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I am in the planning phase of a backpacking trip to the Owlshead area of Death Valley NP.
I would appreciate if folks that are familiar with the area and roads could give me some input.

I will be visiting DVNP from Illinois. Flying to Las Vegas, picking up a rental car and driving to the park.
I am trying to figure out my options in terms of transportation and logistics.

What does the Harry Wade Road looks like between the junction of Badwater Rd/Jubilee Pass Rd 178 and the crossing of the Amargosa River?
The Death Valley Backcountry & Wilderness Access brochure labels this section as 4WD High Clearance
What does the Harry Wade Road looks like between Highway 127 and the crossing of the Amargosa River?
The Death Valley Backcountry & Wilderness Access brochure labels this section as 2WD/AWD High Clearance.

Based on photographs that I have found online I am not able to reliably tell if the road classification done by the NPS is accurate

In that same brochure they label the Owlshead Road/Owl Hole Spring Rd as 2WD/AWD High Clearance and I frankly find that hard to believe
based on how many washes cross the road around the Owl Lake basin and Lost Lake basin. But I don't know... it can be that I am just very wrong.

Also, I do have some questions about street tires. I did some driving around the Mojave National Preserve on some of their unpaved roads
there was  a lot of wasboard on them, but that was it. Did I just get extremely lucky and avoided a catastrophic flat tire? Smile

Thank you very much for your time and help.
Welcome! How soon is your trip? I'd be able to give you a firsthand report of Harry Wade from Badwater / Jubilee to crossing the Amargosa in a couple of weeks.

Otherwise, having driven all of those stretches multiple times, I'd say high clearance and a driver that is comfortable driving country washboard roads is what would be my base recommendation. Biggest issues in my mind would be: potential water crossing at Amargosa River and potential deep sand drifts in the southern region of this area.
If you plan on venturing off pavement with a rental, be sure it has a full sized spare. Also, while in Vegas, pick up a tire plug kit and a few cans of fix-a-flat. It's good insurance.

Know that rental car agreements prohibit you from using the car on unpaved roads, so you're on your own to repair it enough to get to pavement.

Harry Wade Rd varies from moderate clearance 2wd/awd to moderate clearance true 4wd, depending on recent rains and sand conditions. I'd be real cautious recommending it in a standard rental car.

David Bricker / SYR
When I was younger, I drove all those roads with rental sedans. Went up the Owl Hole Spring road to the end, the old comm tower. So it can be done, at least under some conditions. Recently I've done Harry Wade with a friend's Outback a few times. In general the northern half can be rougher than the southern half. There's a lot of gravel and once when I went down I was unsure as to whether I could get back up, but once you get to around the Amargosa crossing, it's actually faster to get back to Furnace by going all the way south to the pavement and back up and into the part via 190. Not as scenic of course. The southern half of the Harry Wade Rd. is usually better than the northern half. Not half bad, actually. But I'd be very cautious if there's sand from a recent rain / flow.

Crossing the Amargosa may be the crux. If it's dry, no problem. If it's wet... well at least get out of the vehicle and walk across first to see if it is solid or mucky, unless you can see other tracks.

If you rent at LAS, unless you go to a specialty rental, you won't get a full sized spare and these days you may be lucky if you get any spare. Check. These days a lot of cars simply have a can of fix-a-flat and a plug in air pump.

You need to appreciate that if you go out there, especially the Owl Hole Spring road, you must be prepared for being stranded. If you are backpacking, you'll have good gear for the elements. Make sure you have extra water and toss in a few cans of emergency food. On the Harry Wade Rd. there are likely to be at least a few vehicles a day to ask for help. There are places, especially in the north half, in which you'd likely be blocking the road if you get stuck.

You are unlikely to get solid info at the visitor center. They will basically tell you not to go, as they are very conservative. That's just how it is. If they do say it's good, then its really good. You're best off checking here or in other forums (there's one that is mostly about 4WD activity, death valley talk, not sure of the current URL, I think it's moved around).

Although I say that I've done these roads, I am not recommending them. There's a wide range of stuff where a skilled and cautious driver can get through most of the time, opening up some great walking country. But you're taking risks and you're going to be responsible for getting yourself out, and eating any costs - the rental companies will not have your back out there, as you are violating the rental agreement.

A memorable example. I was driving to Saratoga Springs. The road is good. I may have been going close to 30, can't really recall. My daughter was in the back seat, sitting next to the styrofoam ice chest. All of a sudden I saw a foot wide/deep rut across the road, from a recent washout. I braked, hard, and hit the rut with some impact. I'm trying to evaluate when I hear "Dad, the ice chest just exploded". The impact had sent it flying against the back of my seat. So... I was going too fast. Over confident. Unexpected sudden change in road condition. Increased stopping distance due to gravel. You get the picture. Be careful out there.
Algol: David & Mojave both make very valid points on being cautious and safe that I glossed over a bit too much, especially when it comes to a rental vehicle.

I revisited old photos from multiple trips I've made to the area and the roads were in even better shape than I remembered, but people have died driving in the area with just a little bad luck and ill preparation. Welcome to Death Valley!
(2021-02-15, 09:27 PM)Algol Wrote: [ -> ]What does the Harry Wade Road looks like between Highway 127 and the crossing of the Amargosa River?

I'm following this thread closely as I'm planning a similar trip in March or early April if it's not too hot by then. All advice by contributors to this thread is appreciated. 

Here's what you want to avoid at all costs!

Over at Steve Hall's page, is a whole section devoted to the Owlsheads. Here's a good start but also click around his page:

BTW - what triggers your interest in the Owlsheads? I'm curious because they're so remote and not well traveled. I also want to be near the southern most border of DEVA after having explored some of the eastern most and western most borders. After the Owlsheads I want to visit the northern most borders of the the park. I'm getting old and running out of time so I'm in a hurry!  Wink
Thank you all so much for your feedback, you certainly know your DV.

Here is what I have in mind as I am planning this outing.
  • If the Harry Wade Rd. was alright coming from the North. Then I would take Through Canyon route into the basin. Camp and enjoy the quiet.
  • If the Harry Wade Rd. was alright coming from the South. Then I would take Sand Canyon into the basin. Camp and enjoy the quiet.
  • If the Harry Wade Rd. was not good at all. Then I would just figure out the budget and rent a 4WD from Farabee's. Then I would consider going all the
    way to the ATT Tower, stop at lost lake and camp, then stop at owl lake and camp.
Those three options are more or less what I had in mind and that's why it is important to figure out the Harry Wade Rd. part.

I never meant to even attempt the Amargosa crossing on a rental, that just sounds like trouble to me (even with a dry river). So I guess I am not to off the mark.

TacoLand, David_Bricker, MojaveGeek you made excellent observations about all the issues with the regular rentals. I was hoping those 6 miles from the pavement
to the parking area for Through Canyon were an ok gamble. But like you all pointed out, this is Death Valley. Maybe I should just go for the safest bet Big Grin

I am looking at a Spring 2022 date for this trip. I know this is a year from now, I just want to make sure I have covered all and that I have enough time to
plan and save some money as well.

DeathValleyDazed: I was looking for a winter backpacking destination and DV for some reason looked like the right choice. My wife and I like the desert and we enjoyed our
visit in 2018. There is so much to see! As I was reading more information about the park I learned about the 'Death Valley Germans' and somewhere in there they mention
the ATT Tower and the Owlsheads, looking at that led me to Steve Hall's website and a blog called Project Wilderness 150
Reading all those trip reports and seeing some of the pictures, just grabbed me (dazed me?) so I wanted to go be there in person.

That is the story, so far.

I want to say thank you again for your input. I appreciate very much all the observations you made. I know that while the backcountry is beautiful, you have to have a
plan and be ready. My plan is to make it back home first and foremost, so all this planning supports that objective. Plus I figured you all would like a trip report, so I want
to make sure that gets written.

Thanks again
I’m a big fan of the Owlsheads and I’ve been all up and down the Harry Wade and Owl hole roads over the last 5 years. If you go reasonably slow those roads are fine for a vehicle with good clearance. There are a bunch of great dispersed camp sites off those roads too. DM me if you want some details on the campsites. I’ll be out there again in late Feb and most likely in the fall too.
I haven’t hiked Through cyn yet but Sand cyn is great. For me to do Sand all the way to Owl lake with a overnight pack would be a grind but I’m not in the best of shape. There’s a nice open area with classic Owlshead scenery in upper Quartz cyn that I want to overnight in someday. I had lunch there a few years ago and really didn’t want to leave.

If you have time I also highly recommend Contact cyn. The hike through the Confidence hills is interesting and the colorful area near the head of Contact is pretty great.
(2021-02-17, 12:07 AM)shane Wrote: [ -> ]
If you have time I also highly recommend Contact cyn. The hike through the Confidence hills is interesting and the colorful area near the head of Contact is pretty great.
Thanks for this tip shane. I've been eyeballing this (Contact Canyon and Confidence Hills) on the maps and Google Earth for a year now. The Confidence Hills don't look like much from the highway but I want to scout them out for surprises. Death Valley rarely disappoints!
By my standards that I have been numerous times told are low, Harry Wade Road is a very busy road for dirt roads in Death Valley. Chances of breaking down and nobody driving by until all that is left are bleached bones is slim. So, if precautions are addressed you will have a ball.
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