Finding beauty and wonder in our own backyard

High Desert Playground: Part 1 in a series

Finding beauty and wonder in our own backyardThe historically remarkable structures of the Wildrose Charcoal kilns in Death Valley are one of the most iconic sites in the park. — Photo by Ian Regier


By DIANA REGIER, News Review Correspondent

Growing up in Ridgecrest, I always appreciated the openness and accessibility to the outdoors. Our family also escaped to the mountains when we could and on rare occasions the beach. Then there were yearly excursions to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. However, just 60 miles away from our isolated community is a gateway to a vast wilderness with so much to see and do that it would take a lifetime to experience it all.

Death Valley is the “Hottest, Driest, and Lowest National Park” as billed at Not necessarily a selling statement; however, my children were not raised here, and though they have crossed the United States many times during military moves, this area is one they have spent very little time in.

So, last November during my son Ian’s visit from Virginia, we decided to do just that … take a day trip and explore Death Valley National Park. My husband was away on some unexpected travel, but we decide not to let that detract from Ian’s trip. Ian had never been to Death Valley and thought it would be nice to see. The rest of the decision-making process was a bit impromptu with no specific plans other than to spend the day driving and exploring. We loaded the car with some snacks, plenty of water and our two Australian shepherds, Apache and Ziggy, and were on our way.

We headed out of town through Trona, telling Ian some about the area and pointing out the Pinnacles in the distance. Nearing the left turn onto Panamint Valley Road, I noticed that Wildrose Canyon Road to the right no longer had signs of Road Closed across it, and I excitedly veered in that direction. Command decision made, we ventured into the Surprise Canyon Wilderness Area. This section of road had been closed since 2012, its condition badly affected by rains and washes. I excitedly asked Ian if he would like to take this route rather than stay on the main highway, but really that was just an exercise in politeness as I continued driving!

The last time I had seen this road open was the final road trip I took with my father, Pat Tharp, almost eight years earlier when I was visiting along with my daughter, Leah. That drive was during February, but the weather was similar, the sights were incredible and the memories along with my dad’s reminisces were treasures to hold dear. Yet ever since I had not been able to share the beauty with others.

The crushed rock and dirt road is slower, but worth the time when a few slow miles into the canyon the eyes are rewarded. The narrow, winding canyon turns into a lush, green oasis — eye candy after the almost shrubless terrain just one bend in the road ago! I parked the car, we got the dogs on their leashes and wandered around exploring the various little trails and ledges. We kept walking on up the road about a quarter of a mile to let the dogs get some exercise and energy out. Though it was difficult to leave this bit of beauty and freshness, there were many more things to see and do, so we returned to the car to continue on.

A mile beyond the oasis are a junction and paved road; we turned right to continue exploring. According to the road sign, there are charcoal kilns only six miles farther, though another sign just beyond posts Charcoal Kilns, 7 miles and Mahogany Flats, 9 miles. To the immediate left is the Wildrose campground, and along the road on the right is the 1930s Wildrose Civilian Conservation Corps camp. The CCC was developed as a work-relief program during the turmoil of the Great Depression, as stated on the sign near one of the buildings.

Though the lower mountains of the Panamint Range surrounded us, the vegetation was still sparse and the color was mostly shades of brown. After about four miles the pavement ended; the road was very passable by most vehicles, though there were a few rough patches and a sign stating 4X4 High Clearance Vehicles Recommended. Again, we drove slowly to keep the dust down and our bones from rattling.

As we continued up the road, we noticed the tree line getting thicker and greener. Then when we were about to give up hope that either the six or seven miles posted was correct, we rounded a bend in the road and were presented with a row of very large beehives — the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. There are 10 of these structures, built in 1877 and still in remarkably good condition. Each has an arched doorway entrance on one side and a smaller arched window on the back. Stepping inside, we saw that the kilns still have a strong charcoal or creosote odor. It was amazing how the massive size dwarfed us.

This area is also the trailhead for Wildrose Peak. The day was so beautiful, calm and clear that we decided to walk up the trail a short distance and get some views from higher points. Along the path were many stumps, evidence of the trees cut to provide wood for the charcoal process. The short hike was worth the effort as the canyons and valleys opened up before us and we could see with almost crystal clarity all the way to the Sierra and the snowcapped peaks of Olancha and Whitney.

After a brief consideration of going on to Mahogany Flats, we decided that excursion would have to be kept for another visit. There was still much to do and see, so we took care of the dogs’ needs, grabbed some snacks and headed back down the road toward our next destination. And it was down; the ascent up did not seem that significant, but it became quite evident as the car wanted to pick up speed and rattle everything loose on the descent.

We got back to the paved road, passed the Wildrose campground and reached the junction for Emigrant Canyon Road and the route to Stovepipe Wells. This was another 21 miles, thankfully paved, of twists and turns and constantly changing vistas and canyons, from bleak desert and unique rock formations to swirling colors on canyon walls. At intervals visitors can leave the road and venture off to old mining areas and ghost towns, but we stayed on the road and eventually made it to the Hwy. 190 junction.

We headed toward Stovepipe Wells and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. However we only did a loop through the parking lot with a brief stop to look out at the dunes. Between the dogs and our grumbling stomachs, we made a unified decision to head back west on Hwy. 190. There were still about 35 miles of road and lots of looking before we arrived at our next stop. The one plan that was always in place: Panamint Springs Resort for an early dinner; it did not disappoint. Arriving back in Ridgecrest, we were given one last special moment … a glorious sunset over the Sierra.

This outing was so enjoyable that we decided to retrace the journey a week later when my husband, Angus, was able to appreciate the experience. Again with Ian, dogs, snacks, and water, we headed out to enjoy more of this vast resources in our nearby backyard. On this visit we made the trek up to Mahogany Flats campground. There was no doubt that this was up … quite uphill … all the way! However, the climb was worth it. From there you can see the east side of the Panamints down to the Badwater Basin; it’s a chance to really appreciate the contrasts in landscape between high forests down to below-sea-level terrain. The day was capped by another wonderful meal at Panamint Springs Resort.

If you haven’t experienced a drive through Death Valley or some small sight in the park, I encourage you to take the opportunity if possible. You won’t be disappointed. There is a certain beauty in an area that appears so devoid of life and yet so rich with things to see from a distance or stopping to look closer. The grand landscape of vistas to see from higher vantage points and the vastness of the area will provide you with pleasing visual aids to be remembered for years to come.

Note: Always check on weather and road conditions before leaving main roads in the park. Also we were not aware that dogs are not allowed on the trails or in the wilderness until after that first trip, though it is posted on the signs.

Story First Published: 2018-03-30