Lee Wash is a beautiful isolated canyon which contains Joshua Trees and boulders in the upper portion, dry falls and colored layers in the middle portion, and wide-open spaces with views of Panamint Valley in the lower portion. Difficulties encountered on the hike include making arrangements for a trailhead drop-off if you wish to carry out a one-way hike as we did, dealing with a challenging down climb at Plunge Pool Fall which requires the use of safety ropes, and being prepared for hiking long distances (the one-way hike is 16 miles long). Google Earth maps of the hiking route can be found by clicking on the buttons above. GPS coordinates for the start of Lee Wash are 36° 27.541'N, 117° 35.855'W. GPS coordinates for Plunge Pool Fall are 36° 26.458'N, 117° 34.107'W. GPS coordinates for the Lee Wash Main Side Canyon junction are 36° 25.542'N, 117° 32.156'W.
Lee Wash was a hike that I had been hoping to get to for many years before actually carrying out. I had previously hiked the two major canyons surrounding Lee Wash during a one-week period in 2010. On March 10 and 15, 2010, I hiked all three sections of Rainbow Canyon, which is the major canyon to the south. And on March 12, 2010, I hiked Mill Canyon, which is the major canyon to the north. That left Lee Wash as the lone major canyon of the Darwin Plateau which drains into Panamint Valley which I needed to hike. As I had done with Mill Canyon, I wanted to hike Lee Wash one-way in order to see the entire canyon and for the overall experience. Because no hiking reports were in existence online which showcase the canyon past Plunge Pool Fall, I had no idea of what to expect from the hike. I did read over (and take with me) Michel Digonnet's write-up in Hiking Western Death Valley, so that helped with the planning. When November of 2016 rolled around, I planned four days of hiking in the park. After checking with friend David Bricker of PSR (Panamint Springs Resort), I realized that he would be in the park at the same time as Josh and I. He kindly offered to help us with a trailhead drop-off so that we could hike Lee Wash one-way. We started the morning with a hot and delicious breakfast at PSR, which we would need to help us get going with the cold wind chill outside. For the drop, we first parked our vehicle at the parking area for the Panamint Sand Dunes hike, which is located on the Big Four Mine Road at the spot where there is a major bend to the right (a little less than 6 miles from pavement). We then backtracked in David's car and drove Hwy 190 west to Saline Valley Road. From Saline Valley Road, we drove about 6 miles north and turned off to the right to drive down the rough road to the Lee Mine site. The road got very rough just past the main mine, so David dropped us off there and we were on our way. Our hike started at an elevation of 5,225 feet and the first 1 1/2 miles were spent following a 4WD road which cuts a path through a beautiful Joshua Tree forest. Joshua Trees were tall and plentiful as they spread out across the plateau and surrounding hillsides. The road eventually steeply dropped downhill and deposited us onto the sandy floor of Lee Wash. As Lee Wash started out, there was no semblance of a canyon anywhere in sight. We were simply walking through a sandy wash with small dirt banks on both sides of us. I enjoyed this part of the hike. Not just because Joshua Trees remained everywhere, but because we were able to watch the canyon take shape from the very beginning. After following Lee Wash for 1 1/4 miles, we saw the first appearance of giant boulders in the wash. The boulders would mass together and form occasional dry falls over the next 1 1/4 miles, although there were also sections where they would disappear altogether. There was a major dry fall that we had to bypass using a sheep (or burro) trail on the left side. After 4 miles total on the hike, we reached the top of Plunge Pool Fall. One of the reasons I had not rushed into doing this hike in the past was not fully knowing what to expect at Plunge Pool Fall. Plunge Pool Fall is the one major obstacle on the hike, and the guidebook referenced earlier makes it clear that climbing down the dry fall on the left side is a safety hazard. As we looked over Plunge Pool Fall, the first thing we noticed was the uniqueness of the circular plunge pool at the bottom of the dry fall, as well as the surrounding narrows with colorful walls down canyon. This was a truly beautiful Death Valley canyon setting. We used ropes to cautiously climb down the challenging spot on the left side. The danger zone is not a long section, but because you are up high with an exposed drop-off into the plunge pool on the right side, it is important to take all necessary safety precautions. The rock in this area is not solid but crumbly. And large boulders where ropes could be set up around cannot all be trusted. They must be carefully tested before making use of them. We successfully used ropes to get down to the bottom of Plunge Pool Fall and then continued down canyon. For us, this is where the hike of Lee Wash truly started. The most spectacular scenery in Lee Wash can be found in between Plunge Pool Fall and the junction with the main side canyon some 4 miles farther down canyon. The canyon walls grow in height and take on a spectacular array of colors. Some of the rock layers are reminiscent of nearby Rainbow Canyon but there is much more variety on display within Lee Wash. Around every bend, we were anxiously awaiting to see what we would find next. I remember telling Josh several times during this portion of the hike that we kept walking into yet another beautiful section of canyon. The sheer amount of wash curves within the canyon are hard to keep count of as well. You can see what I mean if you look at our included maps showing our route through the canyon. After 8 miles, the Lee Wash Main Side Canyon junction is reached. I had really wanted to check out this side canyon during our hike, but we had only hiked half of our mileage for the day with sunset a mere 1 1/2 hours away. Wisely, we decided to skip the side canyon so that we could reach northern Panamint Valley before dark, which we would have to cross in its entirety from one side to the other. 11 1/2 miles into the hike, we reached the bottom of the huge Lee Wash fan and darkness soon set in. Although I did have a GPS hiking unit with me, it can be hard to determine exactly which direction to hike in at all times while crossing the desert for 4 1/2 miles, like we had to. What helped was that someone decided to park near where we had left our vehicle and leave their lights on facing out into the valley for over an hour. We simply hiked toward them at a very rapid pace and endured the pain in our feet and legs until we finally finished the hike. Our one-way hike of Lee Wash had been an incredible experience -- 16 miles in length with a drop of 3,775 feet in elevation. I am hoping to come back someday and fully explore the Lee Wash Main Side Canyon because it looks just as nice (or perhaps even better) than the main canyon. Our hike took place on November 25, 2016.
This hike contains sections of climbing, exposed bypasses and/or high dry falls and may require safety ropes and equipment in order to complete the entire hike. Those without the proper training, experience, and safety gear should not attempt to climb down (or up) the side bypass of Plunge Pool Fall but instead search for a potential safer bypass route somewhere down canyon (if there is one).
Many more photographs taken during our visit are available for viewing for this destination. To see all of them, choose one of the two options presented below. The two options are Slideshow viewing and Trip Report viewing. The Slideshow option allows for viewing larger images with an autoplay option and a full screen option (available on most browsers). This option works very well for large computer screens and tablets. The Trip Report option allows for viewing smaller pictures in a standard scroll-down format and enlarging of any panoramic photos taken during our visit. Click on the option of your choice to view all of our photos from this destination. The Slideshow format opens in a new browser window and the Trip Report format uses the same browser window for viewing.
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