Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

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Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by bbb » Sun May 26, 2019 12:50 pm

The hike from Death Valley to Racetrack Playa was a trip that was in the back of my mind but not something I intended to do up until a few days before leaving for the Park this past February. And even when I got to the Park, seeing that Cottonwood Canyon Road was closed due to flooding (making the hike about nine miles longer each way), I was really close to doing something else. But now that I’ve done the hike, I appreciate it and think it shows an interesting cross section of the park -- from flat desert, through narrow canyons, past old mines, across high Joshua tree desert, and finally arriving at a dry lakebed with a natural oddity, the sailing stones of Racetrack Playa.

I first ran across the hike description doing online searches for springs in the Cottonwood range. I’ve done a few treks across the valley floor into remote canyons in this part of the Park, and a lot of the challenge is water management and hauling several gallons of liquid for ten or more miles. One of the search results that came up during the spring search was a hike to Racetrack Playa from two different locations: Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Valley. There’s a well done write up that can be found here.

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I arrived at Stovepipe Wells late afternoon on a late February day. There had a been cold blast of weather in the west that left snow on the ground in Las Vegas, and during the drive north through Beatty, short bursts of snow showers appeared on highway 95.

Standing in the valley at Stovepipe though, it was apparent that the snow had gotten very close the valley floor. There were also short flooded sections of highway 190 where the road narrowed to a single lane.

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It was also clear that day that the dirt road up to Cottonwood and Marble Canyons from 190 was flooded in places, and there were deep muddy ruts. It would not be possible to travel the two-wheel drive portion of the road in a rental car. Feeling defeated, I decided to drive further north towards the intersection of Titus Canyon Rd. and Scotty’s Castle Rd. and use that as a trailhead. I decided that I’d cross the valley floor and find another way through the Cottonwoods further north of Marble Canyon. There were a couple of places above Sand Flat that looked like they might allow access down the mountainside and west towards the Racetrack.

But when I got to the second trailhead, the wind and the darkness were starting to grow, and I decided that a motel in Beatty was more appealing for the night. It would give me a chance to think about route planning too. After some consideration later that evening, I decided that crossing the valley floor from the Titus Canyon Rd. intersection was going to be about the same as walking Cottonwood Canyon Rd from Stovepipe Wells.

I was in the Stovepipe Wells parking lot the next morning before the sun came up, ready to step off down the road. The wind had calmed and, looking towards the Cottonwoods, the mountain tops were covered with snow.

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The dirt road was quick work on foot. After four miles of hiking, I decided it would be appropriate to consider whether I had packed the stove fuel I had purchased in Las Vegas the previous day. I had not. I didn’t even need to check my bag; I knew it wasn’t there. It was an unforced error made in the predawn hours during the great haste to get on the trail. Running or jogging back to the car without the pack, without water and gear, and grabbing the fuel canister would be the fastest. I set my pack down where I was and ran back to the car. The four miles back to the car, with pride only slightly in tact, and four-mile return to the trail point with stove canister in hand went pretty fast actually.

Having lost time retrieving the stove fuel, I decided to put my head down and move as fast as I could into Marble Canyon. I stashed one of my gallon water jugs shortly past the cut into the mountainside where the true four-wheel drive road starts on Cottonwood Canyon Rd. I figured I could use it for the ten-mile hike back out to the car. In the afternoon, I reached the point in Marble Canyon where the road stops. The gravel gets smoother and the canyon walls begin to close in. Although it was an uphill hike, the elevation gain was so gradual, I hardly noticed that I was travelling higher into the mountain range, and it was neat looking up and seeing the snow get closer.

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The long hike and cold dry air led to an incredible night’s sleep, and I woke up the next morning ready to trek as near as I could to the Racetrack. It looked close on the map, but of course it would take the whole day to get even close to the playa’s doorstep.

Because of all of the recent precipitation, there were plenty of wet tracks to follow.

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These prints I saw repeatedly. I wasn’t sure what animal had left them.

There was a lot of writing and petroglyph carving in the canyon too. Some of it indicated the year it was from: 1980, 1964, 1906, and some earlier. It made me consider the line between cultural and historically significant carvings and those which would be considered graffiti. Should the newer inscriptions be removed or were they as important as the older ones?

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The trip up Marble Canyon to Goldbelt and onto the Racetrack does not appear to be a popular trek, and signs of foot traffic in the upper reaches of the canyon are nonexistent in some places. There are several tributaries and branch canyons that occasionally make it tough to follow Marble too. I relied a great deal on my GPS through these parts. It is also worth noting that the upper reaches of Marble Canyon contain a severe bushwack. It is impossible to move quickly here, and whatever head of steam I’d built up earlier in the day quickly came to a halt, zig zagging between the vegetation.

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It was when I was hiking these emptier areas of the canyon that I happened upon a couple taking a breather from their Cottonwood-Marble hike. They were taking a rest and had wandered a short distance up the less trafficked part of Marble. We had a short chat, and I continued on the way. Almost immediately though, I turned a canyon corner and there it was – a running spring. It was deep enough for dipping a liter bottle into too. I don’t know how reliable it is. It had just rained and snowed that week.

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This would make water management so much easier, and so would the snow that was becoming more plentiful.

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After losing the canyon for a bit and refusing to backtrack get back on the trail (which wasted a lot of time), I finally made it to Goldbelt. I knew I was at Goldbelt because there was a rusty upside-down car, and a soft dirt road also appeared.

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I did not check the Goldbelt area to see if there was a spring since my water situation was under control.

Then it was just following the roads out of the quadrangle and towards Ulida Flat. There were some snowy patches, which were a convenient water backup.

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I did see one group of trucks along the road that day. The lead truck had some kind of geology organization emblem on the side. When they saw me trudging down the cold road towards them, the lead driver in the group was kind enough to stop and ask if I needed anything. Otherwise, I had miles of dirt roads and high desert all to myself.

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I had hoped to make it to the Racetrack that second night, but the hike out of the end of Marble Canyon had taken longer than expected. Instead, I decided to hike until twilight and get as close to the Racetrack as possible.

Climbing down the dirt road to Ulida Flat, it was easy to spot the saddle in the ridge where I could cut down into Racetrack Valley. I called it “Racetrack Pass.” At some point, I would leave the dirt road and hike through the scrub and Joshua trees towards this point. Luckily, both the dirt road and off trail parts were equally fast hikes. I suppose hiking the road was slightly faster because it provided a straighter line, but it was nothing like the climb out of Marble Canyon earlier in the day.

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I set up camp and would leave before dawn the next morning to make the Racetrack for sunrise. I figured the Racetrack was just over the hill and it would be a fast hike. This turned out to be wrong.


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My hazy recollection is that I woke up at 4 and stepped off shortly thereafter for the Racetrack. I left a lot of heavy gear at the camp site – tent, bag, and food – knowing that I would circle back a short time later.

Now, looking at the route ahead of time, I was not sure how easy the route finding would be from the pass to the Playa, but it turned out that it was all pretty much one dry creek. I followed this creek nearly all the way to the valley. Towards the end, I did get impatient and ended up hopping a ridge and trying to find a faster way, but there was no need. I’m fairly certain I could have followed the same dry creek down from the pass to the Racetrack the entire way. There was a slight rock scramble down the final portion, but it was all very easy for a cross country trek and nearly impossible to get lost.

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It was neat seeing the lakebed come in and out of view. (This is a shot I took on the way back out of the valley: )

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Just as the sun was starting to hit the top of Ubehebe Peak, I made it to the Playa lakebed. It is quite dramatic being on the lakebed and watching the valley slowly light up.

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Then, of course, there are the magic rocks…

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I ran across part of the Racetrack during the last few minutes before sunrise frantically looking for rocks to photograph. I was in the area of the Playa where they are generally found. I’m aware of all the accounts about the damage done to the Racetrack, and anecdotally, there seemed to be fewer rocks than I’ve found in year past. There were empty tracks where I’m sure there were rocks before. But I was only there a short time, so I cannot say to what extent the rocks have disappeared with any certainty. Having now reached the area on foot, I don’t think I’d have any issue if they closed Racetrack Road completely at this point. Either that, or pave it and set up a ranger station at the end.

After spending sunrise on the Playa, I climbed back out to the camp site, packed up, and headed back towards Marble Canyon. It was a beautiful walk back across the flat towards the quadrangle – just desert road, Joshua trees, and mountains, as far as the eye could see.

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I was sorry to leave Racetrack Valley and Ulida Flat. There was enough snow to have sustained my water needs for several days there. But hiking back up towards Goldbelt, I got a glimpse of Sand Flat. I had been eyeing Sand Flat from Google Earth for several months. One plan had been to hike to the Racetrack from another canyon in the Cottonwoods -- across Sand Flat. But it was tough to tell from the satellite imagery whether it was even possible to descend the steep western slope of the mountains into Sand Flat. From my vantage point that day, it looked difficult or near impossible to hike down the escarpment and into the flat.

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I was actually running low on water at this point. I had plenty of stove fuel to gather snow and melt down several gallons of water, but the idea of drinking from the spring in Marble Canyon was much more appealing, so I hurried down the canyon back to the spring I passed the day before. I didn’t make it back to the first night’s camp spot just inside the wilderness boundary, but I got close.

The next day, I took more time passing through the narrows in Marble Canyon. While not as spectacular as some of the other narrows in the park, there was still unique character in the bright whites and yellows that occurred in the rock.

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Emerging from the mountains, the last eight miles down the closed road to Stovepipe weren’t especially enthralling. Still, it was interesting to see the muddy patches from the recent rains on the valley floor.

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Finally, getting closer once again to the Panamints, it was clear that the snow from three days earlier was getting thinner on the mountain tops. The snowy Friday morning with low snow levels when I had been frantic to step off down the trail was a fleeting moment.

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Stovepipe Wells appeared like a dot on the horizon that only slowly got bigger as the afternoon an early evening wore on. When I finally got to the area, I was greeted by a large number of RV owners standing and staring west in my direction from their campsites. I thought they were looking at me, but it turns out there was a remarkable sunset over the Cottonwoods just behind me.

=

More pics of this trip and other trips in Death Valley can be found here. I still haven't gotten around to editing many of the "good pics" from this trip, so they'll be up in the weeks and months ahead.
Last edited by bbb on Mon May 27, 2019 5:05 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by John Morrow » Sun May 26, 2019 5:24 pm

Wonderful! Thanks for posting this. I have been wanting to extend the Ctnwd/Marble Loop into the side canyons to the north. I've wondered about coming over the Cottonwood Crest into Sand Flat as well.

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by John Morrow » Sun May 26, 2019 8:13 pm

bbb wrote:
Sun May 26, 2019 12:50 pm


I was sorry to leave Racetrack Valley and Ulida Flat. There was enough snow to have sustained my water needs for several days there. But hiking back up towards Goldbelt, I got a glimpse of Sand Flat. I had been eyeing Sand Flat from Google Earth for several months. One plan had been to hike to the Racetrack from another canyon in the Cottonwoods -- across Sand Flat. But it was tough to tell from the satellite imagery whether it was even possible to descend the steep western slope of the mountains into Sand Flat. From my vantage point that day, it looked difficult or near impossible to hike down the escarpment and into the flat.

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I was wondering if from a different fork of Marble it would be feasible to reach a pass to the right and below the blackcapped peak. It would be steep but shorter than coming over a higher pass (pictured) directly from Cottonwood/Marble junction far below. It's a great pic by the way!

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by bbb » Mon May 27, 2019 5:59 am

Thanks, John. I took a quick look, and I think peak 5923 (?) above is the black peak you're talking about. Yes, it looks like there are more reasonable routes this way, like the blue line or just north of that. I had been looking at routes like the red one, coming from the Big Fall Canyon area. But being on the ground and actually seeing the steepness here makes me less hopeful.

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edit -- I changed "Sandy" Flat to just Sand Flat in the that pic and fixed one of the map pics that wasn't showing up.

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by John Morrow » Mon May 27, 2019 9:36 am

bbb wrote:
Mon May 27, 2019 5:59 am
Thanks, John. I took a quick look, and I think peak 5923 (?) above is the black peak you're talking about. Yes, it looks like there are more reasonable routes this way, like the blue line or just north of that. I had been looking at routes like the red one, coming from the Big Fall Canyon area. But being on the ground and actually seeing the steepness here makes me less hopeful.

Image

edit -- I changed "Sandy" Flat to just Sand Flat in the that pic and fixed one of the map pics that wasn't showing up.
The blue line was exactly what I was thinking. Both Kauri and Steve Hall have info on the side canyon of Marble (with a short nice narrows) that leads right to the pass the blue line goes through. Makes a nice looking loop opportunity with your trip. I agree, 5923' is the black capped one.

An epic trip would be to add Grubstake to your route--->then descend N Fk Quail Canyon (your reference link)--->climb a ridge up to Jackass Spring--->descend back into Cottonwood. Except for Racetrack area (beg for water or cache) it appears reliable springs are at reasonable intervals. So much to do! I really don't have a partner interested in such heavy pack slogging. Not sure I want to tackle it solo.

By the way, if you haven't completed the Cottonwood Marble loop, we made a nice 2WD vehicle extension (out of Emigrant RS) by adding Lemoigne Canyon--->Emigrant Campground trail as a return. We started by going over the lower portion of the Cottonwoods Mtns, from Emigrant, up Kauri and Steve Halls Canyon No 7 (I think). Fun 4 day loop with only 1.5 days span w/o water.

John

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by MojaveGeek » Mon May 27, 2019 10:38 am

Wow that's a really great trip, thanks for the report. Especially with the run back to SPW for the gas can. Good call though, would have been unfortunate to find that when you started to cook your first dinner !

As for "history", 50 years is the (rather arbitrary) cutoff for historic vs. trash that is usually used. Sometimes enforced in silly ways to prevent cleanup of old debris, but... Once I found a jar of honey in an old adit that had been inhabited for some period. It had a zip code on the label, which I figured dated it within 50 years (at the time) and was still good, so I ate it :) (carried out the jar of course)

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by bbb » Sat Jun 01, 2019 7:34 am

John Morrow wrote:
Mon May 27, 2019 9:36 am
The blue line was exactly what I was thinking. Both Kauri and Steve Hall have info on the side canyon of Marble (with a short nice narrows) that leads right to the pass the blue line goes through.
I'd be interested in reading that. Do you know if that info is in one of their trip reports?
An epic trip would be to add Grubstake to your route--->then descend N Fk Quail Canyon (your reference link)--->climb a ridge up to Jackass Spring--->descend back into Cottonwood. Except for Racetrack area (beg for water or cache) it appears reliable springs are at reasonable intervals. So much to do! I really don't have a partner interested in such heavy pack slogging. Not sure I want to tackle it solo.
That would be a pretty incredible distance, but assuming there's water around definitely doable. The route to the Racetrack from Panamint Valley in the reference link also looks like an adventure, though I can't find anything about Quail or Mill Canyons.
By the way, if you haven't completed the Cottonwood Marble loop, we made a nice 2WD vehicle extension (out of Emigrant RS) by adding Lemoigne Canyon--->Emigrant Campground trail as a return. We started by going over the lower portion of the Cottonwoods Mtns, from Emigrant, up Kauri and Steve Halls Canyon No 7 (I think). Fun 4 day loop with only 1.5 days span w/o water.
Yeah, I've definitely wanted to explore Lemoigne Canyon. Did you like the Cottonwood Canyon part of the Marble loop? I was a bit on the fence about doing that as a loop this past trip. Some of the pics I've seen of Cottonwood Cyn didn't really make the area jump out to me. But sometimes it's tough to tell from a trip report.

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by bbb » Sat Jun 01, 2019 7:49 am

MojaveGeek wrote:
Mon May 27, 2019 10:38 am
Wow that's a really great trip, thanks for the report. Especially with the run back to SPW for the gas can. Good call though, would have been unfortunate to find that when you started to cook your first dinner !
I did a couple years of no cook backpacking before I figured out that a hot meal at the end of the day exponentially helps morale. But on one of my no- cook trips, my hiking buddy who had planned to use his stove had left his fuel at the trailhead. Just remembering seeing him try and choke down noodles in cold water for a couple of days was enough to make the decision to head back for the fuel on this trip a no brainer.
Once I found a jar of honey in an old adit that had been inhabited for some period. It had a zip code on the label, which I figured dated it within 50 years (at the time) and was still good, so I ate it :) (carried out the jar of course)
That's pretty brave but now that I know that old honey is safe, I will be looking for it. :lol:

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by John Morrow » Sat Jun 01, 2019 1:18 pm

Barely hit Cottonwood in this larger loop from Emigrant Campground/Bathrooms, avoiding the road:
The dryfalls at the beginning in Canyon 7 are bypassable.

http://www.nwhikers.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=8022827

loop shows unconnected out of Lemoigne because a jeeper gave us a ride to avoid crossing the bajada:

ImageLoop by John Morrow, on Flickr

Kauri's 3rd side canyon of Marble:

http://kaurijacobphotography.yolasite.c ... nPart1.pdf
http://kaurijacobphotography.yolasite.c ... nPart2.pdf

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by wbdeford » Sat Jun 01, 2019 4:33 pm

Nice report and pics! Will definitely have to keep this one in the back of my mind for a future trip.

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by Kauri » Sat Jun 01, 2019 4:55 pm

John Morrow wrote:
Sat Jun 01, 2019 1:18 pm
Barely hit Cottonwood in this larger loop from Emigrant Campground/Bathrooms, avoiding the road:
The dryfalls at the beginning in Canyon 7 are bypassable.

http://www.nwhikers.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=8022827

loop shows unconnected out of Lemoigne because a jeeper gave us a ride to avoid crossing the bajada:

ImageLoop by John Morrow, on Flickr
Just to clarify, the canyon you hiked appears to be what Steve Hall and I call Canyon 8 (not Canyon 7, which is Pothole Canyon), though our numbering is a bit arbitrary (e.g., I later added some ".5" Canyons to Steve's original list).

There's a map of canyons 3-10 on the first page of this report:
http://kaurijacobphotography.yolasite.c ... s8And9.pdf
My trip reports, from Death Valley and beyond: http://kaurijacobphotography.yolasite.c ... eports.php

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by John Morrow » Sun Jun 02, 2019 10:10 am

Thank you for the clarification, Kauri.

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by bbb » Mon Jun 03, 2019 4:37 pm

John Morrow wrote:
Sat Jun 01, 2019 1:18 pm
Barely hit Cottonwood in this larger loop from Emigrant Campground/Bathrooms, avoiding the road:
The dryfalls at the beginning in Canyon 7 are bypassable.

http://www.nwhikers.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=8022827
That's a great idea for loop. Nice pics from the top of Panamint Butte too!

That 3rd side canyon from Kauri's report does look promising.

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by Kauri » Mon Jun 03, 2019 5:10 pm

I'd like to mention that I'm very happy that folks are using my reports to help plan their trips, and let me know if there are any questions about what I've written. I haven't been able to visit DV for 18 months now (since I've been helping to take care of my father, who has a neurological disability), so I'm definitely enjoying and appreciating all of the photos and trip reports that have been posted recently.
My trip reports, from Death Valley and beyond: http://kaurijacobphotography.yolasite.c ... eports.php

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Re: Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack Playa (via Marble Canyon) - Feb. 22-26

Post by John Morrow » Wed Jun 05, 2019 5:30 am

Kauri wrote:
Mon Jun 03, 2019 5:10 pm
I'd like to mention that I'm very happy that folks are using my reports to help plan their trips, and let me know if there are any questions about what I've written. I haven't been able to visit DV for 18 months now (since I've been helping to take care of my father, who has a neurological disability), so I'm definitely enjoying and appreciating all of the photos and trip reports that have been posted recently.
I am really sorry to hear about your father, Kauri. It is great you can be with him, whatever challenges it may pose.
I love your TR's. You've helped me really gain enthusiasm for a park and a desert I might not have come to begin to know nearly as well.
18 months is a long time! Hope you can break free when the weather cools.
John

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