Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Death Valley Overland - Part 1 - Bonnie Claire, Titus Canyon (or not), Stovepipe Wells and Lost Burro

Night One at the Bonnie Claire - Outside of Death Valley National Park

The day had come!  We were heading off on a week long trip to Death Valley - camping in the trailer and in random Park Service or privately owned cabins on a first come first served basis!  I've really been looking forward to this trip because I won't have phone service.  Pretty much at all.  As it turned out, even when service became available at the end - I didn't have it (figures - iPhone) - but that is for the end.  

I'm going to break this trip up into multiple posts - we saw and did way too much to put it all in one!

So - Sunday morning - Lewis & Clark and the Expedition Trailer - we are ready to head out!  We grab Paul's son and head to Village Inn for a good and nourishing breakfast - drop off the kiddo at his mom's, and off Paul and I go.  

Paul and I aren't fond of driving on the interstate (because it's boring) - so we decided to take a round-about way to Beatty, Nevada - the town closest to where we are headed for our first night - which is the Bonnie Claire mine.  Off we head to Vicksburg Arizona - where I keep telling Paul about some of the best pies I've ever had at the KofA Cafe.  I've been up the Vicksburg/Bouse Road before and stopped several times at the Cafe.  Well - the KofA Cafe is closed.  I don't know when.  But it's closed.  Broken windows, etc., although the tables are still set with a thick film of dust and grime on them - I mean, mustard and ketchup with silverware, napkins, salt and pepper on every single table.  One more casualty of Covid-19, I assume.  And a sad one at that...

Lewis & Clark With the Expedition Trailer at the KofA Cafe
As Paul and I poked around and wonder what happened, lots of trucks drove by and I remembered that the bulk of the clientele here was truckers.  Sad that there weren't enough people stopping to keep this small cafe in business.  

As we head North yet again, we pass through Bouse (where we stop at the Dollar General to pick up towels in case we can get into the hot springs) and we talk about our exploits to Swansea (where we are NOT going today) and all the places we have visited separately and the places we plan to visit together!  

We continue on the road into Parker and we are now turning onto a road I've never been on, but Paul has.  We are officially heading in to Las Vegas through Searchlight (don't blink!), and the road is almost as boring as driving on the interstate.  In Las Vegas, we decided to get some good burgers, but are trying to avoid casinos at all cost - so we end up at a Fat Burger in a not-so-nice neighborhood.  But the burgers and fries were really good, and they had parking for Lewis & Clark and the Expedition Trailer.  

Sunset Over Toiyabe National Park
Full of really good burgers, caffeinated for the last leg of our drive, and ready to start our adventure, we head out of Las Vegas towards Beatty, Nevada.  As the sun set through the Spring Mountains in Toiyabe National Park, the sunset was outstanding.  We watched the temperature get lower and lower - and the clouds get heavier and heavier.  Then the weather app said something it hadn't said for the last two weeks.  Heavy chance of rain.  Figures.  Last time we took the Expedition Trailer with us, it rained.  Then snowed.  Well - it just says rain.  No snow, right?

Bonnie Claire at Night
We cruised through Beatty in the dark, see the turn off to Death Valley that we will take in the morning, and drive 30 minutes more up the road to the turn off to Bonnie Claire - which is actually the turn off to Scotty's Castle, but Scotty's Castle has been closed since 2015 due to a massive flood which ripped through the valley and piled mud all up in the Castle.  It is thought it will be closed through at least 2022, if not longer.  We were bummed because the last time Paul made this trip he couldn't see it either.  

Applewood Smoked Bacon
But Bonnie Claire was spooky and beautiful at night.  There was a full moon, but with the clouds rolling in, everything took on a haunted feel.  I hadn't slept well the night before due to excitement (that's my "m/o" before a trip), had been on the road all day, and it was cold - so we decided to turn in once we got camp all set up.  It was the first night I had ever spent in a ghosttown - and with the full moon and the cold, it was an oddly quiet and creepy experience - I loved it!  

We woke up on our official "Day 1", and it was cold - and spitting snow!!!  SNOW!!!  We set up our camp kitchen (our Classic Coleman Propane Stove) with our OXX Heavy Duty Coffeeboxx (hey - we gotta have our creature comforts!) and got out our recently seasoned (by my awesome brother) Lodge cast iron skillet, and made BACON and eggs.  I've come to love cooking on this little camp stove - something I never though I would enjoy - and Paul has been very gracious in complementing my cooking (although I don't think it is half bad either!).  And this trip, we even have a vintage Coleman Oven!  You'll hear about that a little later...

Scrambled Eggs with Tomatoes,
Onions and Mushrooms
Anyway - cleaning up the skillet is a breeze - wipe it out with a papertowel and voila!  You're done.  I save the bacon grease because I use it for everything we are cooking during the week - so into the little metal Stanley cup it goes, and into the fridge.  We tear down camp because it's now snowing harder and and the clouds are really, really low.  We want an opportunity to explore Bonnie Claire before we head out, but need to be ready to jump in the truck if it starts dumping sleet.  

After everything is packed up, we head over to the Bonnie Claire buildings.  The Bonnie Claire is a small settlement - settled in 1906, but first founded in the 1880's when a stamp mill was built nearby.  The main source of income for Bonnie Claire was the Bonnie Clare Bullfrog Mining Company and the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad, which ran ore in for milling at Thorp's Well where the stamp mill was built.  Once the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad folded in 1928, Bonnie Claire was essentially no more.  From 1940 to 1954 there was a short revival to rework the tailings piles (not uncommon out here in the Southwest).  Bonnie Claire is also famous for being the railroad station for the initial building of Scotty's Castle, some 20 miles away.  

The Bonnie Claire mine workings and Huson House
The house in these pictures belonged to a local miner - Victor Huson - who lived here in the 1950's with his wife, Mellie.  Mr. Huson died in 1961 and is buried in nearby Beatty (not the Bonnie Claire cemetery), and Mellie moved to Las Vegas.  

Across the road is, what most people refer to as, the Bonnie Claire Mine.  However, it is actually the Lippincott Smelter and has been closed and fenced off due to vandalism.  It is clearly also rapidly declining and will soon be nothing but a pile of rotting timbers and stones...

Angel's Ladies Brothel Sign and Wrecked Airplane
As we decided to head out from Bonnie Claire and down towards Beatty to enter Death Valley National Park, we stopped at a roadside "attraction" that I had seen online and I desperately wanted a picture of.  The Angel's Ladies Brothel sign.  There is also an old wrecked airplane there.  

Angel's Ladies is, obviously, an old Nevada Brothel (Prostitution is legal in certain parts of Nevada).  The airplane, which seems an odd addition to a brothel, is the result of a "deal" which the owner had offered in 1978 - if you parachuted out of their plane and landed perfectly on an old mattress set out in the desert, you could get yourself a free night with the lady of your choice.  

Sounds like a great time, right?  Well, unfortunately, the inexperienced pilot was mildly distracted by the scantily clad "women of the night" and, in conjunction with some heavy cross winds, managed to crash the airplane into the desert (everyone survived).  The owners decided to leave it as an attraction.  Mack and Angel Moore (self proclaimed Christian fundamentalist swingers) had purchased the brothel in 1997, and it has been closed since August of 2014.  There are still buildings up the road, but all is marked private property and we did not venture up there.  

Lewis & Clark in front of the old boxcar at Rhyolite
Now it is time to get serious about our trip - we are headed in to Death Valley - it is no longer snowing, but more like sleet coming down on us - and we are going to take a quick trip through Rhyolite then on to Titus Canyon - the first off road adventure of Day 1.  

Rhyolite - anyone who knows about ghosttowns knows about Rhyolite.  Paul missed it last time he came through here - but we were determined to go see it.  Unfortunately, Rhyolite was overrun with tourists in their little passenger cars (we took the 4 wheel drive road in, we later discovered there is a paved road coming in from the main road).  Paul and I were both disappointed and did not stay very long.  They have path ways and interpretative signs along the way.  

Cook Bank Building

Rhyolite began around 1905 around a gold rush in the area.  Rhyolite was in a sheltered basin, which made for an excellent town site, and the population steadily grew to 5000 in 1908.  In 1906 after the big San Francisco earthquake and the financial panic of 1907, Rhyolite began a steady and fast decline.  By 1911 the Montgomery Shoshone Mine (who employed most of the town's people) closed.  By 1920, Rhyolite's population was almost 0.  The ruins of Rhyolite were well protected for decades, and have served as backdrops for many movies.  The Ruins of the Cook Bank Buildings are infamous - and we stopped to take a photo of those, then moved on to the Goldwell Open Air Museum, which we found much more fascinating!

The Last Supper
The Goldwell Open Air Museum is found on private property just outside Rhyolite.  In this open air museum is the 1985 air installation by Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski called "The Last Supper."  This sculpture is a set of ghostly white figurines set to look similar to Da Vinci's Last Supper painting.  

Also at the Open Air Museum is "Lady Desert: the Venus of Nevada."  It was built in 1992 by Belgian artist Dr. Hugo Heyrman.  Paul and I called her the naked lego girl...but whatever.  Haha.

Lego Girl, or
Lady Desert

Last but not least, there is a third ghostly draped sculpture called Ghost Rider, also done by Szukalski.  Paul and I enjoyed walking around this area, even in the sleet and cold, and found much amusement in the sculptural art.  Note the bright orange beanie I'm wearing in the photo - Paul and I decided this was so he wouldn't lose me on the trip.  Hahaha  (Also, I couldn't find my black and white one with the pompom, which magically appeared as soon as we got home). 

Paul and I opted to check out the Rhyolite Cemetery on the way out - although we didn't find anything overly notable or old, and the snow was really coming down at this point, so off we went to officially enter Death Valley National Park and start our trek through Titus canyon.

AZBackRoadsGirl and the Ghost Rider

So out we head, and turn off to enter Titus Canyon.  Paul didn't do Titus Canyon last time he was here (more on Paul's last trip here in the coming days), so he really wanted to take this side trip into Death Valley.  We pulled off the road in the snow/sleet, and start airing down the tires.  As we are airing down the tires, two park rangers come flying in and speed up to the sign, which they promptly turn around and now Titus Canyon is closed.  As I'm speaking to the Park Ranger, she said we definitely have the vehicle to handle it, however, because there has been absolutely no moisture since March, they are unsure of the trail ahead and are forcing us to turn around.  I asked about Lippincott Pass - she said "have you done Lippincott?" I responded with a yes (as Paul had done it several years ago), and she said "I wouldn't do it if it were me."  

Looking North to the Grapevine Mountains from Historic Stovepipe Wells - Storm Clouds are Rolling In

Disappointed, we start to air back up the tires because we now have a 50 mile drive in to Stovepipe Wells to figure out what we want to do.  As we are airing up, a Tacoma comes back out (note that Titus Canyon is one way, so they are now going the wrong way) - they stop to tell us that they almost went over the canyon side and that we had best not head up that way because it was closed and there was a Park Ranger up ahead stopping anyone coming in.  This confirmed our decision not to try and "sneak" in to Titus Canyon.  

Me and Paul at Stovepipe Wells Outside the Sand Dunes

Historic Stovepipe Wells - Capped Water Pipe
As we drove the long haul into Stovepipe Wells, and descended in elevation, the snow stopped and it got warmer.  We discussed whether or not we wanted to do Lippincott.  Paul thought we should try it, and I just wasn't sure.  We still had a heck of a long drive just to get to the Racetrack Playa, which starts Lippincott.  And all the Death Valley books say Lippincott is "rough and dangerous."  Now, Paul has done it - but not with a trailer in tow, and not in snow.  Although he did do it at night.  But we decide to top off in Stovepipe Wells and head up and stop at Ubehebe Crater (not originally on our plans), over to Lost Burro Mine, and then if it isn't dark or getting dark, we will head off to the infamous Racetrack.  We'll decide on Lippincott then...  

Our In-Truck Overlanding Setup - Ham Radio, Tablet
with GaiaGPS, and GaiaGPS on both phones, in case.
At Stovepipe Wells, we topped off on fuel, got our official Death Valley patches (ask us sometime about our patches that we put on our headliners), jumped back in, and started back towards Ubehebe Crater - a 60+ mile drive North into the park.  On the way, I see "Historic Stovepipe Wells" on the topographical map along with a "grave" indication (we use GaiaGPS, by the way - check out our very cool in-truck set up!).  We decide to stop and take a look as we aren't sure if we will be back this way or not.  

So down the little off-shoot we go - a well graded dirt road - to a monument marker.  This monument marker explains that this is the site of the original waterhole - the only one in the sand dunes area of Death Valley - and that a length of stovepipe was placed in the watering hole so that people could see it from a distance.  It is at less than 10 feet above sea level and it is a California registered historical landmark.  

Grave of Val Nolan
The grave is that of miner Val Nolan, who died "from the elements" in August of 1931 and was found and buried on November 6, 1931.  He was last seen alive in Beatty, Nevada.  Proof of the harsh climate that is Death Valley.  Scorching heat in the summer with little to no water, and blistering cold in the winter.  It's no wonder the pioneers, when leaving the Panamint Valley area in 1850 said "goodbye Death Valley..." - and hence the name.  

We leave Historic Stovepipe Wells and head towards Ubehebe Crater.  I just like the word Ubehebe.  There's a Little Hebe crater too!  But Ubehebe is more fun to say.  Ubehebe.  Just say it - it's fun!  

Ubehebe Crater is a large volcanic crater that is 600 feet deep and half a mile across.  It was created when hot magma from inside the Earth's core rose up and reached ground water, causing a massive steam and gas explosion.  It's possible that Ubehebe Crater was formed as recently as 300 years ago - but take a look at Google Earth around Ubehebe.  There are TONS of craters - you will see small clusters of them all over this area.  But Ubehebe is the biggest.  And the most fun to say!!  UBEHEBE!!!

Paul at Ubehebe Crater
And now begins the washboard road - Paul had warned me about this.  We aired down our tires but it was still VERY washboard.  We saw passenger cars doing this - in fact, we saw a Mustang GT out on this mess.  Ridiculous.  But we bounced along with the intentions of stopping at the Lost Burro Mine along the way.  After a VERY long drive on the washboard (some 21 miles, I believe), we stopped at the infamous Teakettle Junction.  

Teakettle Junction, Death Valley
Nobody is 100% certain how Teakettle Junction exactly came to be, but it is theorized that the placing of a Teakettle at the Junction once indicated that there was water nearby.  Either way, it's a very amusing little place literally in the middle of nowhere where people leave kettles and take kettles to leave their mark in Death Valley.  It's said to bring good luck if you inscribe your kettle and leave it.  The park rangers periodically "cull" the teakettle herd, but state that most of the old kettles get removed by visitors, and due to the "leave a kettle take a kettle" - it doesn't have to happen often.  Paul and I read the inscriptions on quite a few of the kettles, and most appeared to be from 2020, so I'm guessing they "cull the herd" more often than they let on...

A Tiny Little Teakettle
As we started to realize we were not likely to make it to the Racetrack Playa today, Paul and I started watching for a good camp spot.  We headed in towards the center of the park to go check out the Lost Burro Mine.  As we drove through Lost Burro Gap, we found the perfect spot to camp, and hoped it wouldn't be taken when we came back out.  California is currently "closed" due to Covid, so we cannot camp in any designated camp areas, therefore we had to find places that fall within the guidelines of camping in Death Valley (only so many feet off the main road, away from water sources, etc).  This little spot was perfect - surrounded by mountains to protect us from the wind, off the main road, but not far, and out of the way of other travelers!  So we forged on towards Lost Burro Mine so we could get back to our hopeful spot!

As we drove in towards the Lost Burro Mine (quite possibly the only spot we put the truck into 4wd), we came upon the cabin - and I did my usual "Paul - I see things!!!  I see THINGS!"  I don't know what my obsession is with old pioneer cabins and mines, but I do love them - but what I love most is driving along and seeing a rooftop or a headframe poking up from behind a hill.  So we came upon the Lost Burro Cabin and mine.  The Cabin is still usable - persons could camp up here and utilize the cabin for shelter.  There are lots and lots of cabins within Death Valley, as well as many other National Parks, that are maintained by the National Park Service for the use of visitors - be they hikers, backpackers, off road warriors, horseback riders, or the like.  They are always first come, first served, and you are expected to leave the cabins in as good of shape, if not better, than when you left.  

Lost Burro Cabin
The Lost Burro Mine cabin was not a cabin we necessarily wanted to stay in, but it was interesting nonetheless to visit.  The Lost Burro Mine was accidentally discovered in 1907 by Bert Shivley as he was trying to find his lost burros.  There was gold just laying on the ground, so he filed claims and started mining.  The mine changed hands many times throughout the years, and in 1970 W.C. Thompson became the sole owner and worked the mine on and off for the next few years.  

The Lost Burro Mine Mill Ruins
Along with the main cabin, there is a "Cousin Jack" cabin (a small stone and dugout style cabin), an outhouse, and the mine with the mill ruins.  There are artifacts all over inside the cabin, as well as lying scattered about the little valley.  Due to the remote nature of the Lost Burro Mine, things are surprisingly intact and well preserved.  Paul and I poked around for a bit, then decided it was getting really cold and we wanted to get to a place where we could set up camp and relax for a bit.  So back towards the Lost Burro Gap we went in hopes that our little campsite would still be available.

AZBackRoadsGirl Making Stuffed Mushrooms
As we pulled through the Lost Burro Gap, there wasn't a soul in sight, and we were relieved to see the perfect campsite still available!  We pulled Lewis & Clark through so as to protect the other side of our little camp area, and Paul immediately pulled out the Big Buddy Heater from Mr. Heater because it had started to rain and sleet again, and I was getting really cold.  We got the camper set up for sleeping, started a small fire, and set up the camp kitchen.  Tonight I was going to use our new-to-us 1971 vintage Coleman oven!  This amazing little contraption harnesses the heat from one burner and disperses it into a metal box, which, when not in use, folds up flat.  There's even a little thermometer on the front!

Our Vintage 1971 Coleman Camp Oven
Tonight's dinner would be sirloin steaks from Sprouts and stuffed baby bella mushrooms!  So we set up the cute little Coleman oven, which sits over one of the Coleman stove burners, and let it begin to heat up while I cooked up some sausage.  I mixed the sausage with cream cheese and stuffed the mushroom caps.  Into a small pie tin they went with a small bit of bacon grease, and into the Coleman oven.  As we let the stuffed mushrooms cook, I seasoned the sirloins with McCormick's Montreal Steak Seasoning, melted a little bit of bacon fat in the pan, and cooked up the sirloins.  Paul likes his steaks much bluer than I do, so mine get cut up to cook a bit more.  We watched the Coleman stove, which wasn't heating like we had hoped (didn't realize we were running low on propane), so took the mushrooms out, put them directly on the burner on low with some foil over the top - and everything came together right at the end.  

Stuffed Mushrooms and Sirloin by the Fire
Dinner was amazing.  It had been a long day and we had skipped lunch.  We sat next to the fire, Paul with his whiskey, me with my amaretto sour, and enjoyed a leisurely dinner as the rain stopped and the fog rolled in.  And boy did it roll in.  Of course Paul had to remind me about the movie The Fog (I'm not a huge fan of scary movies, but I've seen most of the old ones).  We watched some random movie on the tablet in our "surround sound" FJ, then decided to call it a night.  Paul had hooked up the Buddy Heater in the camper so it was toasty warm under the down comforter and on top of the quilts, and off to dream land we went...a perfect night to a perfect overlanding day!

Lost Burro Gap - our campsite with the fog rolling in

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