My friends often say to me, with that subtle look of envy: Oh, you do live an adventurous life! I wish I…sigh… Well, I suppose it’s true, I do. But truth be told, I am not what you would call an adventurous girl. I hate rough roads, I am afraid of heights and sometimes I’m scared of the dark. I am timid, shy and I often cry when stuck in uncomfortable situations. But for me, the secret for living an adventurous life lies in the exploration, the delightful discoveries and the excitement of the unexpected. The possibilities for adventure are endless and not always difficult to pursue. Sometimes it is a simple walk in the woods, a leisurely drive or a quiet evening stroll. Whether it is a well-traveled highway or an unexplored byway, choose the road that calls to you…adventure awaits.
My husband and I have lived in this little town, sometimes referred to as the “gateway to Death Valley”, for more than ten years now. Needless to say, we have had ample opportunities to explore and discover the many treasures this National Park has to offer. We spend our winters wandering this vast stretch of land in the the Mojave Desert and yet, each time we venture a visit, we discover something new.
Our Death Valley adventures always begin with the same routine, but it never gets old. Leaving the house in the dark early hours, with the world still fast asleep. Driving east on Highway 178 in that peaceful silence just before dawn. Traveling through the town of Trona and climbing up out of Searles Valley. Reaching the Slate Range Crossing just in time to watch the morning magic show as the sun slowly wakes the sky over Panamint Valley below. Continuing north through that desert expanse where wild burros often roam the roadside. And finally, we reach that intersection where our road to adventure appears endless.
We often pause at this intersection where the 178 meets Highway 190 as it travels east out of Olancha from Highway 395. There is a small playa here, a dry lake bed whose surface compels us to stop for photos as the crackled expanse of dry mud begins to glow in the golden morning light.
From this point, Highway 190 climbs up into the hills and over Towne Pass, eventually dropping us down into Stovepipe Wells, where any number of roadside attractions become easily accessible as we make our way through the Park. All those iconic Death Valley attractions offering a little glimpse of the uniqueness and diversity to be found in this vast desert landscape. Mesquite Sand Dunes, Devils Cornfield, Mosaic Canyon, just to name a few, all just off the roadside, an easy stop, a little walk and well worth the time to stop and explore. We have visited many of these roadside stops, but still, in all our years of winter wandering we have yet to see it all.
I am always amazed by the many different paths there are to take, the numerous possibilities for exploration and discovery. Sometimes we stick to the well-traveled road, touring an established trail and seeing some of the sights. Other times we venture off the beaten path, navigating a cross-country route to one of many isolated and little-known summits. And then there are times when we brave the rougher roads into remote areas of the park in search of hidden dunes, fabled mysteries and secret canyon corridors. On this particular day, we were headed to Winters Peak, a relatively small summit in the Funeral Mountains overlooking Furnace Creek. It is not so hard to reach by way of Echo Canyon. Though 4-wheel drive is recommended, the road was not too rough and offered a pleasant drive through a scenic canyon. It was a beautiful day, a new road, another opportunity for adventure.
As far as cross-country travel goes, this was an easy route to navigate and a pleasant path to wander. At first glance, this dry desert terrain may appear lifeless and devoid of color. But step back and you start to see the striations, the layers, the undulating lines and curves that together bring a depth of beauty totally unique to this desert landscape. Walk a little slower, look a little closer and you begin to notice the myriad of life that exists in this so-called Valley of Death. On this particular day, an abundance of new baby barrel cacti dotted the hillsides with vivid color in various hues of red. The desert floor was a carpet of new life with all those tiny tousled heads, recently roused from their cozy bed of rocky sand and stone. We were careful to watch our step as we followed a gentle wash that meandered up to a saddle where we paused to take in the view. From the saddle, we followed an easy ridgeline to the summit of Winters Peak.
Winters Peak sits at an elevation of 5,033 feet, overlooking Furnace Creek to the west. It was a pleasant peak to reach and once at the summit we began the obligatory hunt for the benchmark and the summit register. We secretly enjoy this little ritual and consider it to be an essential part of any peak-bagging experience. Something about the pretty patina of the benchmark, the random container hidden in a pile of rocks, the collection of names and dates scrawled in someone’s pocket notebook, speak the stories of the mountain to me. And I do love a good story.
Death Valley is rich in mining history and we often find evidence of a long-ago life spent hunting the gems hidden in these hills. Remnants of a miner’s life, rusted tin, splintered wood and shards of broken glass, have become a natural part of the landscape in this rugged desert environment. One might consider this litter obtrusive, offensive, one more scar left by man as we slowly destroy the beauty of our wild land. But I must admit that the little bits of someone’s story, the history of these hills, is part of the allure for me. We do so enjoy a chance encounter with these trinkets we call treasure and sometimes we intentionally seek them out. We decided to make a loop on the return trip in order to look for a little mining site labeled on the map as the “Schwaub Site”. Following a ridgline to the east of Winters Peak, we eventually dropped down into a wide wash heading south, leading us back in the direction of the car. We were beginning to doubt the existence of this Schwaub Site, but then we stumbled upon a hint. First a pile of rusted tin, then a small sea of broken glass, a few structural remnants, some splintered wood and the footprints of a few old buildings, long since gone.
We spent a few moments taking pictures of this desert junk that we call treasure. Then we continued along the wide wash, an easy path back to the road where we parked the car. Next time maybe we’ll continue on up that road a bit, deeper into Echo Canyon, to the Inyo mine (said to be one of the largest and best-preserved camps). Another adventure for another day. For now, we were content to wander and roam, capturing clouds, hunting hidden treasures, enjoying the silence and solitude in this little corner of the canyon.
We emerged from the peaceful silence of the canyon just as the golden glow of afternoon began to fade to that cool hue of blue, signaling the end of another beautiful day. It never ceases to amaze me, the opportunities for adventure in our own backyard. All these years, so many explorations and we have yet to discover all this park has to offer. My husband and I feel fortunate, indeed, to live in a place of such opportunity. Outdoor adventures are never in short supply. New explorations are always at our doorstep. So many new discoveries lie in wait. But exploring does not always require high clearance and 4-wheel drive. It is not limited to that hard-to-reach, rugged backcountry. Sometimes adventure lies just off the roadside. Sometimes the greatest discoveries are made in your own backyard. So, whether you prefer to take the well-traveled trail or venture off the beaten path, go seek yourself a little adventure. Set out to discover something new and never stop exploring.