I was never much of a history buff in school but I've gained a whole new perspective living here in the West. Maybe because what I remember of local history back East is the Mayflower, Pilgrims and Puritans - whereas Western U.S. history is about cowboys and Indians, the Gold Rush and the crazy prospectors, and tales of struggle in harsh terrain to forge a new territory. Excitement, danger and wild characters always win out! Traveling the same routes that our ancestors traveled and seeing the sights described in history books brings the Wild West to life for me. When I read about a trail in one of my guide books that was used by Harry Wade to make his famous escape from Death Valley, I put it high on my to-do list.
Wade was part of a large group of Forty-Niners who found themselves in Salt Lake City, Utah too late in the season to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After heading south to find a way around the mountains they found themselves in Death Valley. Lost and struggling for survival in the harsh and barren terrain, they burned most of their wagons and split into separate groups, each searching for a way out of the forbidding environment. Many died along the way, and the story goes that when one of the survivors made it out he turned and said “Goodbye to Death Valley”, which is how it got its name.
The historic route taken by Harry Wade travels through a remote region of Death Valley that sees very few visitors. The trail starts on Highway 127 near the Ibex Hills and is marked by Historic Landmark #622 which was provided by Harry Wade’s descendants in 1957. On some maps it is shown as Saratoga Springs Road, although the trail that leads to the springs spurs off to the right of the main trail. It also shows as Badwater Road on some maps. The 30 mile trail has an easy rating but high-clearance 4WD is recommended due to water crossings and soft sand.
Less than six miles in we reached the spur to Saratoga Springs. Our trail book warned of water crossings on this trail (the Amargosa River runs through this area) but all we found was a trickle.
Saratoga Springs is an important desert oasis, the third largest in Death Valley. It is home to several species found nowhere else in the world - so the waters are closed to swimming, wading and fishing. There is a hiking path at the trailhead that leads down to the three ponds fed by the springs.
Saratoga Springs is amazing. It’s hard to describe how one feels when coming across riparian habitat in the middle of the desert. I wanted to spend all day there but it was time to for us to find a camp before dark so we turned around to head back to the main trail.
When traveling from 127 toward Death Valley, the right side is National Park land and the left (south) side is a mixture of park land and BLM land. We found a trail off to the left into BLM land, and found an existing fire ring where we could set up our base camp. We spent the next day hiking and exploring the local area before heading back to the Harry Wade Exit trail the following day.
Up to this point the trail was extremely well-graded but when we saw the “High Clearance Recommended” sign we hoped the trail would get a bit more interesting.
The scenery along this trail is beautiful. The contrast of the salt flats against the Black Mountains, the Owlshead Mountains, the Avawatz Mountains, the Granite Mountains…it’s gorgeous!
The gravel berms on either side of the trail are high and I was disappointed to find that there was absolutely nowhere to pull off the road. I wanted to do more exploring but the only option would be to park the Jeep in the middle of the road to set off on a hike. Even though we hadn’t seen another person or vehicle in three days, I knew that would not be the best idea.
I was a bit disappointed that the water crossing at the Armargosa River wash was dusty, it isn't very often we find water crossings in the desert. Even though we had some rain last month, California is in the midst of a serious drought.
Despite the warning signs, the trail never did present the slightest obstacle. It must have been freshly graded because the entire length wasn't even washboarded. There was one section that had a small amount of sand blown across it. I imagine that this area could be tricky if the sand were deep, and the water crossing would require high clearance if the water were running high - but the day we traveled it, it was suitable for any passenger vehicle. But I don’t recommend trying it in a passenger car unless you are certain of the conditions because the possibility of deep sand and water could be a problem and this area is extremely remote.
When we reached pavement at Ashford Junction and stopped to air up our tires, a park ranger stopped to ask us about the trail conditions. When we told him that the route was in pristine condition and suitable for a passenger car he seemed surprised and decided to go check out it for himself.
From Ashford Junction one can continue on paved Badwater Road into the heart of Death Valley or turn right onto 178 and take Jubilee Pass back to 127. Even though this trail was much easier than I had expected, I still recommend it for the beautiful scenery and remoteness. It is an area of Death Valley that very few people get to see. If you are heading to the park in a high-clearance vehicle, it's a nice change of scenery from the typical entry routes.
To check on trail conditions before you head out, see the Death Valley Morning Report on the official park page.