photo data for places on the trail where hikers are funneled through the terrain. I want to gauge if we are having impacts on cross country sections within Wilderness Study Areas along the route. In this instance I was walking on a well defined cow trail…and the evidence was all around. Cow pies of various ages, and grasses chewed within inches of the ground. No sign of hiker impacts. We’ll continue to get photos from about 20 different spots along the route each year and see what is happening. So far, the cows have a dramatic impact, hikers, none.

The top of the Owyhee Canyon is flatish and dry. I hiked cross country by a few dirt reservoirs, two with water, one with cows, and a couple dry ones. The rest of the afternoon was on two track dusty roads before I pulled off at a viewpoint down into the Birch Creek area. I’m far enough away that I can’t quite tell what I’m looking at, but it’s gorgeous!

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Oh! And I can see the Steens from here! The unmistakable Kiger Notch marks the presiding hulk of the 50-mile mountain over the rest on the Oregon desert. That’s only about 300 ODT miles from here.

ODT Section 24: Day 0 – 11 Miles

You may remember this spring I headed to the Owyhee Canyonlands to lead a hike on Section 25 of the Oregon Desert Trail for the group Friends of the Owyhee (FOTO). That was also the first time I had hiked that section because in 2016 I had packrafted the river and reservoir as part of a water alternate to the ODT from Section 21ish (I put in at 5 Bar) to the end at Section 25. Essentially I paddled 141 miles as opposed to hiking 142 miles. I don’t know how the numbers are so close, but pretty cool that they are!

I hope to continue guiding hikes for FOTO, so decided to give myself and the future hikers on these trips a break and hike it first. While the trip this spring went really well and we made it on the 27-mile (primarily cross country) section just fine, I was doing a lot of micro navigation as we were hiking. I found that since I was leading people who might be on their first cross country hike ever, that ideally I wanted to have a mental lay of the land before getting out there all together.

So I connected with Becky, a FOTO board member, to see if she wanted to hike with me and help shuttle a car at the very least. Becky was the co-leader on my spring trip and we got along great, so was stoked when she was free and wanted to come along for a day of hiking.

Becky was able to pick me up in Rome yesterday where I left my car, and we drove around to the incredible Leslie Gulch. If you want to know why it’s incredible, check this out:


I decided we would hike a potential alternative that would bypass a steep and challenging bit of trail between Spring Creek and Leslie Gulch. At high water hikers have been flummoxed by this section as the map shows the route going on the banks of the river…a bank I have never seen since I started working for ONDA. Apparently when this section was originally scouted the water was so low that you could easily walk on the edge. Not so in the past few years. Even well seasoned athletes like Jeff Browning and Heather “Anish” Anderson have had problems here: Anish backtracking and finding a route inland, and Jeff, basically ended his attempted ultra run of the Owyhee after getting here in the middle of the night and not finding a way around until day time, precious hours he needed to finish on time. Watch the Patagonia film about his attempt here.

So Becky and I took off behind the Slocum Creek Campground to see what we could see. The canyon was awesome walking, until it wasn’t, and we climbed up a thousand feet to the rolling ridgeline above and tried our luck up top. It went! It went with one kind of sketchy talus field, that wasn’t too sketchy once we got there. We continued on, found some various things of interest (I’m being vague on purpose!) and when I could see the rest of the high route was clean, we dropped into a drainage to see if we could get back out.


And we did! We didn’t hike the whole alternate I had scoped out on Google earth, as Becky had to get back to Boise, and I would try and connect the route tomorrow from the original ODT.

So that would leave me trying to walk game trails high above the river to make my way around the problem area like most of the other hikers have done. There is no flat path along the water again, and for September in a dry year that is interesting…it must have been incredibly low when Jeremy (my predecessor) was creating the route.

ODT Section 24: Day 2 – 17 miles (43 miles)

I didn’t sleep much, or at all. When dawn came I sat up and made my coffee and a freeze dried egg breakfast I picked up on a whim. Not a fan.

Today would be mostly road walking, and when I say road, I mean this:

For all the exposure and zero trees, the day wasn’t too hot. I could see clouds forming and each time I thought the rain drops might catch me the road took a turn or they stayed just out of reach. As it was it didn’t look like any of the rain was hitting the ground, instead was evaporating before it could touch the parched earth.

Mid morning I noticed a helicopter flying pretty low. To my surprise it circled me twice and went to land in the dry reservoir I happened to be walking by at the time. I had a jolt of worry that I had accidentally push my help button on the satellite beacon I was carrying. Ooooo no!!!

I walked over within shouting distance of the copter when four people got out. I soon found out they were with the Vale BLM and were surveying the earthen damns of some of the reservoirs out here. Whew. They were surprised to see me and offered snacks, but I had packed too much food as it was and passed on the helicopter trail magic.

I continued on and was so tired at lunch that I lay out flat on my tyvek and closed my eyes for half an hour… setting my alarm in case I fell asleep for real. I wasn’t sure I would wake up since I hadn’t slept last night.

Slightly rejuvenated, I ate the avocado I’ve been carrying (so worth it) and continued on the roads. I listened to a bunch of podcasts today. I was feeling a bit lonely and the voices helped to fill the space. This will be my last multi-day hike for a while (not counting another 5-day trail work trip next week and a week in Death Valley this November) and I’m ready to be home for more than a few days at a time.

Mid afternoon I dropped down the rim to cross country to the Owyhee River for water and camp. I didn’t recognize the area from my packraft trip two years ago till I got to water’s edge and spied a huge cave surrounded by greenish spires of rock. Oh yeah! I was right around the corner from one of the most stunning sections by Iron Point and Montgomery Rapid.

The river was beautiful and much clearer than the reservoir at Leslie Gulch had been. I stripped down and washed myself and most of my clothes and soaked in the river as much as the extremely annoying flies would let me. I hope they die, or disappear, when the sun sets. As long as they leave me alone.

I thought I might have to set up my tarp tonight with all the heavy clouds from earlier in the day, but there is nothing in the sliver of sky that I can see from in the canyon.

The Trail Show Podcast: Sunshine Coast Trail

Alright folks! One of my favorite podcasts of all time The Trail Show, (more beer, less gear) just released episode #74 featuring my lovely friend NEMO talking about our Sunshine Coast Trail hike.

For those just tuning in, you can start reading about our hike here: Day -2

Still plan to do a recap post and link to my databook. In the meantime enjoy some more photos from our hike!