© Tony Huegel/Backcountry Byways
Death Valley’s Steel Pass
LOCATION: Death Valley National Park in California, between Eureka and Saline valleys, and the Saline and Last Chance ranges.
HIGHLIGHTS: Just getting to either the northern starting point, at massive Eureka Dunes, or the southern starting point, in isolated Saline Valley, is a motoring adventure through spectacular basin-and-range topography. Your day will begin with long serpentine ascents and descents through mountains whose heights are likely to be snowy in spring, followed by plunging descents into pale desert valleys.
When you arrive at the route’s north end in Eureka Valley, you’ll be at the foot of ever-changing Eureka Dunes, which rise nearly 700 feet from the valley floor, making them California’s highest dunes. Some visitors climb on foot to the dunes’ shifting crest. At times, sand avalanching down the steep faces of the highest dunes will generate a low hum. Far higher on the decibel scale is the roar of military jets that sometimes fly low over Saline Valley. Narrow, high-walled Dedeckera Canyon provides a minor four-wheeling challenge at a short rocky stretch.
The route’s traverse of the sloped valley between the Saline and Last Chance ranges provides both expansive scenery and a genuine sense of remoteness. At the south end, expect to be greeted by friendly—and naked—devotees of Saline Valley’s palm-shaded, user-developed warm springs, a busy destination on springtime weekends. The views of the mountains, especially the escarpment of the Inyo Mountains flanking Saline Valley, are inspiring indeed. Finally, you will end up in Saline Valley, where you can link up with the famous 4WD Lippencott Road and continue to Racetrack and Hidden valleys.
DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. The rocky ledges in Dedeckera Canyon warrant a moderate rating. They require high clearance and probably the use of low range. The long descent from Steel Pass to the warm springs is rocky. Washouts can make slow going.
TIME & DISTANCE: 4–5 hours; about 36.6 miles.
MAPS: National Geographic/Trails Illustrated’s Death Valley National Park (221), North Side. Benchmark Maps’ California Road & Recreation Atlas, p. 80 (D–H, 2–4). INFORMATION: Death Valley National Park. Be sure to check the “Morning Report” on the park’s home page for updates on road conditions and weather.
GETTING THERE: You can travel in either direction, beginning or ending at Eureka Dunes or Saline Valley. The Park Service recommends north to south, from the dunes to Saline Valley Road, as easier. It’s also more scenic, so that is how it’s described here.
Make your way to Eureka Valley and Eureka Dunes [N37°06.844' W117°41.772']. You can get there from the north end of Big Pine, a small town in the Owens Valley, via Big Pine–Death Valley Road (it’s almost 39 miles from U.S. 395 at Big Pine to the turnoff to the dunes, then another 10 miles or so on the badly washboarded dirt of South Eureka Road to the dunes).
If you’re already in the park, take Big Pine–Death Valley Road from Ubehebe Crater for 32.6 miles, to the dunes turn. To begin in Saline Valley, check ahead in spring to see whether the often snow-blocked passes at the north and south ends are open. Then take Saline Valley Road to the turn to the popular warm springs [N36°46.671' W117.52.780'].
THE DRIVE: Zero your odometer at the parking area at the base of the dunes, and follow the little dirt road east. Pass the right branch at mile 0.9. At mile 1.7 the road bends south and begins a gradual ascent toward the mountains and Dedeckera Canyon [N37°03.580' W117.38.470']. You’ll encounter many dips and humps in the road, as well as drifting sand and rock. Then the road follows a gravelly wash. But it’s still just a 2WD, high-clearance road.
By mile 5.8 the road brings you to the narrows of Dedeckera Canyon, and at mile 6 is the short segment where you’ll need to do a bit of rock crawling. Beyond that point the roadbed is easy gravel. The road exits the canyon, and Joshua trees begin to appear, signaling that you’re gaining elevation as you head toward a gap, or saddle, between low, brown hills. Have you noticed that it’s already cooler here?
By about mile 10.6 you’re on the saddle of Steel Pass [N37°00.884' W117°38.230'], at more than 5,000 feet above sea level, in a region famous for being below sea level. Pass the dead-end road to the right at mile 11.7, then climb again up the long, narrow valley. By mile 13 you will have an outstanding view across Saline Valley to the Inyo Mountains. Descending from there, a small junction is reached at about mile 14 [N36°58.178' W117°38.272'], where the road makes a sharp turn to the right and drops into a ravine (it’s a little off-camber). You can continue past that turn a short distance to a stopping place with a view. Continuing to Saline Valley, the road makes a few downhill switchbacks, then becomes rocky as it makes the long descent in a wash of loose alluvium, and heads toward the springs.
You’ll reach the first spring, Upper Warm Spring, a fenced area left in a natural state, at about mile 26.7. From there it’s on to developed Palm Spring and Lower Warm Spring. The palms, by the way, are not native here in the Mojave Desert but were planted. Now you’re in Saline Valley, and by mile 36.6 you’ve reached Saline Valley Road [N36°46.671' W117°52.780']. Big Pine–Death Valley Road is right (north); Lippencott Road [N36°37.191' W117°38.931'] is left (southeast) about 19.7 miles.