Don't be fooled by the easy 4x4 trail rating, this Death Valley National Park backcountry route has a history of being deadly for the unprepared. Almost every year some unfortunate gets stuck, breaks down, and in some cases just wander off and perish along this road.
This 37-mile backcountry route runs below sea level for its entire length. It was the original route of the 20 Mule Team Borax wagons out of Death Valley and offers the only access to the east side of the Panamint Mountains south of Furnace Creek. Along the route, mining was active at the Queen of Sheba mine as recently as 1970, Hungry Bill had a small farm and mining operation in Johnson Canyon that he supplied miners with fresh vegetables. The infamous Charles Manson and his followers were captured at Barker Ranch which is on the west side of the Panamint Mountains and accessible from the Butte Valley Road that intersects West Side Road. Death Valley Shorty, a former Buffalo Bill Wild West Show performer and famous flim-flam man for which Scotty's Castle is named, is buried along the road. There are the remains of old borax works and the nearly impassable Devil's Golf Course geologic formation is comprised of evaporated salt.
Trail Difficulty and Assessment
Stock SUV with High Clearance and 4 Low
Usually maintained gravel road that can become impassable when storms roll through.
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The hardest part of the trail that you
cannot bypass - you have to drive it.
The hardest part of the trail that is
purely optional - you can bypass it.
Dirt and/or rocky road. Potential rocks and/or tree stumps less than 5" tall and/or vertical ledges less than 5" tall and/or near vertical ledges or waterfalls less than 6" inches. Good tire placement likely. Can be steep, but with good traction.Read More about our Rating System
There is deep sand to negotiate in a few spots, and the road surface has been graded below ground level is some places creating a very soft berm that will pull your vehicle deeply into the sand edge if you don't pay attention. There are areas of washboard surface and hidden side roads where it's possible to meet someone pulling onto West Side Road right in front of you. Wet road conditions can become nearly impassable quickly as road sections can turn into gooey mud. BE CAUTIOUS!
The entire length of West Side Road runs below sea level, with the lowest elevation being -100 feet. There is no water, and some of the canyon and mine access side roads are seldom explored.
Flash Flood Area - Flash flooding can occur along the West Side Road making it impassable. Road damage from sudden storms may take an extended time to repair so be sure to check local conditions before departure.
1. Trailhead (0
Turn west onto West Side Road. The turnoff is well marked. You will encounter a gate at the Trailhead and an information sign cautioning you before you embark
2. Butte Valley (2.9
Continue straight ahead through the gate. Butte Valley Road is the only through road in the southern Panamint Mountains and crosses them at Mengal Pass. The historic Warm Springs Camp is located along this route with extensive mining equipment and ruins, a cookhouse, and even a swimming pool. On the west side of the range along this route is Barker Ranch, the location where the infamous Charles Manson gang was apprehended.
3. Queen Of Sheba Mine (10.2
Continue straight. The Queen Of Sheba Mine operated until the early 1970's. There are extensive mine ruins at the end of this road.
4. Galena Canyon (10.5
Continue straight ahead. There were five separate talc mines along this road
5. Johnson Canyon (15
Continue straight. A local Shoshone Indian named Hungry Bill and his family lived, farmed vegetables, and mined in Johnson
Canyon. A hiking trail to the old farmstead starts at the end of Johnson Canyon Road
6. Bennett's Long Camp (20
Continue straight ahead. Memorial marking the approximate location where emigrants camped for nearly 2 months awaiting the return of explorers from their party to return, The explorers were looking for an exit route out of Death Valley.
7. Eagle Borax Works (23.3
Continue straight ahead. This is the site of the Eagle Borax Works that operated until 1884.
8. Shorty's Grave (23.8
Continue straight. This is the grave marker of Walter Scott, former Buffalo Bill Wild West Show performer, infamous flim-flam man, and the namesake of Scotty's Castle which Scott told everyone was his, but was owned and built by Alfred Johnson.
9. Hanaupah Canyon (25.5
Continue Straight. This nine-mile road was built in 1932 with a pick, crowbar, shovel, a small amount of dynamite, and burro power for the Big Horn and Big Horn Extension mines. The road to the east goes a short distance to Shorty's Well.
10. Trail Canyon (31.3
Continue straight ahead. Mining ruins can be explored at the end of the road, and a difficult hiking trail over Emigrant Pass follows the old washed out road beyond.
11. Devil's Golf Course (34.1
Continue straight ahead. This unusual hard packed geologic formation is called The Devil's Golf Course". It is comprised of evaporated salt.
12. End of Trail (36.6
End of Trail. Turn north 6 miles to go to Furnace Creek, while 10 miles to the south is the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin.
No camping is allowed along the West Side Road. Dispersed camping is allowed along the canyon roads no less than 1 mile off of the West Side Road. The nearest public campground is at Furnace Creek.
The West Side Road can be run in either direction.
Running South to North - If running this backcountry route from the South to North as the video depicts and guide is written, proceed South from the intersection of California Highway 190 and Badwater Road approximately 38.8 miles and turn right onto the well-marked West Side Road.
Running North to South - From the intersection of California Highway 190 and Badwater Road, proceed South approximately 6.1 miles and turn right onto the well-marked West Side Road
Pretty easy trail to run. Spent the weekend out in Death Valley and this was the last trail we ran before heading home. Stopped at the Eagle Borax works for lunch. Not much to report, mainly a dirt road with some interesting formations along the way.
A long, flat barren stretch of road that has some pretty intense washboard areas. We traveled it in a new Defender which has an absurdly cushy ride, and still, the washboards were pretty miserable even when aired down. Still totally worth it, just some real bone-shaking sections on an overall easy, non-technical drive. Lots of great landmarks and photo ops to explore, makes you feel pretty horrified to think about the original settlers and prospectors you learn about while reading historical markers detailing the harsh conditions they faced. Makes you pretty thankful to climb back into AC and have a drink cold water.
Compared to the most recent review, the trail was not that smooth and has a decent amount of washboard. It was the worst closest to each end, and wasn't too bad in the middle. We started from the Furnace Creek (North) side because the entrance is in a really cool desolate area, and after what would be waypoint 11 it becomes more traditional "desert" landscape with a surprising amount of vegetation.
Fun Easy drive, Other than Wash Board along the Whole Drive. Not sure I would drive it in a Car as there is alot of Small Sharp Rocks. Stopped at Eagle Borax Mine, Shorty's Well and a Couple Others places....
This is a timelapse of the entire West Side Rd in Death Valley heading northbound from near Ashford Ruins to near Artist Drive exit.
It's a very well maintained dirt road where any vehicle including sedans should be able to navigate with minor scuffs on the underside. Any SUV fro the factory will make the drive with no issues at all. 4x4 or high clearance is not required on West Side Rd.
I stopped at Eagle Borax Works to see the remains of the foundation of the first Borax operation in Death Valley in 1882.
We drove along West Side Road in February and all of the roads were open. We visited Shorty's grave as well drove up Trail Canyon (Waypoint #10). Trail Canyon had cabins, mines, and petroglyphs too. The photos in this Trip Report are all from Trail Canyon in case anyone wants to drive up that trail.
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Mapping Crew - Nevada
Brian has been 4 wheeling since 1976. He first learned at age 7 that "The best things in life are dirty" in a brand new 1958 Jeep FC-170 on his aunts Nebraska farm. That forward control pickup seemed like it would go anywhere and he was hooked, even though he didn't know it yet.
Jump forward to 1972... Brian's first duty assignment in the US Air Force was as a vehicle operator assigned to the USAF Survival School at Spokane, Washington. Part of his duties required hauling equipment and transporting vehicles to a remote training area in northern Washington national forest locations, and he often would be asked to take radio equipment to a mountaintop radio antenna site. The road was awful, or at least seemed that way in a 1967 6 passenger Dodge Power Wagon with 45 lbs of pressure in the tires, but it also hooked Brian on backcountry 4x4 exploration.
Brian's first 4x4 was a used '76 Ford F150 pickup. It didn't take very long to figure out that the long wheelbase of the pickup didn't work well on the narrow Colorado trails near his home, so he traded for a brand new 1983 Chevy Blazer S10. The S10 was a nice vehicle, but it wasn't a Jeep, and that was what Brian ultimately wanted. Well, it didn't take long to move over to the Jeep brand, and Brian has been the proud owner of 7 Jeeps of one sort or another over the years.
Brian has been 4 wheeling from Mexico to Alaska. After moving from Colorado, he ended up in southern Nevada where his current home is completely surrounded by public lands with thousands of miles of back roads and trails to explore.
He recently moved to eastern rural Nevada, and looks forward to sharing trails in his new area.
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