4×4 fun in Death Valley
Death Valley is more than just Badwater and record high temperatures. Grab a 4×4 Jeep to see the vast and empty-seeming landscape in a new way. I took off for a day trip to see Barker Ranch, a remote place free of tourists but with a lot of history to tell. It was the last hideout of Charles Manson and his followers. The Manson Family was like a cult and hid at the ranch after a gruesome Los Angeles murder spree in the summer of 1969.
I decided to reach Barker Ranch from west via Goler Canyon and Goler Wash. It was actually my second attempt to take on Goler Canyon. Last time I had to turn around shortly after entering the canyon because my car at the time didn’t have enough clearance. The road has rough, narrow and rocky sections. It’s off-roading at its best. Now, with a rental Jeep from Farabee’s it was a lot easier than last time.
Music: Charles Manson, “Look at Your Game, Girl”
The fun starts once you leave the paved Trona Wilderose Rd (SR 178) and continue onto Ballarat Rd which will take you to the ghost town of Ballarat. Here you can ask the keeper about road conditions, he might now something. Otherwise you can always grab a few cold sodas and support this cozy convenience store in the middle of nowhere. Continue on the Wingate Rd to the canyon entrance from where you have 6.5 miles to Barker Ranch. To begin with the canyon is only a bit wider than the road, then the canyon gradually widens and the road improves.
I passed a 1-mile sign to Barker Ranch, but somehow I missed the turn and soon found myself on a narrow sandy trail. When I wanted to turn around, the Jeep slipped on a sandy slope. For a moment I thought it would tip over. With some improvised maneuvering I managed to get the Jeep stabilized and off this sandy mess. Right there I learned something about gravity. I finally found the trail to Barker Ranch through a section of heavy vegetation. Although the ranch is partly destroyed because of a fire in 2009, there’s still plenty to see. I found the ranch spooky but also interesting because of its history. Walk around and use your imagination to see how it was like to live here in the late 60’s.
4 Facts To Go
- Death Valley – It’s actually a National Park, so remember your park pass. Although it’s a hot and dry desert, thunderstorms can cause dangerous floods, so watch the forecast before you go.
- Goler Canyon – Barker Ranch is accessible from east and west. From the east you’ll be going over Mengel Pass, but it’s not recommended unless you’re an experienced 4×4 driver. From the west you can have a fun and adventurous drive via Goler Canyon and Goler Wash. Goler Canyon is part of the Panamint Mountains – the western barrier of Death Valley.
- Barker Ranch – Named after Jim and Arlene Barker who purchased the ranch in 1955. It was originally built in the 30’s by recreational ranchers who wanted to live in solitude and enjoy the simplicities of life. The Manson family occupied Barker Ranch for a brief period till they were captured in October 1969. Barker Ranch was partly destroyed in an accidental fire in 2009.
- Charles Manson – The infamous Charles Manson is notoriously connected to a murder spree in Los Angeles, although he was never found guilty of committing the murders himself. He was the leader of a bizarre cult known as The Manson Family. After the horrific murders, Manson and his followers took refuge at Barker Ranch in Death Valley. Manson was captured at Barker Ranch when law enforcement found him hiding in a cabinet in the bathroom. He is serving a life sentence at Corcoran State Prison in California.
I rented my Jeep at Farabee’s in Furnace Creek. Unless you have your own Jeep or similar high-clearance vehicle, go for Farabee’s. You get a Jeep equipped with heavy duty off-road tires for protection against sharp rocks, and you get an introduction to Jeep and how 4×4 works. You also get a GPS spot unit for tracking in case of emergency. Needless to say, there’s no cell phone reception in the backcountry. The staff is friendly, and it’s easy breezy to pick up and return the car.