Searching for Hungry Bill in Death Valley's Johnson Canyon

Johnson Canyon is one of the fun side trails we mentioned in our Death Valley West Side Road trail review. The 10-mile trail starts 7.7 miles from the northern end of West Side Road. It begins with a slow and tedious climb up the alluvial fan toward the Panamint Range. The trail appears deceptively flat and easy, but with a solid axle vehicle, the first 6 miles up the barren bajada is a teeth-chattering rocky ride. High-clearance is recommended for the first 6 miles, but the last four require 4WD.

Johnson Canyon trail map

We had started the trail the night before while seeking shelter from an incoming storm. After surviving the night of raging sandstorms and high winds at the base of the mountains, we awoke at sunrise to white fluffy clouds. We decided to head into the canyon to find Hungry Bill’s Ranch. My husband’s name is Bill, and he’s always hungry, so it seemed a fitting thing to do.

Johnson Canyon Trail, Death Valley

Down below in Badwater Basin we could see that the storm was still in the area and that we needed to keep an eye on the weather. A deep desert canyon is the last place you want to be during a flash flood.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

By the time we made coffee and started heading into the canyon, there were ominous storm clouds hovering around the top of the mountain range. We still had sunshine and clear skies overhead, so after some debate we decided to press on. It was a judgement call, and not the decision I’d recommend to others.

Jeep Wrangler on Johnson Canyon Trail, Death Valley

The trail drops down into Johnson Canyon Wash. It is barren and has little plant life beyond a few creosote bushes.

Johnson Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park

When the trail began to climb higher again, there are some amazing views of Badwater Basin and the Black Mountains.

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A 1934 Chrysler Airflow found its final resting place up here.

1934 Chrysler Airflow

Deeper into the canyon, the trail gets rocky and rough. There are some embedded boulders that are impossible to avoid.

Jeep Wrangler in Johnson Canyon

My Nitto Trail Grapplers were up for the challenge.

Nitto Trail Grapplers

Aside from the boulders, the trail is pretty easy going. There are no steep climbs or descents, no ledges, and no off camber sections. Up ahead, we could tell that it was raining at the top of the mountains. We were heading up into the clouds, but we had almost reached our destination.

009 jeep wrangler johnson canyon

Ten miles in, we spotted the willows and cottonwoods that told us we had reached Wilson Spring.

Yellow cottonwoods at Wilson Spring, Johnson Canyon, Death Valley

The Jeep trail ends here, so we parked and forge our way across the wet spring to a structure we spotted on the other side.

011 wilson spring johnson canyon

There are two rock walls, a stone oven/stove and a fire ring. It’s a perfect spot to camp as long as you don’t mind hauling your gear across some muddy ground.

012 camp wilson spring

The area is lush with flowing water and beautiful plant life. In late autumn the yellow cottonwood trees are magnificent. The perennial stream running through here means you need to be careful where you walk because it can be muddy and slippery.

Yellow cottonwoods at Wilson Spring in Johnson Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Water is precious in the desert, and Johnson Canyon was the site of an ancestral Shoshone village. The area was still being used by the Shoshone when William Johnson moved in and built a ranch to provide fruit and vegetables to the nearby Panamint City. When the road to the town through Surprise Canyon was devastated by a flood, Johnson abandoned his ranch. Hungry Bill, a native Panamint Shoshone, reclaimed his family land and continued to expand the ranch. His family continued to live there until 1919.

014 johson canyon death valley

Our plan was to make the steep 2-mile hike up to Hungry Bill’s Ranch. You can still see stone walls, three arrastras (primitive grinding mills), the remains of a wikiup, wooden corral fencing, irrigation work, apple and fig orchards, and other extensive remains. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans for us. It began to rain, and we knew that we were pushing our luck by remaining in the canyon. The storm was heading in our direction and it was time to head down and try to beat the worst of it.  

On the way down we spotted a wind shelter that we hadn’t noticed on our way up.

015 wind shelter johnson canyon

It rained intermittently the rest of the way down the canyon; one minute we’d have blue skies overhead, the minute a gray cloud would pass over us and dump some rain.

017 jeep wrangler johnson canyon

We managed to get out of the canyon before the worst of it reached us. A few miles into our trip home, it began to pour and the storm followed us all the way home.

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