Indian Pass is a pass in the Funeral Mountains, a surprising 3000 feet above Death Valley, and while the pass itself isn’t all that remarkable, the trip getting there can be very challenging but also breathtaking. The National Park Service warns that this is a fairly strenuous backpacking route, as there is no actual trail.
Death Valley provides several unique opportunities for desert backpacking at lower elevations which makes it an ideal winter getaway. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a battery pack for my phone so I didn’t track the route we took with GPS (if anyone has suggestions for a good, compact GPS which will give me GPX files, I’d love to hear it).
Apparently I was feeling a bit philosophical while writing with this, so pardon all of the asides.
Death Valley is roughly 5.5 hours driving time away from the Los Angeles metro area, so trying to do a trip where you start hiking immediately after driving, while possible, isn’t pleasant (been there, done that). In order to workaround that, everyone attempted to meet in Sylmar at 6 PM (which turned into 8 PM in short order), and drive into the park from there.
As an aside, traffic in and around LA really sucks around the holiday season, I’m going to really have to rethink the logistics of backpacking trips if there is any chance of getting stuck in LA rush hour in late December again.
Most of the group was successful in meeting, so we drove to Stovepipe Wells and camped (while that isn’t my favorite campground, it saved us 30-45 minutes of driving to Furnace Creek, and we didn’t have to risk that campground being full).
The remainder of our group meet us at the Furnace Creek Ranger Station right around 7 AM, giving everyone time to eat something, make final preparations to packs, and make introductions while we waited for the ranger station to open so we could get the backcountry permit.
Somehow, in my previous trips to Death Valley, I’d never stopped at the Ranger Station and Visitor Center, so I missed out. If the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center is the Taj Mahal of visitor’s centers, the Furnace Creek one must be the Sistine Chapel.
One thing that always amazes me is how much we take the modern convinces of life for granted (says the guy writing a blog post while sitting in a Starbucks). One new thing with this group, is that most of the people in the group had never backpacked (some had never even camped before). I think by the end of the trip every person had a new appreciation for being able to walk a few steps and have a porcelain throne available, instead of trudging over rocks, trowel in hand looking for a spot to dig a cat hole.
The “official” start of the the trail is right around mile marker 104 on highway 190 roughly 6.5 miles north of Furnace Creek. From the parking spot, looking due East there are two hills not to far in the distance. The route we followed was to angle towards the Northern-most of those hills, just skirting its southmost tip. From this point, staying in the wash is critical. If you start heading to far east (towards the nice looking multi-colored rocks), you are heading in the wrong direction.
If you stay in the wash, all of the way up to the mouth of the canyon, there should be an impressive formation of fallen boulders on your left and an interesting rock which looks like part of a castle just inside the canyon:
Even after you are in the canyon, the gain isn’t all that intense. You will know for sure you are in the right canyon as after a while you will run into a pretty sizable dry fall. Fortunately, there is a way around it back a few hundred feet (someone was nice enough to build a cairn at the entrance to the bypass).
As a group we decided to just haul all of our water with us instead of trying to make sure we camp near water, so we setup camp near the top of this dry fall, which proved to be a pretty nice camping site (plus it was nice to take the packs off with all that extra water in them).
Since we had a number of people in the group who had never been to Death Valley before, I was hoping to make it to the pass on Saturday so we could get down to the cars early Sunday and they could experience a few other parts of the park.
Part of our group had had enough walking by this point, so they stayed with the tents, leaving the rest of to see how much higher we could get. Turns out that not having a proper trail to walk on can slow you down a lot more than I really anticipated, so we hiked up from roughly 3:45 PM until after 7 PM. By the best of our guesses, we were probably within a mile or so of the actual pass, but 12 hours of hiking and backpacking had left everyone pretty tired, so we decided to head back down, arriving back to camp right around midnight.
Sunday everyone decided to sleep in until 7:30 or so, in order to have a nice breakfast, and start packing up camp. The hike back down was pretty uneventful, although only on the way down was it easy to see exactly how much elevation we gained the previous day. One really neat thing with this trip is that we started 182 feet below sea level, and camped probably 1000-1200 feet above. We made decent time getting back to the car, arriving right around 11:30 AM.
My hopes of getting up early, and down to the car quickly weren’t entire realized as we only had enough time to stop by the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, but we had quite a bit of fun there.
After everything was said and done, this trip was a success. I got to introduce a few people to Death Valley, and am already planning my next trip there. I think everyone had a lot of fun, even if they only were able to hike to the campsite.
One thing that happened, completely unrelated to the trip was that I was removed as a hike coordinator from the group I previously lead hikes for. I still enjoy introducing people to new trails, and I certainly don’t plan on stopping hiking, so if you are interested in hiking or backpacking with me, let me know, and I’ll add you to a list I’ve created.