The Confidence Hills represent a type of topography known as badlands—a dry terrain of brittle sedimentary rock and clay-like soil that is torturously eroded into a myriad of steep ruts and gullies. Light gray and salt encrusted, they rise about 400 feet straight from the middle of Death Valley. They stood in my way between my car, parked off the Harry Wade Road on the bottom of Death Valley 100 feet below sea level, and the rocky Owlshead Mountains flanking Death Valley a few miles to the west. I had to cross them.
The little slot gully was like an inviting hallway, flat bottomed and twisting along, care-free, turn-after-turn, until suddenly the sandy pathway disappeared into a small tunnel straight into the badlands tuff. I was in a mini box canyon. I considered climbing out from here, but being solo in a very remote area, my risk threshold was low. I retreated back through the winding hallway and back out onto the bright floor of Death Valley proper.
My next attempt to cross the Confidence Hills was to take the high road. I climbed to the crest of the ridge adjacent to the slot gully. The turf was like crème brule—a thin brittle crust over an inch of soft dirt. There was no vegetative cover except for one miraculous purple flower I nearly stepped on.
It was hard work lugging my 4.5 gallons of water up the steep, loose, slope. But, I soon gained the 400-foot summit. Then I followed the ridge down the other side, dropped into another slot gully, and wound my way out of the labyrinth. I dropped my pack on a nice flat table of land, the Confidence Hills just behind me to my east and the higher, rockier, Owlshead Mountains beckoning across the playa to the west.
This would be camp for the night, but before I could rest, I would have to retrace the three miles all the way back to the car to get the rest of my gear and then return again, for I had decided to haul the 70 pounds of gear and water in two trips rather than one. By dusk I had completed the back and forth, and after 9 good miles of walking, I was only 3 miles from the car. With satisfaction I watched the red glow of evening sunlight diminishing on the flanks of the Amorgosa Range across Death Valley to the east. Darkness comes early and quickly here in late December.
There were smoke trees at the mouth of Through Canyon, which may not seem remarkable if you haven’t been to the lower elevations of Death Valley, for trees just don’t grow here. But, there they were, maybe ten or twenty of them in total. They stood defiantly claiming this lonely place as theirs. Oddly, they made me think of the Death Valley miners of a hundred years or more ago, trying to establish a living in one of the most unlivable places on earth.
Venturing up Through Canyon into the Owlshead Mountains felt like real exploration. There was no trail, only the wide dry wash to follow. To my left, the south edge of the canyon was flanked by dark volcanic rock. To my right, the north rim consisted of bright sunlit granite. Sage and creosote bushes lined the sandy-gravelly bottom.
The air was a cool but very pleasant 55 degrees, warmed in desert sunshine through a cloudless sky. It is easy to imagine how unbearably hot this place is for much of the year. In 1913 at Furnace Creek, not far from where I stood in Through Canyon, a man darted out into the white heat with a soaked towel wrapped around his head to check a temperature gauge. It was 134 degrees Fahrenheit, a reading that still stands to this day as the hottest recorded natural air temperature in the entire Western Hemisphere. The man’s wet towel was dry within a minute. Ground temperatures of 200 degrees have been recorded in Death Valley, and not even over highway pavement. Park Service literature warns understatedly that hiking or backpacking in summer in the lower elevations of the park is “not advised.” On a recent hot June Day a French man walked away from a tour bus at the Mesquite Dunes. He was asked to return in 10 minutes due to the heat. When he didn’t return after one hour, the bus driver called search and rescue. The man was found dead only 400 yards from the bus.
Canyon country can be deceiving. As I ventured farther into Through Canyon, I followed what seemed to be the most probable route that would take me over the head of the canyon. But the wide, sandy wash quickly narrowed and steepened, and then I was confronted with an insurmountable cleft. I retreated, climbed a ridge, dropped down into another promising wash, reached another dead-end, retreated again, climbed another ridge, found another wash… With each dead-end I knew I was a little closer to the crest of the range. Finally, I changed tactics. I dropped my pack on a promontory and climbed straight up to the top of the nearest peak to get a bearing.
Standing on that minor, nameless peak, it occurred to me that I was probably one of only a handful of humans to ever stand here. The Owlshead Mountains, in the remote southern section of Death Valley National Park, are seldom visited. At the ranger station in Furnace Creek, while getting my voluntary backcountry permit, only one of a dozen or so rangers there had ever been to the Owlsheads, and he only twice. They asked me to take pictures of any flowers I found because they simply didn’t know for sure what flowers actually grew there.
There is no water to be found in the area. The scenery is beautiful, but there are other places in this park that are more visually stunning. The Owlsheads are not one of the higher ranges in the park. There is, in fact, little here to attract the interest of anyone who wants to see something amazing, except, of course, for those of us who find true solitude and remoteness to be the most amazing of destinations. For us, a place like the Owlsheads can be exhilarating. Beauty here is defined mostly by simple remoteness—the beauty of being in a place rarely trod upon by others.
The Owlshead Mountains form an almost complete circle several miles in diameter. From the nameless peak I stood upon, I followed the curving arc of the range with my eyes until I was looking at the opposite edge of the circle of mountains to the west. In the foreground was the inner basin, a huge tilted playa dotted with a million creosote bushes. On the south side of the playa, the low point of the basin melted into to a shining disc of silver that looked exactly like the surface of a sparkling lake. It was, in fact, the dry lake bed of Owl Lake, the remnant of a real freshwater lake that shimmered here just a few thousand years ago.
After retrieving my pack and entering the playa, I was now in the inner basin of the Owlsheads. I set up camp that night among the creosote bushes. Two one-gallon jugs of water were my life line. I was certain that I was the only human for miles around in any direction. Later, with moonlight glowing from just beyond the mountains to the east, I heard an owl in the distance. I thought of time—the eons that pass here in silence, as seasons, centuries and civilizations come and go.
In the morning I walked three miles south across the playa to Owl Lake. Then I walked out to the middle of the old lake and looked around. There was no vegetation at all. The lake bed was hard cracked dirt speckled with black volcanic rocks. It looked like Mars. Many may wonder what one would find so interesting or beautiful about a desolate landscape like this. Why in the world would one want to haul gallons of water on one’s back, through canyons, over mountains, across monotonous desert expanses, only to reach the middle of a dry, cracked lake bed? Am I crazy? I don’t know, I can’t explain it. But, I do know that the wild is either in your soul or it isn’t. If you have it in you, you just understand. You can’t explain it, but you get it. And, that is enough.
In the afternoon, I walked back to my tent, a tiny orange speck in the middle of this grand expanse encircled by rocky, treeless mountains. I packed up and walked north, towards the head of Through Canyon, where I should have emerged the day before. I walked down a broad ramp back down into the canyon. I found a secret side canyon with vertical granite rocks on each side, and again wondered if any other human had ever set foot here, for I was looking for Granite Canyon, the next canyon to the north, and was off course again.
I never found the access to Granite Canyon. Just as well, I found my third campsite nestled among outcroppings of rock in the middle of Through Canyon. Next to my tent, five boulders, each the size of a small car, rested side-by-side, each having broken loose from the side of the canyon over the last few hundred or thousand years. I thought of them as “The Guardsman.” On the other side of my tent was a small castle of solid rock rising 100 feet or so from the floor of the canyon. I’ll remember it as one of my most glorious backcountry campsites.
Late that night, before the moonrise, I peeked out of the tent to see the stars. Orion was standing on the top of the rock castle. From rim to rim, millions of points of light dusted the cloudless winter sky.
I walked out of Through Canyon the next morning back to my first campsite where I had stashed two gallons of water just in case. I poured the water on a very lucky creosote bush and strapped now four empty gallon jugs to the outside of my pack. Taking the long way around the south end of the Confidence Hills I followed a super highway-like dry wash.
Something shiny caught my eye, tangled in a creosote bush. I walked over to investigate, finding a deflated helium party balloon—one of those aluminum types. The illustration on the balloon looked like an old type Disney cartoon, maybe from the 1950’s. It was a relic of some celebration for a child who long ago grew up and perhaps had already passed on from this world. And yet, here was this deflated balloon, like it drifted into this valley just yesterday.
As I balled up the balloon and put it in my pocket, I looked back at the Owlshead Mountains and pondered for a bit about how those mountains will still be there when the human race is no more. We are just a blip on the wavelength of time, and while we may, for a time, litter the land with our bizarre creations, strip it of its clothes, and bore into it looking for its treasures, the Earth will endure beyond us. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the desert.