Some time ago Offroading Home produced two other "companion-maps" maps to the trails listed in his books: Great Basin SUV Trails – Southern and Southwest. All of them provide an off-roader valuable GPS data corrections and clarifications which are largely absent from the books; however, unlike the trails in his other books which can often be taken by ATVs and side-by-sides alike, the Death Valley trails are governed by National Park rules which prohibit non-street-legal vehicles.
This map was over two months in the making and I must say it was the hardest one yet so far. The shifting desert sands and washouts render the "zero-your-odometer" and "turn-at-the-unmarked-trail-on-your-right" type directions that he uses not too much short of completely useless. And, needlessly obscure and foolish in this day and age.
What Mitchell's books are good at however is providing a truly inordinate amount of the "color" of history, geology and botany, to any ride you may take, in any of these areas, whether or not it is one of his listed trails. And they do that most effectively! – That's why I keep producing the maps – because the books are so good at providing "trail texture" that people keep wanting to buy them then find that the directions and GPS errors sometimes gets them lost.
So, do yourself a big favor if you ride anywhere near the area covered by these maps. Buy the book and pack it with you to greatly improve your enjoyment of the ride; but, download this map and upload any trail you follow into your GPS unit before you go. [For a free Google Earth file of this route see: Death Valley SUV Trails (1.1 mb)]
The forty Death Valley Trails are divided into nine different riding areas: Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Scotty's Castle, Beatty, Shoshone, Big Pine, Panamint Springs, Ballarat and Trona (Mitchell's home town).
Furnace CreekIn 1860 Darwin French led an expedition through this area looking for the "Lost Gunsight Mine" and named it Furnace Creek. It has gone on to become the heart of Death Valley National Park, not because of any mine but due to the very successful alfalfa venture of Andy Laswell. The success of the Harmony Borax Mine, one and a half miles north, sealed the deal; again, not because of the mineral but the industry of its superintendent who dug a mile-long canal to irrigate 40 acres of fruit trees, melons, sweet potato's and other vegetables in addition to alfalfa. The mine workers were the best fed in the state and many stayed when the mine closed to work on the ranch and other date palm groves in the area. Furnace Creek Inn opened in the "20's" and Greenland Ranch changed its name to Furnace Creek Ranch.
Today the National Park's offices are at the ranch along with a visitors center, museum, theater and bookshop. Ranger tours are available and the trails include: Echo Pass; Hole in the Wall; Furnace, Kunze and Greenwater; Trail Canyon; Hanaupah Canyon; Johnson Canyon; Galena Canyon; Queen of Sheba Mine; and, Mengel Pass via Warm Springs Canyon.
Stovepipe WellsThe story of Stovepipe Wells is the story of grand-thinking, enterprise and the good ol' "Yankee" ingenuity of one Herman Eichbaum. An electrical engineer and Catalina Island tourism developer, he envisioned that a grand resort at Hell's Gate would be successful. He needed a road to the site so obtained a county franchise to build a toll road over the Panamint Range from Darwin Falls to Stovepipe Wells. The road opened in May, 1926 before the resort was built and his trucks of materials headed that way. The portion of the road at the sand dunes, 12 miles short of Hell's Gate, never was solid and the trucks became irretrievably mired. Money from the sale of his Catalina Island business was exhausted so -- he built the resort on the valley floor and called it: Stovepipe Wells Resort (even though five miles southwest of the real location).
Originally there were 20 open-air bungalows with 50 rooms, a restaurant, a general store and a gasoline pump. Electricity for well water and a searchlight beacon was generated from diesel on site. Competition with Furnace Creek prompted installation of a swimming pool, tennis court, golf course and airstrip. All this tourism prompted Herbert Hoover's Death Valley National Monument in 1933. The state eventually bought the road and stopped the tolls, the CCCs realigned it over Towne Pass and tourism flourished despite the depression.
Today the Ranger Station supplies road and visitor information. Concessions include a hotel, restaurant, bar, gift shop, general store, service station and RV park with hookups. Also a NPS campground and paved airstrip. The trails described are: Tucki Mine; Cotton and Marble Canyon's; and Jean LeMoigne's Retreat Trail.
Scotty's CastleAs the principle attraction in almost all of Death Valley National Park, it is largely due to its larger-than-life founder: Walter Scott. Like his mentor, Buffalo Bill Cody, Scotty lived a bit "grand." After running away from home in Kentucky and working on his brother's Nevada ranch, he did odd jobs until finding a place he liked, the Wild West Show, where he stayed for 12 years. A smooth-talker he coerced investors in his "rich Death Valley gold mine" and used their money to build a Mediterranean-style villa in a sheltered Grapevine Canyon oasis.
A very wealthy Chicago insurance magnate, Albert Johnson, used Scotty as a sort of "mascot" and humored him with funding. However, when he died in 1948 Scotty wasn't mentioned in his will so his estate went to the "Gospel Foundation of California." The castle was never finished completely, but the Gospel Foundation, then the National Park Service ran it as a tourist attraction, allowing Scotty to stay on as one of the attractions until his death in 1954. He's buried on a hill overlooking the castle.
Living history tours are given by the NPS in the winter where the whole story is told. Early registration is usually necessary. A gas pump, snack bar and gift and book shops are only open from 9 a.m to 5:30 p.m. and there are no overnight facilities. Nearest campground is at Mesquite Springs and the nearest ranger station is at Grapevine. The rides described in this area are: Skating Stones of Bonnie Clair Playa; Gold Mountain, Oriental, Tokop and Gold Point Camps; and White Top Mountains.
BeattyPrior to 1904 "Old Man" (as he would later be known) Beatty was a lonely rancher in this area with almost no neighbors. That changed with the discovery of Gold in Bullfrog and Rhyolite and this became the "stopping-off-on-the-way-to" place when Bob Montgomery laid out the roads, founded a town and built a two-story hotel. Even though there were streets, the residents and businesses were mostly in tents; but, there was a newspaper and three railroad lines – the Bullfrog-Goldfield, the Las Vegas & Tonopah and the Tonopah & Tidewater. "First Resident and postmaster," Montillus Murray Beatty, managed the opening of the new post office in January '05 even though he could neither read nor write (except his own name).
The fact that it had water, from the spring, enabled the city to survive the general demise of mining operations in the area; then, the post-WWII Nuclear Weapons Test Programs gave it a second burst of development. The Bullfrog mine held on until late 1998, and the potential Yucca Mountain Underground Nuclear Waste Storage Facility is uncertain; so, today Beatty mainly acts to service travelers "to and from."
Its current population of around 1,800 man the motels, restaurants, towing services, auto parts store, casinos, museum, Inn and RV Park in order to keep the town open pretty much around the clock. In addition to being the "base-camp" for the trails in this area – it's worth a stop and rest, if you're ever in the neighborhood. The trails described are: Forgotten Phinney Canyon; Down Titus Canyon; Chloride City; and Echo Pass via Lee's Camp.
ShoshoneEveryone (who is in the know) says that "if you want to see downtown Greenwater (just) come to Shoshone." That's because even though the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad started laying rails in 1905 and broke through the gorge, established a station and placed a siding in 1907, it wasn't until 1910 that "Dad" (Ralph J.) Fairbanks had had enough and went a scroungin'. Wood was terribly hard to come by in the desert and there "wuz those abandoned Greenwater buildin's just a-goin' to waste" so he "borried 'em." The nearby Metbury Spring gave welcome sustenance to not only the large stand of Mesquite trees but a small town as well. Dad and his wife, Celesta, catered to RR passengers and miners with a boarding house and general store. Their daughter Stella married Charles Brown and began an Inyo county political career of over a quarter century in both the County Board of Supervisors and state legislature.
The town still sports a motel, general store, restaurant, gas station, camping and RV facilities even though it's population has dwindled to around one hundred. It has a museum - with a 600,000 year-old mammoth! Nearby Tecopa has a hot spring spa for weary travelers - at least it did when we last looked. The trails here are: Gold Valley; Ashford Mine; and, Ibex and Saratoga Springs.
Big PineThe "Owen's Valley Indian Wars" pretty much kept property values down and occupied everyone's time in this area until 1869. Big Pine was one of several small farming communities which sprang up once the "overt" hostilities were over, especially in 1877 when a irrigation distribution system was put in place to distribute waters from the Owens River. However, the farmers didn't fare much better than the Indians when the greed-laden "pale faces" in Los Angeles decided that the growth of their community was for the "greater good" and "acquired" ditch-parching water rights in 1924. It then became a "bedroom community" for it's water rich neighbor in Bishop.
It, however, has kept it's value as a "base camp" for many riding destinations, not only Death Valley but in the White and Inyo Mountains as well, by retaining sporting goods stores, markets, four motels and a couple of gas stations. It's these gas stations which play a significant role in offroading because — this is empty country! Hunters, fishermen and mountaineers have long known the value of Big Pine for their activities in the High Sierra's and Palisades. The 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which greatly expanded the Death Valley National Park westward, then put the town at the doorstep of the park as well. Today, the northwest corner of the park is pretty much "road-less wilderness" and the presence of visitors is as sparse as that of the NPS. The interagency visitor center in Lone Pine is the place to check for road and travel information.
The hand-drawn trails here are: Steel Pass from the Eureka Valley; Saline Valley Road; and Steel Pass from Saline Valley.
Panamint SpringsAlmost, but not quite, in the middle of nowhere, Panamint Springs sports a view over the Panamint Range of mountains and the distant sand dunes which has changed very little since the toll road was first built in 1926. Darwin Falls and Stovepipe Wells became accessible thanks to Herman Eichbaum but it took a niece of showman William "Buffalo Bill" Cody to add any "pizazz" to the ride. Bill Reid (a talc miner) and his wife Agnes (Cody family) opened their wayside amenities in 1937 between Lone Pine and Death Valley on an area that was at 2,000 feet, and therefore much cooler than "down in the valley." A "tough old lady" in her own right, Agnes continued to run the facilities for 15 years after Bill died.
The state had highway maintenance stations that came and went and the expansion of the Death Valley National Park swallowed Panamint Springs whole. Today, the town yet survives with a western Resort and RV Park as well as restaurant, bar, motel, campsites, showers and a mini-mart. You can obtain groceries, souvenirs, propane, diesel and gasoline while you ride the: Big Four; Back Door to Darwin; Around Hunter Mountain; Osborne Canyon; Lookout City; and, Snow Canyon trails.
BallaratIt seems that pretty much anywhere a couple hundred miners got together needed a town, and such was the case with Ballarat. Even though others had been working the area for several years prior, James Ratcliff's strike in 1896 made dusty rock-hounds start appearing like magic and soon the various tents reached "critical mass" for town-hood: Ballarat. Not having enough room up in the canyon, a few mine buildings were moved down to the flats and an 80 acre boom-town was born, named after a world famous Australian gold camp. When the Ratcliff mine petered out, the World Beater mine took up the slack then the Skidoo mine but only until 1917 when the streets succumbed to tumbleweeds.
"Seldom Seen Slim' (Charles Ferge) stuck it out through it all and is buried in boot hill. His reputation for being a recluse was probably fostered by "Slim" himself as a practical joke – this was the guy who would burst into the saloon all a blither holding up giant Iron Pyrite crystals for all the city-slickers to see after all! His reputation was so wide-spread that his funeral was featured on national television at his death.
The town is a "base-camp," only because it is central to the few trails in the area, NOT because it has many services – because it DOESN'T. A ghost town after all the wooden buildings were removed and the adobe ones eroded, a small general store has been seen recently (and may still be there) as well as a fee'd, albeit dry, campground. The trails here are: Jail Canyon; Rogers Pass via Pleasant Canyon; Rogers Pass via South Park Canyon; Mengel Pass via Goler Wash; and, Reilly Ghost Town.
TronaAlthough not much now-a-days, Trona holds a soft-spot in at least one persons heart: Roger Mitchell, the author of the "SUV Trails" series of books who grew up there in the "late 40's and early 50's". The mineral deposits in the dry lake bed was the town's impetus for being in 1870 when methods of extracting Potash, soda ash, glauber salts, lithium and "trona," (trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate) the primary source of sodium carbonate in the United States, from the dirt were found. One of many "company towns," it went through mergers, consolidations and liquidation; but, still exists today with a population of around 2,500 (down from 5,700 in 1960).
In addition to the Old Guest House Museum, the town still sports two gas stations, two markets, a hardware store and an auto parts store. For lodging you need to run up to the motel in Pioneer Point a mile north. This areas trails are: Shotgun Road; Orondo Mine; "Escape from Death Valley"; and Gold Bottom Mine.