My long weekend in Death Valley was great fun! I left last Thursday night and came back just before midnight, Sunday. I felt pretty good about making the most of a long weekend.
I scouted this trip five weekends ago. The conditions were even better this time around; temperature highs in the upper 70s, and the lows were in the 40s. This trip also started in Owens Valley, ran through Saline Valley, and out Steele Pass and beyond Eureka Sand Dunes.
The highlight of this story are the variety of old mining roads and features that I wanted to check out since my last trip. In this case, I decided to drive down some old trails to see what I'd find. Beautiful area! Lots of interesting rock formations and signs of old mining activity. One thing I did not count on was running into a National Parks Ranger on foot! It turns out he was slowly tracking me (and later pointed out that he could not follow me in with his Dodge pickup). He wasn't happy with me.
To be fair, the ranger was very courteous and professional. He explained that I was in National Parks land and OHV use was prohibited. That surprised me since I thought I was in BLM-land. Turns out most of Death Valley that was once BLM-land has been given to the National Parks for Death Valley. In fact, he cited 95% of the land is National Parks land -- there are small swathes cut out everywhere for OHV/other use, but those are clearly marked on any current map.
We all know how to use a map, but do you always take the trouble to read it carefully for information about park borders? I was relying on old knowledge gleaned from friends -- dated, at best. Even if you are following what appears to be an established trail, you may be violating OHV rules for the national park. If there is a rule here, it's that the road you're interested in must be clearly marked as valid on a current map. The old trails "fall off", and it is your responsibility to be sure that you have a current map.
In hindsight, I'm very aware of my error. Sure, I wish I had read the map more carefully. I had a long conversation with the ranger about the absence of signs. Very few areas had any kind of sign (a contentious part of park policy that governing bodies don't agree on!). That was confusing for me. I am very used to the idea that off-limits areas have signs. Be aware that Death Valley is a big exception to anything resembling a rule on that front! The ranger agreed with me and said he'd include that in his report. One last point is that the area I was in was "protected wilderness" -- a special designation within the parks area.
At the end of the day, I'm facing a fine, a day in court, and additional civil penalties (speculated to be "in the thousands"). Sometime in the next thirty days I'll receive court details. There are only four dates a year, and my date is expected in June. I'll need to take time off work and travel to Bakersfield to spend the entire day (or two!).
But, that didn't sour me on the trip. I had a blast and learned a big lesson. Hopefully this helps someone considering a similar trip in Death Valley -- or any national park. There are additional details that I could share privately, but this is probably all I want to say about it publicly.
Here are a couple photos from the trip:
(photos from out-of-bounds areas are not included)
(This shot is from my previous trip; my Jeep was stock five weeks ago!)