It wasn’t long after my buddy Dan and I flew into Phoenix in May 2017 to attend our first Overland Expo West (OEW) that we started to plan our return trip for 2018. In that first experience, we rolled into the camp area in a rented Audi A6, needless to say, that we caught a few passing comments. Our first thought was easy, ‘next year we drive’. That kind of windshield time, of course, requires a number of additional destinations and routes to make it worthwhile.
The casual talk over the next few months generated a good bit of interest in our local circles. How long? Where else will we go? What’s are the dates again? Sounds awesome! Count me in! At its largest, the group represented a Tahoe delegation of 9 people traveling in 4 trucks and 3 motos. As always, when it comes to commitment time, the number dwindled back to the original two of us. I took the opportunity to dangle the trip in front of my oldest son as a carrot for him to perform well in school throughout the year. Danny did pretty much the same.
With the OEW as the anchor dates for the trip, we blocked out as much time away from the office as possible and started to figure within that time how much mileage could we cover off of the asphalt. We set some other guiding principles as well like: stop at interpretive areas as we pass them; keep the daily driving reasonable; stay off major highways wherever possible, small-town museums and anything interesting on the roadside are a ‘must stop and investigate’. Pack your crap so that camp can be made or broken in 15 mins.
The winter months rolled by. Vehicle modifications to both rigs were made. For Gandalf, our Tundra, this meant minor changes to suspension, tires, and wiring some new electronic navigation. We also planned to try out some new gear storage configurations with different boxes and methods of securing loads. Dan’s 7.3L Excursion got all around new suspension kit and high gauge wiring front and back for winching.
Our 2-3 day plan to reach Flagstaff would take us to the Buttermilks in Bishop, through Death Valley and across the northern tier of AZ. Hopefully allowing us to arrive at OEW on Thursday, as camp was scheduled to open a day earlier this year.
Setting all of the daily business affairs in order departure day arrived, on a particularly crappy weather day. Winter showed up late to the sierra this year and spring was quite wet and cold for the most part. Thinking of warmer… or at least drier conditions had a certain appeal.
Day 1 – Meet at a predetermined location in the Buttermilks so we can get off into Death Valley early the next morning. Problem 1 – the location we had chosen for the night, a perfect location tucked into the rock formation, was within the property still controlled by the City of Los Angeles. A relic of the backroom Owens Valley water rights deals made almost a century ago.
No sweat, still enough daylight to find an alternative; still enough cell signal to let Dan know where to find us in the dark. The wind sputtered out eventually and campfire goodness was enjoyed by all.
Sunrise. Break Camp. Schat’s Bakery. (Standard Bishop Protocol) Fuel the rigs, radio check, on our way.
The chosen route through Death Valley started off Rte 168 dropping south onto Death Valley Rd. This approach was chosen to 1) get us off-pavement as quickly as possible, and 2) get into the solitude of the journey as quickly as possible. The northerly entrance would bring us through the Inyo Mtns before crossing Joshua Flats and the Eureka Valley before climbing into Hanging Rock Canyon and former Crater Mine.
The Crater Mine and former townsite of Crater is littered with abandoned equipment and furnace coke. Its history is checkered dating back to the inception of Death Valley national park. It is rumored that at the creation of the park, the existing mine, and surrounding lands remained in private hands as the extraction of 96% pure sulfur began to ramp up.
The mine is located in the Last Chance Mountains of Inyo County and contains the largest sulfur deposits west of the Mississippi. Discovered in 1917, no real production took place until 1929. Production continued under a variety of different operators until 1953 when a dust explosion temporarily halted production as the mill was destroyed.
Lesser mining activities occurred until 1969 when the last known production was shut down. As of 1984 an estimated 300 million tons of 40% sulfur remain on the site.
Continuing through the hanging rock canyon and spilling out onto the valley floor at Big Pine Road we turned south at Crankshaft Crossing. The flat, however washboard, the road provided ample opportunity for high-velocity off-road travel until we reached fresh pavement near the Ubehebe crater.
Temps headed north of 95 degrees by the time we stopped at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, with the rest of DVNP visitors.
We chose another less followed route to exit the park to the south through the Greenwater Valley on Furnace Creek Wash Rd. Enjoyably empty and mostly flat & smooth I let Dan pull away in the dust. The hills still a hint of green as the last of the winter moisture was being cooked out of them. We eventually dumped out onto Rte 178 and the town of Shoshone.
Interestingly enough, Shoshone is home to a local museum that has curated an eclectic collection both cultural and natural it contained local Native American artifacts to a partial mammoth skeleton and varied rocks and plant species.
Driving through Las Vegas leaves one the same as just visiting Las Vegas; a pounding headache, exhausted, and nauseous. Mid-day traffic reminded me of the Mass Pike.
With 222 miles to Flagstaff, 4 hrs of daylight left, and a good dose of dust in the throat in the first full day of travel, we made the very smart decision to make for Fort Tuthill. Along the way we passed numerous overland rigs heading in the same direction. Our small caravan arrived right at dusk at setting camp right before nightfall. Highly fortuitous as the OEW camp has surprising very crowded already. Clearly, we were not the only ones looking forward to being there.
Please see the rest of our photos for The Road to Flag
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