A Winter’s Warmth: An Escape to Death Valley

A Winter’s Warmth: An Escape to Death Valley

Get Toyota Cruisers & Trucks Magazine on the Google Play Store!Get Toyota Cruisers & Trucks Magazine on the App Store“You want some fresh Mesquite firewood?” A stranger asked. Somewhat startled and bewildered, I responded, “Sure!” Who wouldn’t want some fresh Mesquite wood to start a fire in the wilds of the Mojave Desert? My daughter, Lilly, and I prepped the fire pit and stroked a match. The burning Mesquite generated a lovely aroma in the air as I turned to thank the local. Curiously, he had driven away.    


I live in the mountains of Utah where I am usually buried in snow for four to five months of the year. It is not so much that I experience cabin fever, but more that I want to wear flip flops and shorts for a few days. Where to go when the northern hemisphere is frigid and cold? One of the lowest and warmest places on Earth—Death Valley. 

To escape the wintery weather of the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, Lilly and I found ourselves on the outskirts of the small town of Tecopa, California. We found a nice camp spot and a lovely, small hot springs below a few palm trees.   A nice local gentleman offers us some Mesquite firewood as he had just trimmed trees in the nearby cemetery.

The following day, we visited the China Ranch Date Farm on the banks of Amargosa River. This ranch got its name from a Chinese heritage man who once mined in the local Borax mines.  The bakery also offers tasty treats. I’m no date connoisseur, but Lilly and I enjoyed tasting the many varieties of dates grown on the ranch. The ranch offers miles of hiking trails and we enjoyed one such trail following the Amargosa River. The birds and sunlight enhanced the beauty of this otherwise harsh and arid landscape. We hiked—looking left and right, up and down ready to spot any and everything. As we looped back to the China Ranch parking lot, we stopped at the bakery for one their famous date shakes. It was scrumptious! Lilly and I savored our last bite before returning to our vehicle and heading to Death Valley National Park. 

Death Valley Land Cruiser Winter Escape

“Dad, this seems expensive,” Lilly stated.

“Ahh, you are right.” I affirmed. “This is the most expensive gas I have purchased. $5.25 per gallon!“ There were no other options. We stopped at the small town of Shoshone to resupply before entering Death Valley. This would be the last gas stop for miles.  I topped off while Lilly explored across the street.  She waved at me and motioned for me to come over. Lilly didn’t want to eat at the diner, so we walked next door to check out the local museum. We enjoyed viewing the old photos and reading the history of the area. This gateway to Death Valley National Park originated as a mining town.

We followed the steady traffic north along Highway 127 and took a left onto Highway 174. We turned off the highway and aired down. Using my ARB LYNX system made airing down painless, so Lilly and I savored the sun. My vehicle’s thermometer read 84 glorious degrees. Great weather for February!  We continued west on the Warm Springs Canyon Road—a rough, rustic road. 

Death Valley is a land of stark beauty. It is not a place that has obvious gorgeous scenery. Rather, it is a place that demands the visitor to look close and closer. The visitor is encouraged to stop and wander. Discoveries are there. It is up to the visitor to find them. My Land Cruiser absorbed the rough road as we steadily gained altitude. Within 15-20 minutes, old mines started to appear; without warning, we stumbled upon an old mining camp. Great time to wander and to stretch our legs, so we started to walk. We hiked around the buildings and noticed that this was not a small mining camp. It had housed the many miners who worked at the Borax mine we had just passed.

“Dad, I think this is a swimming pool? Come check it out!” Lilly commanded.  Sure enough, she wasn’t fabricating some Death Valley Yarn; it was true. I stepped onto diving board of a cement pool. A mining camp with a pool and diving board? In a desert? My curiosity got the better of me, and we began exploring the area a little more. Within minutes, I found fresh water cascading from the mountainside. A natural spring originated behind the homes; and better yet, it was a warm spring. Warm water had been piped into the pool for the miners to enjoy after a long day. Now, I bet that was refreshing!

Death Valley Land Cruiser Winter Escape

After enjoying our picnic lunch, we continued up Warm Springs Canyon Road.  The road got bumpier but not too rough. Along the way, we encountered numerous cars headed in the opposite direction. A few wild burros greeted us as the road pierced a wide-open valley. The feral burros descended from the burros that the miners used in their mining work. As we crested a small hill, Striped Butte came into view. This butte is the signature formation in this desolate valley.  Seeing that, I realized that our destination, the geologist cabin, would soon come into view. Sure enough, we saw the cabin and looked for a flying American flag. 

Death Valley Land Cruiser Winter Escape

There are a few cabins in Death Valley National Park that are relics of the past.  Volunteers maintain the cabins and the park service lets visitors stay in them free of charge. Common practice is to fly the cabin’s American flag when staying there for the night so other visitors and passersby won’t interrupt your stay. Lilly and I didn’t see a flag. Sure enough, no one was there. It was ours. Lilly raised Ole Glory, and we settled into the cabin.

The cabin was well constructed and featured a recently remodeled outhouse. A few provisions lined the shelves and fresh wood was piled aside the fireplace.  We walked around the cabin and admired the views. Crazy to think people tried to mine and make it rich out here in such a harsh and unforgiving landscape. The cabin, originally constructed in 1930 by Asa Russell, was his home when he worked his nearby mining claim. Roughly 100 years later, the cabin remained in good shape. A small solar panel charged the batteries that powered the only light in the cabin. ample for dinner. Lilly and I ate and then chatted around the fire. The snap, crackle, and pop of the fire made me think of Asa sitting and enjoying a fire after a long day in the mine. The cabin was warm and welcoming in such a lonely environment. Once the fire was just embers, we exited the cabin and climbed into our 23 Zero rooftop tent. 

Death Valley Land Cruiser Winter Escape

The following morning, I sipped on some fresh brew while Lilly drank a juice box.  We ate breakfast while watching the sun’s rays illuminate Striped Butte. Afterward, we cleaned the cabin, we departed for our hiking destination:  Striped Butte. 

We were the only ones at the trailhead. Accompanied by eerie silence, we donned our packs to hike to the western ridge. Elevation was straightforward, but not easily gained—placing one foot in front of the other. We stopped for a water break then continued to the summit. An ammo box housed the summit register, and we added our John Hancock’s. The view was fabulous! I wondered if the miners ever summited this butte or if they were too exhausted after a day in the mines. We focused on our foot placements as we descended the ridge. Back in our vehicle, we traveled to Mengel Pass. 

The road to the pass would lead us up and over the Panamint Mountains and our exit of Death Valley National Park. I noticed the mellow, smooth road quickly changed to rocks and boulders off all shapes and sizes. I intensified my focus and attention. The road started to look more like a trail. Lilly got out of the Cruiser to spot our movement through a few tight spots. I carefully focused on tire placement as the Cruiser swerved in and around the numerous boulders. We gained elevation. This was an uphill climb, but the Cruiser easily navigated upward. I switched on my ARB rear locker not because of necessity, but because I wanted to experience an effortless, uphill progress. We topped off at the pass and noticed the marker. 

Descending was somewhat easier but no less intense. Boulders made descending tricky and just like the uphill portion, intense. After a few miles, the road eased up. We stopped for an afternoon snack. We hadn’t seen a soul.  Death Valley had been all ours. 

“I think I missed the turn.” I uttered aloud. 

“Yep, you missed it Dad.” Lilly confirmed.

The road led into another canyon. I carefully steered the Cruiser to avoid the pin-striping from the dry, desert foliage that lined the road. I thought we had been out there earlier; now it seemed like we were disappearing further into the unknown. Finally, a small sign marked our destination:  Barker Ranch. The ranch is notorious because of Charles Manson. He and his companions were arrested at the ranch in 1969 for vandalism after a tip from a local resident living down canyon. Officials later learned who they arrested. The ranch is situated on the south slope of the canyon and offers visitors a few picnic tables and spots to camp. We meandered and tried to take in the place and the history of it. It accidentally burned in 2009, so not much remains except for the foundation and the layout of the infrastructure of the ranch house. If the walls could talk! The western sun dipped below the walls of Goler Canyon, which signaled it was time for us to depart in order to find a campsite. Onward. 

Death Valley Land Cruiser Winter Escape

Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the lower 48. Don’t try to see it all in one trip. Rather, find a specific area within the park to explore and wander. Many loops and options abound.

Death Valley Land Cruiser Winter Escape

Death Valley Land Cruiser Winter Escape

Death Valley National Park




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