Getting out into the outdoors is one of my favorite things to do. I like testing out new things and each time you go out you learn a little more about yourself and how to survive in the outdoors. Having been a hiker for many years I wanted to begin to get to places previously out of reach by a person with a backpack. This led me to Overlanding. I’ve always loved the idea of packing up a vehicle and pushing the boundaries venturing into places the ordinary person can not reach and seeing things rarely seen and visited by humans. I’ve done several trips now and this time I learned a valuable lesson I’m calling 9 to 90.
We started out the trip doing a trail called the Racetrack Grandstand in Death Valley. This route has some incredible scenery and it has a magical spot where the rocks mysteriously move across the playa.
Not really a mystery anymore, they discovered that when there is a small depth of water which then freezes the wind through this valley has enough force to actually move the rocks. It’s an incredible valley with a large rock outcropping in the middle of the playa called “The Grandstand”.
When it’s not frozen the heat is incredible, baking the ground till it’s hard and cracked.
Here’s my buddy Tracy on the Grandstand.
Getting to the playa and The Grandstand was a pretty easy drive if you don’t mind miles of corrugations. We saw a young couple leaving in a stock Jeep Cherokee so it’s accessible with any SUV if you go in and out from the 190 and don’t go past the playa to the South. After that it gets a little rougher.
Heading past the playa you begin to go through some mining area on BLM Land, some of the mines are closed and welded shut while others are active and people are still working in them. It’s incredibly surreal and it’s amazing how vast this country is. If you take a little time to explore you will find some truly incredible places.
We found a campsite and made dinner. Traveling in an Overland vehicle with an ARB refrigerator allows you to cook some pretty awesome meals. The nights menu was Italian sausages, peppers and onions.
After dinner we turned on channel 13, kicked back and watched satellites pass our field of view. It was warm that night, so warm that I couldn’t even be inside my sleeping bag. I used it like a quilt and had most of my body open to the desert air. It was perhaps the warmest night I’ve been camping in as long as I could remember. The next day would prove to change.
We set out to hit the Swansea-Cerro Gordo trail. This trail goes through a ghost town and past the old salt tram. The salt tram was built in the early 1900’s and operated till the Great Depression when it became too expensive to operate the tram. It’s intended use was to collect salt from the Saline Valley floor, load it onto trams which would rise to the 8500′ peak climbing up and over the Inyo Mountains and down to the Valley floor where it was loaded up on railcar. During this time refrigeration wasn’t yet widely used and salt was the best way to preserve food. The salt from the Saline Valley was known as the purest in the world, but the operation never really turned a profit even though it was subsidized by the Government. Here’s the top of the tram as seen today:
It’s hard to imagine the workers rode the cars up to the top and down to the Saline Valley, traveling at times 1,100′ above the rocks below with clear view of the other tram cars which had broken off the steel cable and crashed to the rocks below.
The view from the height of the Inyo mountains is incredible, but at 8500′, even in Death Valley in May, it can get cold. Really cold. The thermometers in the FJ’s were reading 35º. We could tell a front was moving in and we felt an urge to get down the trail to lower elevation. The views are spectacular to the East of the Saline Valley and to the West with the Sierras across the Valley floor.
About three more hours of navigating and descending we found a campsite and hunkered down for the night. At 8,000′ we could tell it was going to be cold that night so we got a fire going in the fire pit and made dinner… A roasted pork loin with potatoes and onions made in a dutch oven in the coals of the fire. I think it was a success because the three of us finished almost all of the 4lb loin and veggies. It was a pretty cold night and we awoke to that front dumping snow on us just as we finished breakfast. It was incredible how fast it began to come down and how fast the temperature dropped even further. It was a mad dash to break camp and get back on the trail before conditions became too slick and dangerous so I didn’t have a lot of time to take pictures.
This brings me to the lesson I learned this trip. 9 to 90. Jack said it best, you have to pack and plan for anything from 9º to 90º. On this trip I didn’t pack my long underwear. I mean we were heading to Death Valley in May during a drought… Who would’ve thought snow. Well now you know, pack for 9 to 90.