Tony Krizan

Creatures abound in Death Valley

After two evenings of high winds, we welcomed this calm morning with only a slight breeze. Now to pack up our vehicle, depart to the desert floor, and locate the dirt road that leads to the trailhead for Panamint Dunes. They are located on the north end of Panamint Valley at the foot of Hunter Mountain.

Five miles east of Panamint Springs on Highway 190, we located the dirt road called Big Four Mine Road leading to the trailhead. A high clearance vehicle is needed on these 4.9 miles of desert road. But be careful of the few wash-outs and ruts which are common on the desert surface.

Ten minutes into this drive, we came across the first artifacts. They were quite large and boasted a brownish-rust color. There were two rusted abandoned vehicles just off the left side of this dusty road. After closer inspection, one was a 1941 Buick two-door sedan and the second was a 1956 Buick Roadmaster, four-door sedan. All that remains today is their rusted shells. Could they be a friendly reminder that Death Valley chooses which visitor she wants to keep?

Forty minutes later we arrived at the trailhead. Off in the distance, 3.4 miles away, was our destination - Panamint Dunes. From where we stood, they looked very small. Personally, this will be a true desert adventure across this sandy valley. There is no trail because the dunes will be in view throughout our hike. We’ll have a gradual 800 feet of elevation gain and our morning temperature is perfect, hovering in the 70s..

Looking down at the desert floor, the native creatures were quite active last night leaving their prints. There were mostly lizard track but cotton tail rabbit, fox, coyote, roadrunner and a small snake scared this smooth sandy floor. One small resident of this vast desert location revealed his camouflaged positions and we were rewarded with a few photos of a small Desert Horn Toad.

During this pure desert walk, the most common bushes are creosote and bursage. The low gray-green bushes responsible for the spiny burrs we picked off our socks are called dodder or devil’s guts. In the spring, quite a few flowering plants add vibrant colors to the landscaping - evening primrose, desert gold and the most colorful - the prickle poppy with its blue-green colors of spring.

After two hours of hiking, we arrived at the base of those small dunes. They sure grew in size after three miles of hiking. Could it have been the backdrop of the surrounding mountains that dwarfed the white sands of these dunes?

Our goal was to climb to the saddle between the south and middle peaks. We struggled through this pristine white sand for almost another half mile and more than 300 feet of elevation gain before we reached our destination. I continued to climb almost to the top of the center dune. Each time I struggled to a crest, there was another higher mound in the distance. Now it is time to sit and relax on this huge sandy cushion and enjoy the distant views of the enormous valley.

My second reward that morning came while sitting on my sandy perch. Off in the distance, a F16 Air Force Fighter Jet and its pilot were practicing maneuvers just above the valley surface. Sometimes he was difficult to spot because the sound trailed quite a distance behind his aircraft.

I realize why I keep coming back to Death Valley every year. Each new adventure is a challenge, but with that challenge is a reward. Now if you decide on Death Valley for your next adventure, early spring and late fall seasons are the ideal times to visit.

NOTE: Next article will be part three of this four-part Death Valley series, featuring Scotty’s Castle and Fall Canyon.