In November of 2014, I carried out my first-ever exploration of Wingate Wash, backpacking the entire length (within park boundaries) of the historical route into and out of Death Valley. During that trip, our hike began at the Epsom Salt Works trailhead. We hiked along the edge of the military land boundary until we picked up the old Wingate Wash Road, crossed Wingate Dry Lake, and then hiked down Wingate Wash over the course of 2 days until we arrived at Warm Springs Road. Along the way, we explored Wingate Slot Canyon, which was a major discovery that I made in the park at that time. I also checked out shorter canyons that I called Wingate Slot 2 and Wingate Slot 3. However, due to time constraints, there were more areas which I wanted to see but was not able to on that trip. Fast forward 4 years and 3 months later, and I would finally have the chance to carry out additional exploration of the area. For this trip, I would be joined by friends Tom (from NPS) and Jordan (who would be doing his first lifetime backpacking trip). This route would be much more challenging and complex, as it would require 3 days of time for backpacking and would include quite a few areas of side exploration. The biggest challenge would be carrying the necessary water, as there are no springs along the way and we would each need to carry around 4 1/2 gallons of water when starting out. The new backpacking route would begin at Warm Springs Road, hike up Wingate Wash before turning off into a major canyon to the south, follow that canyon all the way up and over the range, and then descend to Lost Lake before ending at a second parked vehicle on Owlshead Mountains Road. The backpacking route was about 24 miles in length but that mileage does not include our side trips. The side trips would be visits to Never-Ending Ever-Changing Canyon (6 1/2 miles round-trip with 1,600 feet of elevation gain), Wingate Slot 4 (2 miles round-trip), White Ring Hill Canyon (found to be mostly impassable), Owlhead BM peak (4 miles round-trip), and Owlhead BM Canyon. Combining the mileage of the backpacking route and side trips would total about 38 miles spent exploring some of the most remote desert found in Death Valley National Park. This would truly be one of our greatest adventures yet. Due to the extensive ground covered and the great scenery found within, this backpacking trip has been divided into two parts. Part 1 covers Day 1, while Part 2 covers Days 2 and 3. To continue on after reading this report and view Part 2, be sure to visit our report for Owlhead BM found back on the site's Main Page. What follows below is a recap of Day 1 of our backpacking expedition.
The logistics for pulling off a through-hike of the Owlshead Mountains can be incredibly difficult. A lot of planning and preparation must go into it. As part of this, we would need to use a vehicle shuttle so that we would have one vehicle at both the starting and ending points of the route. Thankfully, our friend Tom from NPS would would be joining us on the hike was able to drop his truck off at the ending point (at the parking area for Lost Lake) prior to our start date. This greatly simplified things and allowed us to get an earlier start on Day 1. After driving my truck about 1/2 mile up Warm Springs Road, we parked and began the long journey. Our packs were very heavy with the addition of 4 1/2 gallons of water and 3 days worth of food, but there was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. We were about to do something that very few people had ever done or even considered before by carrying out this unique and well-designed route. One advantage that I had going into this was that I was already familiar with the terrain of the first section hiking up Wingate Wash. I knew that the terrain was mostly solid ground and that it could be covered fast and comfortably. On the way up Wingate Wash, we stopped briefly at the 478 Mine (Wingate Wash Mine) to check it out. Past the mine area, Wingate Wash constricts a bit and becomes more interesting in scenery. A short time later, we turned off into the major canyon to the south. Near this junction, we found a mining dugout shelter that the park service did not have on record (which we would find out later upon returning home). That was a neat find to start things off. About 1 1/2 miles up the major canyon to the south we reached our camping spot for the day. We would be camping on the bank above the mouth of Never-Ending Ever-Changing Canyon (shortened form NEEC Canyon). We pitched our tents and set up camp, then left for a late afternoon hike of NEEC Canyon. NEEC Canyon received its informal name from former Death Valley Wilderness Coordinator Charlie Callagan, who hiked it in December of 2012 along with his friend Scott. Charlie was really impressed with the canyon and fully checked out both of the upper forks (west and east). When heading up the east fork, they both had thought the canyon would dead-end at major dry falls within 5 minutes. However, they found ways to get past the obstacles and see the entire eastern fork. On the hike back down, Charlie came up with the canyon name. He would later tell me: "We considered naming it Five-Minute Canyon after our original guess but then I came up with the name Never-Ending and Scott added Ever-Changing so for us the canyon become NEEC or Never-Ending Ever-Changing Canyon. I highly recommend it." I never thought it would take me over 6 years to follow up and see NEEC Canyon for myself, but here we were about to do just that. NEEC Canyon starts out as a gentle wash which begins heading into the mountains. The first interesting area begins about 1 1/4 miles into the canyon where you pass through a narrow gateway while surrounded by vividly colorful canyon walls. The array of colors on display in this lower canyon area are unequaled in the rest of the Owlshead Mountains and reminded me of Kaleidoscope Canyon in the Black Mountains located some 12 air miles away. A short area of white narrows is then passed through near the 2-mile mark which is perhaps some type of volcanic ash deposit. This white rock can also be seen further up the canyon in the west fork and also on nearby White Ring Hill. A short distance later, the major junction in the canyon is reached about 2 1/4 miles into the canyon. Turning left goes into the east fork, while turning right heads into the west fork. Both forks are very interesting and worth exploring. However, the west fork has less obstacles and passes through the most incredible section of narrows. If you do not have good bypass skills, I recommend only turning right here and visiting the west fork. Our group decided to loop the two forks so that we could see everything. We first turned left and entered the east fork. 1/4 of a mile into the east fork, a 3-way junction is reached. Dry falls block progress on two of the options and the main canyon continues to the right. From this spot on, the canyon passes through vast sections of narrows. But there are also challenging obstacles to contend with that might stop some hikers. Four bypasses are required in order to make it all the way through the east fork to the open area at the end. The four bypasses require between 5 to 20 minutes each to complete. After reaching the open area, we climbed over a low saddle to enter the upper western fork. Hiking down the west fork, we immediately entered some extremely impressive towering rock narrows. The rock walls contained colorful breccia of all shapes and sizes. When it comes to solid rock narrows found in the Owlshead Mountains, this spot in the western fork is perhaps the most impressive area in the entire range. (The only more impressive narrows in the Owlsheads, which are found in the Smoke Tree Slots and Wingate Slot Canyon, are made entirely of conglomerate rock -- sometimes referred to incorrectly as mud narrows.) Daylight only lasted long enough for us to pass through these narrows and complete the west fork back to the junction. After that, we hiked by flashlight back to our Day 1 camp. Our hike took place on February 7, 2019.