We selected Ashford Canyon as our second hike during our 2017 visit to Death Valley National Park. We were attracted to its offerings of a narrows, climbable falls, extensive beds of polished conglomerate, Archaen metamosphic basement rocks (the oldest rocks in Death Valley), and a well-preserved mining camp high in the more open upper canyon. The dirt access road is a little bumpy and it’s not a real easy hike from the parking area, which may explain why the old mine camp buildings are in as good a shape as they are. Although we were here ahead of the Spring wildflower season (which could be great again this year), we did find an early blooming wildflower high in the canyon!
The dirt road to the trailhead leaves the Badwater Road 27.1 miles south of Badwater, directly across from the Ashford Mill Ruins site. We made it 2.0 miles up this dirt road before choosing hiking over driving valor. The irony, of course, is that the road got much better – it climbs out of the rumpled wash on to smoother alluvium – right after we parked. Still, it was a very nice walk with a big view the whole way.
The drivable road ends at a parking area at the lip of the canyon, then continues on as a hiker-only grade into the wash coming out of the canyon. In 1915, this road was constructed up the canyon to the mines and kept functional, despite flash floods, into the 1950s. Now there are only a few short segments of it left. After a short stroll up the wide part of the lower canyon,
we came to a choice of following the old road out of the canyon around some narrows (with dry waterfalls) or staying in the wash to visit the narrows. We opted to first visit the lower falls in the narrows,
where I was inspired for some reason (or lack thereof) to climb the lower falls (via a Class 2 ramp on the right) and then the upper left falls (high Class 3) to reach the old road where it drops into the canyon above the narrows and falls.
Meanwhile, to show me what common sense looks like, the LovedOne hiked back down to the old road and then up it to meet me where it drops back in to the canyon above the narrows and falls.
We then continued on up-canyon,
climbing up short steps where the flash floods have eroded and polished the conglomerate into intricate mosaics.
After about 1.6 miles, we went up a short, but steep, side canyon,
to reconnect with the remains of the old road shortly before it reaches the mining camp. The camp was first built in 1915, when the mine was at its most active, and continued in sporadic use up until the 1950s (which is why we found some Eisenhower-era refrigerators in the cook house). Three buildings remain intact: two sleeping cabins and a larger cook house/office building.
The outhouse was perched over a deep ravine far out on the ridge, to provide deluxe (but airy) sanitary accommodations! We had a hard time imagining making your way safely to this in the dead of night! But then the lure of gold makes people do strange things.
Aside from the three buildings, there are the remains of a tramway used to bring ore down to the road from outlying diggings, a collapsed headframe, two deep shafts, an old powder magazine, and some 4,000 feet of tunnels. Despite all this effort over some 40 years, this mine never came close (as did so many mines in Death Valley) to recovering the cost of developing it or of making a profit.
After lunch on the “porch” (an old bedframe) of the cook house, we followed the old road back into the canyon, where we found an early blooming wildflower.
The hike down was quick – we passed one person hiking up – and we were soon going down the road to the car, past the brightly colored cliffs that form part of the southern Black Mountains.
After bumping back down the access road to the Badwater Road, we crossed it to stop at the ruins of the Ashford Mill. Because it was usually prohibitively expensive to haul bulk ore out of remote Death Valley, mills were often used to concentrate the ore for cheaper shipping. Unfortunately, this was an additional operating cost that only a truly productive mine could recoup. The Ashford mines were not one of those kinds of mines.
Another great hike (5.5 miles; 1,300 feet of elevation gain), with a nice variety of things to see and explore! Also far enough away from the usual tourist areas to give you a good chance of having it mostly to yourself.