Monday, February 7, 2011

Offroad: Gold Butte - Backcountry Byway

For the several hundred new retiree's who are moving into their Dell Webb homes near Mesquite bringing with them their offroad vehicles – where do you begin? And for someone just up for the weekend in an SUV suitable to go offroad – is there a sort of "sampler" which one can do in a day?

The answer to both questions is: yes. The Gold Butte Backcountry Byway. And the map for the ride described here was taken as an "introductory" ride for new members this year by the Kokopelli ATV club based in Mesquite.   [A free Google Earth file of this route is available at: Offroading: Gold Butte Backcountry Byway.]

This route winds through typical Mojave Desert sand, to Aztec Formation red sandstone; from volcanic intrusions to metamorphosed monzogranite; from desert floor and washes to the Pinon-Juniper biome; and back again.

There are three aspects of this full day adventure we should talk about which will help you understand the area well enough to tailor the experience to your own capabilities and needs: The Byway itself, The area's hiking trailheads and The Mine Area Side-trip.

General Things To Consider

Before we do, however, the general things you should know are pretty basic. First, the land is "owned" by the BLM who, if truth were known, would really just rather close the whole thing down with a fence and be done with it. Actual people (except Sierra Club hikers) seem to annoy them. SO STAY ON THE TRAILS and don't give them anything they can use as an excuse for more closures!

Second, this is the desert! Even in the winter, the most popular time to ride, hardly ANY visitor has even a clue just how much water a body needs each day in this low humidity just to stay even. AT LEAST double your intake when you come here even if you just plan to be a lounge-lizard in the hotel! No kidding. To ride in an open vehicle – double even that. For this one day's ride, each person should bring at least 4 of those 1 pint (16 oz) bottles of water and a way to keep it cool enough to be palatable. [And drink them – or your urine will turn the color of apple cider and your bowel movements to bricks.]

Third, it takes an hour to get to the Whitney Pockets trailhead from Mesquite and days are short. Don't leave Mesqute later than 9am and expect to make it around the Byway. And you need to start getting off the Butte by 4pm. In the winter it gets too dark to see where you are going shortly after 4:30. It gets black at night in the desert and the blackness comes on you quickly.

And, fourth don't be so arrogant that you come on the Butte without a map of some kind! Almost nothing is signed (except to "keep off"). Admittedly I don't spend much time talking to the ranger; but, the only thing I personally have seen her ticked about was how foolish (and common) it was for people to just "drive out to see what was here" without even bringing a map! I will say that pretty much every person you see driving on the Butte would stop to help you in a heartbeat; but, we sure don't think much of someone who comes without even a map! And if you go to the Butte without a full, topped-off tank of gas, well – we'll pick you up on the way back by!

Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things as they ought to be done.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe
All that groundwork being laid, dowload the map which goes with this post and open it in Google Earth to follow along. The green track is the Byway and the orange are narrower, rockier portions requiring ATVs and High-clearance. Waypoints of interest are marked and anything in the label-pane on the left, which is underlined, contains explanatory pop-ups if you click on them.

Backcountry Byway

Back in the days when "being enviromental" meant being proud of your homeland and wanting to see it, and when the BLM even tried to at least look like they were managing land FOR people's access instead of AGAINST people, congress designated a small number of roads around the country as "Backcountry Byways"; which were supposed to be managed to "provide access" for US Citizens to the backcountry areas.

The Gold Butte Backcountry Byway is one such designated route and it cannot be closed, except by an act of congress. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that the BLM has to let you get out of your vehicle and actually see anything! Additionally, in their passive-agressive manner, the BLM has let the road's condition deteriorate such that it now cannot be driven in anything less than a high-clearance vehicle – do NOT attempt this in a rental car!

The Byway actually begins at the "New Gold Butte Road" turnoff from Riverside Road in Bunkerville. From there to where most of us consider the beginning, Whitney Junction, it is a severely patched, once-upon-a-time paved, 40-mile road. You know you are at Whitney Junction when the chuckholes begin in gravel instead of pavement, and you see a fork in the road at a camping/parking area.

The Byway is a loop which runs southward on the "New" Gold Butte Road to the old town site of Gold Butte where it jogs northwest to follow the Gold Butte "Wash" Road onto a mesa by where it meets Mud Wash, near what is known as "the Narrows." The Byway doesn't stay on the mesa very long, but traverses to the north side and drops down into Mud Wash then turns eastward to the sink-hole known as Devil's Throat. A few feet further and it connects back to the New Gold Butte Road for the return.

For a first timer, this ride in itself will take much of the day and take you through an example of pretty much all the varied types of terrains and sights The Butte has to offer. The red, Aztec Formation Sandstone in the Whitney area is a Kodak-worthy photo-spot, especially in the sunrise or sunset.

At Devil's Throat, a sink-hole so large it is clearly visible from Google's satellite, you can decide whether to go clockwise or counter-clockwise around the loop. Look at the waypoints I've put on the map and decide where you'd like to eat lunch; then, go accordingly.

Right on the Byway, in Mud Wash, are the Mud Wash Petroglyphs in a little wind-blown alcove. They are about 15-20 feet off the fround, but are plainly visible. One of the many USGS survey markers is located on the ledge nearby.

The Historic Gold Butte townsite is a good place for lunch, although there are no facilities of any kind. A fence railing marks the gravesite of two of the many historic characters who "founded" the town. The hills are worth climbing in or at least driving around. They are made of Monzogranite (called "Mormon concrete" in Wyoming) and hide several mine shafts.

Adjacent to Gold Butte is Voight Well and Granite Spring. Hidden amongst the rocks is an old stone mill wheel. The road back north runs along Valatier Wash to a steep jog at the ridge overlook – another Kodak point.

The Middle Area's Hiking Trailheads

Until the last couple of years a visitor could visit and actually see pretty much all of the petroglyph and formation sites in the Middle Gold Butte riding area in one day. Now, all that has changed. The BLM has pretty much closed off the entire area to seniors, unless they still can accomplish some fairly strenuous hiking.

The hikes in this area already have been, and will be again, described in greater detail in other posts. Taking any one of them will probably limit your ability to make it around the full Byway loop. Two of them take pretty much most of the day. However, the hiking trailheads along the Byway are:

"Lollipops" trailhead is up the short trail immediately east of the Mud Wash Petroglyphs. The hike is through soft, drifting sand about 0.5 mile north along the cliffs. Petroglyphs are on the rocks at the "point" of those hills.

Devil's Fire trailhead is in a major wash which joins the Mud Wash and runs north. Follow it around and end up at "The Oasis" known for it's palm trees at the base of the cliffs. If you stand back and look, above the trees on the sandy ridgeline there are extensive, wind-blown sandstone formations looking like flames of fire, hence the name. The hiking trailhead is at the fence-line on the top of the hill to the left. Petroglyphs are in a small alcove in the cliffs at the back as well as on horizontal rocks clear over on the far (south) side of the cliff.

Babe's Butte trailhead is on the north side of the mesa. A nice trail runs across open desert to what used to be the hiking trailhead at the base of the split rock. Four panels of petroglyphs are on the south side of the split rock. Follow the trail on the west side (right) around to the back. This hike is over 1.5 mi in and out.

Kurt's Grotto trailhead is now on the south side of the mesa at the top of a steep drop-off. You can't miss it, the "fiends" of Gold Butte have landscaped the desert with a parking corral. The grotto is over the edge between the gap in the cliffs and to the right along the wall.

Side-trip to Treasure Hawk Mine (historic)

Yet another thing we can thank the BLM for is shutting down the last remaining, historical mine on the Butte – the Treasure Hawk Mine. Until last year, buildings full of still working, historic mining equipment were truly a treat to see. Through a technicality, John Lear was forced to shut down and the BLM somehow has "found" some "extra" money to completely eradicate its historic memory from the face of the earth! In what it hopes will be a final conversion into a wilderness area which only Sierra Clubbers will ever see.

If you have a high-clearance vehicle of smaller size that can make it between boulders, taking a side-trip around the loop to the mine site is possible within the day; but, not if you also plan to stop at any of the hiking trailheads previously mentioned.

From what's left of the mine site you can follow the trail to the south then east in order to get back to the main Gold Butte Road which will take you north back up to the Whitney Junction trailheads.

As you can see, The Byway is a great "Sampler" ride with something for everyone: sandstone formations rivaling Valley of Fire, ancient Native American Petroglyphs, historic ghost towns and cemeteries, grand vistas, Mojave Desert, volcanic and tectonically produced mountains, mines and "Kodak Moments" abound! Be sure and document your trip with GPS and photographs… and please let us know you've been there and what you did by attaching them to an email.

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