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4000 miles and 55 rides north: hitchhiking from California to Alaska

My friend Arman drops me off on the side of highway one on the California Coast and we say our goodbyes. This is actually happening. Months of homework, tests to study for and dreaming about heading north and now here I am nothing separating me from the biggest adventure of my life. His car rolls away, I put my pack down and stick out my thumb.

The going was slow the first day. My mind went through the familiar ups and downs of hitchhiking. After hours of waiting on the side of the road, cautious optimism that I will get picked up soon turns into pessimism and I lose my faith that anyone will ever pick me up. Suddenly I get a ride and my faith in humanity is restored. Unforunately many of the rides I got were quite short. I would wait for hours to only go 15 miles up the road. Finally after waiting for hours for a ride just South of the Lost Coast, I got a ride all the way to Humboldt.

It was my first night on the road though and I wasn’t smart, they dropped my off at a campsite that cost 45$. Of course this was a ridiculous scam and I did not pay it. Instead I walked 6 miles into downtown Humboldt. No one wanted to pick me up as it was well past dark. There was a large homeless population in the town and people mistook me for them and gave me a wide breadth as I passed. After many failed attempts at hitching on the on ramp, I broke down and paid 10 bucks for an Uber to a campground by the beach. This ended up being the right decision, I met some cool people sitting around a campfire and slept in the sand dunes that night.

The second day started out slowly as well, but I was standing on the beautiful California Coast so it didn’t really matter. A few rides later and I got a ride into Oregon and almost halfway up it. This guy and I talked about our whole lives and lots of different political issues for four hours, but I didn’t even get his name. I swore not to repeat my mistake of the previous night and stopped hitching well before dark. I got a great campspot on the Oregon Coast and it was only 6$ (this was one of only two times I had to pay for camping on this whole trip)

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Sunset Oregon Coast

I headed north and the Coast only got prettier. That evening I found myself in Astoria, on the Oregon Washington Border. On a whim I threw my thumbout in the middle of a busy intersection with no good place to stop. It had just started to rain and the chances of getting a ride looked bleak, but suddenly a women stopped in the middle of the intersection blocking all of the traffic and motioned for me to get in quickly. Suddenly we were cruising along at 60mph and crossing over the Columbia River and into Washington on the Astoria Bridge.

I camped outside of her RV that night and had the goal of getting to Sequim Washington that day. It was slow going but I linked a few rides together and made it to Forks Washington just outside of Olympic National Park. From there I took a bus into the park and went for a short hike to see a waterfall.

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Olympic National Park

I took another bus to Sequim to stay at a friend from school’s house. I met her through the hiking club and it was very nice of her to put me up for the night and let me shower. I was atempting to cross an international border the next day so showering was essential.

The next morning I boarded the ferry across the San Juan de Fuca straight and into Canada. I had done some reasearch and it seemed that I was most likely to get into Canada by ferry and if I hitched in at a land crossing I may get denied entry. Unfortunately it was the middle of the week and the other people on the ferry were mostly retired. With my large pack, I stood out like a sore thumb.

A 90 minute boatride later and I was in Canada. I nervously awaited my turn at customs and when it came I tried to be as vague as possible in my responses to questions. I knew this was a turning point in my trip, if I got rejected, I’d have to head home. The customs women was less then thrilled with my vague answers and pressed me for specifics I did not have. What hotel was I staying at? How did I hear about BC? Where was I going to see? on and on and on. Of course I could not tell her that I would be sleeping on the side of the road and planned to hitch to Alaska, so I told her I wanted to see Vancouver. Finally after I told her I had a job to go back to in the states in June, and school in August she reluctantly waived me through.

Canada was very different from the United States which I did not expect. I expected Victoria to be a small town but it felt like a big city. My phone no longer had reception and the money was different. But most importantly the people were much more willing to pick up hitchhikers. I took a bus and a ferry to get to mainland Canada and I got 5 rides after 4pm through Squamish Pemberton and Whistler. One time I got a ride 4 seconds after sticking my thumb out. While I was starting to grow tired of the emotional roller coaster that hitchhiking was in the United States, I now felt a lot better about my chances of making it to Alaska. When people asked where I was going instead of cautiously telling them I was going as far north as I could get I began to boldly declare Alaska.

I took a detour to go to Banff and Jasper instead of blazing through central British Columbia. It was a bit difficult to get a ride out of Kamloomps but finally an eccentric older gentleman picked me up. He had a different women in every town and he stopped frequently to offer to buy things that were not for sale from people’s homes. But a ride is a ride and I did not complain. As soon as I neared the National Parks the rides began to come very quickly. I made the mistake of  getting let out in Lake Louise where the rangers told me if I camped I would get eaten by a Grizzly bear. Not sure what to believe I caught a ride down to the town of Banff at the last light. I got picked up by a family as I was walking around the town, even though my thumb was not out. The man was very loud and a bit drunk and told me that his seven year old had just been driving the car. I was a bit apprehensive about getting in the car with him but he offered me a free place to tent at their camp spot so I took it. Upon returning to his camp spot his girlfriend was less then thrilled that he had picked up a hitchhiker with her two and seven year olds in the car, but she quickly warmed up to me. He on other hand did not get along with her and they always seemed to be at odds which created a very uncomfortable dynamic. He broke all of the rules in the campground including having hard alcohol, playing loud music at night and leaving food out at night. When the ranger informed him of this he replied that he would shoot any bear that tried to get his food. His girlfriend and the ranger were not happy and she quickly apologized on his behalf.

They kindly gave me a ride the next morning though and I was back on the road in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

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“Icefields Parkway” Jasper National Park
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Mountain Goat in Jasper National Park
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One of many black bears I saw

That night a very friendly Canadian couple picked me up along with four other hitchhikers. They let us camp in their campspot next to their RV and even cooked us a fantastic meal. We stayed up while into the night talking. It didn’t get fully dark until midnight but when it did we were treated to a glimpse of the northern lights.

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Northern Lights in Jasper National Park

I would have liked to stay in Jasper longer but my sights were set on Alaska so I got back on the road. After a quick hitch out of the park and past Mt. Robson, I was again stuck on the side of the road for four hours. A cop came by and I thought she was going to give me a hard time, but after 15 minutes of running my documents she drove off. Luckily I soon got the longest ride of my trip so far from Hank a very interesting gentleman who was heading out to the middle of nowhere in Northern BC where he was attempting to build a settlement and move his family there to live off the land. His sister generously let me stay in her backyard for the night and the next morning he dropped me off at the base of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway in Kitwanga BC. It turned out to be a good thing he gave me a ride through this section as the Prince George to Prince Rubert stretch of highway is notrious for being a dangerous highway to hitch on, dubbed the  “highway of tears”. Many signs were put up to discourage hitchhiking.

A tow truck driver gave me a ride an hour up the highway to Meziadin Junction. This to me was another key turning point of the trip. I stood on the empty road for a while and only about one car was going north every hour, the prospects seemed grim. I mentally readied myself to wait a few days on the side of the road and potentially having to turn around after having come so far. The one bright side though was that it was a 16 hour drive up to Whitehorse and there were only a few small towns in between. If I got a ride it would be a long one. Luckily a gentleman named Billy picked me up and we he drove me for 2.5 days.

Billy had been driving for over 20,000 km and had been on the road for months, visiting most of the western United States. After two and a half good days on the road with good company and not worrying about getting a ride, Billy dropped me off in Whitehorse. Luckily not more then an hour later a gentleman named Andy picked me up and he said he would take me all the way to Alaska.

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almost to Alaska

Andy worked seasonally in Alaska and drove up there in his vegetable oil powered car every summer. He told me a lot about places to visit, since I didn’t know if I would even make it this far, I didn’t do much research on Alaska itself.

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Kenai Fjords National Park

Andy dropped me off on the Kenai Penninsula and after hitching around there for a while and seeing the glaciers and going backpacking on the coast I headed north. I stayed at a hostel in Anchorage to charge my batteries and rest. It is never really dark in Alaska so it was good to sleep in the dark for one night. I hitched up to Denali National Park. After 55 rides I became less eager to tell my story and hear the story of every person who gave me a ride and more comfortable sitting in silence.

The next morning I headed into Denali National Park on the mandatory bus. It was beautiful and we saw lots of wildlife.

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Dall Sheep in Denali National Park
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Moose Crossing
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Caribou

 

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Ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird

As the bus returned back to the main road, I got off at the Teklanika River and headed north into the Alaskan wilderness. There are almost no trails in Denali National Park and I did not see anyone for the next 3 days. I had a rough plan of heading north from the road and trying to get to the Magic Bus completely off trail. Off trail travel was hard in Denali and my feet were constantly wet. It was beautiful however, and I walked across a big mountain range and had sweeping views of the park. My legs got very scratched up but a day and a half later I reached the bus.

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Bus 142 on the Stampede trail

I decided returning off trail would be far too difficult so I elected to take the less beautiful Stampede trail which is mostly in the trees. It was much quicker then off-trail and that night I crossed the mighty Teklanika river, which luckily was not very high.

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My campsite on the east side of the Teklanika River

I got a little lost the next day and went the wrong way for a few hours, discouraged, I finally got back to where I started around 3pm. At this point my body was falling apart and it hurt to walk. I had huge blisters on both feet and I had no idea how to take care of them. Nevertheless I walked out and just before I reached the road I ran into an Australian guy who was trying to get to the bus. Since he had no food or shelter I told him to turn around, and luckily he agreed, we walked out together and he gave me a ride into Healy. James had been travelling around the US trying to see the most touristy things possible including, 8 mile, Walter White’s house and he even appeared on the People’s court. His last planned stop was the bus but it did not pan out. He then drove me to Denali to return my bearcan and took this very staged picture of me hitchhiking in the snow.

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Hithchhiking in Denali National Park

The park was closed due to snow so he drove me back to Fairbanks. James was my 55th and final ride of the trip. I tried to get a ride up to Prudhoe Bay but I was unsuccesful. This truck driver offered me a ride on Craigslist but he never showed up at the Walmart we planned to meet at. I camped the night there and then went to the Fairbanks airport the next day.

There is so much to see in Alaska and I barely scratched the surface. I really want to move there one day!

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Mt. Denali, so lucky to fly home on a clear day
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Mt Shasta via Avalanche Gulch

My friend Matt and I had our eyes on Mt Shasta for a while and the last weekend of the semester was a perfect time to go. We posted on our school’s outdoor mailing list and met Ellese and Louise who also wanted to climb Mt. Shasta. On the night of the last day of classes for the semester we drove 4 hours north to Bunny Flat at 7000 feet where we would sleep and acclimatize for the night.

We all made some mistakes on this trip, Matt and I especially but it proved to be a great learning experience.

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Milky way rises over the Bunny Flat parking lot
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doing some burial drills near the parking lot
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Avalanche Gulch
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Ellese snowshoeing up the mountain

We got to Lake Helen at around 3 and dug out a camp. There were about 50 people there that night and almost all of them planned to summit. Stupidly, Matt and I decided to go without a tent as there was no chance of snow or rain, we would later come to regret this decision.

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our camp
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sunset over the Trinity Alps

As soon as the sun set the winds picked up tremendously. There were gusts over 80 miles per hour. Unfortunately this meant that snow was being blown onto Matt and I and we both got very cold and got very little sleep that night. It was so windy that when I stood up to go to the bathroom, my inflatable pillow blew away immediately and the wind ripped a huge gash in Ellese and Louise’s tent. We had originally planned to alpine start at 3am but it was clear that was not happening.

We woke up at around 7am and saw a lot of people higher in Avalanche Gulch turning around due to the wind. We met a guide and her client who had turned around when the client was in tears because of the high wind. We debated turning back but ultimately decided to give the summit a go. Luckily as the sun rose the winds died down slightly. Whenever a gust came we dug our ice axes into the snow and held on tight.

It was a long long slog up avalanche gulch but we finally made it to Redbanks, by this point we had split into two groups, with Matt and I in the first group. Misery hill was even more difficult due to the altitude, but finally around noon Matt and I reached the summit.

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standing atop Mt. Shasta
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The view from the top

As we descended we ran into Ellese coming up, Louise had to turn around due to the high winds but Ellese pushed on and made it almost to the top.

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Matt Ellese and I at around 14,000′
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Matt and Ellese descending

Upon returning to Lake Helen I packed my stuff up and skied down to the parking lot. 15 minutes later I was at the car. Since the rest of my group was on snowshoes I waited for them for about two hours, and finally they got back and we all returned to Berkeley.

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A skier skiing down from Lake Helen
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Mt. Shasta from the car window on the drive back
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Death Valley V: Marble Canyon to Towne Pass

After going to Zion and completing my first 40 mile day hike(a story for another post), Evan(a person I met through the hiking club), Jeb(my roommate) and I decided to head to Death Valley in order to spend a few days backpacking in a much less crowded place.

On my high school’s trip to Death Valley we entered through Marble Canyon hiked to the racetrack, across Saline Valley, into the Nelson Range, back across the bottom of Saline Valley and eventually exited over Towne Pass. I figured that a trip entering at Marble Canyon, cutting down to Cottonwood springs and then out Towne pass would be a good introduction to desert backpacking for Jeb and Evan, without having to carry a ridiculous amount of water.

Emma and Powell, the other two people on the trip generously agreed to drop us off at the mouth of Marble Canyon and meet us at Towne Pass in three days time.

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Heading into Marble Canyon
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Tight narrows of Marble Canyon
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More narrows
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Campspot for the first night
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Climbed a big hill to get a view looking down the canyon and back towards Death Valley

The Marble-Cottonwood loop is the most (and really only) popular backpacking loop in Death Valley. It is a good first route because there are two reliable springs, most of the navigation is in canyons and it is a loop so no hitchhiking is needed. As it was spring break we did see a few other groups out there, but none after deviating from the loop at cottonwood springs. Cottonwood Canyon is much wider the Marble, and has no narrows, as such I chose to exit over Towne pass instead.

Navigationally speaking, most of the route is quite simple because it follows Marble and Cottonwood Canyons, however the crossover can be quite difficult for those not adept at desert navigation. With a map and compass, we had little trouble finding the route but we met a group of people about our age that told us they had gotten lost in the hills between the two canyons for over a day. This potentially deadly predicament could have been easily avoid if they had brought even a map and a compass and learned how to use them.

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Jeb climbing up the steep hillside
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Our first view of the upper-cottonwood drainage
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two wild horses live in the upper cottonwood drainage and we were lucky enough to run into them
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Cottonwood springs, the last place we would see people the whole route

We rested at Cottonwood springs during the heat of the day and then made our way south towards Towne pass. Just before setting up camp I climbed a steep hill and was treated to a beautiful view of Panamint Valley.

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sunsets over Panamint valley
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Attaining Towne Peak’s ridge(ahead), the next objective, took most of the morning

Once we made it up to the ridge of Towne Peak the next day we were shocked by how fast the winds were. Death Valley was experiencing a massive windstorm, much bigger then usual. It was difficult to move along the ridge and what should have been panoramic views were obstructed by the dust blowing around in the valley below.

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Dust and sand blow around in Death Valley below

Upon reaching Towne Peak Jeb was very tired and wanted to go down, Evan and I wanted to see the site of the Albatross plane crash only a mile south of the peak, thus wee split ways, admittedly not a good idea in the desert.

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Albatross plane crash sits precariously on a crumbling cliffside

Upon arriving to Towne pass we did not see Jeb, I mistakenly thought he may have gotten lost on the way down. However it turns out that he had just gone into the closest town to get out of the wind. Evan and I were very worried though. Some people gave us a ride to a place where we could call him, and we soon found out he was safe. The moral of the story is not to split up, especially with a new backpacker. It was still very windy and it was getting dark. Emma and Powell were still nowhere to be found. It turns out they were delayed because they had to plow sand off some of the roads from the windstorm. We turned down multiple rides but eventually decided to go to Panamint Springs to get some food and wait for them. Unfortunately this caused more confusion but eventually they found us. Good bye Death Valley.

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Towne Pass 4956′
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Winter ascent of Mt Lassen

I met Tim and Eric through CHAOS (Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society), when Tim posted about a trip he wanted to do to Mt. Lassen. At this point I had some back country ski experience but no snow camping experience and not very much experience with crampons and an ice axe. I told both of them this before the trip and they were nice enough to teach me a lot during the trip. Because of this, I learned a lot on the trip, how to snow camp, and how to use crampons, an ice axe, and avalanche rescue gear.

We camped at the parking lot the first night about 10 miles from where the summit is. The next morning we set off and started skinning up the road covered in snow towards Lake Helen

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the only bare section of the road
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Lassen looming in the distance
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Fully loaded pack
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getting closer to Lassen

By mid-afternoon we made it to Lake Helen and dug out a camp, there were a few other parties in the same general area also attempting the summit the next morning. Because the snow is more stable at night, we planned to get up at 3am the next morning to summit under stable conditions.

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our camp
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about halfway up the peak as the first light became visible
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sunrise
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Not long after sunrise we made it to the top
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descending back towards Lake Helen

Upon returning to Lake Helen we rested for a bit and then skied down the road. It was mostly pretty flat but there was one shortcut we took near the end that resulted in a fun ski run. We then got back to the parking lot and returned to Berkeley.

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Death Valley IV: Panamint Valley to Bighorn Gorge

My friends Ira Emmet along with my brother Connor and I all set out to go on a backpacking trip to Death Valley, one of my favorite places in the state. It was all of our winter breaks and it was great to see them after being off at college. We planned a very ambitious route from Panamint Valley, over the Panamint Dunes, up Mill Canyon to the southern tip of Saline Valley and then through Grapevine Canyon, up to the Racetrack, and then up White Mountain road and down and out Bighorn Gorge to Death Valley itself. Special thanks to Steve Hall from http://www.panamintcity.com without which we would not have been able to link together this route.

Well there are many reports of people doing part of this route, I have never heard of anyone doing the whole thing as backpacking is not very common in Death Valley. We pieced together a very aesthetic route in my opinion that hits most of the highlights of the Cottonwood Mountains. I would recommend that anyone who attempts it be in extremely good condition, and perhaps to travel faster and lighter then we did to lessen the hauling of heavy loads. There is only one spring on this route in Grapevine canyon so we had to be prepared to carry up to 12 liters(26 pounds of water) at a time. If one was prepared to travel lighter they could perhaps lessen that, but be warned off trail travel in Death Valley is typically at least twice as slow as on trail travel.

We all learned a lot on this trip, firstly to always check the shelter before going on the trip. Emmet brought a tarp on the trip but none of us brought poles so in the mostly creosote bush that fill Death Valley there was no place to set up a tarp. We soon came to regret this decision a lot.

On the first night we drove to the end of the road in Panamint Valley and camped there for the night. The next morning we gathered our gear and set off into the desert.

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packing our gear
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heading towards the panamint dunes

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Leaving Panamint Valley

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The first dry fall

Most canyons in Death Valley have large dry falls that need to be bypassed. Sometimes this can be easy sometimes it can be difficult, most of the dryfall bypasses on this route were fairly straight forward. More information can be found on panamintcity.com

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Dryfall bypass from above
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There is a known mountain lion living near Mill Canyon and we saw lots of bones as evidence but did not see the mountain lion
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upper mill canyon

It got dark and the climb out of upper mill canyon was quite difficult, a few hundred feet straight up a hillside. Finally we made it to South Pass road which had a thin layer of snow on it. We walked about two miles down the road before we found a small clearing beneath the road to camp at. Unfortunately we did not set the tarp up out of exhaustion and woke up in the middle of the night to wet sleeping bags from the rain. We tried to jerryrig a setup off of a small bush but we were not very successful.

By the morning the rain had stopped and we decided it was safe to keep going, we were all still quite warm and we would dry out gear out that day.

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our camp on night 1

We continued down south pass road for two miles until we reached grapevine canyon, the location of the first and only spring. We all came to Grapevine Canyon on a backpacking trip in High School so it was neat to come back at a different time of year.

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Looking North up Grapevine Canyon
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Large rocks on the sides of Grapevine Canyon
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Deeper into the Canyon near the spring

We filled our backpacks with water and started the climb up to the racetrack. With full packs it was very slow going and the navigation was quite tricky, this part of the trip took many hours.

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Climbing out of Grapevine Canyon, with Saline Valley in the distance

Suprisingly between the racetrack and grapevine canyon we ran into two people one of whom went to our high school. It is extremely rare to see people in Death Valley, but since out high school did a trip to this general area, it was actually not too surprising. After a few more miles heading North we finally got to the pass and got our first view of the Racetrack.

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Ubehebe and the Racetrack in the distance

We neared the racetrack and camped for the night, the next morning we explored the racetrack and checked out the Sailing Stones. Unfortunately there is a lot of damage to the Racetrack due to people driving on it. Many of the Sailing Stones have been stolen. It is my opinion that it is far too easy to reach the racetrack. In recent years the road has been heavily graded so even some brave 2wd cars can make it out. I understand that not everyone can walk in as we did, but they should at least close the road a few miles down, and maybe have a few guided tours for people that are not physically able to make the walk. If they do not do this all of the Sailing Stones will soon disappear and it will be just another dry lake bed.

Furthermore NEVER walk on the racetrack when it is wet as it will take years to heal, unfortunately you can see a lot of foot prints near the sailing stones, evidence of people walking on the area during rain.

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Walking away from the Racetrack

From the Racetrack we headed Northeast up into the Mountains via White Top Mountain Road, we mistakenly went up a side canyon in an attempt to save time but it ended up costing us a few hours. We walked into the night and didn’t arrive at the end of White Mountain Top Road until almost 11PM, this was one of the only sections of our route on roads but Ira had some pretty big blisters at this point, this combined with general fatigue slowed us down.

That night we awoke to about an inch of SNOW on top of our sleeping bags at 3am. Emmet quickly took charge and suggested packing up and resuming hiking to warm up. Luckily the snow soon stopped and we hiked down into Upper Big Horn Gorge into the darkness. Soon enough though it became light and our pace quickened.

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Snow covering White Top Mountain Road
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The narrows of upper Big Horn Gorge
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Chockstone blocking the gorge, can be downclimbed but is tricky, we later learned that there is a bypass
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Lower Bighorn Gorge
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Beautiful Narrows in Lower Bighorn Gorge
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Looking back up the gorge towards White Top Mountain, where we camped the night before
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Finally made it to the Alluvial Fan, the road so close yet so far away

Connor and I made it to the road around 3:30 after splitting up from Emmet and Ira in order to have a better shot at getting a ride out that day. Ira’s foot was really bothering him due to blisters which really slowed him down.

Still 60 miles from our car we were not out of the desert yet. We budgeted for a long wait for the hitch with lots of water, however we got very lucky and the first car that passed by stopped, a very nice family visiting from China, and they took us to Stovepipe Wells.

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Connor waiting for a ride at Stovepipe Wells

The next two rides came quickly as well and I ran the last 6 miles on the dirt road to the car while Connor waited with our packs, we then returned 60 miles to pick up Ira and Emmet who didn’t get to the road until around 7pm. We then headed home, goodbye Death Valley.

We were all quite exhausted from getting up at 3am that day so we switched off drivers every two hours in order to make it back home. Connor had school the next day which he somehow went to after getting home around 5am.