Day 12: Death Valley National Park & South Nopah Range Wilderness Area

Road Miles: 107

Total: 956.5

Trail Miles: 5.1

Total: 74.7

Sites: Death Valley National Park, South Nopah Range Wilderness Area

Locals: Chop & Hesh

I woke up early and did a quick little out & back hike from Emigrant CG. Watching the colors of the landscape change with the rising sun was spectacular – you can look at the same thing a dozen times and each time it appears new as it morphs under the strengthening light.  I interviewed Chop & Hesh for the ‘Locals’ page before heading down to Stovepipe Wells Village on the valley floor. I wanted to do the Mosaic Canyon trail before it got too hot, as that trail appeared to be almost entirely exposed. 

Stovepipe Wells was pretty jammed up with visitors. There are a number of services there, even a gas station and a lodge, all provided by private concessionaires. The actual ranger station where you’re supposed to pay your entry fee is off to the side in a small nondescript building with subtle signage compared to everything else around it. I dropped in to pick up park info, chat with the ranger, and get directions to the Mosaic Canyon trailhead, which is about 2 miles up a dirt road from the Village. 

If you are at all into rocks (I am! I am!) or geology, this is a must-do hike. It is indeed almost entirely exposed to the sun in several places, and can get very hot, so bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. Otherwise, it’s a fairly easy cruise up the canyon with some scrambling at the end, and then back down. I saw people of all ages and varying abilities out there enjoying the walk and the views. The rock formations and colors were amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen boulders made out of millions of smaller squished-together rocks before – how does that even work? That’s bananas! It was really a fun little hike, about 4 miles, round-trip.

By the time I got back down to Stovepipe Wells, the wind had started, kicking up dust and reducing visibility. As I headed toward Furnace Creek, it got progressively worse, so I skipped the Artists Palette Drive since I wouldn’t be able to see much of it. I went to the main Visitor Center which is well worth a stop. There a ranger told me that afternoon winds are common, and tend to get worse as the day progresses. So, I decided to continue heading east, out of the park, and hopefully someplace less windy. 

I looked at my atlas and saw a place called Tecopa Hot Springs nearby. Um, hello! I like hot springs! And I couldn’t think of a better way to end a day in which my hike-sweaty self had been subsequently sandblasted than with a sweet soak in some hot mineral goodness. As it turns out, I was lucky to have left when I did. The winds developed into a full haboob, swallowing the valley and running roughshod over the hills in a cloud of dust so immense it created it’s own precipitation system above it. I felt like I was in that movie ‘Twister’ except I was trying to haul ass away from the storm instead of into it. 

I stopped in the little town of Shoshone, where the power kept flickering on and off because of the storm, causing angst of the lady manning the convenience store (“hurry up and punch in your PIN before the lights go out again!” she said, to EVERY customer). There’s a quirky little free museum right across the street from the store that would probably have made for a much more fun stop, if it had not been 15 minutes before closing time, and oh, the power kept flickering there too. It was on the fritz everywhere. But, the docent was awesome and helpful, and gave me the lowdown and a map showing all the facilities and services in Tecopa Hot Springs. 

I went to the cheapest option in the middle of the town, Tecopa Hot Springs Campground and Pools. I was greeted upon arrival by a guy who emerged from what appeared to be a closet but I think was actually the office. He was wearing ski goggles and a bandanna over his nose and mouth to keep the dust and sand from blasting his face off. He told me that the springs were closed – ALL the springs in town were closed, because the dust storm was clogging everybody’s filters, and in his case, causing the showers to back up too. But the rate to camp would be the same. Unwilling to pay a full rate to have access to virtually none of the normally-included amenities, I asked if there was anyplace nearby where I could camp for free. He directed me to the closest BLM land south of town, where hopefully I could find a little hill to park up next to for some cover in the storm. 

There’s no phone service in Tecopa Hot Springs (and it’s very unreliable in Shoshone as well), so I took his directions and found myself at the southern edge of the South Nopah Range Wilderness Area. I know this because although there was no phone service in any of the little towns I’d visited, I totally had LTE in this parking spot up against a little hill in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and so was able to locate myself on Google Maps, which I find hilariously ironic. It was still windy and dusty as hell out there, so I basically hunkered down in the van, and spent the night feeling as though I was stuck in a bounce house. Good times!