Andys Tacoma 640x425

Our first Death Valley trip:

The newborn day lies dozing, barely awake and utterly silent. We gratefully sip our freshly-brewed Pete’s coffee and pull our beanies down a little tighter against the morning desert chill. Death Valley, the name bounces around in my head and the usual battle between the desire for adventure and family responsibility take place in my psyche. Despite my solid and well-prepared rig, I’ve only a couple of years 4×4 experience, so I don’t take lightly the fact I’m just about to take my family off-roading in the middle of nowhere, in a desert whose name starts with DEATH. As always (and to the bemusement of my girls) I’m prepared for much of anything and also just back from a 2-day training course in the Mojave Preserve, so my confidence soon pushes any fears aside. I start to air down the tires of the Tacoma. I’m not expecting too much sand or rough terrain, so I stop at 18 psi – it should be plenty.

It’s Day 1 of our Death Valley adventure and we’re at the Chloride City trailhead, southeast of Beatty and northeast of Stovepipe Wells. At only 7 miles each way, it’s a fairly short trail but it’ll still take 1.5 hrs to get to the park overlook at 5200 feet. I learned early on that off-roading is all about going slow, living the experience and keeping your rig away from trail carnage. There’s that twang of trepidation again…

Coffee finished, everything stowed and GPS co-ordinates set, we’re ready to roll. The temperature gauge reads 45 degrees, but it’s warming fast and will probably peak at a perfect desert 65. We pause a second, listening to the haunting melodies of the coyote pack as they make their final kill of the night. Saying nothing, I smile and look at my girls as they eagerly anticipate the day…wagon’s roll.

The first few miles are on a sandy and relatively wide trail through low bush and as expected the sand causes no concern: we’re cruising in high 4×4. I hear the clunk of branches hitting the side of the rig and smile to my wife Lori. We both gave up worrying about “desert pinstripes” a long while ago, now they’re a badge of past adventures. A couple of miles in, we reach a T-junction. The right takes you a short distance to a dead end where you can park and hike to Monarch Canyon. We decide today to bear left and continue down the trail to Chloride City Mine, our first stop. Soon we start heading uphill with the road becoming rockier, passing some good primitive camping spots. It’s clear from the road conditions that the trail doesn’t see a ton of traffic. I make a mental note that in future visits, this area could make a good overnight basecamp.

Looking southwest from Death Valley towards the Amargosa mountains

My mind drifts to memories of isolated campsites, the family alone with its laughter and the often weird sounds of nature. Sleeping under the ever-twinkling stars above and the overwhelming sense of vastness of the universe around us always seems to put life’s issues in perspective.

I snap back into the present as I realize I need to drop down into 4-low. The trail is becoming rocky and rutted, steep in places. Okay, now we’re off-roading and I start to concentrate on vehicle and wheel placement. If I’m honest, the rig is built to deal with significantly worse trails, but I like to think that my driving skills make a difference.

At mile 6, we reach Chloride City Mine and park so we can explore. The mine was established in 1873 and abandoned in 1940, never really being efficient due to its remote location. Today the area has old abandoned wooden and tin shacks and the entrance to several mine shafts. As we scramble around, it’s hard to imagine the life these miners undertook. Hard physical labor, working year round in the extreme heat of the desert, all desperately in search of fortune and fame from striking it big. Today, those dreams come from “American Idol”…not sure what’s worse honestly!

As I’m pushing the cynical thoughts from my mind, we stumble onto the grave of miner James McKay. My daughter Faye, places her Barbie doll on the grave and proudly proclaims that Babs will keep the old miner from being lonely out here in the middle of nowhere.

Death Valley dreams dashed: the grave of miner James MacKay

Back in the rig, we climb out of the mine area and start negotiating the maze of roads ahead. Thankfully our Garmin 62 is working flawlessly, and the piece of mind it provides justifies its expense. Soon we find ourselves at the base of Chloride Cliffs. I’ve heard many people park at the base and hike up due to the steepness of the trail, but having tested the Tacoma in the Mojave a month back I know the rig will easily handle it. Inching our way up over the steep and rocky terrain, we finally top out at 5200 feet. Looking down on Death Valley is simply breathtaking. To the southwest, we can see the Amargosa Mountain Range and to the northwest, the Paramint Range.

We’ve traveled only 7 miles, but not seen a soul. The weak winter sun has finally wrestled the chill to the ground and the temperature gauge reads 60 degrees. I stand quietly as the stark and remote desert beauty washes over me…man, I love Death Valley!