One of the great advantages of living in this region is being able enjoy nature up close and privately, along the many uncrowded back roads. In the next couple of weeks, for instance, you can already enjoy spring in the lower parts of Death Valley. My favorite route for this time of year is the West Side Road, a 40-mile route skirting Badwater Basin along the base of the Panamint Mountain Range.
2016 is turning out to be a banner year for wildflowers, and you’re bound to find some good color on side trips up the canyons from West Side Road. Earlier this month there were carpets of color along the West Side and Badwater Road. I found desert gold, periwinkle colored desert five-spot, brown-eyed evening primrose and purple caltha-leaved phacelia. Since Mother Nature is unpredictable be sure to check the park service wildflower update before your visit to find the best places to see them. www.nps.gov/deva/.
West Side Road also boasts historic sites and opportunities to explore one or more of the six side-canyon roads. The main route offers a mix of hard salt pan, sandy and rocky areas and can usually be traveled with any high-clearance vehicle as long as it has very good off-road tires. But if you intend to explore the side canyons of Trail, Hanaupah, Johnson, Galena, Queen of Sheba and Warm Springs, I strongly recommend a four-wheel-drive vehicle and some previous experience operating one.
Starting in the Furnace Creek area on Calif. Hwy. 190, take the Badwater Road (Calif. Hwy. 178) south for about 6.2 miles and go right onto the signed West Side Road.
Frank “Shorty” Harris, one of the most famous gold prospectors in the region is buried here. The grave is about nine miles down the road, on your left, and is marked by a sign. Other highlights along the West Side Road are the ruins of the Eagle Borax Works, the first borax refinery in Death Valley, which operated 1882-1884, and the area where the Bennett Long Camp was located.
If you don’t choose to explore any of the side canyons after exiting West Side Road, returning to the Furnace Creek area via the paved Badwater Road will constitute a 44-mile round trip.
For an additional back road experience you can exit West Side Road, head south on Badwater Road for three miles and go straight to take the Harry Wade Road through to the south end of the park. (The more usual route in this direction, continuing on Badwater Road up through Jubilee and Salisbury Pass to Shoshone, is temporarily closed.)
Harry Wade Road is 31 miles of gravel that brings you out the extreme southern part of the park to Calif. 127. From there you can head north about 24 miles back to Shoshone and then go right onto Calif. 178 (which turns into Nevada Hwy. 372 at the Nevada boundary) for about 19 miles to Pahrump.
The Harry Wade Road is usually dry, but earlier this month, where the road crosses the Amargosa River and about 13 miles into the drive, I had to ford a stream about one foot deep and 10 feet wide. But the Amargosa is a mostly underground river most of the time, and this crossing should be dry when you go, unless it has rained quite recently.
Cell phones do not get reception on West Side or Harry Wade roads and it is common to spend an entire day driving these roads without seeing another vehicle, so you are definitely on your own. Therefore, be sure to bring plenty of extra water and food, in case you get stranded, besides spare tires, tools for changing them, warm clothes, flashlights, matches, etc.
I make it a habit to visit the park website, www.nps.gov/deva/, before starting a trip to Death Valley and it’s also a good idea to make your first stop at the physical visitor center in Furnace Creek.
They will have a copy of the daily morning report which will give you up-to-date information about weather, road conditions and such. This is where you pay the entry fee to the park, or show your park pass and they will give you a park newspaper and map. Also available here is a back-country road map published by the company that manufactures Jeep vehicles; however, you must ask for it. This offers basic information on some of the most popular gravel roads in the park.
From Pahrump take State Route 160 north to Bell Vista Avenue
Go left and travel about 26 miles (passing into California) to Death Valley Junction
Go right onto Calif. 127 and drive 0.2 miles and go left onto California 190
Drive about 30 miles to the Furnace Creek area of Death Valley
Deborah Wall is the author of “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States,” “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide,” and co-author of “Access For All, Touring the Southwest with Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.