I recently returned from a visit to Death Valley with a great group. We did some … light … backpacking (10 to 15 miles or so over a couple of days) in Trail Canyon in the Panamint Mountains west of Badwater Basin, the Hottest Place on Earth ™. It certainly wasn’t the epic 20+ mile-a-day hike that some of you do. But the trip was great, and I hope it inspires some of you to visit this wonderful place.
I posted this first on a Death Valley-focused site, at https://dv.netllama.us/dv/thread-26158.html. I’m reposting here with a few clarifications for those who aren’t super familiar with Death Valley. I’ve also added a few gear notes at the end–this is BackpackingLight, after all.
On January 2, our group of seven, mostly Midwesterners, arrived at last in Death Valley to do some backpacking. We had been anticipating this trip since late July (!), and there were several times when we thought the trip was sunk. But, as it turns out, neither epic flooding in August nor epic airline meltdowns the week before would keep us away.
We brought a range of experience and expectations. Some had been to DV before; some had not. Some had backpacking experience (including one 2022 AT finisher!); some did not. No one knew everyone in the group; some knew only one other person. We wanted to take in some of the touristy highlights, but also get off the beaten path. Due to everyone’s schedules, we had five days to cram in as much awesomeness as possible.
And we did. In the spirit of practicing maximum enthusiasm, it was the Best Trip Ever.
Six of us convened in Las Vegas in the morning of January 2. (The seventh, coming in from L.A., would catch up with us in the park later that day.) We picked up our rental car (a Jeep Wagoneer), stopped for lunch and supplies in Pahrump, Nevada, and made for Zabriskie Point, a must-do since the movie of that name came up in our group text.
We stretched our legs on the Badlands Loop, a 2.7 miler that starts at Zabriskie Point.
Then we made our way west through the park, landing at Emigrant Campground for the night.
The next day was kind of moody as we made our way back east across the park, then down along West Side Road, which is a graded dirt road west of Badwater Basin.
Trail Canyon Road runs from the West Side Road all the way up into the canyon. The road was graded for about the first mile.
After that, the road got worse, but it was still passable in our Wagoneer. There were only two spots that I was worried about, and neither proved to be a big deal. There was one incident with a rock, but that was my fault, not the rock’s.
We found a spot to pull off about four miles up the road, before the road dropped into the wash and deteriorated significantly. After that point, the road is drivable only in a high clearance 4WD rig. We geared up and got hiking!
There are often fighter jets flying over the park from nearby bases. We heard some flying overhead and caught a couple of contrails during a break in the cloud cover.
We stopped for lunch at the confluence where the north, west, and south forks of Trail Canyon meet.
This was a tough morning. From where we parked, it was literally all uphill. We had gone 5.3 miles and gained 2300 feet in elevation, and it seemed that each mile was steeper than the last. With words like “death march” being bandied about, we changed up our plans. Originally, I had planned for us to continue up the West Fork, set up camp near a old mining camp, then fetch water further up canyon at a spring. That would have been another four miles, with a large amount of elevation gain. Instead, we turned to the South Fork and headed for the Morning Glory Camp, another old mining camp constructed next to a spring. This was less than 1.5 miles away and involved far less climbing.
Morning Glory Spring was just as … unappetizing … as expected after seeing some pics in other reports. It had a noticeable sulfur taste, but we filtered and drank it with no ill effects.
According to the guestbook at the Morning Glory Camp, there had been a few people there over the past couple of weeks, including a group that had 4x4ed up the day before. There was lots of old junk–well, ok, historical items–to admire, as one would expect. But there were also some newer materials stored in a shed, including a plastic basin and some pipes stamped with a 2016 date. I guess someone is doing some work to maintain the site?
We sat on the ridge, and the nearly full moon rose behind us. As the clouds passed in front of the moon, different parts of the hills across from us lit up. It was quite the slo-mo light show!
The third day was still moodier. There was a bit of mist in the air and more dark clouds swirling around Wildrose Peak, which loomed over the end of the South Fork. Still, we started off further up the South Fork towards Morning Glory Mine. This would take us closer to Wildrose and the questionable weather. There was ice in places and things were starting to get a bit slick.
We stopped at the Old Dependable antimony mine.
Then we continued up to the narrows that led to Morning Glory Mine.
There was a lot of beautiful blue quartz laying about the canyon.
After about 1.3 miles, we reached an 8-10 foot fall.
There was a crumbly bypass to the left.
We weren’t sure whether we could all get up or, if something more difficult was ahead, whether we could safely descend again. Plus, the wet weather continued, calling into question the wisdom of being here in the first place. We decided to turn around.
On the way down, we were treated to a rainbow.
We stumbled across this, which I think is petrified wood?
After returning to camp, we hiked to the mines in the hills on the other side of the canyon from Morning Glory Spring.
The weather looked great when we started our hike out, but the rain picked up as we descended. By the time we got to the car, it was raining lightly but steadily.
We grabbed lunch at Stovepipe Wells and then visited Mesquite Sand Dunes, where the weather was absolutely beautiful.
We had intended to enjoy the full moon that night on Badwater Basin, but the clouds continued to roll in.
We decided instead to camp at Texas Spring Campground. This was by far the widest open night sky we enjoyed on our trip. The clouds dissipated eventually, but by then we were tired (and had had a few ) so we decided to stay put. Among the other celestial treats that night, we saw 50+ Starlink satellites march across the sky in a line. I know not everyone is pleased about those, but it was quite a striking sight.
On our last day, Friday, we drove Artist’s Drive and hiked Desolation Canyon, a 3.6 mile out-and-back.
We wrapped things up with a visit to Badwater Basin, shared a last beer, then turned back to Las Vegas. On the way, we lunched at Tina’s Tamales in Pahrump. I highly recommend stopping in if you are in town. Everything was amazing, and the standout for me were the pupusas. We made it to Las Vegas, where we all dispersed to our corners of the country.
As with any journey, the best moments could never be captured on camera. I was lucky to share this wonderful place with some amazing people. I can’t wait until the next trip!
This community loves its gear. I’ve learned a lot from all of you over the years, and there’s little I could say that could improve upon all of your thoughtful comments. So instead, I’ll give a shout out to something that worked great, something I’m considering changing for my next trip, and an unsung hero.
The item that worked great on this trip were my Livsn Ecotrek Trail Pants. They have a nice trim fit and dealt well with the rocks and the light rain we faced. Plus, I love the yellow color. I’m a big fan of their Flex Canvas pants as well. A+.
The item that I’m considering changing is my tarp and bivy (MLD Grace Duo DCF tarp and MLD Superlight bivy). I love, love, love these items and have used them on a lot of trips. But when it gets cold (maybe 35 and below), I have trouble with moisture management. I often end up unzipping the bivy so my breath doesn’t coat the inside with moisture. That works well, but then lets in the chilly air. I don’t think this is a problem with the items – they are working as they should. It’s just me and the conditions. But then again, when I wake up there’s nothing between me and the stars … maybe a little moisture is an OK price to pay?
The unsung hero is my fluorescent yellow glow-in-the-dark hacky sack. This is a great way for a group to stretch their legs, have fun, and keep warm when the sun sets early and the chilly air rolls in.