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Winter in Wildrose and Emigrant canyons

A winter trip along the Emigrant Canyon loop in Death Valley National Park can take you from sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells to snow-covered Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. This route is a scenic west entrance to the park, although the sharp curves, winding, and narrow road bans vehicles longer than 25 feet.

It seems a strange day in Death Valley. Storm clouds are billowing and snow coats the mountain tops, but then, a desert storm makes for spectacular scenery.

My husband, Richard, and I start at Stovepipe Wells, following Highway 190 southwest as it steadily climbs 2,300 feet in nine miles. Just past the Emigrant Canyon campground, we turn left on what is called Emigrant Canyon Road on the map, but the sign says Wildrose Road. (If you’re going to do this trip, this is the place to set your trip odometer.)

The paved road goes up an alluvial fan to enter Emigrant Canyon itself. This drainage provided the escape route for some very tired, hungry and lost pioneers. Headed for the California Gold Rush, the unlucky 49ers tried to take a shortcut through Death Valley. Lost and near starvation, they slaughtered their weakened oxen, burned their wagons to dry the meat and then walked out of Death Valley through Emigrant Pass and Wildrose Canyon.

At 6.6 miles, I notice the ruins of Journigan’s Mill on the west side of the road. Built in 1937 by Roy Journigan, the mill used a cyanide process to remove gold from the ore mined nearby.

At 9.4 miles we see the sign pointing the way for a side trip to Skidoo, a town reputedly named for the slang expression "23 Skidoo," which, depending on context, used to mean either "Get lost, ya bum!" or "We better run!" Being careful to record mileage at the intersection so we can keep track of distances once we return to the main route, Richard and I give in to the temptation to explore. We drive 7.1 miles of washboardy road — each way — only to find that there isn’t much left of old Skidoo. Here a stamp mill crushed ore from the surrounding gold mines and the town had a population of about 500 in 1907. Eventually, the mines played out and the town site resumed its natural character as a sagebrush flat.

Back on the Emigrant Pass Road, 11.8 miles from our original odometer set-point, we again succumb to our exploring tendencies and take the Aguereberry Point Road. It is wise to check ahead of time on the condition of this road. This 6.3 mile one-way road is listed as four-wheel-drive only in some guides, and we need all four wheels today. But check on road conditions before you go; if it is dry weather, two-wheel drive and a high-clearance vehicle might be enough.

After 1.5 miles we spot old mine buildings on the right and a turnoff leads over to Pete Aguereberry’s Eureka Mine. Shorty Harris and Pete Aguereberry found gold in 1905 and a tent city called Harrisberry, a combination of both last names, sprang up. Later the town became Harrisburg.

The town of Harrisberry/Harrisburg didn’t last, but Pete Aguereberry spent more than 35 years working in the Eureka gold mine. Proof of Aguereberry’s mine is clearly visible. The metal rails of his baby-gauge railroad that carried ore cars into the mine remain, and the wooden frame clings to the side of the hill. A small rock cabin, Aguereberry’s home, stands as a testament to the tenacious miner. Old timers say Aguereberry kept an immaculate house, complete with lace curtains.

We backtrack to the Aguereberry Point road and continue to the "Point" itself, which boasts one of the most jaw-dropping views in the park. Even though the ridge is almost five miles from the cabin, he made a road so that others could see what he called "Fine View." After Death Valley National Monument was established in 1933, a visitor stopped by the cabin asking directions to Fine View. He told Aguereberry that he was going to name the point after him and put up road signs. The visitor was true to his word and the Automobile Club of Southern California erected a sign and officially named "Aguereberry Point."

The road turns rough for the last 200 yards, so we walk to the point. It is downright cold at Aguereberry Point today, and it should be; the elevation of this rocky ridge is 6,650 feet and there is snow on the ground. A couple from Germany joins us and we all stare down at Badwater — the lowest point in the United States at 282 feet below sea level — and the green palms at neighboring Furnace Creek while dark storm clouds rising behind us threaten even colder weather up here.

Back on the Emigrant Canyon Road we drive over Emigrant Pass (mileage 13.1), hardly realizing we have done so. At 15 miles and 5,547 feet, we cross Nemo Pass. Five more miles and it’s down Rattlesnake Canyon. I’ve always been leery of anything named Rattlesnake and this road is curvy enough to justify my fears.

Finally, after 20.9 miles, we’re at Wildrose Junction and the turnoff for our final side trip, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. We take the left (east) fork turning onto Mahogany Flat Road and quickly pass a campground and ranger station. The road is paved, sort of, with plenty of potholes and broken pavement. After five miles the pavement gives up and it is another two miles of dirt road to the kilns. Since it has been snowing, we must shift into four-wheel-drive to make it all the way to the kilns, but in good weather, the road is passable in two-wheel drive.

There are 10 of the beehive-shaped kilns here. Constructed from local rock in 1877, the kilns are still in perfect condition. I even still smell wood smoke inside the blackened interior. The kilns produced charcoal for the Modoc Consolidated Mining Company, located across the Panamint Valley to the west. Each kiln, 30 feet in diameter and 25 high, could hold 42 cords of wood. It took a week of firing to turn the pinyon or juniper wood into 2,000 bushels of charcoal. The kilns burned hot back in their day, but today, at 6,747 feet elevation, they are covered in snow making for a great photo.

Backtracking to the Emigrant Canyon Road, and continuing south, we head down another steep, winding canyon that has its own share of potholes, and pass Poplar Spring. In the summer, the cottonwoods and willow trees would be green and the wild roses in bloom but, winter is in charge today and the bare branches are encased in snow providing another beautiful scene.

Following Wildrose Canyon, we come out at Middle Panamint Junction where four roads come together. We turn right, heading north on the Panamint Valley Road, which thankfully lacks the potholes and curves with which we have become all too familiar. We appreciate all 15 miles to Highway 190, then turn right toward Stovepipe Wells. From here it is downhill all the way — 26 miles — to our motel room and a good night’s sleep, in a neighborhood of sand dunes instead of snow drifts.

 

GETTING THERE

Location: Stovepipe Wells, Calif., 150 miles west of Las Vegas, is jumping-off point. Emigrant Canyon Loop is approximately 80 miles round-trip, not including side trips.

Directions: From Las Vegas take U.S. 95 for 116 miles to Beatty. In Beatty, turn left onto Main Street (Nevada Route 374) After 13 miles this road enters Death Valley National Park and becomes Daylight Pass Road. Continue on Daylight Pass Road for another 13 miles, then turn left onto North Highways for .5 miles then right on California Route 190 for 7 miles. Turn left into Stovepipe Wells.

Best time to visit: OK year-round, but snow may be present in winter.

Caveats: Motor vehicles and trailer combinations more than 25-feet long or nine-feet wide are not allowed on canyon loop, because of sharp curves and narrow roads, Some side trips require four-wheel-drive, depending on road conditions. For road conditions, check with visitor center or ranger station before embarking; cell phone coverage is very poor.

Beatty Information Center: (775) 553-2200.

Furnace Creek Visitor Center: (760) 786-2331.

Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station: (760) 786-2342, www.nps.gov/deva.

Accommodations: Stovepipe Wells Village contains a gas station/general store, camping facilities, airstrip, and motel. (760) 786-2387, www.stovepipewells.com.

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