hiking alone in Death Valley

i know that many of my readers will be asking the question of what are you doing, Neil, hiking alone in Death Valley.

well, the answer is that i love to hike, and i like to hike alone.  i have done it many, many times.

having said that it is true that hiking alone presents some challenges.

you need to make sure that you have a backpack with hiking’s 10 essentials and then some — some food, map, first aid kit, snake bite kit, bear spray, bear bell and whistle, mirror, matches, emergency blanket, compass, cell phone, suntan lotion, windbreaker jacket, knife, and binoculars.  in addition i wear a visor hat, and i use hiking poles.  most importantly, i carry a lot of water.  i wear long sleeve shirts and hiking shorts.  finally i have good Hoka hiking shoes.

in addition to all this i try to get as much information about the hikes as i can.  i have a book on the best day hikes in Death Valley.  i have talked to several people about their experiences and get their advice.  and i visit the National Park Visitor Center to ask the advice of the Ranger on duty.

usually the advice of the Ranger is really good.  Death Valley is no exception.  he goes over the options with me, giving me a sense of what to expect, how difficult the hike will be, its length, what to watch out for, and what time of day is best to hike.

given that i had my right knee replaced 12 weeks ago, i am not trying to scale a mountain. i tell him that i am looking for day hikes that are about 4-6 miles in distance.  he gives me three hikes to choose from.  i decide to do each one.  one each day.

the first day’s hike — Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch — is quite something. it was really invigorating.  however, it was more challenging than i expected. the Ranger had made it seem like this was a relatively easy to moderate hike.  i noted the difference but did not think much of it.

but then on the second day, i take a hike in Mosaic Canyon.  the first thing i noticed was that there were no other cars in the parking lot at the trail head.  not a good sign i say to myself.  it also is 2pm in the afternoon, which is approaching the hottest time of the day.  but that is another story.

nevertheless, i am enthusiastic about making the hike.  these “canyons” are extremely dangerous if there is a rainstorm.  they become raging torrents of water instantly.  however, Death Valley has only an average of 2″ of rain a year, and very seldom has a serious rain storm.  so, not to worry.

as I hike up the canyon I can picture the roiling torrents of water cascading down the rock lined serpentine path to its eventual destination on the valley floor.  as I hike up and up I realize that I am all alone.  the only sounds are from the wind whistling up the canyon and the occasional clicking of my hiking poles on solid rock.

the canyon’s vertical walls get closer and closer the further I hike.  there are more turns and twists.  the stillness and the stark beauty are stunning.

after hiking up the canyon almost 1.3 miles i come upon what is called a “dry fall.”  this is spot which is a roaring waterfall on the few occasions when water rushes down the canyon, but when there is no water it is dry.  however, it is startling.  it is a real barrier to being able to keep going on the hike.  unless i can somehow negotiate this dry fall, i will have to turn around, not having completed the hike.

the Ranger did tell me that there would be two dry falls but he gave me the impression that i would have no trouble negotiating them.  well, let me tell you there were 9!– not 2! — dry falls and they were very difficult for me to be able to get up and over them.  what the Ranger does not tell you!!

each one of these was a real challenge for me.  maybe the Ranger who was 40 years younger than me had no problem with these dry falls.  maybe the Ranger had two good knees.  maybe the Ranger had a hiking companion who could give a helpful boost in the rear end when needed, or a foot hold occasionally.  whatever.  all i know is that i had a really tough time negotiating each one of these.

thank goodness no one was with me to take a video of my efforts. it was not pretty. it would not be something that i would like to view on U Tube.

when i got to the 10th dry fall, which was 20 feet high, i said to myself “enough is enough”.  even though there was a supposed circuitous path around this particular dry fall, i said that i had tempted fate 9 times and i had better just turn around and head back to the trailhead.

you are not going to believe this, but as difficult as the climbing, scratching, crawling, grabbing and scrambling efforts are to make it over each of these dry falls, it is much more difficult to come back down.  yes, siree.

i would rather go up anytime than down.  but down i went over each of the 9 dry falls.  yes, i have a few scratches on my knees and elbows but nothing serious enough to warrant Neosporin or a Band-Aid.

that was yesterday.  today i chose to hike Desolation Canyon.  don’t you love the names they give these hikes!

sure enough there are dry falls on this hike too.  the first is at the 1 mile mark into the hike. it is imposing. it is 8′ to 10′ high.  it looks like i might be able to negotiate it.  i try several times, changing which foot hold to use, changing which leg to start with, changing which side of the dry fall to find my handholds.  i get about 4′ up the dry fall but can’t seem to get any further.  i can’t find some rock to wedge myself against.  nothing is working. i am pretty frustrated.  i have not even gotten to the really spectacular part of the canyon hike.  i am stymied right here.  i try again.  but still no luck.  i really worry about coming back down even i am able to find a way up.  below is a picture of the one that i could not negotiate.

the other thought i have is maybe somebody else is hiking and they could help me.  but, no.  not to be.  i was once again the only car in the parking lot at the trailhead.  nobody to help.

so, you are not going to believe this, but i turned around and hiked out, turning my anticipated 4+ mile Desolation Canyon hike into a disappointing 2 mile hike.  not normally in my DNA.

bottom line, be mindful of what the Ranger does not tell you.




6 thoughts on “hiking alone in Death Valley”

  1. Wow!! Those dry falls look ominous! Congrats on even trying to get over them. Just glad you are safe and sound!

  2. On the positive side, you were able to see some of all those trails. Sad you couldn’t get all the way through. Will you go back and talk to the Ranger about trail difficulties? We are so glad you were smart enough to know you couldn’t push through. Happy you are safe.

  3. Did you take a satellite phone or a flare in case you tumbled and couldnt get up?

    Girl Scout

    1. that is a good point. i need to get the equivalent of a satellite phone.

      i will need it also when i travel to Iceland in August.

  4. Wow, Neil! Given the circumstances, I’m trying to figure out how you took that second-to-last picture!

  5. By the way, does your PT Vince know what you’re up to this week? (If so, he may go even tougher on you when you return!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *